Namatjira

In Sydney by the harbour, we sat and talked. We’d wandered through an Eliasson exhibition, and were still wearing its wonder. We’d played together under a fine mist, dipping in and out of rainbows. It was easy to be silent together after that.

The previous time we’d met, he’d told me a story about his family, and his connection with the recorder. He has a beautiful lilt to his words, mid tale. By the end of lunch, he’d asked me to write the music for his next play.

“Thank you,” I said, “but I’m not a composer.”

“But do you want to do it?” he asked.

I was firm. “You haven’t understood. That’s not what I do.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” he insisted. “Do you want to do it?”

“I don’t have the skills.” I was sure of it.

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

A few days later I was back in Sydney, playing at a forum on hope. Peter Sellars spoke, a mutual hero, along with Noel Pearson and a handful of other brave thinkers. Flushed with that, we talked more, nighttime this time, under warm, summer rain. I’d been thinking on his invitation ever since. At that time, my life was too full, as it often is. I’d been offered another job, a huge one, and one that would have been sensible in many ways. But my heart was already in the desert. So I abandoned the strange idea of a salary, and instead, wrapped myself into Scott’s Namatjira.

Months later, we did a sales pitch in Parramatta. I had just finished my first Four Winds Festival, and was so exhausted I couldn’t always hold my own body weight. On instinct, I’d brought two instruments with me – my alien looking contrabass, and a sweet-voiced renaissance soprano. The night before, he’d sent me a fraction of a script. “What the hell do I do with that?” I wondered. Too tired to sleep, I worried on it, and of course found no solutions.

Next morning, his plane was hours late, so Trevor and I began work alone. It was the first time we’d met, and we were both wired. “Forget the script,” I said, “let’s just play.” We forged the beginnings of our relationship that way, pure sound and movement.

As Namatjira grew in scope and ambition, I often came back to that first meeting with Trevor, where our wordless, human connection felt true and simple. For me, it sat close to the heart of what we were all trying to do together, and it held, even when other things didn’t.

My first trip to Alice, heavy with the death of my cousin, I couldn’t say much. I met the protagonists, and I listened. Something about my grief meant that whatever I heard or encountered went in deep. Sitting on the ground with Scott outside the Lutheran hall before I flew back for the funeral, I felt a strange clarity. I felt like I knew what was needed.

Sitting on the ground in Ntaria a few months later, I felt like I knew nothing. We camped in swags, cooked over fires, looked at the stars, and met more and more people. Sounds romantic. It was in many ways, but I was in shock, battling an overwhelming sense that I was a complete fraud. And I was cold for days, bone cold. Flooded with emotions, impressions, ideas, all my defences were down, and my body couldn’t even keep itself warm. At night, the howling camp dogs sounded exactly how I felt.

At the end of the week, we presented something to key family and community members in the old shearing shed in the historic precinct. I have seen photos and film footage of that, proof that I was there, evidence that I played. I have almost no memory of it.

Driving back to Alice, looking at those ancient shapes and lurid colours, I realised I could hear them. I’d never had that before. It wasn’t as though I was having a Hildegard-like vision, music dictated from on high. It reminded me more of a childhood scene, radio playing in the car, when I realised I knew exactly what all the notes were – a startling transparency, a peeling back of another layer of awareness to reveal something that had always been there, unnoticed. This time, looking at the contours, I felt as though I could hear sounds that might conjure up that land, and one clear melody was singing its way into my brain. As we drove, I sat and played what I heard into an imaginary recorder on the dashboard, drumming the patterns into my fingers, hoping I might remember them that way. When we reached town, I pulled out my instruments and played, trying to find and hold what I had heard.

In Alice, we prepared for a public celebration of Namatjira’s life, fifty-one years after his death. By now, my friend and colleague Jim had joined me. He was a godsend. We worked day and night, slept little, and cobbled together sounds that made occasional sense.

As part of the celebration, Archie had agreed to come and sing his song about Namatjira. He’d graciously said I could play with him – we knew one another a little from Black Arm Band. In my room at night, I quietly obsessed over that song, working out a series of lines that I could fit under, around, across Archie’s melodies. I was gripped with nerves. We had no rehearsal time, and TV cameras would be on us: Uncle Archie is rightly famous. As we wandered indoors from the sunshine, he smilingly told me he’d written a new song, and that we’d do that one instead. My heart stopped. “Dave,” I whispered as we waited in the wings, “what key is it in?” “D,” he said confidently, and then as we walked out to the mics, “Maybe F. Don’t worry Sis, it’s just a simple country ballad.” No comfort there. I knew nothing about country music.

