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Keating’s Redfern address sparks Redfern Oratorio

Paul Keating’s iconic “Redfern Speech” of 1992 is finding a fresh audience thanks to the Redfern Oratorio, which premiered in the Sydney Town Hall on November 13. Sydney based composer/conductor Christopher Bowen OAM tells us what inspired him to create this new and exciting work for choir and orchestra.

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Where were you when the Redfern Speech was given and how did it move you?

I was working at the time so I was unable to be present on that momentous occasion. I read about the speech the day after and I remember thinking that at last a politician had the strength, resolve and conviction to state the uncomfortable truths concealed within the history of this country. It gave me some hope as I believe it gave so many others who wanted the truth to be spoken. This is so important because I believe that lies prevent prosperity on all levels.

What made you decide to create the Redfern Oratorio?

In 2014, after the premiere performance of my Australian War Requiem, which was commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War 1, I decided that the Redfern Speech was crying out loud to be set to music. I believe music can be such a powerful medium and amplify the meaning of words and the Redfern Speech certainly contains potent words. I also believe it is the responsibility of creative artists to address contemporary issues.

In his letter to you, Paul Keating says, “The Oratorio will celebrate the truth-telling that I believed the country sorely needed; if not to cleanse its soul, to at least atone for the regretful dispossession and wicked atomisation of Indigenous society.” Is this an accurate summary of what you hope to convey through the Oratorio?

I think Paul Keating is absolutely correct in his summary. I hope that the Oratorio will invite the listener to contemplate the situation of the First Nations people who have had their culture, their lands and human rights removed by self-righteous, ignorant and arrogant people. History shows us the cruelty and ignorance of rampant imperial power and, unfortunately, we see this occurring again in our world. Through imagination, which is an important theme in the work, we can build new futures, new worlds and new understandings.

How long did it take to create the Oratorio and what were some of the challenges you faced to bring it to the point where it could be performed?

My wife Pamela Traynor, who wrote the libretto, and I approached Paul Keating in 2015 and he kindly gave us permission to use the speech as a basis for the Redfern Oratorio. Dr Robyn Williams AO, the ABC science broadcaster, heard about the project and he generously offered to commission the work. Pamela then set about distilling the essence of the speech and came up with a wonderful libretto. I then spent time throughout 2017 setting the libretto to music and the score was ready at the beginning of 2018. Needless to say, writing the work is quite often the easy part. Getting it performed is the hard part and certainly Covid really got in the way of that but thankfully, because I am also a conductor, I was able to eventually persuade the Sydney University Graduate Choir to perform it as part of its “Sydney Sings” series of concerts in the Sydney Town Hall.

We were also very fortunate to have the famous conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim write a recommendation for the work after he read through the score. He has dedicated a great deal of his life bringing Israelis and Palestinians together through music and breaking down the many barriers which prevent a peaceful and respectful co-existence.

Preparing all the parts for the choir, soloists and orchestral musicians is also a mammoth, time-consuming exercise. That aspect is sometimes very frustrating and tedious but it is a necessary part of the process.

Then there is the not so simple matter of organising the concert itself. That can be very complicated and requires an enormous amount of work on the part of many people.

Did you consult with Indigenous people to create the work?

The word “imagine” opens the Redfern Oratorio and we felt that it would be important to find an indigenous word that conveyed a similar meaning and juxtapose the two words as a symbol of reconciliation. After some research we found the Gadigal word “nanga mai” which means to dream. We then presented the libretto to John and Ros Moriarty for their advice and suggestions. We also had the great fortune to be introduced to the Gadigal Elder Uncle Ray Davison who has been so supportive of our efforts and, in fact, gave the Welcome to Country before the concert. His advice and generosity of time and spirit gave us a great deal of hope and belief. A wonderful and very wise man.

Gadigal Elder Uncle Ray Davison gave the Welcome to Country before the concert and time, spirit and hope to the composer and librettist in the lead up to the performance. Photo: Supplied

What is the high point of the Oratorio word-wise and music-wise?

The words “imagine”, which opens the work and “nanga mai” which closes it. Music-wise, I  believe the extended aria “Reach out” for solo soprano is the central piece of music. It is a plea for understanding and the recognition that we are all one and share the gift of humanity.

Why is it important to draw on political moments to inspire choral compositions?

Art which just exists for itself can become self-indulgent and impotent. Art which engages with society and its various issues can be strengthened and become more relevant. Art possesses a far greater power than politics. An artist should always speak to power and convention.

How many choristers and other musicians are involved the performance and how have they responded to learning and performing the work?

About 100 choristers, two soloists and 55 musicians were involved in the performance and judging by the many responses the experience has been a very positive and moving.

In his letter to you, Paul Keating says that since he gave the speech 30 years ago, “progress on the issue of Australia’s reconciliation with its Indigenous people has, in the broad, remained disappointingly slow”. Are you hopeful that there will be more rapid progress towards reconciliation under the Albanese Government?

I have become more hopeful and I believe that there never has been a better moment to begin a new “imagining” of this nation. I shudder when I think of the time when a prime minister and politicians refused to walk hand in hand over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in solidarity and when politicians walked out of parliament during the “Sorry Speech”, not forgetting the rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

What should the Federal Government do next to advance reconciliation in Australia?

Prepare the groundwork thoroughly for a referendum in order to ensure that a voice to parliament is established and enshrined within the constitution. Words are not enough and we must understand that such a commitment is never finished – it must be continually nurtured within the hearts and minds of us all.

How happy are you to have finally premiered the Redfern Oratorio?

It is always very satisfying to perform a work for the first time but especially if it is a large-scale work like the Redfern Oratorio. There is also a sense of relief because a performance is so dependent on the efforts, enthusiasm and dedication of so many people who make it possible. The work was very well received and it certainly left an impression on a lot of people.

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See sydneyuniversitygraduatechoir.com.au for news of the upcoming recording.

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