In a chat with Roma Yibiyung Winmar and Iain Grandage, Rosalind Appleby discovers Perth Festival’s beating heart.
“What does a song do? It creates a mood: excitement, sadness, healing – you know that. It passes on a mood. To sing is to tell a story, and each story is different.”
Noongar artist Roma Yibiyung Winmar is a storyteller who learned about music from watching her family sing and play mouth organ, guitar and spoons around the campfire. And from listening to the musical sounds in the bush – the “orchestra of birdsong”, she calls it.
Perth Festival artistic director Iain Grandage is a musician who learned about music in the western tradition, with formal lessons in piano, cello and composition and listening to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
The two traditions will come together in Quartet & Country, a series of concerts that are the centrepiece of Perth Festival’s Chamber Music Weekend. Each concert will feature the Australian String Quartet performing a selection of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets alongside a work by an Australian Indigenous composer and performer. In the first concert, the ASQ will be joined by singer Lou Bennett (Victoria), and in the second by didgeridoo master William Barton (Queensland), then by Broome music icon Stephen Pigram in the third, and in the final concert by Noongar elder Winmar.
The artists will bring stories from the four corners of the continent, grounding the great European string quartet tradition in Australia. It’s a collaboration that brings together the ancient traditions of Western classical music and Indigenous Australian culture, recognising them both as forms of high art. Grandage says this is the story he wants to tell through this year’s festival.
“There are two principles underpinning the festival,” he says. “I want to honour Indigenous artistic culture as not just a legacy but as a vibrant living practice, learning what it is to sing the songs of this country.
“In a year of acknowledging 250 years since the arrival of Cook, my position is that we celebrate Indigenous cultural practice. That is why there is a strong Indigenous focus.
“The other principle, and the other anniversary, is the birth of Beethoven, hence Fidelio and all the early-period string quartets.”
The process of collaboration
The works by Barton, Pigram and Bennett were commissioned and premiered while Grandage was director of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival in Victoria, a position he held from 2016 until his return to WA in 2018. Winmar’s piece is a new Perth Festival commission.
“We are working through a collaborative process,” Grandage explains. “It starts with me sitting at the piano and playing along – I am under instruction. And then we involve the string quartet. We are using the devised theatre process of collaboration and workshopping but translating it to a classical music background.
The process of sitting alongside and listening is one Grandage has perfected over many years, from as long ago as his time as composer in residence with the WA Symphony Orchestra in 2004, when he worked with the elders of Spinifex Country on a concert piece for songlines and orchestra. He honed his skills during decades working in the world of theatre as composer (Cloudstreet), collaborator (with cabaret performer Meow Meow) and music director (Jimmy Chi’s Corrugation Road).
But for language specialist, artist, storyteller and educator Winmar, it was through the theatre world that she first heard of Grandage. “My daughter is a playwright, so I had heard about this wonderful person, Iain Grandage,” she says. “He has a wonderful ability to bring people together. And he is very humble.”
Winmar’s piece completes the set of works, which will be recorded as an album later in the year. She is familiar with the concept of using western artforms to showcase Noongar culture, having done so herself for decades in her work as a language consultant.
Language is who we are
Winmar was involved in producing the first Noongar dictionary in the 1990s, and helped translate into Noongar the Shakespeare sonnets that were performed at the Globe Theatre in London during the 2012 Olympics. She also translates songs and rhymes to teach Noongar language in schools. She is on the Festival’s Noongar Advisory Circle and has been part of the language team working on another Perth Festival work, Hecate, an interpretation of Macbeth spoken entirely in Noongar language.
Retaining and passing on her heritage are crucial to Winmar. As a child she was discouraged from speaking Noongar because children who were seen as not converting to Western culture were at risk of being removed from their parents.
“Language is part of us – it is who I am. As a teacher, I would always ask my students what language they spoke at home. I told them, don’t ever forget your heritage, don’t be ashamed of it.”
Storytelling through music
Winmar will use music and language to share a story about the ubiquity and danger of water, though she does not give much away about her work, which was still in construction when we met.
“The story changes depending on the old girl’s mood – it’s fluid, like water,” she laughs. “There are so many stories that need to be told and remembered. We all want to go forward. We need to respect the elements.”
Her voice becomes subtly hypnotic as she drifts into storyteller mode: “Water is what we need. What is the ocean? It is alive, the home of a whole ecosystem. It is the giver of life; it supplies us with food. But it is also a place of death. We need to respect the ocean. It can give and take.”
Accompanying Winmar’s poetic words will be ASQ members Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew (violins), Stephen King (viola) and Sharon Grigoryan (cello). The program also features Beethoven’s Opus 18 String Quartets in G major and B-flat major.
It will be the fourth and final concert in the Quartet & Country series, which runs over two days at the University of WA’s Winthrop Hall, Crawley (traditionally known as Godroo), grounding classical music lovers firmly on Noongar home soil.
“I hope audiences will realise there were languages here long before settlement,” Winmar says. “Language is a part of us. Don’t ever forget it, and don’t be ashamed.”
Pictured top: Warmth and enthusiasm from all sides in the collaboration between Roma Yibiyung Winmar and Iain Grandage. Photos by Jessica Wyld (Winmar) and Al Caeiro (Grandage).
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