Music of the Spinifex Country

OoldeaA few weeks ago, thanks to my friends Deb and Matt, I had the chance to view Mick Angus’s 2006 film from Marcom Projects, Ooldea.  It tells the story of a collaboration between composer Iain Grandage and a group of elders from the Spinifex People.  It’s an extraordinary story, almost as much as for what doesn’t happen as for what does.

The backstory began in 2002 when Grandage, whose long involvement with Indigenous music now extends to creating orchestral arrangements for the Black Arm Band, was doing research for the production that eventually became The Career Highlights of the Mamu, a piece directed by Peter Sellars for the Black Swan Theatre at the Adelaide Festival.  The production was a history of sorts of the Spinifex People, their experience of the Maralinga bombing, and their lives in the country near Tjuntuntjura in Western Australia.  Trevor Jamieson supplied narration, the community elders spoke of their country to video footage, and the Tjuntjuntura Band provided rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment.  Grandage became infected with the rhythms and melodies of the ceremonial inma he encountered during the development of the piece.

Two years on, Grandage was offered an open commission by Nick Bailey of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), and his thoughts returned to the Spinifex Country and its songlines.  And thus began the development of what was to be a new form of music, true to both the orchestral traditions of the West and the indigenous traditions of the deserts.  It was not meant to be an orchestral setting of Pitjantjatjara songs but rather a common ground, a meeting space where the two traditions could co-exist and, if possible, work together.

The film Ooldea recounts the physical and intellectual journeys that Grandage undertook in order to gain an understanding of the lives, the memories, and the music of the Spinifex elders and to craft from that experience a musical form and language, to rehearse the performances, and to invest members of WASO in the experiment.  This is a fascinating journey in itself and comes with many of the tropes of cross-cultural learning that will be familiar to audiences who have followed such collaborative ventures before: the differing sets of expectations, the difficulties of language, the conflicting understanding of time and schedules, the diverse cultural protocols, the uncertainties, the failures, the new beginnings that are required repeatedly.  There is the sense of wonder and amazement that Grandage and his fellow classical musicians experience, the inquisitiveness and openness of the desert children, the amusement of the ladies who watch sometimes from the sidelines.  There are trips out to country and nights around the campfire when slapsticks and cello reach out over the bridge of the human voice in mutual exploration.

Roy Underwood and Iain Grandage

Roy Underwood and Iain Grandage

For those who love the paintings of the Spinifex country, there is the added delight of watching some of the premier artists from the community who are at the core of this adventure.  Roy Underwood, Simon Hogan, Fred Grant, and Allan Jamieson all figure prominently in Grandage’s education, and others, including Lennard Walker and Lawrence Pennington make cameo appearances.  I am helpless before the thrill of watching these old men go about their business (even if, in the film, that doesn’t involve painting); it’s a combination of a sort of celebrity watching and the opportunity to feel as though I have the chance to witness the spirit, the landscape, and the songs from which their marvelous paintings spring.

There is much tension to the story as the deadline for the performance, scheduled to premiere in October 2005, approaches.  The film cuts back and forth between Perth and Tjuntjuntjura as the musical composition begins to take shape and Grandage negotiates with both the elders and the management at WASO for the manner in which the work will unfold.  The final form of the piece is described thus by Grandage:

Structurally, the work is a single continuous movement, in three broad sections. The first (incorporating the Ooldea Inma) utilises the octatonic scale in a chorale that grows from a pair of mirrored lines out to 5 voices and back. Interpolated between these chorale sections are two other musical ideas – a stacked and clustered version of the scale, and a set of three falling phrases that is gradually compressed from 7ths down to clustered 2nds. This section is scored for strings, single woodwinds and percussion alone. It is interrupted by the arrival of the Brass and woodwind in antiphonal positions in the choir stalls in a 12 tone interlude.

The second section features the more active Mamu Inma – a song series about a spirit-being best equated to the western ideas of the devil or a trickster god. In this movement, a constant rhythm from the orchestra continues between each of the sung verses, with interjections from the instrumental groups above that increase in duration and intensity before mirroring back.

The final section of the work returns to the slow chorale style of the first, and incorporates the Kalaya Inma. This Inma is centred around Ilkurlka, in the heart of Spinifex country, and tells the story of the Emu – the custodian of Spinifex land before anangu (people) arrived.

This work is intended not as an accompanied traditional song, nor as an orchestral reworking of indigenous themes. It is, I hope, simply a meeting place. A work within which the musical forces of Australia’s European heritage share a campfire with some of Australia’s traditional owners. A campfire around which history may become a source of shared pride, and where time might reveal a communal future rather than a buried, stolen past.

In the end, however, the performance never took place.

As final preparations got underway in Perth, Grandage received the news that important business had come to the fore out in Tjuntjuntjara.  Elders from another community has arrived, and a certain important piece of business (its exact nature unspecified due to its sacred nature) had to move on from Tjuntjuntura to the next custodians, and the men who would have traveled to Perth to perform could not leave their country.  As the Orchestra’s press release announcing the cancellation of the performance described it (quoted by Grandage described it in “Journeys with Spinifex,” an article published in Sounds Australia: the Journal of the Australian Music Centre (no. 68, 2006), “the living of culture took precedence over the performance of culture.”  While I suspect that the elders might not have made such a fine distinction, what is truly remarkable was the reaction to the news in Perth.  In a series of recorded discussions among the members of the orchestra, the understanding and acceptance of this sudden and disruptive change of plans came with some difficulty but with no questioning of its essential rightness.  After all, as one member of the ensemble pointed out, guest performers and conductors with the Orchestra cancel all the time, and frequently for reasons that are far flimsier than those offered by the Spinifex men.

In a coda to the story, Grandage returns to Tjuntjuntjura six months later to meet with the men one more time.  The purpose of the trip is not to resume planning for the event; indeed, death and illness have precluded much of the possibility of that occurring.  It is simply for the parties to re-establish the connections that had been forged over the preceding years.  Eventually a modified version of the project was executed by the post-classical ensemble Topology at the Powerhourse in Brisbane, but in the film that remains beyond the horizon.  Grandage simply returns to sit with the old men.

For all of these reasons, Ooldea is a remarkably powerful experience.  If ever there were a  manifestation of the notion that “it’s not the arrival but the journey that matters” captured on film, this is it.

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2 Responses to Music of the Spinifex Country

  1. Greg says:

    Color me green with envy! I’ve been trying to lay hands on a dvd copy of ‘Ooldea’ for years… with no success. Apparently it was shown years ago on Australia’s ABC. The producers, Marcom, haven’t responded to email; there seems to be no distribution.
    If you have any magic left after making a copy of the film appear for you, Will, I hope you’ll next work on casting a spell on the producers to get them to distribute the dvd of this fascinating story!

  2. Tom Tuffin says:

    I was with them the night four WASO members and a choir of aboriginal people made music just North of Tjuntjunarra in the bush and the concert was filmed. I kept the camp fire stoked and so got a mention in the credits. A big thrill for me. It was one of the best experiences of my life. At one stage a group of men started to dance spontaneously and the women clapped and laugh. What a moment. Tom Tuffin

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