The story of William Lane’s attempt to set up an Australian socialist utopia in the jungle of Paraguay in the 1890s is the stuff of grand opera. The doomed tale of a charismatic, even messianic leader drawing a band of ardent believers into the wilderness could have emerged from some long-lost archive of Verdi and Boito.

The surprising thing is that this story has largely by-passed our composers (with one or two exceptions, including George Dreyfus and the present writer). It is largely forgotten in our historical memory, resurfacing from time to time as yet another attempt to create a fair and more equitable society. (The parallels between Lane and another failed prophet, one E.G. Whitlam, suggest consideration.)

Creating an opera on such a grand scale would be a daunting, perhaps overwhelming prospect, pointless in an age of pared-back astringency. There is another way to tackle the idea.

Composer Andrew Byrne was born in Melbourne and educated at La Trobe University in the experimental heyday of Keith Humble and his Californian clan. A Fulbright grant took him to study at Columbia University and he has remained in New York these past 20 or so years, rising through the ranks to become Artistic Director of Symphony Space on the Upper West Side.

Some 15 years ago, whilst reflecting on a commission for the Ian Potter Foundation in Melbourne, Byrne came upon the story of William Lane’s Paraguayan expedition. The outcomes of his ruminations were presented at concerts by the Astra Music Society in Melbourne this past weekend, premiere performances welcoming Byrne back to his hometown in celebration of his 50th birthday.

The Othersiders: New Australians in Paraguay is scored for three solo female voices, two pianos (with four pianists), small chamber ensemble (the Pierrot lineup), and an improvising choir including a semi-chorus of male singers. It is constructed in seven parts, with period music drawn from the songs and anthems of the New Australia Society, and texts by Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore who, as Mary Jane Cameron, was the colony’s schoolmistress for several years.

Prudently, Byrne chose not to present this story as an opera, but as a series of fragmentary vignettes or episodes which depict and reflect on Lane’s grand adventure into the unknown. Like a painter, he sets dense and detailed backgrounds (the sounds of ship voyages, jungle cries, and the like) in which he places specific materials (the songs and anthems) to tease out the narrative. Like a film-maker, his work cross-cuts seamlessly between scenes, often out-of-focus, sometimes panning between locations, frequently dissolving and splintering in mid-scene.

The music never fails to charm the imagination or carry the non-linear narrative. It draws on the euphonious tonalism of the likes of John Adams and Lou Harrison, as well as the pulsating rhythmic drive of Steve Reich and Louis Andriessen.

In other words, Byrne’s music sounds like a truly international piece, composed in the thick of the most international village in the world, by a composer who has remained true to his origins and non-aligned status as neither Uptown nor Downtown, nor somewhere in between. New York listeners need to find categories to help manifest their cultural supremacy. Given Byrne’s influences and outlook they might have derided this music as crypto-Californian or even pan-Pacific. Today, it would be more widely accepted as Internationalist, with a dash of Aussie daring and wit to boot.

In a small rough-scrabble converted space in a damp back-street in Carlton, John McCaughey led his tribe of 30 or so singers and players through the thicket of Byrne’s 40-minute score. The performance emerged at times as somewhat rough and ready, with refinement secondary to more keen and eager qualities, rather like the expedition itself. Three female singers carried most of the historic source material. Child-like and natural, their voices emerged from the colony’s communal house. The grunts and grabs of choral grumbles captured the interjections at Lane’s town meetings. The whistles and string glissandi became the foreboding sounds of the jungle, evaporating through the mists of time and memory. At times, this listener thought he heard fleeting bursts of harmonicas, snatches of popular dances, folk-fiddling, even a bolero. Indeed, there were moments – the choral marches, for instance – which drew goose-bumps.

It would have been facile to resort to polemics to tell this strange tale. Like Werner Herzog in his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, Byrne could have drawn some grand conclusions, some resounding choruses. Byrne’s response was more personal and interior. He drew us not into the action, but around it: already painter and film-maker, composer became historian, inviting us to reflect on its meaning and possibilities.

In that sense, the work, like the impossible vision of William Lane which inspired it, seems incomplete, somewhat one-dimensional. So rich in visual possibility, it remained static, even inanimate. In its present form, it is radiophonic. On the concert platform, there is no need for costumes and staging, of course. That would set the piece out on a quasi-operatic, ill-fated journey towards monumentalism and thereby, most likely, to oblivion. Still, there is scope for projections (particularly of the period music and images of the colony itself), a simple lighting plot and even dance. A male narrator could have resurrected Lane himself; he died in 1917, an embittered and right-wing zealot of only 56, and was buried in the Puwera Cemetery in Auckland. That would tie the threads of this largely unknown narrative together. Anything to avoid reliance on a printed programme.

As a prelude to the Paraguay opus, this Astra programme opened with Striking, a 2011 piece for string quartet. Over 17 minutes, the players play mostly pizzicato and tap the strings of their instruments with chopsticks. Interlocking cells and hocket-like fragments recall the African drumming patterns of Steve Reich and Stephen Scott, and the rice-pounding, gamelan-inspired moments of some Sculthorpe quartets. In other words: internationalism.

The vision and optimism of the recently departed American century is now shrinking and fading. In this Asian century, a more international vision will surely prevail. Now with the mantra of “America First!” a world vision is more likely to come now from one of those great cities of China, less so from New York. Perhaps it is time to entice Andrew Byrne back to Australia. What he has experienced and learned, what he has composed and curated in New York these past two decades would be valuable for us.

Once again, we have the far-sighted Astra vision of John McCaughey to thank for yet more discoveries and reflections. And for providing a platform for a composer whose energy and vision is too little known and much needed in his own country.