It’s one of those warm stories, all the more enjoyable for being true. Teenager Theo Strehlow watches as his father Carl, a German missionary, lies dying. It’s 1922, the pair are at the Hermannsburg Mission in the heart of outback Australia and Carl is questioning his faith. The Alice Springs Aranda people sing the hymn Sleepers AwakeÂ as Theo leaves his dying father. With the music and the help of his guide Njitiaka, Theo at least is awakened to the mythical significance of the landscape and almost a new faith. Western and Aboriginal spirituality blend, as Carl dies and Theo is reborn.
Flash forward to Theo’s adult years and he has become known as T.G.H. Strehlow, anthropologist and author of the autobiography Journey To Horseshoe Bend.
Jump further ahead and librettist Gordon Williams is commissioned to transform the work into a musical experience with Andrew Schultz brought in to compose music. Schultz told me the creation of the work required his own journey to Horseshoe Bend last year.
The first time we went there we went on a helicopter trip down the Finke River, which is basically the highway, because it’s a dry river, Schultz said. It took a while for it to have an effect musically but certainly those images of these beautiful sweeping river-like curves helped.
As too did the existence of the Aboriginal Ntaria Ladies Choir, who will be performing the work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, bass baritone Rodney Macann, actor Aaron Pedersen and the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir. For Schulz, the Ntaria Choir are the heart of the piece.
Early on in the piece Gordon sent me a recording of them singing the hymn in question, Sleepers Wake, in Aranda again, Schultz said Hearing that is really an amazing thing because it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. It’s definitely the hymn, the chorale is there, it’s not unknown music, but it’s just the difference that comes into it from the way they sing, which is a very distinctive sound of voice.
Schultz’s impressive CV includes two operas, with more than a few works addressing death and mortality. Death isn’t quite a theme of his work, although he tells me that death as a subject matter allows for an engagement in a heightened and powerful emotional language.
Journey To Horseshoe Bend is also not Schultz’s first foray into composing music concerned with Aboriginal stories and culture. Being involved in this year’s Message Sticks festival of contemporary indigenous art is something he feels passionately about.
Artists have different views about this and my view is that one just can’t divorce oneself from the whole place and time you live, he said. We’re part of our culture and our time. Issues for all of us affect what we do. It’s not so much that it’s a problem or an issue or a political statement as something which is just a kind of source of friction and almost energy in our culture -¦
I think it is obviously. In both pieces there ends up being some kind of statement implicitly but I would say that’s not the overriding concern. It’s actually more about how that stimulates an artistic response for me and hopefully communicates it too, he said.
Journey To Horseshoe Bend is being presented for two nights only, Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 May, at 6:30pm at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Phone 9334 4600 for bookings and visit www.sydneyoperahouse.com for information on this and other Message Sticks 2003 events.