`Songlines' sings praises of Aboriginal way of life

Aquarium concert tomorrow salutes Australian culture

Music Preview

October 25, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Among the traditional beliefs of the Aboriginal people who have inhabited Australia's Northern Territory for at least 40,000 years, there is the particularly haunting notion that their ancestors sang themselves into existence.

This process created "songlines" that connected one generation to the next, defined one tribe from the next, provided identity and a link to everyone who had ever sung the song and every part of the land where it was heard.

Echoes of these ancient airs from Down Under will be heard tomorrow in the premiere of Baltimore Songlines by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. The work, scored for violin, clarinet and piano, will be performed in a public concert at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where a swath of the striking terrain of the Northern Territory has been re-created in the huge exhibit Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section Wednesday about a composition premiering at the National Aquarium misidentified the performing group's home base. The Verdehr Trio is in residence at Michigan State University.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Peter was inspired by the idea that the aquarium would devote a whole new wing to Northern Australia," says violinist Walter Verdehr, founding member of the Verdehr Trio, which will give the premiere.

Sculthorpe can't attend the concert. "But I'd love to visit Baltimore someday," the composer wrote in an e-mail, "and I'd dearly love to visit the Aquarium."

The new exhibit also caught the attention of the Australian Embassy. "Obviously, for us, the aquarium's focus on Australia is something we are really proud of," says Maryanne Voyazis, a project manager at the embassy. "That's how we became involved in this project. The idea was to engage Australia's most accomplished composer."

The combined efforts of the aquarium, the embassy and the University of Michigan, where the Verdehr Trio is in residence, led to the commissioning of Baltimore Songlines from the man Verdehr describes as "kind of the Aaron Copland of Australia."

Tomorrow's concert, which will include two other Sculthorpe compositions, is the final installment of the aquarium's salute to Australian culture. The new piece will also be heard Sunday in Washington at the Phillips Collection.

Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania in 1929, has long been inspired by Australia -- the Aborigines and their music; the topography itself. "His music really describes the landscape," Verdehr says. These soundscapes include From Uluru and Kakadu, both conjuring up aspects of the same Northern Territory that is at the heart of the aquarium's exhibit.

The composer credits a 1987 book by Bruce Chatwin called Songlines with leading him to new ways of drawing upon the rich Australian well for inspiration. In a program note for the premiere, Sculthorpe writes that he was particularly struck by Chatwin's description of the Aborigines' "totemic ancestors singing themselves into existence and journeying across the land with their songs."

In an e-mail, Sculthorpe explains how he applied that concept to Baltimore Songlines.

"I take an Aboriginal-inspired melody upon a journey," he says, "as though, like the totemic ancestors, it's traversing a landscape."

An Aboriginal lullaby is incorporated into the opening of the score, along with what the composer describes as a "tumbling chant" inspired by visits to the Northern Territory, and a hint of the didgeridoo, an instrument that originated there.

Sculthorpe calls the new piece "the summation of my songlines period," which has produced other works for the Verdehr Trio. In Baltimore Songlines, the composer introduces thematic material as the music unfolds as a way of suggesting "both journeying and the continual renewal of the natural world."

Baltimore listeners might not detect the songline process at work. Modern Aboriginal listeners have not always recognized the use of their indigenous music in Sculthorpe's, either.

"Some years ago, the Darwin Symphony Orchestra gave a concert of my music in Kakadu National Park," he says. "Afterwards, I asked some tribal elders ... if they recognized Djilile, a melody that originated in the area and was quoted in the central part of the work. They were in agreement that it wasn't in the work, in spite of my insistence.

"Finally, I sang it to them and they immediately recognized it. I mention [this] because I made an important discovery: To the tribal elders, the melody only exists when it's sung."

Being introduced to the mysteries of Aboriginal musical philosophy is just the sort of intriguing experience that Sculthorpe can be counted on to deliver in his inevitably evocative creations. "He is a very original voice," says Verdehr, who met Sculthorpe in the early '90s. "Nothing else sounds quite like his music."

As for Baltimore Songlines, Verdehr describes it as "very colorful, with influences of gamelan music and birdcall. It's very hypnotic," the violinist says. "Just sit back, and let it unfold."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

>>>The Verdehr Trio premieres Baltimore Songlines at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, 501 E. Pratt St. Tickets are $40 (includes reception and tour). Call 410-576-1014 or visit aqua.org.

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