The song began, and I shadowed the melody, adding simple joins between phrases, and the occasional sweet harmony as my confidence built. I was weak with relief. Maybe I could trust my ears after all. Suddenly, Archie stopped singing, and they gave me the briefest of nods. My solo. Perhaps a compliment, more likely, part of the standard form I didn’t know, but either way I hadn’t seen that coming. I’d been so busy listening to his melody that I’d not begun to think about the harmony. “Just play,” I told myself sternly, and I did.

It was a funny story to relate to friends later, about my girly-swot tendencies being useless in this ever-shifting environment. One of many instances where I had to learn to trust that somewhere inside me, there is a musician who can respond to all sorts of situations with sounds that aren’t always pre-rehearsed. You have to remember, I’d spent a lot of years in concert halls. There, nothing is left to chance.

After those years in isolation, wedded to my recorders, I’d formed a peculiar sense of myself as a musician. I had forgotten that I had run choirs, arranged music for disparate groups, taught classes of children, conducted amateur orchestras, played the piano, written tunes and harmonies. This project demanded that I become rounder again, less precious. I learnt to fail in public, to improvise musical solutions that were crudely functional. And then I’d go home and try to form them.

Back in Melbourne, Jim and I spent weeks bunkered down in his studio. Some days, it came with something akin to ease. Other times, hours of searching, to no avail. Jim was endlessly, beautifully patient and generous. And we seemed to peak and trough at different times, so we more or less kept one another afloat.

I shuttled back and forth from Sydney, trying to mould myself around the very different experiences of sitting in the rehearsal room and working in the studio, trying to understand what on earth a music director does in a production, what my role was as composer and performer. I had no idea. There’s a technical language, a series of hierarchies and accepted roles, rules, etiquettes in the theatre world. I discovered them by clumsily, unwittingly overstepping boundaries, insulting pretty much everyone. They were very kind with me.

Trying to meet the needs of all the different individuals and cultures co-habiting in this project was not always possible. At points, we all faced exhaustion, a sense of inadequacy, loneliness, and despair. I understand that if you collect a group of idealists, and what you are creating is genuinely new, the process will be complex and fragile. Perhaps in this terrain, it’s inevitable that the human toll is high. I’m not sure.

One terrible day just before opening night, it seemed unbearable, for all of us.

In performance, again and again, I watched Trevor and Derik with love and astonishment. I tried to hold them with music. And together with those beautiful Namatjira family members watching over us, we told a story that seemed timely and resonant. Theatres and halls were full, audiences responded with huge hearts. Through the laughter and the tears, it seemed to generate a sense of possibility. During our tours, I learnt more than I can say. Not least, a taste for country music.

During that first season, I was running multiple lives simultaneously. In the run up to the premiere, I’d been touring with my friend Karin. That was a salve – I understood our world. Opening night of Namatjira, I played concertos with ACO2, the next generation Australian Chamber Orchestra, my million notes starting at 7pm at one venue in Sydney, cab waiting to get me up the road to the theatre in time to slide on stage for 8pm. It was an extraordinary experience, feeling time and my self expand to hold both universes. The next day I was on a plane to follow the ACO tour, before returning a few weeks later to finish the Namatjira season. I had honestly thought that under the pressure of this, I would crack. That one, slight body couldn’t hold both those worlds and their utterly different demands, simultaneously. I was torn by it, no doubt. But I held. And I learnt that I was essentially myself in both places.

A couple of years after we began, we took Namatjira home again, back to Ntaria. We’d lost key people along the way, partings that had hurt deeply. Many people in and around the project had been heroic. Namatjira had given them courage and meaning, and they had flourished with it. Watching the fires and the dogs, the children, the sky powdered with stars, hearing the Ntaria ladies sing, looking at the paintings that set us all forth on this quest, seeing Trev and Derik take on that epic story one more time, aware of the heart and blood, the care and toil that countless people had poured into this, I felt incalculably lucky. And as the story moved to its inevitable conclusion, the wildness in the crowd stilled, and for one ripe moment, we were silent.