Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Journey to Horseshoe Bend - ten years on

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the first performance of Journey to Horseshoe Bend. I republish this article from that time. Another article on the involvement of the Ntaria community and other black and white Territorians is on my website under Singing Chorales: Aranda Way

Broadening experiences in Central Australia

How well has classical music represented Central Australia over the years? John Antill obviously read Spencer and Gillen’s classic text, The Arunta before writing his ballet Corroboree, the young Peter Sculthorpe portrayed a ‘sunburnt country’ in his various tone poems. There’s one long note in Barry Conyngham’s opera Edward John Eyre which says heaps to me about horizon.

The musical work that Andrew Schultz and I have written for Symphony Australia and the Sydney Symphony is based on T.G.H. Strehlow’s 1969 novel Journey to Horseshoe Bend,  which tells of Strehlow’s mortally-ill father’s last journey down the dry bed of the Finke River, Central Australia in search of medical help in 1922. Pastor Strehlow examined his faith, as his son Theo (the young T.G.H. Strehlow) travelled behind his parents’ buggy, learning about the country from Aboriginal guides, pastoralists, cameleers and a host of other characters they met along the way.

Cover of the CD of Journey to Horseshoe Bend, released 2004. Photo of Horseshoe Bend: Paul Carter
 To create our musical version of Journey to Horseshoe Bend, the novel’s 220 pages may have been edited, but in developing this work over a four-year period we have had a broadening experience, not out of keeping with the ‘coming of age’ of young Theo in the book.

In the introduction to his monumental Songs of Central Australia, T.G.H. Strehlow acknowledged the old Aranda men who provided him with the words of the chants he had transcribed. Their birthdates stretched back as far as 1842, before McDouall Stuart’s epic crossing of this continent. Uniquely for an anthropological writer in the 1950s, and one occasionally remembered for the controversy over his handling of sensitive Aboriginal material, Strehlow credited his informants. It’s a nice point to bear in mind as I reflect on the broad community of support which has buttressed our creation of this work; of a large history against which we pitch our piece.

We present Journey to Horseshoe Bend as a cantata, that form of unstaged mini-opera which the Lutheran J.S. Bach used to reflect the scriptural message in Sunday services at St.Thomas Church Leipzig where he served in the 1720s. Why? Early in the novel Pastor Strehlow is brought from his house at Hermannsburg Mission (now called Ntaria) for the last time. As he is lifted into the buggy the mission people gather round and sing Kaarrerrai worlamparinyai, Pastor Strehlow’s translation of Wachet auf, the great Lutheran hymn set by Bach and used by him in Cantata 140. But by presenting the work as a cantata we pay homage to the Lutheran background of people out at Ntaria – a Lutheranism held in tandem with traditional belief – as well as our own Europeanness. We employ an effective medium for a story which in many respects is as deep and as anguished as a Passion. Our version of Journey to Horseshoe Bend is cast in eight scenes, broken up into arias, duets, choruses. Andrew’s orchestral layout reflects the 275–kilometre river valley through which the party travels. Winds and brass on either side of a central pool of strings and other instruments, resemble a river gorge, but you could also regard the layout as similar to the chancel of a church. Andrew even borrowed a refrain from the Ntaria Lutheran service – the words Kaartai, nurnanha wurlathanai (Lord, hear our prayer) - to frame Pastor Carl’s death.

I make use of a narrator, as well as another actor, to tell the story, and this is outside the cantata tradition. But our purpose is to create a bond with a broader audience beyond the normal concert-going public, the sort of people to whom and for whom the story of Journey to Horseshoe Bend is meant to speak. I make use also of the three languages of the region as well as the dialectical differences between Western Arrarnta, Southern Arrernte, and Eastern Arrernte (and even the orthographical differences between the different dialects of Arrernte; the differences are unsettled - until the 20th century, Arrernte was an oral language). Travelling through the Brittania Sandhills one of those nights in 1922, young Theo was rebuked by his guide Njitiaka for using the Western Arrarnta word for moon in Southern Arrernte country. In an exchange which echoed this episode in the novel, Alice Springs resident Doug Abbott, chided me for casting his great-grandfather’s dialogue in the Eastern Arrernte I had reconstructed from a dictionary: ‘That old bloke would turn in his grave [if you had him talking in anything other than Southern Arrernte.],’ he said. Casting a story of Central Australia in cantata form, replete with narration and Aranda interjections (to use the Strehlows spelling), acknowledges the hybrid forms that are a mark of post-contact Aranda life. Aranda people out at Ntaria practise Two Ways, a blend of Aranda and European traditions

