Gondwana singing of Land, Sea and People: this year more relevant than ever
by Lyn Williams AM
On January 7 this year, 300 choristers from across Australia came together for the annual Gondwana National Choral School. Whilst this day is traditionally characterised by a great sense of choral joy and anticipation, this year choristers arrived with heavy hearts and sorrow for our nation which was then, and indeed remained until recent days, on fire. Choristers had lost their homes, many had family members volunteering to fight fires and in fact we were all living under a thick cloud of smoke, a constant reminder of the ongoing threat to the country. These fires had come against a backdrop of the worst drought the country has ever experienced.
On this day 43 singers aged 10 – 18 made their way into the rehearsal room, to form a group we nicknamed the Gondwana Collective. In two weeks, this bunch had to become the choir Australia would send to the World Symposium on Choral Music in Auckland in July. These singers are drawn from the main treble performing choirs within the Gondwana family: Sydney Children’s Choir, Gondwana Voices and Gondwana Indigenous Choir.
The repertoire we will bring to Auckland is especially curated to respond to the theme of the WSCM2020. The works we selected lie at the core of the Gondwana repertoire yet somehow, this year, they took on particular significance. Our twelve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander singers begin our program with an Acknowledgement of Country. Here we acknowledge that the original inhabitants of Australia have been caretakers of country “since the Dreaming began”: we then pledge to continue as caretakers of the land and sea. These sentiments are echoed in the only non-Australian work on our program, O Frondens Virga (O Blooming Branch) by 12th century mystic and visionary, Hildegard of Bingen. The two pieces intertwine and demonstrate that humans have cared for the natural world across the ages.
The deep connection of the Indigenous people of Australia to the land and sea lies at the heart of our program. Gondwana Choirs works regularly with cultural custodians and composers to commission choral works which integrate traditional story, song and language. There are two pieces by Luke Byrne on our program which incorporate stories of the Gimuy Walibara Yidinji people of Far North Queensland, shared by traditional owner Gudju Gudju. During National Choral School, the Gondwana choristers also worked closely with Deborah Brown, a choreographer and former member of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s renowned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance company. Deborah has devised movement to accompany the songs, illustrating the stories behind the songs whilst deeply respecting the strong cultural significance of each small hand movement or action.
The Gondwana Collective gave three short performances during the two weeks of National Choral School. There were many tears as the choristers performed Where by Kate Miller- Heidke in an arrangement by Dan Walker. The entire text and particularly words such as “Now the land is bare and brown… everything familiar is gone… Who will save us?” seemed all too real and poignant for Australia at this time. A beautiful song, but somehow very sad to rehearse.
As well as traversing to Western Australia on the the other side of our country with ‘This is Our Home’ from Jandamarra – Sing for the Country by Paul Stanhope (incorporating Bunuba language), we also dive beneath the seas with the turtles in Kasa Kab in Kala Lagaw Ya Western Torres Strait language.
To close our program, we have commissioned a new work which has 44 composers! The bones of We are watching you are composed by Dan Walker and based on the speeches of Greta Thunberg. On an existing Gondwana creative concept, the choristers each composed their own song about the land or sea. They have also created small, individually-lit dioramas which become part of the performance. At this difficult time in Australia, many of the stories are inevitably about fire, others about the rainforest or the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. Others are about pollution of the land or light pollution over cities or about Indigenous land rights. The choristers became very passionate about their stories and their ecological significance. At a point in the work the choristers take their songs and their dioramas out into the audience to share their work on an intimate scale within the broader context of the performance. They return to the stage to create an illuminated wall of dioramas as they sing the closing section of the work. It is a work of protest yet of tremendous hope brought to us by young people.
Our little collection of choristers that became a choir have now scattered to all parts of Australia. We will see them again just a few days before we head across to New Zealand. Whilst we hope the fires will have gone out across the country, we can promise that our Gondwana choristers will retain a fire in their hearts to sing for the preservation of our planet and its people.
We look forward to sharing our songs of land, sea, and people with audiences at the WSCM 2020.
Gondwana at WSCM2020:
Conductor: Lyn Williams AM
Pianist and Associate Conductor: Lauren Hannay
Choreographer: Deborah Brown