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I have always been fascinated by the idea of the Aboriginal “Walkabout.” To venture alone into the harsh wilderness as a young boy, for up to several months, seems like a daunting, almost unimaginable, notion. Even more so when you take into account the lack of any kind of travel aid – no compass or radio or travel guide. Imagine being stranded for six months in the outback. As a teenager! I am 26 years old and the idea of a five-day solo hike in the Aspen mountains (with a clear trail, a map, and even signs every few miles) scares me!
For indigenous Australians, however, the walkabout is more than just a physical challenge; it is a traditional rite of passage that symbolises one’s transition into adulthood. As such, it is an important period of growth and self-discovery, a sacred time during which one learns to form an inextricable relationship with nature and the surrounding landscapes.
Richard Narroway at Todd Mall in Alice Springs. Photos supplied.
In 2015 I went on a walkabout of my own. Initially the journey began as a personal goal to perform the Bach Cello Suites around my home country. Over time, however, it grew into something much larger – an endeavor to bring music to the lives of others and make a positive, lasting impact on the communities around me. I ended up traveling around Australia for thirty days performing Bach’s Suites in all kinds of unconventional venues, leading several masterclasses and workshops along the way, and recorded the complete set at the journey’s culmination. Essentially it was a “Bachabout,” a life-changing journey that allowed me to grow closer to the music than ever before.
The entire tour was a wonderfully transformative experience, not just because of the countless performance opportunities, but even more so because of all the people I met and all the unconventional venues I got to play in. Who would have thought that Bach’s music could help Parkinson’s sufferers find fluidity and naturalness in their motions? Or that an entire hospital ward would be transformed into a place of calm and beauty at the sound of Bach? I performed the Suites in a different church in most of the major cities around Australia. I even played them on a beach in Darwin; at an outdoor mall in Alice Springs; in an open space in front of Uluru; in a coffee shop in Adelaide; in an old gaol in Melbourne; in a dance class in Sydney. The list goes on. I am immensely grateful for all of these performing opportunities, because they gave me the freedom to experiment with musical ideas on a consistent basis. As a result, when the time came to actually record the Suites, I was completely assured of how I wanted to interpret the music.
Dance for Parkinson's
If one thing has remained with me from my tour, however, it is my work with Dance for Parkinson’s, an organisation that offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease. In Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, I took part in multiple dance workshops, using my music to help Parkinson’s sufferers find joy and peace. To this day, it has remained one of the most gratifying musical experiences of my life. My interpretations took on entirely different shapes in those sessions. I found myself responding to the emotions and movements of the people around me while they responded to the sounds of my cello, finding joy in the sense of release the music gave their minds and bodies.
To see these individuals light up with happiness was utterly contagious. Some of them came to class with uncontrollable tremors; others came in with the assistance of a walker; a few were even confined to a wheelchair. But one thing became clear: at the onset of music, these dancers regained confidence. They smiled. They laughed. They found an ease of motion. It was a truly eye-opening experience for me. Eventually I ended up collaborating with the organisation to produce a recording of the Bourrées from Bach’s Cello Suite No 3, which was then distributed to more than 100 Dance for Parkinson’s classes around the world! They even have a specific Mark Morris choreography that goes along with it, with all sorts of intricate hand gestures and arm movements. I will forever treasure this feeling of being part of something larger than oneself. That is what life is all about.
In today’s modern age, the concert stage has become the quintessential symbol of classical music performance. Presenting ticketed concerts in Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House has become the singular dream of so many young musicians. As such, virtuosity has become a dominating force. And don’t get me wrong – virtuosity is fantastic.
But should virtuosity really be reigning supreme? What about generosity?
I think there is something so special and so intrinsic to humanity about the generosity and compassion of connecting with others through music. In the end, what is the point of making music if we are not using it to move people?
There is no question that this was a Bachabout in the truest sense of the term, completely transforming my philosophy of being a cellist and musician, and absolutely reaffirming my belief in the power of music in general—it’s power to connect people with each other and to connect people with themselves. I am sure Bach would be smiling at us from up high, knowing that his Cello Suites can bring people together, even after all these years.
Richard Narroway's recording of the complete Bach Cello Suites is out now on Sono Luminus.