14 December 2018

How often do composers and historians work together?

In 2018, ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow, Professor Ann McGrath, a historian at The Australian National University (ANU), was contacted by the New York-based composer, Dr Andreia Pinto Correia, to initiate a creative collaboration that would unite their two worlds, and celebrate the ancient landscapes of Australia with a new musical composition.

The idea of a creative collaboration was sparked in 2014, when Dr Correia and Professor McGrath met and shared ideas during their month-long residencies at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio—a foundation that serves to bring scholars and artists together for creative exchanges that aim towards human advancement—situated on the shores of the idyllic Lake Como, in northern Italy. 

In her compositions, Dr Correia draws upon her Portuguese heritage, deep knowledge of its folk traditions and historic places, and her insights into European literature, intellectual traditions and languages. Dr Correia has composed unique pieces for leading orchestras, ensembles and solo artists internationally, including a symphony performed at the Tanglewood Music Centre, major pieces for the Boston Symphony orchestra and other orchestras around the world.

Stimulated by Professor McGrath’s research on deep human time, previously featured in a 2017 ARChway article, Dr Correia set out to compose an original piece in honour of this work, which is supported by Professor McGrath’s 2017 Laureate Fellowship ‘Rediscovering the Deep Human Past: Global Networks, Future Opportunities’.

During her visit to Australia, Dr Correia wrote a composition for the alto flute. Entitled Pleistocene Landscapes, it is inspired by Lake Mungo, a place she had previously seen only in the award winning film Message from Mungo (which was the outcome of a 2011 ARC project led by Professor McGrath). During her stay, and prior to the first performance of the piece, Professor McGrath took Dr Correia to visit the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area, which includes the Mungo National Park, one of the earliest known sites of human habitation in Australia.

“Andreia was shocked to be blocked by a herd of kangaroos when attempting to exit an outback toilet,” Ann explained. The drought had struck hard already and we realised that the animals were extremely thirsty. Although wary of the large group crowding around them, Andreia was intent on gaining their trust. The kangaroos soon ended up drinking out of our water bottles,” says Professor McGrath about the visit. “It reminded us of the respectful relationships between Aboriginal people and the animal life in their landscapes.” 

The unique collaboration culminated on 29 September 2018 with the world premiere of Pleistocene Landscapes at the ANU, where the composition was performed with theatrical panache and musical precision by Canberra flautist, Kiri Sollis of the Griffyn Ensemble, as a finale for Professor McGrath’s Laureate program’s inaugural symposium, ‘Understanding the Past across Language and Culture’. The performance was recorded by the ANU and can be viewed on their website.

The audience, which included the Portuguese ambassador, local, national and international visitors, thus had the privilege of hearing—at the end of a symposium which investigated ways of conceiving and knowing the deep past—a composition that was itself inspired by a stirring landscape of deep history and long civilization.

 

Image: Professor Ann McGrath and Dr Andreia Pinto Correia.
Credit: 
Professor Ann McGrath.