Singing up Country.

For traditional life here on this continent for the First People, all knowledge was sung.

“How do you become part of the continuation of the longest living cultures in the world, how do you do that? It’s obvious. Music.” Deborah Cheetham AO

Every Sydney Philharmonia Choirs concert in 2022 will begin with a sung Acknowledgment of Country – Tarimi Nulay Long time living here. This sublime work was commissioned for the Philharmonia’s centenary year in 2020 with music by Deborah Cheetham AO and words by Matthew Doyle. This is a partial transcript of Deborah’s handing over of the language to Sydney Philharmonia Choristers on Thursday 9th January, 2020 at the Opera Centre in  Surry Hills.

On this land, here, is a continuation of something that has happened here longer than anywhere else in the world. We alone, of the entire world, can lay claim to the longest continuing culture. It is such a cause for celebration. Still there are lots of people catching up to that, but we’re getting there, we’re moving in a very positive direction and there is no more powerful medium for that progress than music. That notion is captured in the text that I have created for you in this work Tarimi nulay, in the Gadigal language.

It is very special for me to write something for you in Gadigal language, the language of this place. There are something like 29 clans in this Sydney area. Think of them as local councils but more efficient! (With humble apologies to anyone serving on a local council, I’m sure yours is different!)

So, Tarimi nulay. I just wanted to capture the fact that, on this land, culture has been sung, and danced, and painted onto the body, but more than anything else, sung. Sung here. And when I talk about culture, actually what I mean is ‘knowledge’. For traditional life here on this continent for the First People, all knowledge was sung. The map of your country, the geography of your area, was sung. If you want to get from A to B, and many indigenous nations have countries that are the size of small European countries, there was a song for that. If you wanted to visit your neighbouring clan, there was a song of diplomacy for that. Knowledge, and life, was sung.

That’s why I write and sing in Language and why I have dedicated, particularly the last 10 years increasingly, to writing in the traditional languages of this land, so that you all might participate in it; so that you all might have the knowledge of what it is like to connect to the longest continuing culture in the world; so that there isn’t an undifferentiated ‘them’ or ‘they’ and ‘us’ that so often separates us in this country. And even though there are difficulties, even though there is a divide between those who are essentially the beneficiaries of colonisation and those who paid the price for it, music is what can bring us together because it will enable a level of understanding that is almost impossible to put into words.

Above and beyond anything else, if you are well into your journey of understanding how long culture and life intermingle, if you are long way into that journey, then you are going to appreciate this work on a certain level. If you are only just beginning that journey, or are perhaps unconvinced, then this is a very important gig for you and I’m glad that you’re here. And for everyone in between, who are taking those steps to find out how do you become part of the continuation of the longest living cultures in the world, how do you do that? It’s obvious. Music.”

I’ve waited two and a half years to sing Tarimi Nulay with the Philharmonia’s biggest community choir, the Festival Chorus.  We did it yesterday at Sydney Town Hall – our first post-COVID concert. And it was the day after Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese made sure that the first words they uttered in public as the new federal government acknowledged the Uluru Statement from the heart.  I cried watching them on Saturday night. And it was hard to sing Tarimi at the rehearsal yesterday morning with a lump in my throat.

At the core of Tarimi Nulay is a stillness which is intended to ground both the listener and the performer. Deborah Cheetham’s instructions to the Altos are “Gently as a meditation”. What a gift.

The concert that followed wove new commissions from three young local composers into Handel’s Coronation Anthems. The second half was Haydn’s Nelson Mass – his mass for troubled times. Because of COVID precautions, we ended up having to show a negative RAT to get in the door and we were masked at every rehearsal.  So pretty manageable anxieties when you look at the tragedy in Ukraine. We finished the last movement of the Mass with Brett Waymark’s direction to shout for peace.

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