… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2022. All Rights Reserved.

In 2020 Dr. Scott Davie of the Australian National University commissioned me to compose a 5 minute piece for the 1770 Henrion fortepiano. This instrument, stored at the ANU School of Music’s historic Australian piano collection, dates from 1770, when James Cook first encountered Aboriginal Australians. Dr. Davie was interested to see how our Ngarra Burria Indigenous composer group would relate to the instrument, as a pre-colonial 1770 interloper, and a contemporary of Captain James Cook. The 5 octave 61 key Henrion fortepiano was manufactured the disputed territory of Saarland, Alsace, France by Henri Henrion in 1770. Coincidentally, 1770 is the year of First Contact between Lt. James Cook and the Guugu-Yimithirr people of north east coastal Australia. This little fortepiano was imported to Australia and played at concerts in the British colony of Sydney. I composed my music for this small fortepiano of reversed white and black keys, as if it were a set of detuned yoora (digging sticks or clapsticks). At the time of First Contact between Cook and the Guugu-Yimithirr, this instrument had no links with with my Noongar Country. But now, having suffered the inevitable consequences of cracked ageing and clumsy mechanization, it has been retuned, as far as possible, by experts. So (as a similarly aged, cracked, clumsily mechanized and retuned Indigenous Australian composer) I began to converse humanely with it, through a simple, repetitive theme that acknowledges my heritages, and primarily drawing attention to the country that all Australians live on. Our country seeds and produces hardy, courageous Indigenous survivor plants and peoples, like my maternal grandparents. So my Henrion fortepiano piece is about them.

After draft score consultations with Dr. Davie and my ANU supervisor, Dr. Sainsbury, and a Zoom session with Dr. Davie, Dr. Sainsbury, my Ngarra Burria colleagues, and ABC Producer Stephen Adams, I composed and finalised the piano score of a set of progressive variations on my “digging” theme. This descending fortepiano theme refers to Indigenous digging for planting and harvesting, and I set it against an opposing colonial theme of digging for gold mining.

Kalgoorli Silky Pear is based on my grandparents’ experience of life in Kalgoorlie in the early 1900s, where they built a cottage, raised a family, and were active in the community life of the time. My grandfather Gus worked as the Head Gardener of the Boulder-Kalgoorlie Council. He designed and maintained the public gardens, racing track and bowling greens of Kalgoorlie, and many private gardens (such as that of the Castlecomer homestead), at a time when water was very scarce. He had been trained in horticulture in Melbourne, at St Vincents Gardens. As a leading member of the Boulder Horticultural Society, he gave gardening lectures, acted as judge at annual gardening shows, managed a large plant nursery, and decorated halls and churches with Australian native flowers for public events. Gus was also a musically literate composer and amateur singer, and in 1943 he registered the copyright of his notated song “Our Defenders” with the Australian National Archives, where it can be viewed today. My daughter Emma, a Landscape Architect, whose father Peter was also a horticulturist, carries on the family gardening tradition that Gus handed down to us through his daughter, my mother Olive. The hardy Silky Pear bush, the karlkurla after which the city of Kalgoorlie is named, still grows in the Kalgoorlie area. It has woody fruits with hard cases, that are designed to survive bushfire. Gus and his wife Emma bravely and cheerfully endured hard times in Kalgoorlie, and like the strong Silky Pear, they grew and passed on a beautiful gardening and song legacy to their children and grandchildren. Through my mother, they passed on their legacy to me, of how to survive challenging times, through making music and gardening.

Dr. Scott Davie’s performance of Kalgoorli Silky Pear was recorded by the ABC’s Stephen Adams and Audio Engineer Huff Johnston at ANU’s Lewellyn Hall in November 2020. This recording was broadcast on Stephen Adams’ New Waves podcast, and released in 2022 on the ABC CD Ngarra Burria Piyanna, and on another ABC CD, Women of Note.

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