Quartet & Country: What It's All About & Why You Need to Go
WHAT IS IT?
Quartet & Country is a special series of four concerts, with the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) performing all six of Beethoven’s effervescent Op 18 quartets and match them with works from Australian Indigenous composers.
In this project, the composers and quartet have collaborated to bring the songlines and stories of this vast country into conversation with the masterworks of the European musical canon.
Singer Dr Lou Bennett AM, didgeridoo master William Barton, Broome music icon Stephen Pigram and Noongar elder Roma 'Yibiyung' Winmar bring stories from the four corners of this continent and in doing so, ground the great European string quartet tradition in this country.
Image: Dr Lou Bennett AM
A LITTLE MORE DETAIL...
The Quartet & Country commissioning series was initiated by Perth Festival Artistic Director Iain Grandage. As he explains, “the idea was to create a body of work created by Indigenous musicians that has at its a heart a conversation between the Western European Classical canon (as written for string quartet) and the songlines of the country”.
The first performances were at the Port Fairy Music Festival (where Iain was Artistic Director 2016 – 2019) and with the newly commissioned work by Roma Winmar for Perth Festival’s Chamber Music Weekend, there are now seven works in the series.
“The four works you will hear at this weekend’s concerts have their origins in the four corners of our continent” Iain points out. “William Barton, Kalkadungu man from North East Queensland; Lou Bennett, Yorta Yorta / DjaDja Wurrung woman from Victoria; Stephen Pigram, Yawaru man from the Kimberley; and Roma ‘Yibiyung’ Winmar from Noongar boodjar.”
The project is a true collaboration, with Iain working with the composers, each sharing and workshopping ideas and with the works being sculpted and changed in collaboration with the players of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ).
Image: Australian String Quartet
WHY THIS IS NOT-TO-BE MISSED
Each First Nations work is performed alongside one of Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 18. Stephen King from ASQ explains what that means for the audience – and the musicians involved.
“There is a wonderful balance created when playing music from European culture next to modern Australian works with roots in an ancient culture. It is the musical merging of long-held traditions. It is also a rare and special experience to perform alongside living composers – we get a greater understanding of the musical intent than a sheet of music conveys. The works also include sung traditional language, passing on cultural heritage through stories of family and history.”
Lou Bennett (of Tiddas fame) has composed two works for the series. The first is sung in Dja Dja Wurrung and tells the story of a dead baby girl found in a tree wrapped in a possum skin cloak (as is the Dja Dja Wurrung way when someone passes) whose body was kept in the State Museum for 99 years.
“This story resonated with me” Lou says. “My Auntie and Sis they passed the story on and said ‘write a song Lou, write a song for our ancestor, our little baby ancestor’.”
Her second work, dirt song, was written with Alexis Wright. From the Echuca, Barmah region, the heartland of Yorta Yorta country, this is a song about the connections between people, music and country.
“This song comes from the understanding that we all have connections – we just have to learn ‘Gulpa Ngarwal’ (deep listening)”, Lou explains.
Image: William Barton, cr. Keith Saunders
Digeridoo maestro William Barton has composed Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand, a song about energy and how energy might travel. As he describes it, “We’re like little specks in the universe, all travelling. And if you can imagine being out in the middle of the bush, and the energy, the lifeform, the source of spirit, of culture, of language travels through a crystal, a prism of different colours, of different architectural constraints in the Western world. But the energy that travels through that crystal becomes something else, takes on another entity. It hasn’t got a heartbeat necessarily, but it is a transformed energy. And it’s not good or bad, it’s just different. Like a pulsing light.”
Broome icon Stephen Pigram was involved in the very first production of Bran Nue Dae, a show that is back winning new audiences at this year’s Festival. His compositions for Quartet & Country are both very personal. “It’s a story about my great grandmother – we’re talking in the 1880s”, he says. “This is our great grandmother on Mum’s side – the mother-mother-mother line for me.”
He sings about the family’s female line, stories that have been gathered and passed on through the oral narrative and the written record.
Image: Stephen Pigram
The final concert in the series features Noongar artist Roma Winmar’s new composition Waalwaliny. It tells the story of three generations of the one family who at different times were all lost at sea.
She speaks about the story and its meaning, saying: “You sit by the ocean and see the sunset, or the moon on the water. There’s so much beauty in water. But it’s dangerous. Noongars, when you go to a strange place, usually take the sand and throw it in the water and say ‘I’m here. Is it OK I’m here?’ Or pick the water up and blow through it. Have permission. It’s a living thing. It forms the land. It has living things within it. That’s why I wanted to write this song.”
All four Quartet & Country concerts offer a rare opportunity to hear stories sung in traditional language alongside musical stories from Beethoven, familiar to many classical music lovers. As Stephen King says of the experience, “It’s wonderful how well these first quartets of Beethoven sit next to the first quartets of these First Nations composers. They both craft stories to be passed on, using the string quartet as a vehicle for expression.”
Image: Roma Winmar, cr. Camera Story
WILL WE SEE YOU THERE?
Head along to this stunning series and immerse yourself in strings and a sense of place.
Australian String Quartet with Lou Bennett
Sat 15 Feb 11am
Australian String Quartet with William Barton
Sat 15 Feb 5pm
Australian String Quartet with Stephen Pigram
Sun 16 Feb 12pm
Australian String Quartet with Roma Winmar
Sun 16 Feb 4pm