Melbourne Recital Centre and Short Black Opera: Woven Song

The evolution of Deborah Cheetham’s Woven Song reflects the creations being woven at the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW) itself – part inspiration, part immense skill and part commitment to a project that requires determination and endurance. As a gifted composer, singer, entrepreneur and Yorta Yorta woman, Cheetham has picked up myriad threads to weave works of cultural significance. This concert was just one aspect of an achievement that has brought together important Indigenous artists, master weavers, designer Linda Britten, international and local musicians, and, of course the multi-talented composer/soprano herself.

The first three of a series of nine chamber works, each approximately nine minutes long, were presented in early 2020 at the ATW’s South Melbourne premises. This was the perfect venue for such an occasion, as we were surrounded by tapestry works-in-progress and were able to examine Linda Britten’s fabulous gowns on display in an adjacent room. Both music and gowns were inspired by the Embassy Tapestries, based on works by Indigenous artists that hang in Australian Diplomatic Missions in Singapore, New Delhi and Tokyo. In addition to these, works for the Australian Embassy in Paris, Beijing and Dublin were presented in this 2022 concert. We are yet to hear those for Washington DC, Rome and the Holy See. A tenth is projected for Jakarta.

As a venue, the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall might not offer quite the excitement of the ATW wonderland of superb craftsmanship, but the sculptured walls of this much bigger space allowed for the music to be heard to best advantage. The big screen at the back of stage also gave us the opportunity to see videos of the tapestries and hear Deborah Cheetham talk about the stories behind them. Video footage also provided her with time to leave the stage between items and return in the glorious gowns designed by Linda Britten in response to each tapestry – after all, they were made to be worn. It was a special treat to see Cheetham singing in such thoughtfully and skillfully constructed garments that added an important dimension to these intertwined responses to Indigenous visual voices.

Perhaps the most telling of these voices was heard in the first song, Catching Breath, with artwork by Brook Andrew. It is a confronting image: a photograph from 1900 of an unnamed warrior. Cunningham is the name of the photographer but Cheetham was determined to name this warrior, whose head is covered by a cloth with only the eyes visible through two tiny holes. An insistent declamatory repetition of “My name…” by the quartet of singers (Cheetham, Linda Barcan, Michael Petrucccelli and Stephen Grant), accompanied by piano quintet, culminated in “Gumbayngirr Anaiwan” – a name as near to authentic as Cheetham’s research of the relevant country could find. Now hanging in Singapore, this tapestry is a heart-rending protest against the mistreatment and neglect of our Indigenous people.

Two more works are potent reminders of our common humanity as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Above Knowing, based on the Painting “Creek Bed” by Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra, has as its text the Pintupi translation of Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” When introducing this song, Cheetham made the horrifying connection between the rounding up of Indigenous peoples and the rounding up of Jewish women and children in 1942 at a location opposite to where the tapestry now hangs in Paris. Another case of history being over-looked/ above knowing? Beginning with a sombre bassoon followed by a haunting clarinet, Melbourne Ensemble gave a deeply expressive performance of a piece that ebbed and flowed with Cheetham’s solo soprano line.

Article 27 was just that – a setting of “… the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancements and its benefits.” It’s easy to see why this should resonant so deeply with Cheetham – and with her colleagues and the audience. The Delhi tapestry features artwork by Nanyuma Napangati, who sold her work in order to purchase dialysis machines for her community. Jay Dabgar on tabla joined the ensemble for this work sung in language.

Instruments from relevant cultures also played an important role in other songs. The music for Pukumani, inspired by the Beijing tapestry based on artwork by Pedro Wonaeamirri, featured the guzheng, played by Mindy Meng Wang, while My Mother’s Country for the Tokyo tapestry was paired with the shakuhachi, played by Anne Norman. Based on Daisy Andrews’ arrestingly vividly painting “Lumpa Lumpa Country”, Cheetham’s music is equally striking in the way shakuhachi and voice blend mysteriously – almost as a continuation of each other. The very slow video panning out from sky detail to whole country with its points of colourful foliage against an ochre background made a stunningly beautiful reveal of Andrews’ representation of country. From the softest thread of sound from Monica Curro’s violin, through interwoven passages of sung poetry, at one with an echoing shakuhachi, a sense of space and nostalgia was woven until the gentle ending.

Britten’s flower-studded gown accompanying My Mother’s Country brought murmurs of appreciation, if not quite the cheers that greeted the dazzling teal and orange creation designed for Dublin’s Ngarrgooroon tapestry, from artwork by Patrick Mung Mung. In true diva style, Cheetham knew how to present this beauty to best advantage. Ngarrgooroon began quietly with flute leading other members of Melbourne Ensemble in another gently melodic work – a characteristic of much of Cheetham’s music.

When Deborah Cheetham, Linda Britten, Antonia Syme (Director of ATW), singers, guest artists and and members of Ensemble Dutala, Melbourne Ensemble, Orchestra Victoria, Plexus and Rubiks Collective took their bow, the standing ovation they were given was an acknowledgement of an achievement that has brought many diverse threads together in a harmonious songline of international reach.

Image of artwork detail by Pedro Wonaeamirri supplied.


Heather Leviston reviewed “Woven Song”, presented by Melbourne Recital Centre in arrangement with Short Black Opera at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on November 2, 2022.

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