T.G.H. Strehlow began Journey to Horseshoe Bend in May 1966 while recovering from peritonitis. It was published at a time of crisis in his life. Strehlow’s novel has been described as an attempt to posit himself as central in Aranda life, particularly at a time when a rising generation of Aboriginal activists rebelled against a white man who spoke of their ceremonial life for them. The book tells stories of the Altjira, translated imperfectly for the past century as ‘the Dreamtime’, while recounting stories of Pastor Carl Strehlow’s struggles with God. We get a sense of the eternal mythology underpinning the landscape but also details of the pastoral history of the region; the sequence of ownership of Henbury Station, for example; or how Gus Elliott, owner of Horseshoe Bend hotel, where Pastor Strehlow died, first attempted to run cattle at Glen Helen but moved into an area where he would not face so much resistance from the original inhabitants. Working on this piece, helicoptering over its terrain, Andrew and I are possibly the first composer and librettist in Australian musical history to be asked to avoid disturbing a cattle muster while doing our research.

T.G.H. Strehlow does not favour one strand – black or white – as more relevant than the other in his book. My libretto juxtaposes and perhaps prioritises elements for the sake of dramatic vividness, and space. But ours is still a story of reconciliation. Andrew sets Strehlow’s translation of the Song of Mborawatna to a chorale fugue at the end. The point is not ‘neither-nor’, nor ‘yes, but’ but ‘both-and’. We’re embracing the life of the country, like Strehlow, in all its historical and mythical currents, cross-currents and substrata.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend, the novel, is out of print and hard to find these days. When I began work on this project it was as if T.G.H. Strehlow had disappeared from the face of literary Australia. I often went into second-hand bookshops looking for the title, only to find myself spelling ‘Strehlow’. Once upon a time governments turned to only three white men for ‘technical advice’ when making ‘aboriginal policy’: A.P. Elkin, W.E.H. Stanner and T.G.H. Strehlow. It was as if, in spite of the incredible controversy in 1978, when Strehlow’s photographs of secret ceremonies turned up in the German photo-magazine Stern, Strehlow had ‘disappeared from the map.’ Of course he was not forgotten in Central Australia. People remember not only that ‘he shouldn’t have sold those pictures’ but still confirm family relationships that Strehlow recorded on genealogies drawn up with devotion and a Teutonic thoroughness.

Andrew and I are responsible for the artistic decisions involved in making a musical version of this novel: telling the story in 1st person, rather than Strehlow’s more impersonal 3rd person; having Njitiaka actually speak in Aranda. Andrew decided the orchestral layout, musical language, orchestration, and musical weighting for each section. We’ve no doubt cut out someone’s favourite bit. But in making this version of Journey to Horseshoe Bend we have consulted widely, drawing upon the family lore and reminiscence of people still living in the Centre. Much of T.G.H. Strehlow’s material – manuscripts, objects given to him by the old men - is now housed in the Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs. I would have rung the Centre’s Brett Galt-Smith and Shane Hersey several times a week over the past four years. Andrew, the Sydney Symphony’s Alexandra Cameron and I have all been out to Hermannsburg; Symphony Australia has made sure we could fly and drive the length of the journey to Carl Strehlow’s grave. We gained a greater sense of the reality of the story by meeting descendants of characters in the novel, and seeing the pride for example with which Kunmanara Breaden, current chairman of the Central Lands Council, told of his grandfather Johnson showing Theo over Idracowra station on the fifth day of the journey. In the cantata, this is represented by Theo singing Andrew’s evocative ditty of what he sees: harnesses, bridles, hobble straps, while his father heaves through a text wrought with the question of suffering as described in Job. We didn’t have the time and ‘space’ however to show Theo embarrassing the agnostic station people by saying grace out loud on the Sunday, but Mrs Murphy at Idracowra showed us the still–extant blockhouse where he said it.

This work was not conceived by a lonely isolate starving in a garret. Part of my confidence in this work lies in the level of consultation and immersion in Territorian experience we have undergone with the assistance of a large number of people, and which echoes, however faintly, the original encounters of the Strehlows’ trip. If we’re to pay homage to all the people who helped in the creation of this work, we end up with a web of relationships that is not as complex as the genealogies prepared by T.G.H. Strehlow and still consulted by Aboriginal families 25 years after his death. But which has contributed to a work which we think speaks profoundly to an audience wider than the usual cognoscenti.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2003
This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review, May 2003

Other blogs of mine on Central Australia are:

Life-changing statements, 16 December 2012
Ah, Nathanael, 29 November 2012
Victory over death and despair in a bygone age (thoughts on John Strehlow's The Tale of Frieda Keysser), 5 Nov 2012
Virginia in the Desert, 10 Sep 2012
Drowned Man in a Dry Creekbed - Happy New Year 1993, 6 August 2012
Opera in a land of Song, 29 July 2012
Considering the aboriginal land of Altjira, 20 May 2012

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