John Ford Paterson’s Melbourne, twilight from 1887 is one of my favourite portraits of the city. It has a light that obscures as much as it reveals, poses as many questions as it answers. Paterson trained in Scotland before migrating to Australia in the 1870s. He was probably the most Scottish identity in Melbourne’s arts world at the end of the 19th-century, and he never lost his broad accent. Though other artists of the Heidelberg group would overshadow him, Paterson’s twilight scenes of the Australian landscape were unmatched, I think, in his time. Paterson’s works in Scotland and Australia, including the his plein air sketch of Melbourne held in the National Gallery of Victoria, reveal a man driven to grasp what cannot be held.

Australian Chamber Orchestra's LuminousThe Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Luminous. Photo © Julian Kingma

This is the sentiment the ACO’S collaboration with Australian photographer Bill Henson, Luminous, evokes. First staged in 2005, it is difficult to characterise just what, exactly, Luminous is, and that may be part of the point. As writer and critic Peter Craven puts it, “Ten years ago, in Sydney, Luminous had an eerie majesty and its revamp suggests as rich and strange a thing for the ear and eye and whatever lies between.”

“A couple of Italianate boys, Caravaggio runaways, one somewhat older than the other, fiddle at something. A girl is poised in expectation, not apprehension exactly, at God knows what. Youth scampers sensuously, is sodden, begrimed. A sunset flames in a luminescent radiance of orange and gold. A wind blows sideways through a greyer, paler landscape: is it edging towards rain, or dusk?”

Luminous is not the musical accompaniment of imagery, nor the visual accompaniment of music. Henson has said of the collaboration, “The whole point of the enterprise is that you don’t want the music to illustrate the pictures and you don’t want the pictures to illustrate the music. A mistake most people make when they do these collaborative things is they don’t give the music the space it needs.” Instead, Luminous is intended to be the “harmonious marriage of music and image.”

Australian Chamber Orchestra's LuminousRichard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in Luminous. Photo © Julian Kingma

The selection of compositions, like Henson’s photography, explores intersections, bridges, and places between. The works are traditional and contemporary and both at the same time. Classical repertoire meets pop and film music, with Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ 1997 violin concerto – aptly titled Distant Light – forming a central reference point, all bound together by the sound sculptures of Paul Healy commissioned especially for the project.

It is the kind of program that is difficult to label neatly as classical music. Richard Tognetti, violinist and artistic director of the ACO, once told me of seeing the late American singer and songwriter, Jeff Buckley, perform in a café in New York in the early-1990s. Buckley was as much the master of song as he was of silence. On this occasion two men had entered the café and were carrying on a loud conversation over Buckley’s intricate, delicate singing and guitar playing. This was art and it was serious music, but it wasn’t classical music, and it was this experience that lead Tognetti to wonder if all “so-called serious music” – from Bach to Buckley – might be better termed “sit down and shut up music”.

LiorLior in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Luminous. Photo © Julian Kingma

It was apt, therefore, that one of the most breathtaking marriages of music and image in Luminous occurs near the beginning of the program, during the Israeli-Australian singer-songwriter Lior’s performance of Corpus Christi Carol, which appeared between the two movements of Alfred Schnittke’s 1985 Trio Sonata, a polystylistic ode to the Viennese tradition of the earlier 20th century.

The Corpus Christi Carol is an early modern hymn rich in the imagery of Christ’s Passion, the Holy Grail, and the Eucharist. It was first discovered, in its written form, in the early 16th century. But its most well-known musical setting was composed by the comparatively modern Benjamin Britten in 1933. As Lior sung out, I couldn’t help but think back to Tognetti’s musings on the intersections of music, high and low, old and new – and what to call it all – because it was, after all, Jeff Buckley who had done the most in recent times to popularise this ancient hymn on his 1994 album, Grace.

Lior, Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol during rehearsals for Luminous

As Corpus Christi Carol offers a bridge between musical traditions that are centuries apart, the entirety of Luminous probes these liminal, in-between spaces: the twilight of day and night, male and female, youth and adulthood, urban and rural, old and new, sacred and secular, joy and melancholy, sublime and beautiful, the stillness of photography and the movement of music. It is a brave and moving piece of art.

But to return to John Ford Paterson and his portrait of Melbourne in the afternoon light, in 1919 the artist and critic, Lionel Lindsay, brother of Norman, recalled Paterson pondering, “I often ask myself, what is this bally airt? Is it Romanticism? No, the romantique is not airt. Is it the classic? Na – Nature is too commonplace, too near, too brutal. Realism is no airt. Whiles I think airt is a kind o’ suggestiveness, a hint, a kind o’ promise, something evanescent. ’Tis a kind o’ spirituality of things I’m after. A dream picture that’s real, an yet ye canna put your han’ to it.”

Sitting in the dark of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall as Bill Henson’s photography crept across a screen above and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, also in darkness, performed below, I kept returning to Paterson’s elusive vision – “A dream picture that’s real”.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Luminous tours until August 23