Birrarung Marr’s past, present and future in sound

Birrarung Marr’s past, present and future in sound

By Jess Carrascalao Heard

Visitors to Arts Centre Melbourne will soon experience the world premiere of a sonic installation by three First Nations artists as part of the upcoming YIRRAMBOI festival.

The work, called Yulendji, explores the passage of time at the Birrarung Marr through three soundscapes created by First Nations musicians and sound artists Allara (Yorta Yorta), Theo McMahon (Bundjalung) and James Howard (Jaadwa).

The soundscapes, which are six to seven minutes each, will be played on St Kilda Rd between Hamer Hall and the Theatres Building, forming a juxtaposition with the precinct’s Western fine arts focus.

Allara said what resonated with her was the fact that there had always been music, dance and ceremony in the area, long before it became known as a precinct showcasing European arts.

“Blak spirit and blak voices have always been there, and will continue to be there. You’re seeing that with the work of Deborah Cheetham and Ensemble Dutala,” she said.

For Mr Howard, it has been an opportunity to explore the space since colonisation and to consider what the future of the area could look like, through the lens of cyclical time.

“We can look to our stories of the Dreaming, and things that we may have understood as having happened a long time ago, and think about it as a way of projecting ahead and seeing what’s to come,” he said.

“Yulendji” is a Boon Wurrung word which was gifted for the scope of the project.

It roughly translates to “deep listening”, but carries with it a much wider and deeper meaning.

“It means that you gain the knowledge from listening deeply and the wisdom, and then that helps inform the way you live your life,” Allara said.

The work was created under the guidance of Boon Wurrung Elder, N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs, as well as dramaturg Kamarra Bell Wykes (Yagera and Butchulla).

Having N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs as a mentor and collaborator during production has given the three artists the opportunity to work with the traditional sounds and songs of the land the soundscape will take place on and represent.

Her perspectives, knowledge and advice have been integral in helping the final product take shape.

The way time is represented in the work is just one example of this.

Yulendji is split into three discrete sections: past, present and future, with Allara, Mr McMahon and Mr Howard working on one section each.

However, embedded in the work is an exploration of a passage of time which is much less linear than the three-part, Western-style chronological form suggests.

“The Dreaming’s always happening, and changing, and moving,” Allara said. “Even though I was working on the ‘past ’… parts of my work are a real mix of now, old and new, while always doing my best to pay respect to traditional custodians and practices.”

There are several ways this will be represented in Yulendji, from the instrumentation and elements used in the sound design, as well as music and songs used in the piece.

Allara’s section of the work is her re-interpretation of a traditional song from the area, Kuburu’s Song, for which she has named her piece.

“It’s a song written in the spirit of the koala, with a strong connection between a Boon Wurrung man, dreamer and doctor named Kurrburra, which means koala in Boon Wurrung language. N’Arweet Carolyn describes the song being about a boy who was greedy for all the water, essentially breaking law leads to him becoming the koala. Other research suggests Kurrburra killed a koala and got possessed by its spirit which is how he wrote the song,” she said.

Her starting point was a transcription of the song in the 1904 book, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia by Alfred William Howitt.

Wurundjeri Elder William Barak sang the sacred song to organist, composer and scholar Rev. Dr George William Torrence, who transcribed it and supplied it to Mr Howitt.

With the help of N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs and others, Allara has been able to de-code the spirit of the ancient song through the century-old Western transcription.

She said it was an honour to be able to learn about this song and to see the interconnectedness between language and rhythm and music. However, in the end, her instincts and support from N’Arweet Carolyn pointed away from sharing her recorded vocals and instead created an instrumental version.

“The rhythms in this work, give a tiny insight into what this country would have sounded like before colonisation, but from within a modern framework. The language holds power, secrets and sacredness which at times is hard to wrap my head around. My knowledge is continuing to evolve as I learn more about my own culture and other cultures and languages such as Boon Wurrung” she said.

Allara’s work also includes the sounds of yiḏaki (didgeridoo) and the orchestral double-bass, both of which were introduced to the area much later.

“It’s these two instruments that were never here, but are representing this piece of music in a super-connected and spiritual way … it just shows that we have always been a people that have evolved when we need to in relation to what’s happening in our experience,” she said.

For Mr Howard, the concept of time being cyclical, with the cycles containing periods of harmony and chaos, were aspects that he endeavoured to capture in his work, which broadly represents the future.

In the time cycle, Mr Howard said that currently we were heading into a time of chaos.

“There’s a lot of eco-anxiety going around, and we’re not following Bundjil’s law, which is to live in harmony with country, and now we’re reaping what we sow,” he said.

The sound of water is also an important aspect in all three compositions, and in Mr Howard’s piece, it represents what happens when the law of Bundjil, the Creator, is broken.

“When you break Bundjil’s law, the rains come and the waters rise, and it washes away everything and starts again,” he said.

To help illustrate this, Mr Howard has used the sound of thunderstorms, which were recorded on Boon Wurrung country.

Although we are heading into a time of chaos, Mr Howard said this also means that it’s a time for rebirth and renewal.

“If we washed away these colonial structures, what’s going to be left is the First Nations epistemologies we’ve been carrying for so long, because they’re so embedded in the landscape, and they’re embedded in our bodies and in our spirits,” he said.

Yulendji will be played on a loop under the covered walkway between Hamer Hall and the Theatres Building, with listeners experiencing something different each time they visit the space.

Mr Howard hopes that the soundscape would bring for listeners a new perspective to the area by sitting within the existing hustle and bustle.

“To me, it’s not about bringing in this music that’s supposed to sit over that, but that’s supposed to sit within it and acknowledge the space that’s there now, and potentially just provide a slightly new, or a slightly alternative viewpoint for listeners to think about,” he said.

Allara sees the work as embedding the culture back into the country.

“It’s always important to remember that First Nation’s people and their culture, song and music were here first and always will be here,” she said.

Yulendji will be played at the covered walkway in the Arts Precinct on St Kilda Rd from 9am to 6pm, on Mondays to Saturdays from Thursday, May 6 to Saturday, May 15.

QR codes will also be set up so listeners can hear Yulendji online, and read more about the texts and the artists •

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