How did the idea for this program evolve?
The concept for Where Song Began emerged immediately after reading Tim Low’s extraordinary book of the same name. In the book, Tim describes the Australian origins and evolutionary significance of the song bird species. As if this wasn’t already enough to make for a fascinating read, he also poses the idea of Australia being home to the world’s first song, the first utterances of what we humans might consider to be music. As soon as I finished reading the book, I knew I had to turn this story and these ideas into a performance piece.
What did you learn from reading Tim Low’s book?
So many fascinating things! First and foremost of course that Australia had the world’s first songbirds. The majority of the world’s birds, in fact, have ancestors from Australia. I also learnt more amusing facts, such as that the magpie has been nominated as the most serious suburban avian menace in the world, that many parrots have the same, if not higher, levels of intelligence than apes, dolphins and elephants, and that bellbirds have become expert farmers of psyllids (lerps). And the list goes on!
Anthony Albrecht and Simone Slattery. Photo © ABC/Tiger Webb
How did you go about assembling the program?
There were certain works that I immediately knew had to be in the program, such as the opening chordal sequence from Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, the Cucu sonata by Schmelzer, and the beautiful indigenous hymn Ngarra Burra Ferra.
Others emerged over time as the scope of the project took shape, and accompanying images were selected, such as the opening movement of Bach’s first cello suite and Ross Edwards Ecstatic Dance No 2, the score for a million murmurating budgerigars.
How are bird-calls explored in the music?
In a number of different ways. It was important to me from the beginning that the piece wasn’t just an instrumental imitation of Australia’s birds, but rather an exploration of their diversity. After all, not all Australian bird calls could be described as ‘beautiful’, and this is worth celebrating! Therefore throughout the performance, the audience will experience sounds such as harmonic sequences reminiscent of gulls, bows noisily tapping on strings in imitation of the percussive call of the wattlebird, and also music that is suggestive of birds in flight, Bach in homage to the complexity and timelessness of the lyrebird’s call, improvisations on a bowerbird’s failed courtship, and much more!
How are the visual, soundscape and spoken elements of the performance incorporated?
The show is designed to take the audience on an evocative journey of sights and sounds, but also to tell a story. Therefore the selected music, visuals and text is brought together in such a way as to seamlessly take the audience’s attention from one element to another, at times more focussed on the visuals, and at other times into an immersion of sound, including pre-recorded bird calls sourced primarily from the Cornell Ornithology Lab.
What inspired you to include a question-and-answer session in the concerts?
Question and answer time is about creating further connection with our audiences and allowing people to ponder the various elements of the show further. There is a lot to take in during this performance, and audiences are often left curious about how it was all put together, wanting to know more about the Australian bird story and Tim Low’s book, and wondering what on earth two young musicians are doing traversing the country with a car full of instruments and tech equipment and song-filled story to tell!
The show has toured extensively already – what have the audience responses been like?
Time and time again I have been overwhelmed by the positive responses to the show. Because of its multidimensional/multimedia elements, our audiences are generally more varied than your average classical concert, and this is a wonderful thing. We’ve had bird watchers, music lovers, photographers, conservationists, composers, contemporary music aficionados, and early music lovers. There is something in this show for everyone, and I think because of this, and the strong storytelling focus, audiences generally walk away feeling moved and more deeply connected to the natural world around them.
Given the show draws specifically on Australian bird-calls, have audience responses been different in the UK and New York compared with the Australian audiences?
Definitely. This show provides a platform for exploring the ‘exotic’ side of Australia, with its weird and wonderful animal species and unique landscape. The majority of our Australian audiences have been shocked to discover the Australian origins of so many bird species, so you can only imagine the surprise for audiences overseas!
What do you hope audiences in Tasmania will come away with at the end of these concerts?
As with any of our performances, all I ever hope for is that the audience walk away having maybe learnt something new, feeling more deeply connected with their natural surroundings, and most importantly, having experienced something beautiful, and meaningful.
Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht tour Where Song Began across Tasmania from January 16 to 29