Breathing Space

In 2021, the National Museum of Australia (NMA) commissioned me to create new ways for audiences to engage with its iconic Garden of Australian Dreams. The NMA’s commission offered a context to compose and house material I’d been unconsciously collecting and dreaming about since childhood.

The result is Breathing Space – a rewilding in sound.

Walking and listening are central to my life. Moving through landscapes and their soundscapes on foot is a way to think, to dream, and to quietly link inner and outer worlds.

Breathing Space emerged from years of walking and listening to the staggering sound library of the natural world, particularly during Melbourne’s long Covid lockdowns, when human din gave way to the acoustic detail of the living realm that surrounds us. My friend Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi Nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria, was an early counsel, generously offering rich conversations, and profound texts for inspiration and orientation. Ruth Little and I distilled her remarkable essay ‘Thinking about Writing Climate Change Fiction’ into a series of short texts, which became the spine of Breathing Space.

Breathing Space is an oasis of quiet reverberations, revealing the calls, tremulations and deep stirrings of country. The composition is vast, in response to the epic continent of Australia. It comprises multiple musical pieces of different durations, all orbiting one another at different rates, re-aligning only once a year. It summons the miraculous and precious biological and human diversity of this ancient land. It’s a gently, constantly shifting sound world, inviting visitors to experience its many seasons.

Six areas of the Garden pulse with human and other-than-human sounds. In the Garden’s central field, all the vibrations converge and disperse in undulating drifts of sound. Breathing Space fills the site with choruses of frogs, cicadas, and ethereal instrumental and vocal phrases. The life and breath of these exquisite sounds brings shimmer and shift to a symbolic space, transporting listeners to wild landscapes of their own imaginations.

The work was made with many contributors: a core creative team of 12, alongside 21 musicians playing or singing newly composed material, 12 sound artists, and a chorus of 32 voices speaking the powerful words of Alexis Wright. Alexis’s poetic call to listening and country, and the sung and spoken voice of Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung artist and leader Dr Lou Bennett are central to Breathing Space.

Breathing Space is now freely open to the public permanently at NMA in Canberra, 9am-5pm every day apart from Christmas Day.

We’ve also released an album called Breathing Space, an evocation of the long-form work at the museum. It's out on ABC Classics, and can also be found on any streaming service. Perhaps the album will inspire a visit to the National Museum of Australia to experience the installation in situ. It might move you to go for a walk in your neighbourhood, and so discover its sonic environment. Or maybe it will take you on an inward migration, deep into the terrain of your own dreams.

"The world will always need its dreamers…"
- Alexis Wright
© Linda Kent
© Linda Kent
© Linda Kent
© Linda Kent
Genevieve Lacey — Composer & Creator
Alexis Wright — Writer
Ruth Little — Associate Artist
Jim Atkins — Sound Design
Martel Ollerenshaw — Arts & Parts Executive Producer
Linda Kent — Visual Artist
Paul Lim — Additive Technical Production Manager
Ashley Simonetto — Branding & Graphic Design
Jared Yapp — Audio Research
Katherine Tonkin — Spoken Voice Consultant
Jess Zhang — Cultural Consultant
Tom McKeand — Audio System Programmer
Garry Warne — Art Photographer
Contributing musicians — Lou Bennett (voice), The Consort of Melbourne dir. Steve Hodgson (vocal ensemble: Katherine Norman, Megan Nelson, Hannah Pietsch, Jenny George, Ben Owen, Tim Reynolds, Jerzy Kozlowski, Steve Hodgson), Linda Kent (pipe organ), Marshall McGuire (harp), Phil Slater (trumpet), Speak Percussion dir. Eugene Ughetti (percussion: Kaylie Melville, Zela Papageorgiou, Eugene Ughetti), Erkki Veltheim (violin and viola), Mindy Meng Wang (guzheng), Vahideh Eisaei (qanun), Simon Martyn-Ellis (theorbo, baroque guitar), Amadou Suso (kora), Sunny Kim (voice)
Spoken voice — Sia Ahmad, Jada Alberts, Alison Beare, Lou Bennett, Kate Box, Isla Bylsma, Jing-Xuan Chan, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Patricia Cornelius, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Amos Gebhardt, Adeline Hunter, Linda Kent, Sunny Kim, Ulrike Klein, Ann Lacey, Sonya Lifschitz, Ruth Little, Bella Merakis, Zahra Newman, Martel Ollerenshaw, Valma Ollerenshaw, Anh Thu Stuart, Phoebe Connolly Raymond, Angelina Téa Sevastopoulos, Gian Sohn, Lucy Stubbs, Katherine Tonkin, Sophie Travers, Bianca Verdino, Shannon Yeung, Jess Zhang
Field recordings — Greg Hooper, Marc Anderson (Wild Ambiance), Vicki Powys, Lindsay Popple, Jeremy Hegge, Jay-Dea Lopez (Sounds Like Noise), volition 74, Kangaroovindaloo — Freesound, Craig Carter (Edible Audio), Alexander Gastrell, Tim Crone, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Other-than-human sounds — Common ringtail possum, common brushtail possum, koala, sugar glider, yellow-bellied glider, flying fox (fruit bat), Tasmanian Devil, Corroboree Cicada, Crop Duster Cicada, Darwin Whiner Cicada, Drysdale Rattler Cicada, False Cherrynose Cicada, Golden Emperor Cicada, Granite Squeaker Cicada, Green Baron Cicada, Red Roarer Cicada, Smoky Sage Cicada, Smoky Buzzer Cicada, Tick-Tock Cicada, Tiger Cherrynose Cicada, West Plains Eremophila Cicada, Wallum Sedge Clicker Cicada, Southern Boobook, Powerful Owl, Barking Owl, Ornate Burrowing Frog, Eastern Banjo Frog, Marbled Frog, various cricket and frog choruses, thunder, flapping wings, the interior life of trees, hydrophonic underwater recordings, tectonic plate shifts, submarine volcanic eruptions, underwater earthquakes, various ambient atmospheres