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Elena Kats-Chernin, composer and performer, 13 May 2010

KIRSTEN WEHNER: We are now in the Gallery of First Australians, which looks at the histories and cultures of Australia’s Indigenous people, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We are standing in front of the second of the collections that inspired Elena when she first came to the Museum, which is a display of what are called Kimberley points. These are objects made by the Aboriginal peoples of the Kimberley region of north-west Australia. As you can see, they look a lot like spearheads, which is in essence what they are, but they are very particular special kinds of spearheads. Obviously Aboriginal people in the Kimberley had been making stone spearheads for thousands of years, but when Europeans first started moving into that region in the early nineteenth century they began to adapt their traditional practice in a very interesting and inventive way. They started to make spearheads not only from stone but also from some of the other materials we see here, and particularly from glass which came mostly from bottles but also from porcelain or ceramic which was acquired from the insulation caps on telegraph lines. There is a few you can see that are a pearly white ceramic, and they are ones made from insulation caps, which I think is a marvellous story of adaptation.

These spearheads were predominantly created not to be used for hunting or other uses of spears but rather as important ceremonial exchange objects. When Europeans arrived in the Kimberley there were already very extensive trade networks established between Aboriginal peoples, but once new trade goods started coming into the region, things like metal which was very useful and tobacco which was highly sought after, these ceremonial exchange networks started to grow and to become much more active and much more intense because Aboriginal people were very keen to get their hands on metal which was a fantastic material. These objects started to develop and get larger and more complex, and I think arguably more beautiful, because they were very important objects in those trade cycles. If you could trade a rather lovely large spearhead, you would get be able to trade that for a greater amount of metal, tobacco, flour or these other kinds of goods.

They also changed the style of the spearhead somewhat. Traditionally stone spearheads were flaked only on one side, because if you tried to flake it on both sides they tended to break very easily. But it turned out that glass and porcelain were a different structure, they’re a different kind of material, and are easier to flake in some ways. That is why you get what are called bifacial spearheads which means they are flaked on both sides. They would have been flaked by specialist craftsmen who used first of all a hammer stone to create a rough shape and then used a wooden implement and finally a bone, usually the forearm of a kangaroo, to actually do the fine shaping around the edges.

Most of the points in this collection were acquired by anthropologists and European collectors in the first part of the twentieth century. They were mostly brought together and then given to an institution called the Institute of Anatomy, which used to occupy what is now the National Film and Sound Archive. The Institute of Anatomy had a very large collection relating to Australia’s Aboriginal people, and it closed in the early 1980s and its whole collection then came to the National Museum. When this facility was opened in 2001, the decision was made to display this collection of Kimberley points pretty much in the style that emphasises their aesthetic nature as much as their functional nature as spearheads. I think Elena had a very strong reaction to this display particularly rather than just to the collection. I will hand over to you to talk a little bit about it and then to play your wonderful piece. Thank you.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: This is my favourite object. When I saw it after lots of others, I just thought this is the one. I could write the whole symphony actually about just that: the poetry of it, the lyricism of it, the transparency of it and for me it looks like a transparent forest. Everybody sees something else, I guess. It’s my impression that it was something very airy and I thought it needed a lot of space. I didn’t use any brass instruments in this piece. It was basically piano, pizzicato strings and a few woodwinds with the melody. I wanted it to be very light, not at all heavy. And if heavy then only in special moments where it is still quite vast – the feeling of vastness was important to me. Occasionally there is not much happening in the music, the right hand will do a background pattern, whereas the left hand does what the pizzicato strings were doing. It will basically do something that is not even a melody, it is just something that is kind of inactive. I didn’t want too active but of course I can’t stop myself and I had to write a piece, it has to be something. So there is a melody eventually but it grows out of very non-melodic kind of material. I love this dearly, it’s the most beautiful object ever, plus the history of it is so inspiring.

[Music played]

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Thank you, Elena, that was wonderful. Again, we have a little bit of time for questions, if anybody has any questions or reflections.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Two questions if I may, one for the curator as well. When Aboriginal people practising traditional culture found these objects in remote areas, did they then use them for their own culture, ie cutting their skin to create Aboriginal scarring patterns for tribal casts?

KIRSTEN WEHNER: It was actually Aboriginal people in the remote areas who made these objects. The trading network I am talking about stretched all the way through the Kimberley down into central Australia and up into northern Australia. These objects were made in several different areas of the Kimberley and were then traded through all these different areas. But as I said, principally they were used more as exchange items, as desirable items of aesthetic appeal rather than as utilitarian items.

