In 2013, barrister Julian Burnside asked Australians to write letters of comfort and support to asylum seekers detained on Nauru. Nearly 2000 of those letters were sent back unopened, marked “return to sender”.

Composer Katy Abbott had always planned to write a letter but somehow never got around to it. Offered the chance to read through the returned letters, she was inspired to write a work for female voice, narrator and string quartet called Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender. Her musical response is, she says, “my contribution to that dialogue”.

Melbourne’s Flinders Quartet will present the world premiere for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on July 23, performing it with mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd and actor Richard Piper as the narrator.

Katy Abbott and Flinders Quartet cellist Zoe Knighton spoke to Limelight about the new work.

Zoe Knighton, Julian Burnside and Wilma Smith with the returned letters. Photograph © Agatha Yim

Zoe Knighton

What made you want to perform Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender?

As soon as Katy came to us with this idea, it was clear that it was going to be one of the most important premieres in our 20-year history. We rarely, if ever, have a contemporary political context for our performances so in a way, this performance is incredibly unique. A string quartet is the perfect vehicle for subject matter that is this sensitive, and having the opportunity to be part of a performance that is thought-provoking and beautiful has really kept us going over the last few months.

Can you discuss how you relate to the story behind the piece? How would you describe the sound world of the piece?

I always meant to write one of the letters but never did and that inactivity had been playing on my mind for quite a few years. To have the opportunity to then be part of something so meaningful felt like a real blessing. My parents always used to tell me how lucky I was to have been born in Australia and as a child I never understood. I am really looking forward to my children hearing this piece and it becoming a vehicle for starting those important conversations early.

The piece is grand in its architecture but this has given Katy such a scope to discover a sound world that is never static. Harmonically and melodically, Katy has definitely found the sweet spot between the familiar and the unusual and the textures she has unearthed within the string quartet have a real tactile quality about them.

What is unique about Katy Abbott as a composer?

Katy’s music is instantly relatable, but not in any way predictable. Her gift for song and matching words with music has an innate humanity and the way she gently massages the sound of the string quartet shows off her experience and craft as a composer. The danger of having a brilliant idea like this one is that the end product could fall flat, but this piece has delivered everything we hoped it would.

Why do you think this piece will work in a live streamed format?

The concerts I have watched on MDCH have really drawn me in, perhaps because of the ability to see the performers far more up close than is possible in the concert hall. Given the intimate nature of this piece, I think it is brilliantly suited to lounge room viewing. It’s the kind of piece that will take a little while to process both emotionally and intellectually, and having the space of the home to enable that will really add to the experience.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the piece? 

More than anything, this piece has given us optimism. There is such a joy and gratitude for the privilege of being able to live in our wonderful country conveyed in these letters and it definitely exudes a generosity of spirit. As musicians, we largely think in sound rather than words but the way Katy Abbott has matched the music with these words written by Australians gives them far more meaning. Our hope is that the music will help these words stay with the audience long after the concert has finished.

The boxes of returned letters that inspired Katy Abbott to compose Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender. Photograph © Agatha Yim

Katy Abbott

Can you tell us about the story behind Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender?

In 2013, Julian Burnside QC asked Australians to write letters of support and encouragement to seekers of asylum on Nauru Island. I loved this idea and always meant to write a letter but never got around to it. Two thousand Australians wrote letters. Almost all the letters were ‘returned to sender’ in late 2014, unopened. I remember hearing this in the news and felt a sense of loss, both for the asylum seekers who would have benefited from receiving a letter of warmth and also for the Australians who bothered to put pen to paper. This work is now my letter of support and encouragement.

In 2016/17, as I was finishing a work called Hidden Thoughts, which voiced the hidden thoughts of women (obtained through an anonymous written survey), I found myself reflecting on other ‘hidden thoughts’. I simply knew I wanted to be part of giving the thoughts within the Burnside letters air-time – but it took me a couple of years to build up the courage to ask if this might be possible to access them. It came about eventually when the Flinders Quartet invited me to compose a new work for them for their 20th anniversary year.

What kind of research did you undertake in composing the work?

I read many of the letters.  It was a humbling and moving experience. The letters were filled with thoughts about food, gardening and geography as well as deep reflections that were poignant and delightful. And sad. They were filled with pictures, photographs, stories and anecdotes. Almost all included a self-addressed envelope in the hope of establishing of a personal connection with the person receiving the letter.

Can you tell us about the composition?

The work is for mezzo-soprano, narrator and string quartet and is for a chamber music setting. The audience is invited to contribute to the work by singing in the final movement. The intention is for the audience to sing with the narrator to the asylum seekers. Given the work will have a premiere via online setting, the effect will be different. Instead of feeling secure and singing together as an audience in a live (pre-COVID) setting as imagined, the audience may sing with the performers in their own homes. In some ways this is a very beautiful sentiment yet not one that can be captured/recorded. People might feel vulnerable or exposed singing along; they may choose not to sing or they may sing and improvise over the 2-bar simple melody. Of course some of the audience have already contributed to the work, in part, by writing a letter in the first place.

I worked and collaborated with writer/poet Maureen Johnson on formulating the text. Maureen noticed that many of the sentences within the letters began the same way; “I hope that…” for example. Maureen collated some of the words into prose which gives a more global voice to the sentiments. In some movements you hear a specific person’s words (zoom-in) and in others, it is a more global (birds-eye) voice. The global voice surprisingly created a sense of distance between the writer of the letter and the asylum seeker. It is my hope this comes through the score.

Have you heard the piece performed yet by the Flinders Quartet and Dimity Shepherd?

I did work with Richard Piper, the narrator, as I was sketching out the work.  This was an almost surreal experience to hear the ‘hidden thoughts’ come alive with an actor or who read the words with nuance and empathy. It was very moving, even as a sketch. I haven’t yet heard the work – only a few snippets! This week! There is all sorts of interplay between the quartet, the narrator and the singer (including harmonic singing) and I hope the words will be amplified through the orchestration of these six incredible artists.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the piece?

Mostly, I hope (even some of) the intended recipients hear the words. I hope the people who wrote letters of heart and warmth feel their words were not wasted. I hope hearing the words set to music allows the audience to reflect and absorb a little more of who we are as a nation and the audience feels a sense of connection with both the performers, the asylum seekers through experiencing the work. Is that too many ‘hopes’?!

Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender will live stream on July 23 at 7pm for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall