We see the effects of climate change everywhere. In Heathcote, Victoria, the winemaker Ian Langford of Mount Camel Ridge Estate told me that while grapes used to be harvested in April, even late April, now they are picked as early as February.

Andrew FordAndrew Ford

You will hear Langford in my new piece, Scenes from Streeton, commissioned by the Melbourne Recital Centre in celebration of its 10th birthday and scored for wind quintet with recorded voices.

The music is in response to the paintings of Arthur Streeton, in particular the landscapes he painted around Victoria. The voices are those of four people who cultivate the land, farmers and wine makers, who I asked to look at Streeton’s work and talk about how the environment had changed since the painter’s time – and also the Aboriginal writer and historian, Bruce Pascoe, who I asked to speak about how the landscape would have altered in the hundred years before Streeton saw and painted it. Where most people look at Streeton’s art and see idyllic bush scenes, Pascoe sees a ‘warscape’.

The musical notes in the score are for the Arcadia Winds, but I don’t regard the speakers as in any way separate from the ‘music’ – their voices are an intrinsic part of the sound. Speaking is a lot like composing. We use the composer’s tools: pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamic, articulation. It is the music in our voices that gives our words meaning.

I’m by no means the only composer who enjoys working with speech. Steve Reich has been doing it since the 1960s – first in his phase pieces such as Come Out, later turning  voices into melody in Different Trains. Peter Ablinger and Rob Davidson have both made piano works based on the speaking voices of historical figures – Davidson’s Stalin’s Piano is one such. Kate Neal’s music is full of speech.

I’ve used speaking voices in Elegy in a Country Graveyard, A Singing Quilt and Blitz, the last, written for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, taking the childhood memories of elderly people bombed by the Luftwaffe and the RAF in the Second World War.

What I find interesting about these voices is their timbre and the way they function in time, the way they speed up, slow down, hesitate and stumble. I edit them as little as possible. I like to let the recordings run on so we hear real speech patterns. If I have a model for my voice pieces, it’s not Reich or Ablinger, so much as Glenn Gould and the magnificent speaking choruses that emerge from his Solitude Trilogy.

I didn’t set out to compose a piece about climate change, and in any case, I hope Scenes from Streeton is more than that. But you can’t look at Streeton’s paintings and fail to notice the destruction humans had already wrought in the Victorian bush and the differences between then and now.

And always at the back of my mind was the fact that the MRC opened on February 7, 2009, the day of the Black Saturday bushfires. I hope Scenes from Streeton might be heard as a modest memorial to its victims.


Arcadia Winds perform Andrew Ford’s Scenes from Streeton at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 9

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