Writers On Writing / Andrew Howes on Callan Park: lives lost, lives found and lives forgotten

This piece was published in Newswrite October-November 2016.

From Hell to Heaven is part song- cycle, part oratorio. And in a sense, its characters are operatic, although it is not an opera. The characterisation of Louisa comes about through a pair of arias, and the voices in The Unknown Patient’s head arise from the chorus, but there is no dramatic suspension of disbelief.

There are a number of compositions, specifically constructed to work this way. For example, take Oedipus Rex (1927. Words by Jean Cocteau, Music by Igor Stravinsky). In that work, there are characters, chorus and narrator on the stage, with an overt, if not aggressive, lack of visual drama. This suited Stravinsky’s purposes well, who viewed the Latin text through the Christian lens of his orthodox upbringing, and wished to give the piece a ceremonial feel. My own soloists and chorus follow this model, which allowed Stravinsky to delineate each stream of text style, both visually and musically. Oratorios by Haydn and Handel set a precedent for this anti-opera, simply placing their characters on a concert-hall stage in tuxedos and ballgowns, and Stravinsky added structural elements from Sophoclean drama. As regards Oedipus, it’s worth adding that, while the characters sing in Latin, the Narrator speaks in the language of the audience, which gives a definitive context to the Latin text: Stravinsky was aware that his audience didn’t necessarily need to understand the text being sung (a factor that invokes my music does not tell stories contradiction).

My work falls broadly into that opera/ oratorio category, in so much as there is a narrator, a choir, and soloists. And while it is tempting to say that it differs in that my characters were real people, their context has been essentially changed. That, I feel, is the important distinction; Louisa is real, up until the point at which she sings.

I first encountered Louisa Lawson in 2015, looking through a collection of Australian poems for something to set as a song cycle. Her poem ‘To a Bird’ (1892) struck me as interesting, containing many qualities that suit my musical style. I started investigating her life and other works, collecting accounts of her, and became fascinated by this hardy bush-woman, who wrote such sublime words. Incidentally, only a few weeks beforehand I had begun work on an adaptation of The Drover’s Wife, by her son, Henry. Confirmation bias threaded the two stories together, The Drover’s Wife appearing as a sort-of origin story for the woman who wrote witty comments about moustache hair. (A comparison also made in Kay Schaffer’s Women and the Bush.)

This began to change the way I read her poetry. She faced isolation and drought, and poems such as ‘To a Bird’, ‘A Child’s Question’ and ‘A Mother’s Answer’ became confessions of personal despair, or at least explorations of it.

Louisa expresses herself this way, recording the changing-points of her life in a form that is artistically analytical. This is the whole idea of an aria — in fact, I’m surprised more operas haven’t been written about poets. In opera, how does a character express themselves, but in considered, balanced verse, articulated in a way that touches the heart. Opera characters are poets, because poets write them.

The story made a natural fit for my growing Callan Park project. There are several ways that Louisa ties into the subject; not only do her words speak to transcendence and overcoming despair, but she suffered mental deterioration towards the end of her life, and sought care at the asylum. But if I’m being honest, at least part of why she’s so central is that I feel that her character is important, and deserves more light. Admittedly, some of her views can be carbon-dated exactly to her time and place (particularly as regards Indigenous Australians) but the ones that aren’t, her views on female empowerment and on humanity’s moral imperative to improve, could come straight out of Honi Soit. ‘And why shouldn’t a woman be tall and strong’ — now that’s a line that begs to be sung.

I chose George McQuay because he’s the opposite. I came across his story, chatting with my mother at Callan Park. I used to spend a lot of time there with my mother — bi-weekly 6am running groups — and I’ve always associated the place with a sense of calm, nature and freedom. She put me onto an article (I’ve since lost) describing George McQuay’s 12-year ‘living death’, the years he spent convalescing at the Callan Park asylum. His recorded voice is small; he spoke of voices inside his head, calling him ‘coward,’ an indicator for PTSD and his eventual diagnosis, Dementia Praecox, an analogue for schizophrenia. Rather than characterise him, give him words to express the introverted horror I felt at reading his story, I drew inspiration from plant and animal names, contemporary newspaper articles, and from the Requiem Mass. His story is important, too — but in a way, it’s not about him. Our society’s sphere of compassion has grown to include people like George, not to shut them away, but it wasn’t always so. And while he was eventually rediscovered by his mother, and accepted once more into his community, there are many whose lives were forgotten, as they wandered beneath the cypress and willows.
There are some good words written about Callan Park (What a Piece of Work by Dorothy Porter is my favourite example) and a 45-minute work is hardly enough to scratch the surface of this topic, but that’s the best part. And while the stories I’ve chosen lean heavily on despair, optimism shines through as well, if only in a peace to find at the end of all stories.
From Hell to Heaven will be performed by Leichhardt Espresso Chorus and Song Company on 23 October at Leichhardt Town Hall, 12pm and 4pm. Tickets available at espressochorus.com.au or at the door.
Andrew Howes is a composer, based in Manhattan, NY. He was born in Sydney and completed his bachelor’s in composition at the Royal College of Music, London. andrewhowescomposer.com

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