With Spinifex Gum the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Marliya Choir and associated artists celebrated NAIDOC Week by putting its 2022 theme: Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! into stunning action. At the end of the performance, the audience too got up as one and stood up to give all concerned a rapturous reception, more than grateful that they had shown up to witness such an uplifting and emotionally engaging telling of important stories.
Even those who had attended, or watched on YouTube, “Introducing Spinnifex Gum” at the Iwaki Auditorium earlier in the week as part of the Music & Ideas series could not have anticipated the brilliance of the final product. Presented by Yolngu woman Leila Gurruwiwi, the introductory event featured performances and conversation from the cast and creatives of Spinifex Gum. These comprised composer Felix Riebl, cultural and community leader Michael Woodley, choral director Lyn Williams, choreographer Deborah Brown and ten members of the astonishing Marliya Choir – Marliya meaning bush honey. Riebl explained that a driving factor in his work is the creation of beauty, but one that is an antidote to the Qantas advertisement that features Gondwana Voices. He wanted to “invert the cliché of the Qantas choir”. There is much that is confronting and deeply disturbing in his collection of songs depicting the injustice and trauma suffered by our Indigenous nations, but Spinifex Gum is structured in a way that is ultimately positive and energising.
Apart from the insights into the creative process, we also learnt that the beautiful painting representing Pilbara country where three groups meet, and placed on the floor in the foreground for the talk, also served as an entry point for performances. As performers pass over the cloth they enter a new space, grounded and calmed by a sense of connection to country. The audience may not have seen this transition process, but we did see 15 confident members of Marliya enter the stage to give us well over an hour of non-stop, polished dynamism.
Marliya was formed from members of the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir, based in Cairns, to perform Spinifex Gum and has subsequently toured around Australia, performing at major festivals to great acclaim. This experience showed in the professionalism of their presentation. As the young girls entered the stage and took up a central position in from of the orchestra, approximately 50 members of Gondwana Voices filed into the seats above each side of the stage. All were initially dressed in a uniform of black tracksuits sporting the Spinifex Gum logo, but Marliya members later removed their tracksuit tops to reveal earth-coloured T-shirts. In keeping with the overall impact of visual signifiers, each held individual microphones connected to cords in Aboriginal flag colours, and these became part of carefully devised choreography – movement that hardly ever stopped but was never intrusive – and culminated in forming manacles and hanging ropes for Locked Up, a powerful protest against deaths in custody.
Visual content was very much an integral part of the story telling, with footage of railway lines and endless trucks of iron ore being transported across vast distances finding their counterpart in the music. Field recordings of the Pilbara iron ore train were often coupled with orchestral percussion. Recordings of a basketball thudding on a backboard coupled with a bass drum, shuffling shoes, the hum of cicadas, percussive and synthetic sounds – all were added to the mix. Often the drone of lower strings emerged from orchestral silence until full orchestra crescendos upped the tension.
Just as there was a layering of voice and movement in a constantly changing and interweaving of parts, the lighting changed to reflect the diverse content. From spotlights to atmospheric coloured floods and a variety of whirling patterns projected onto the ceiling, everything was thoughtfully designed and smoothly executed.
Of the 20 items, it is difficult to select just a few for individual comment, as all were so worthy of special attention, but here are some: Soul singer Emma Donovan’s superb interpretation of My Island Home surrounded by a young backing choir obviously inspired by her artistry and commitment; Lang Interlude, where we heard the shocking recorded credo of grazier-turned-prospector Lang Hancock from 1971: “the greed of capitalism is the only driving force there is”, while the singers turned their backs to the audience in protest as a drum beats against a string drone and “Ah”, “Country” was repeated; the riveting Ms Dhu, a horrifying story of an infamous recent death in custody that has provoked general outrage, began with the stark ringing of a telephone followed by the voice of her grandmother, Carol Roe, speaking about her life; and the call to action of Voice Treaty Truth Now in which the audience was invited to join in singing the words projected onto the screen – not a huge success considering all those masks, but compensated for by the enthusiastic, prolonged applause that followed.
Although there was no holding back on the outrageous treatment of our Indigenous peoples, works such as Sisters, Marliya and The Children Came Back demonstrated pride in the strength of Aboriginal culture, icons such as Archie Roach, and the value of personal connections and mutual support.
Whether through the tuneful sweetness of Marliya or the insistent hip-hop story-telling of Locked Up, Spinifex Gum achieved Felix Riebl’s aim of composing “beautiful music for beautiful voices”. The combination of striking images, kaleidoscopic lighting, the bringing together of so many disparate musical parts into a coherent whole under the baton of Benjamin Northey, and, above all, the phenomenal Marliya Choir made this performance of Spinifex Gum an experience that will continue to resonate in our lives.
Photo credit: Mark Gambino
Heather Leviston reviewed “Spinifex Gum”, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on June 9, 2022.