(i) Tranquillo [Ooldea Inma]
(ii) Piu Mosso, Feroce [Interlude]
(iii) Allegro con Brio, Feroce [Mamu Inma]
(iv) Lento Tranquillo [Kalaya Inma]
For many thousands of years, indigenous people from across southern central Australia travelled to a soak near Maralinga for trade and community business. That soak was named Ooldea. It was a meeting place. Today, with the water long gone and a modern story of removal from the land for nuclear tests to add to the countless ancient tales, the soak carries within its constantly shifting dunes a sense of captured history, a sense of buried time.
Soon after my first trip to Ooldea, I was fortunate enough to come in contact with a number of the Elders of the Spinifex lands – one of the groups who used to visit there. In making a theatre work for Black Swan about their community, they sang many traditional songs (Inma) that helped tell their stories – both ancient and modern – of a relationship with the land, a removal from it, and an eventual successful return. Three of these Inma form the basis for this work.
Inma is a single word encompassing the meaning of our English words song, dance and ceremony. In essence, in both cultural and practical terms, the three activities are inseparable. An Inma in musical terms consists of a series of verses, each 15-30 seconds in duration, each sung 2 or 3 (or more) times before moving on. Each verse consists of three phrases – each rhythmically similar, each with a descending melodic contour, each featuring intervals close to our traditional western tonality of 3rds and 5ths. So while I have avoided direct quotation of Inma in the orchestral part of this work – it’s not my song to sing – I have used many of the inherent musical characteristics of traditional song to generate the orchestral material.
Structurally, the work is a single continuous movement, in three broad sections. The first (incorporating the Ooldea Inma) utilises the octatonic scale in a chorale that grows from a pair of mirrored lines out to 5 voices and back. Interpolated between these chorale sections are two other musical ideas – a stacked and clustered version of the scale, and a set of three falling phrases that is gradually compressed from 7ths down to clustered 2nds. This section is scored for strings, single woodwinds and percussion alone. It is interrupted by the arrival of the Brass and woodwind in antiphonal positions in the choir stalls in a 12 tone interlude.
The second section features the more active Mamu Inma – a song series about a spirit-being best equated to the western ideas of the devil or a trickster god. In this movement, a constant rhythm from the orchestra continues between each of the sung verses, with interjections from the instrumental groups above that increase in duration and intensity before mirroring back.
The final section of the work returns to the slow chorale style of the first, and incorporates the Kalaya Inma. This Inma is centred around Ilkurlka, in the heart of Spinifex country, and tells the story of the Emu – the custodian of Spinifex land before anangu (people) arrived.
This work is intended not as an accompanied traditional song, nor as an orchestral reworking of indigenous themes. It is, I hope, simply a meeting place. A work within which the musical forces of Australia’s European heritage share a campfire with some of Australia’s traditional owners. A campfire around which history may become a source of shared pride, and where time might reveal a communal future rather than a buried, stolen past.
A documentary about the creation of this work, also titled Ooldea was produced by CM films for the ABC, directed by Michael Angus