18 April 2024

Songs of hope to fill National Museum for Canberra International Music Festival

| Ian Bushnell

Canberra vocal group Luminescence will perform the Red Dirt Hymns at the National Museum of Australia. Photo: Hillary Wardaugh.

A highlight at this year’s Canberra International Music Festival in May is bound to be the world premiere of Red Dirt Hymns – 16 Australian songs of hope – performed by local vocal group Luminescence.

Only celebrated composer and broadcaster Andrew Ford knows how the performance at the National Museum of Australia will start and end. And he’s fine with that, having given over his collection of “singable tunes” set to lyrics by Australian poets to be reimagined.

“I can’t wait to hear what they’ve done with them,” Andrew says.

In fact he wrote the songs so they could be reworked any which way and the results so far have excited him.

The original idea, including title, came from his wife, inspired by a musing from late poet Les Murray that he would like to write a hymn before he died.

It sat on the shelf for a while but it’s time arrived during the pandemic lockdowns when musicians, and in particular singers, were deprived of an audience and hope was in short supply.

“Of all the musicians affected by the lockdown, perhaps singers were the worst off,” Andrew recalls.

“Singers when they perform look at the audience and there was no audience, no-one to be companionable with.”

READ ALSO 4 places that prove Canberra isn’t boring

He started emailing poets asking if they wanted to write a song with him, with only two instructions.

The words had to deal with the themes generally covered in hymns – courage, strength, facing and overcoming despair, gratitude, awe at nature, and of course hope – and the verse had to fit the song.

“I was trying to write simple, singable tunes that could be sung by anybody, untrained, amateurs, but could be picked up by a pop, jazz or classical singer to do anything they wanted to. But it would be simple, and memorable,” Andrew says.

“It’s not what contemporary classical music is about and it’s also not what contemporary poets do. They don’t on the whole do metre and rhyme which is what you need. Most poets don’t write song lyrics.”

The response surprised him. All up, there are now 20 of them – and that’s where he’s drawn a line.

“I didn’t set out to write 20 of them but it seemed a good place to stop,” he says.

Composer Andrew Ford

Composer Andrew Ford: “I was trying to write simple, singable tunes that could be sung by anybody.” Photo: www.andrewford.net.au

He admits to some trepidation when asking distinguished poets to tweak a line here or there so they would fit the music. But they were all very gracious about it.

Despite being hymns, God doesn’t make an appearance although there was never any reason they couldn’t be religious. But that probably says something about contemporary poetry.

The songs may be simple but Andrew found the process challenging, being more familiar with composing orchestral works.

“Good songs tend to pop into your head, I might tweak them but if they’re proving intransigent it’s probably best to start again,” Andrew says, adding it’s partly a matter of luck if they work.

They were never set in stone and while he may have written them with accompaniment in mind, artists have used different instruments or none at all and rearranged them in ways that have amazed him.

“These arrangements that Luminescence are doing with [CIMF aritistic director] Roland Peelman – the bits I’ve heard and I dropped in for a half day of rehearsal in January – were amazing because they were nothing like I imagined. They were faster, or slower, or louder, or quieter, and had guitar and cello,” he says.

“A song that I had nominally written for voice, harp and guitar and drum was being done by six voices, cello and electric guitar.

“It was a completely different feel, and that for me is the really exiting piece of the project and always was – to see what would happen.”

READ ALSO Ralph Heimans’ NPG exhibition is a rare chance to see a masterful Australian artist at work

Accompanying Luminescence will be Hilary Geddes, 2021 Freedman Jazz Fellow and lead guitarist of The Buoys, and cellist Freya Schack-Arnott.

Andrew says he doesn’t know the order in which they will be performed or what kind of narrative that will reveal.

“I’m interested to see what kinds of story it tells. But it will be their story as much as mine.”

Red Dirt Hymns, Thursday, 2 May, National Museum of Australia at 8pm. To learn more visit the festival website. The festival runs from 1-5 May.

Original Article published by Ian Bushnell on Riotact.

Weekly Wrap

Canberra is renowned for its restaurants, bars, arts and culture. If you want to know what's going on in and around the nation's capital, sign up for our weekly newsletter and have all the best of the Canberra community delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.