Histories intersect in riverside collaborations

22 November 2021

Two intercultural collaborations at the Fremantle Biennale resonate deeply and could be even further integrated, writes Claire Coleman.

Bullhorn presented by Callum G’Froerer, Clint Bracknell, Trevor Ryan & Meeting Place presented by HIP company ·
Fremantle Biennale, 19 November 2021 ·

This year’s Fremantle Biennale has gifted audiences with a series of moving works, many of which emerge from creative cooperations between First Nations artists and other talented locals. Situated around the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), many of the Biennale’s works are deeply immersed in a landscape which the program calls “a place of alchemy where histories intersect and collide”.

In Bullhorn, a collaboration with new music organisation Tura, audience members simultaneously observe and participate in this convergence of space and cultures. Led by Nyoongar performers, with choreographer Trevor Ryan at the fore, and a brass section, the audience follows this lively procession from Fremantle Traffic Bridge to Stirling Bridge.

Our promenade is set to music by Dr Clint Bracknell and Callum G’Froerer, and alternates a Nyoongar language chant sung by Bracknell, through a bullhorn at the front of the march, with brass responses that evolve to suit the changing landscape. Passing trains at the Traffic Bridge seem part of the soundtrack’s claxon wails and breathy pulsations. As we move into quieter suburban territory, the brass motifs slowly morph to mirror the crying seagulls overhead.

Reaching the left bank, the musical distance between chant and brass closes. The brass players adopt snatches of the main melody in quickfire fanfare statements, and Nyoongar dancers circle around the musicians, fingers outstretched as if gathering sound to their chests. Although the audience did little apart from follow along, there is a shared sense of arrival at the end of our collaborative literal and figurative journey.

HIP company’s Meeting Place later in the evening at the nearby Naval Store gave stage to Western and First Nations musical histories. HIP (which stands for “Historically Informed Performance”) is known for their authentic recreations of Baroque chamber music. While period instruments with gut strings can be a hassle, as became apparent when violinist Sarah Papadopoulos broke a string and we took a spontaneous intermission, their peculiar resonance revitalises a past historical moment in an immediate way.

Papadopoulos is joined by Krista Low (cello) and James Huntingford (harpsichord), performing instrumental works by the likes of Handel and Purcell. The trio exercise good balance and lively flourishes, despite some of the intonation irregularities that inevitably accompany performances with period instruments.

Meeting Place’s key point of intersection came in vocal performances by soprano Bonnie de la Hunty and First Nations singer-songwriter Lilly Gogos, a founding member of The Merindas. Backed by the trio, De la Hunty’s sweet-toned and expressive interpretation of Campra’s “Espoir des malheureux” was a dramatic highlight. Gogos’ self-accompanied rendition of “My Island Home” (originally performed by the Warumpi Band) captivated the audience.

It’s clear from the program notes that the collaboration between HIP and Gogos, as well as Bracknell from Bullhorn, was thoughtful and extensive, but this was not always clearly transmitted to the audience. Many of the traditional Nyoongar contributions made by Gogos, such as the “Bloodwood Chant” or Bracknell’s reworking of the traditional “Songs of Miago”, were incredibly brief, and often followed by the next work without pause. This left the audience searching for moments they could applaud Gogos without interrupting HIP. The program felt weighted towards the Western tradition – Gogos’ stage time was less than a third of the total – and the few tutti works were not highlights.

Overall the promised blending of disparate early musical forms was only partially realised; more a concurrent presentation than a deeply entwined and mutually responsive collaboration.

Bullhorn is in its second iteration, after a performance at Perth Festival earlier in the year, and it is my hope that Meeting Place has a similar opportunity to refine and repeat its presentation, with more focus on portraying to the audience the connections and resonances that took place behind the scenes.

The next Fremantle Biennale will take place in 2023.

Pictured top: musicians and dancers and audience members process along the Derbarl Yerrigan in ‘Bullhorn’. Photo supplied

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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