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An ‘emotional wallop’: the CSO’s Australian Series

Jolene Laverty

War has changed immeasurably during the last century, and whilst some of changes are easily observed (like the advances in technology for example) others are more discreet.

The ways in which war is portrayed through art has undergone subtle yet significant changes; some of which will be heard and seen during the second performance of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Series, which is held in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery.

The second instalment in the CSO’s Australian Series features Greenway 3, a trio of baritone voice, clarinets, and piano; who will perform an hour-long concert which is book-ended by responses to war that were made almost 100 years apart. Australian Series Curator Dr Matthew Hindson AM describes the first part of the performance as being “full of music that was well known and important to the population, in other words – pop songs, at the time of writing.  However the majority of composers we have now never heard of, with the exception of Percy Grainger.”

We begin the evening in the early years of the First World War with ‘For Auld Lang Syne: Australia Will be there’ which was recorded by Walter ‘Skipper’ Francis in 1914. This song was enormously successful in Australia during the war years, and although it was essentially a ‘pop’ song, it was often performed in official settings. It was scored for all regimental bands to play, and became the March Song of the Australian Expeditionary Forces to rally the Australian troops as they marched away from home. The strong association between ‘For Auld Lang Syne: Australia Will be There’ and the Australian troupes meant that is was seen as ‘Australian’s song’, despite being written by a Welshman and recorded in the UK.

Image via Trove*

Image via Trove*

The titles of the war tunes to be played in the Australian Series reveal that the central narrative of these early pop songs belonging to the soldier – ‘He died at the Dardanelles’, ‘Back Home’, ‘Solider Soldier’, ‘Australia’s Hymn for her Dead’. These songs with their themes of heroism, courage, and self-sacrifice were tools to inspire the Australian population to support the war effort. Senior Lecturer in musicology at Monash University Paul Watt describes them as being “essentially propaganda songs and are to be sung, solo, by civilians; sometimes by men but other times by women and at such events as recruitment meetings.” These war songs from the early 20th Century are about men, for men, because as Watts explains “Men could become more manly by participating in the war, purpose of the songs were as much to encourage young men to enlist as they were to entertain.” [1]

Moving ahead 100 years, several of the finalists in the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 show that the artist’s attention has moved from the steady focus on the soldier’s experience to include indirect participants of war who are equally affected by its consequences. For example, Kellie Leczinska’s portrait of young mother and refugee Kuei shows us a striking image of a woman whose life has been profoundly impacted by war. In her artist statement, Leczinska writes

Kuei was born in Bahr el Ghazal, which translates as ‘Sea of Gazelles’, in north-western South Sudan. Civil war has afflicted this region for decades. Roughly two million people died in the conflict, and four million were displaced. Kuei spent eight years in a UN refugee camp before emigrating to Australia. She has survived conflict, disease, famine and an Ebola outbreak in her village. Kuei has now built a new life in Australia with a young son and her Australian partner. I am inspired by her story of determination and how she has flourished in this country.

Kuei by KellieLeczinska

Kuei – The Sea of Gazelles – South Sudan to Oz, 2016, KellieLeczinska

Likewise, National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 finalist Anu Kumar has shown the impact of war on civilians in her work. ‘Fatima’ shows a smiling Pakistani mother sitting on the edge of an unmade bed with her playful daughter who hangs onto her shoulders; a joy which comes a world away from the conflict in Pakistan.

Artists and musicians have long used war as the subject of their creations, but contemporary artistic expressions such as we see in the Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 show that the narrative has broadened from the experience of the soldier to include the stories of people who would otherwise remain hidden.

Alice Humphries

Alice Humphries

This Australian Series also features a newly commissioned work from composer Alice Humphries. In order to help shape the work, Humphries spent some time looking for themes that link the images on display in the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017. She describes her piece ‘About Light’ as being inspired by an element which is essential in photography.

“The music explores both the aesthetic and scientific properties of light, which connects really strongly with photography. Musically, I have tried to approach it in an abstract way, presenting the audience with a musical image that they can view from different angles”

Following Alice Humphries’ ‘About Light’ are works by Jane Stanley and then Ross Edwards, which are less emotional and more austere in their intent. It’s almost like they are framing their subjects on a sometimes bleak canvas.  These are not joyful or exhilarating works – more like a ‘construction in images’. The final piece in the program is a re-interpretation of one of Australia’s most famous recent anti-war songs, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.

It has links to works in the first set in that it tells a story of one person’s experience with war (Vietnam) which is relevant to a broader population, and like the pieces in the first bracket, this song was tremendously popular. However, in this new version, Australian composer Calvin Bowman has reworked the material to bring it into a classical music context. It is an extremely powerful piece that packs a real emotional wallop – just like so many of the finalists of the National Photographic Portrait Prize.

the essentials

What: The CSO’s Australian Series
When: Thursday 1 June from 6:30pm
Where: The National Portrait Gallery
Tickets are $45, and includes a private after-hours viewing of the Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017.
More information here: bit.ly/2qhXwlj

[1] Watt, P., 2014. Music, Lyrics and Cultural Tropes in Australian Popular Songs of the First World War: Two Case Studies. Musicology Australia, 36 (1).

*Trove, NLA


Jolene Laverty

Jolene Laverty was born and raised in Darwin, but has lived in Canberra for most of her adult life. She spent close to twenty years in radio, which took her to the copper outback of Port Augusta to the sparkling aquamarine waves of the Whitsundays. Today she is a member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra*, ANU student, wife of a high-school teacher/rock-musician, and mother to three children who were each born in a different decade. *not allowed on stage. More about the Author