Waterside Workers Federation Hall, Port Adelaide
July 29, 2017

In July 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed Professor Gillian Triggs, the Head of the Law School at Sydney University, as Chair of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Over her five-year term, Professor Triggs became one of the most divisive and controversial figures in the Australian political discourse. Her retirement this week was met with relief by the current Coalition government with which she was often in vigorous conflict. The press was divided in its estimation. Whilst News Limited papers denigrated “Triggs’s Inglorious Legacy” (The Australian, July 26, 2017, p.13), political journalist and author David Marr declared her “a hero” (The Drum, ABC TV, July 26, 2017).

In 2014, under Professor Triggs, the AHRC released a report entitled “The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention”. Its purpose had been “to investigate the ways in which life in immigration detention affects the health, well-being and development of children”. Reading that report, the composer Cat Hope (then based in Perth before moving to Melbourne in January this year to become the new Head of the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music at Monash University) felt helpless “watching and reading from the sidelines about what the elected Australian government does under my name”.  Asylum seekers, particularly children, she realised, were “voiceless politically, [existing] in a no-man’s land”.

Reading that report, Hope found herself reflecting on the creation of “a wordless opera… an opera for those who have no voice… perceived, real or smothered”. There was much in the report that could be used in a musical way. Elements of the text, drawings, tables, maps and even design elements of the document became the basis of the construction of a graphic score. Within her characteristic musical landscape of drones, bass instruments, noise, improvisation and her internationally acclaimed graphic notation (facilitated by the Decibel ScorePlayer), Hope re-fashioned the report into a musical response. Audiences and musicians could almost re-read the report through Hope’s adaptation of it. She stressed that she did not want the enterprise to be a preachy experience. It had never been her intention to speak on behalf of anyone other than herself. Utterly devoid of words and (thus far, at least) gestures and images, Speechless emerged two days after Professor Triggs’s departure from the political stage.  It could have been a public relations coup; instead, it was mere coincidence.

Since 1992, Vitalstatistix, the Adelaide-based experimental arts organisation, has operated out of the historic Waterside Workers Federation hall (1926) in Port Adelaide. Through its Incubator programme, it supports the creative development and workshops of new work. For the past two weeks, Cat Hope and her long-time cohorts from Tura New Music in Perth (30 years old next year!) have been working with nearly 80 local musicians in creating Speechless. Among these were 30 young musicians drawn from Adelaide. This was indeed a trans-national experience assembling forces from Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne.

In the darkened old Waterside auditorium, a small but clearly partisan audience shared in a deeply moving, almost spiritual experience. It would have been impossible to have remained disconnected from the passion and intensity of this performance. I tried to conjure up sounds from my musical past that could provide signposts for the truly extraordinary tapestry of sonorities. Those huge, stochastic blocks of Iannis Xenakis, the gut-rending caterwauling of Diamanda Galas, the vocal gymnastics of Amanda Stewart, the long drones of Jon Rose and Graeme Leak and Indigenous music: all fused naturally and seamlessly for some 50 unbroken minutes. Within this edifice, there was sufficient variety for the ear to recover from the intense decibel onslaught. While there was no euphony (how could there be?), there were moments of light and shade, silences to balance the noise levels, Ligeti-like clarity shining through density.

Given the composer’s passion for bass instruments – in 2014 she founded the Australian Bass Orchestra, a group that comes together “to play music where the range never goes above middle C” – it came as no surprise that bass frequencies dominated. At one point, the graphic score instructed all instruments to be “detuned [and] extended to the lowest possible range”. Equally, though far from Hope’s rubric, it would have been intriguing to hear these bass instruments struggle to create the highest sounds possible. An accomplished flute player herself, Hope has yet to explore the stratospheric heights of higher voices.

In Speechless, those heights were exploited by voices. Fifty or so singers from two community choirs, Born on Monday and Hoi Polloi, created a multi-hued choral texture – Jackson Pollock on acid? – over which four shamanic female voices soared and screamed. Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Kusum Normoyle, Judith Dodsworth and Sage Pbbbt (sic) displayed the extremes of vocal technique, drawing on aspects of Tuvan and Mongolian overtone singing, feedback, and the kind of more conventional (!) techniques we associate with the likes of Cathy Berberian and Jane Manning. In particular, Normoyle’s Tourette’s Syndrome-like ‘tirade’ with hand-held microphone and feedback was both electrifying and harrowing.

On the rear wall of the hall, behind the audience, it was possible to track the vivid tapestry of Hope’s graphic score. Initially, I thought it a pity that it was not projected behind the orchestra as well, if only to lessen stress on my neck. I learned later that what I was watching was the choral score, projected so that the singers could view their notation.

This was a workshop performance of a work in progress. Where does it go from here? Where could it go? For all its fascinating apparatus and complex delivery mechanisms, Speechless lacks some element, undefined and elusive. Within seconds, the audience accepts the absence of words; that is its mystique and charm. Whether or not it deserves that hallowed moniker ‘opera’ is beside the point. For almost five centuries, composers in the West have been creating ‘operas’ in forms too diverse and numerous to mention here. Opera (literally ‘works’, Latin) is whatever a composer wants it to be.

Narration, no. And Lord preserve us from a be-wigged Triggs-like figure declaiming passages from her report. Rather than words, what seems to be missing here is some kind of visual dimension. Perhaps projection of the score itself could move centre-stage, so to speak. Perhaps a more physical dimension – dance, or some other aspect of ritual – could help propel the underlying intent and importance of the document that inspired the work, the ‘opera’ itself.

Indeed, Speechless is not yet finished. A fascinating and engrossing experience, it should be taken up immediately by another production company or festival (or consortium of festivals, local and international) and developed. Rather than the clinical pristineness of the concert hall, it belongs in some gritty, post-industrial environment, somewhere like Sydney’s Carriageworks or the Brisbane Powerhouse. In its present form, it is also eminently radiophonic, assuming, of course, that transmitters can cope with the unrelenting barrage of bass frequencies.

For all its incomplete rawness, Speechless is already a remarkable achievement. It has left an indelible impression in the memory and has rendered at least one member of its audience almost… speechless.