MANY IN AUDIENCE: So you don’t know whether they actually used them as cutting objects on their own body or on other things?

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Certainly they were not used predominantly as cutting objects, cutting meat or cutting animals. I don’t know about using them for scarring purposes, I don’t know that.

QUESTION: A question for Elena, if I may: the other four movements in The Garden of Dreams, what’s the name for those pieces and which section of the Museum inspired those?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: They are very broad. These two movements are the most obvious because I was actually basing the pieces on the objects. The other four are different. The first one was called between ‘Beethoven Sun and Sea’. It was to do with the history of the actual music and culture that comes sometimes from Europe or from anywhere else from inside Australia. That’s where I used a didgeridoo and I used a piece of Beethoven’s symphony number seven, the famous slow movement, and I kind of incorporated it into the piece.

The second movement was ‘The love token’.

The third was called ‘Industrial blues’ and it was actually inspired by the building itself. I saw strange things in this building where things are a bit lopsided. On the stairs you see a kind of square concrete box which is almost falling off but it’s actually built in. I thought it was a very unusual and witty piece of engineering. I thought it was a great way of putting a little bit of humour into this monumental piece of architecture, plus of course it was meant to be a museum. I just thought it was really unusual. So I write this kind of almost comical piece but not quite. It is called ‘Industrial blues’ and is based a lot on brass instruments. Then the fourth movement was the ‘Kimberley points’.

And the fifth - I always wanted to write a piece and I consider myself part of a history so I thought I might as well do something I always wanted to write and that was the piece of Schubert called Fantasy in F minor for four hands. I have always wanted to write a tribute to this piece since I was a child and I kind of thought this is the right moment to do it. A lot of the objects here have no chronology where the logic of it is not quite obvious. So I thought if I can throw it in this one piece that I hold dear and I would really like to use that piece in this whole big suite, maybe I will be forgiven. So I did. In my piece it’s quite heavy and goes like this [music played], whereas originally it is quite a delightful poetic piece more like this [music played]. I completely put it on its head, as I think this Museum is a little bit. So the fifth one is called ‘Schubert engine’ because it’s like an engine; it is almost like a machine.

The last movement I called ‘Evolving’ and in it I brought back the didgeridoo and had singing as well. It was showing that this is part of where we are now but it’s not finished. It’s never going to be finished because it’s going to be evolving. The collection is going to be evolving and probably this event will be part of the history. Everything is constantly piling up. It was basically like this [Music played]. It was fast moving and then it finished with William Barton singing [plays on piano]. He sang quite a long time and at the end of it the cellos and double basses holding the low note just to bring it back to earth. So the piece starts with the didgeridoo and the earthiness of it and finishes with the didgeridoo kind of like a circle. I see it as a circle. I like the six movements, the number six which is circular and three times two - a lot of things play a role in my music, so that shaped it. It was about 25 minutes long.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: One of the perfect things about your composition, Elena, is its response to the Museum in that it combines a response to objects, to personal history, to a broader human history but also not a narrow interpretation of the national history, to the idea about Australia’s interaction with many traditions from around the world as well – a good job in two days.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Does William have a good voice?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: A brilliant voice. It’s very earthy. It’s not an operatic voice, it’s human and he has an incredible ear for other people’s music. He has an internal ear. It’s pretty great. It’s kind of a mixture between pop and - I don’t know. He is just a very talented person. He can also sing while he plays the didgeridoo, which is another skill of it altogether. But I think that’s part of it, you have to be able to do that as well. He’s a great musician and wonderful to work with.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: He must have amazing breathing if he can sing and play the didgeridoo at the same time.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: I know. You sort of breathe into the instrument and get some kind of extra overtones.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: I know we talked a bit about this before, but when you revisit the music and play it again in a new environment, this was one movement particularly where the way you are playing it here is a slightly different style from the way it was rendered in the first performance.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: It was much faster in the original performance. I always saw this as a dance, so my piece because of that became kind of a dance piece. I wanted something that moves and at the same time something static, so two things going at the same time, so a pattern and then static, a kind of living space. When I was here yesterday and the day before, I just felt that fast is not good here, it doesn’t feel right because there is much more space between the objects. I think I probably still played it faster than I probably should have, but that is called evolving, you keep changing your mind about things. It’s important to respond to the space. Also it’s a bigger space and when you sit at home it doesn’t feel so fast. [Music played] It feels like something just moving and little parts of it you don’t notice, whereas here you hear everything and you want to spread it out. Maybe in a year I will have another opinion and in a different space.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: We will get you back next year to do it again.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: When you did your two-day tour before writing the piece, did you toy with the idea of doing something around the section of the Museum based on Federation?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Yes, I did and at the time I think there was a different installation that is not there any more. Yes, I did, but the date didn’t fit right. I don’t know, I go for smaller things rather than big things. Big historic things don’t interest me – in the music to write a piece about something very big, I don’t feel I am big enough. This is the funny thing – I know it’s strange but I feel I am too small a person to write something so big about something that is so important. This is important too, but I can relate to this better because it’s smaller and I can kind of feel the people who did it, I can feel the connection; whereas Federation is way too big an event. Again, that’s a real symphony maybe with a choir and much bigger than I could do at the time. I probably just didn’t feel ready but you never know next time, another celebration.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Both the collections you chose are collections where we don’t necessarily know which person made each of these elements.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: But I can feel and see that somebody has done this stippling and I can feel somebody has done this work with the glass. That is the connection I immediately get drawn to and I find inspiration in. Whereas with an historic event, I can only connect to it if I actually connect to people who work behind it or who were there in a story about them, otherwise I find it too big – where do you start, where do you finish? Then you need a demerterg (?) to come on board and help you. It’s like a theatre piece then.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: When you are playing that music, I can hear more or less the chord combination. Do you have vocal counter melodies that will go along with some of these scores in this movement?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Originally no, there was orchestra. For example that bit [played tune] was played by oboe and clarinet, depending. The chords were pizzicato strings and piano as well, and sometimes there was cello playing that as well. It’s not excluded. It can be sung absolutely.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It lends itself.


WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You probably haven’t written any words yet.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: No, I haven’t. I don’t write words, but it is possible and it’s a good idea actually. I might do that. That’s great. I am getting all these great ideas, thank you.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I really don’t know quite what to say but I found the music quite evocative and I am not a musical person really – I am tone deaf, I think. But I think the opportunity that the Museum has made for us enabling us to sit in front of these pieces of art and listen to the music was really quite emotional. I was thinking, ‘Wow, those things look very much like obelisks you might see in stones in the French countryside sometimes and maybe in Britain and the Egyptian obelisk, and, gee, someone has sat down and made these things.’ I almost felt as though I could sense that in the music – whether it was deliberate or not, I don’t know, but I really thank you very much. It was very important.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Thank you. I think the best thing is when you hear a piece and you look and they start moving. I think that’s the best, because I have actually done that. I looked and after a while they start kind of shifting. It’s interesting and then with the music they may do that to the rhythm. And also somebody yesterday said they saw birds. Everybody sees something different and somebody saw raindrops. Of course it could be a pyramid. There are so many objects that look like that. That’s what so beautiful about it. It can be interpreted in so many ways, but at the same time it doesn’t have to be interpreted at all. It’s a privilege for me too to play it in front of this beautiful object. It’s one of the best things I have seen in my life.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Whilst I thought of raindrops, were any of these things used for plucking instrument sounds? Aboriginals are not known to originally have stringed instruments and plucking sounds, but these seem to lend themselves to that sort of thing.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: I think traditionally they wouldn’t have been used for plucking instruments because, as you say, stringed instruments weren’t a large part of Aboriginal culture traditionally. But it would be interesting now to know. I don’t know.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It lends itself to more string work, plucking sounds and whatever combinations it can be used with violins etc.


KIRSTEN WEHNER: We are pretty much at the end of our time, unless anybody has a burning question they must ask. I wanted to say thank you very much to everybody here for coming and particularly to the Museum staff who made this possible and I send a special thank you out to Gabrielle [Hislop] who was so significant in initiating the whole project with Elena. But of course thank you to Elena Kats-Chernin for coming along yesterday and today to revisit these pieces and participate in a little bit of an experiment for the Museum. I think the comment from the gentleman at the back about how it is a very unusual and interesting experience to be able to sit and listen to this and look at the objects at the same time. I must say for me yesterday and when we were setting up on Wednesday, it was a very moving experience, one that I didn’t expect in quite the same way. It’s certainly been a wonderful learning experience for me as well. Elena, thank you so much for coming along. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you, and hopefully we will see you again soon.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Thank you so much.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Please join me in thanking Elena. [applause]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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