The Australian Chamber Choir invites audiences in Australia and Europe to journey through time in a concert that marries choral works with voyages in search of Terra Australis, the fabled Great Southern Land, linking music and events year by year. The program features music by European composers from 1504 to 1937, with contributions from Australian poets and composers. The program begins and ends with the words of Indigenous poet Bill Neidjie, set to music by Australian composer Tom Henry. The ACC has also commissioned a new work by Australian composer Alan Holley and Australian poet Mark Tredinnick called Time Passages to mark the 250th anniversary of  Captain Cook’s opening of the secret instructions to search for Terra Australis on June 3, 1769. Douglas Lawrence, the Director of the ACC, and Elizabeth Anderson, the Choir’s Manager (and his wife), spoke to Limelight about the concert.

Singers from the Australian Chamber Choir. Photograph © Emma Phillips

Terra Australis – Land of the Imagination is a very ambitious project. I believe the idea came about when St Martin in the Fields in London asked you to suggest a program for a concert there. Whose idea was it?

DL: Elizabeth asked me what pieces I would like the choir to perform on this year’s European tour. I wanted to include (as always) a Bach motet, Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium, and Tom Henry’s extraordinary Kakadu Man, which had so deeply moved European audiences on our 2015 tour. I also said, and this is how we tend to work together, “It would be good if it had something to do with the imagination”. From this point the stroke of –  I will say it – genius came from Elizabeth.

EA: The application to perform in the evening concert series at St Martin in the Fields is very competitive, and I felt that to be considered seriously we needed a quintessentially Australian program. For a few years I had been toying with the idea of a program that linked historical events by year with pieces of music. Here was my opportunity to give it a try. In the knowledge that Aristotle had ‘imagined’ a Great Southern Land, I alighted upon the “history of Terra Australis” as my timeline.

How did you decide which historical events you would include? Did you seek the help of a historian?

EA: I found some great internet resources that helped me create a timeline for the mapping of the Australian continent.

How difficult was it to then find the right piece of music to match each event?

EA: When I started, I wasn’t sure if it would work. I searched by date to match historical events with the motets of Bach and with the Messiaen piece that Douglas had chosen. The story of Terra Australis concludes with the mapping of the coastline of Antarctica, beginning with the sighting of that coastline by Russian and British expeditions in 1820. At this point, Aristotle’s theory that there must be an equally large continental landmass in the Southern hemisphere to ‘balance’ the area of the Asian/European continent was finally debunked. I was intrigued to discover that Bach’s motet Lobet den Herren was first published in 1820, making that work part of a fitting conclusion to the program.

Did you end up spending a lot of time choosing between different musical options to find the right mix for the program?

EA: Yes, of course. But I’m a choral music tragic, so listening to large quantities of known and unknown repertoire is certainly not an onerous task. There is a wealth of choral repertoire, often well documented by year, going right back to the beginning of the 16th century. It would be much more difficult to design a program such as this using orchestral music, since the orchestra as we know it did not come into being until the 18th century.

How important was it to you to include an Indigenous frame for the concert?

EA: The Indigenous story is always there and you can’t possibly ignore it. All the inland expeditions I read about included Indigenous people, who saved the lives of the European explorers on many occasions. When I learned of these expeditions in primary school, Indigenous participants were never mentioned, and even as a child I had wondered why European explorers did not seek their assistance. What is now Australia has been in the care of and at the heart of the life of many nations of Indigenous people for thousands of years, far longer than the existence of European culture. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the land was already known and mapped through songlines.

Were the pieces you are performing by Tom Henry (using Bill Neidjie’s words) all commissioned by the ACC?

DL: Yes. Tom Henry sat in our lounge room and talked about how impressed he was by the life of Bill ‘Kakadu Man’ Neidjie, elder of the Gagudju Clan and the last surviving speaker of the Gagudju language. Neidjie broke with tradition to share his Dreamtime stories with all of us. Tom handed me one of Neidjie’s collections of poems and in about one minute I teared up. It hit me like an express train. This was real, sad, moving, powerful, and I immediately asked Tom to compose using these powerful words. The result is out there now; a tremendously important new Australian composition. It is inspired and must surely lead to those hearing it to think afresh about our First Nations, their ancient history and what western civilisation has done to that ancient and irreplaceable culture.

Can you tell us about the new work by Mark Tredinnick and Alan Holley?

EA: I felt very uncomfortable about including Cook’s 1770 landing at Botany Bay in our program. I discussed this with Alan Holley. Alan and I chose to deal with it in different ways: I chose to focus on the date of Cook’s opening of the contract for the voyage in search of Terra Australis. This took place exactly 250 years ago, on June  3, 1769, in Tahiti. Cook had been sent there to observe the transit of Venus. Following instructions from the British Admiralty, immediately after recording the transit, he was to break the seal on an envelope marked “Secret Instructions”. On this day 250 years ago, he read that if he met inhabitants on the new continent, he should “endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them … inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprized by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents”.

Alan Holley invited poet, Mark Tredinnick to write for us and they decided to deal with the conflicting truths of Cook’s voyage in a direct way, producing a new work, entitled Time Passages. Alan Holley writes: “For some people this journey of Cook was of immense importance, with the subsequent settling of British peoples and their complete takeover of ‘the southern continent’ creating untold wealth for the British Empire. For others it led to an invasion of a land that had been inhabited for over 50,000 years by people of many Indigenous nations. Present-day Australia now has to straddle these two truths.”

Mark Tredinnick writes: “I came to think of that theme, the beaching of time on eternity’s shore as an ecotone where two orders of existence, two aspects of every life – “one like an ocean; the other, a shore” – crash and coalesce but never cohere. That littoral zone is what Time Passages is; what it tries to sing is what eternity will not stop saying to time. Moments last, but years do not. This is one thing the dreaming and poetry and music understand and want us to know – before time runs out.”

The concert was obviously already planned before the discovery of Matthew Flinders’ remains in January in Euston Station. Did you expand the program as a result, or not?

EA: I was fascinated by Matthew Flinders’ voyages. The map that he created between 1801 and 1803 while circumnavigating Australia was almost perfect. Not only did he create the first complete map of our coastline, but he was also responsible for naming our continent Australia. On the 1801 voyage, he was accompanied by Indigenous man, Bungaree, without whose help he would probably have been killed by local Indigenous people defending their lands. Flinders died of a urinary tract infection in 1814, just one day after his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis, was published. And in the same year, Beethoven published a charming song for men’s voices entitled Farewell Song. It could have been written expressly for Flinders, although the two probably knew nothing of each other. Flinders was buried in St James’ Church graveyard, which in the 1840s was built over by the expanding Euston Station. Flinders’ headstone was removed and his grave was lost until it was identified in excavations in January this year.

Will you be using any multimedia imagery with the concert? Or explaining the background to the concept and the historical events covered in the program?

DL: We always provide extensive program notes for our concerts. We post these on our website ahead of each program, sending a link to all those who have bought tickets and offering all attendees a hard copy free of charge. In this case, Elizabeth’s notes are weighted more towards explanations of the historical events than towards the music performed.

EA: This is where we believe that we are breaking new ground. Through an appreciation of the historical events contemporary with each piece of music, the audience is invited to listen in a new way. I think that the stories of voyages and explorations really spark the imagination for an enhanced listening experience.

Watch this video for an example of what Dutchmen Frederik de Houtman and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck were doing in 1619

The Australian Chamber Choir performs Terra Australis – Land of the Imagination in Melbourne on June 16 before touring to Europe, then returns to perform in Macedon on August 10, Geelong on August 11 and Sydney on August 25