has been a significant presence on the Australian stage for over a decade, having composed and/or performed with nearly every major theatre company in the country.
Iain has arranged for Tim Minchin, Sinead O’Connor, Black Arm Band, Gurrumul, The Whitlams, Tim Rogers, Ben Folds, and is the recipient of a number of Helpmann awards – first in 2002 for his work on the landmark Australian production Cloudstreet
, and again in 2012 for his Musical Direction of Little Match Girl
He is currently performing in Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Secret River
, as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. He spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew
Iain, for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the narrative of The Secret River, can you give me a snappy seven word pitch for the play?
First contact story with a powerful what-if. Can you tell me something brief about the back story of the thief William Thornhill?
I don’t think of him as a thief. First and foremost, he was a hardworking riverman who delivered goods and people by boat along the River Thames. He married above himself (to Sal Thornhill), and in his efforts to provide for her and their children, resorted to desperate measures. His death sentence for stealing was, on appeal, commuted to life imprisonment in New South Wales, and Sal chose to accompany him here to Australia. And in a little more detail something about his particular journey, when where why how, an overview of the characters he meets along his path?
He travelled on the Alexander transport to New South Wales in the first decade of the 19th Century and worked in the colony at Sydney Cove for four years before earning his pardon and moving to the Hawkesbury, to a place now known as Wiseman’s Ferry. He knew the country along the River from his work as a trader on the ‘Hawkesbury Run’ from the settlement’s pastures around Windsor to Sydney Cove. This was at a time when land was being claimed by entrepreneurial free settlers, many of them members of the European underclass of the early 19th century. Whilst most are antagonistic to the local Dharug people, some have learned to live harmoniously with them, most notably Thornhill’s old friend Tom Blackwood. Can you give me an overview of the Dharug peoples that inhabit the Hawkesbury River region?
They lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, travelling to various places on the river for ceremonial and practical reasons. Whilst they didn’t farm in a European sense, they cared for the land through judicious tending as well as controlled burning. To the best of my knowledge, they were content and needed for little. What seized you the most while reading Kate Grenville’s book, was it the conflict, the transformation etc?
I was instantly taken by the completeness of the world described by Kate. This world was one in which I found myself hoping against hope that the story I knew to be true in historical terms wouldn’t consume our central character. Namely that this good man would find a way to respect the prior occupation of ‘his’ piece of land by the indigenous inhabitants, and resist the domineering attitudes of many of his fellow immigrants. What sounds did the story evoke for you while reading, tell me about this is some detail? (I’m curious about some detail of your journey on this play as composer from inception through development to realisation).
The novel fantastically evokes sights, smells and sounds and these were obviously high in my consciousness as I read. But folk songs kept coming to me as well. These were working class people, for whom the European art music of the time (the High Classical/early Romantic world of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven) would have been as foreign as the traditional songs of the Dharug. I was eager to include folk tunes that felt honest and lived-in rather than earnest and learnt, so these became the building blocks for much of the score. Tell me about your role as the composer and being on stage for the duration, how did this concept/vision come about?
Half a lifetime ago, I played a show with many of the same creative team as this adaption of Secret River. It was a version of Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’ and Neil the director had me play live for that show. It is his preference to have live music as part of his theatre shows, and with good reason. From my point of view, it allows the score to live and breathe the same air as the actors, and with them make a more complete theatrical telling of the story. At the heart of the story is the conflict between European Settlement and Dharug culture, can you tell me briefly about the way this tension is evoked sonically, the arrangements, the instrumentation, the voices, the ‘chorus’?
We have had the great pleasure of having Richard Green work with us as cultural consultant speaking for the Dharug peoples, and he has gifted us a number of Dharug songs to utilize in the show. Starting with these on one hand, and European folk songs on the other, I have tried to create a world where voices are given equal weight. Whilst I play the piano in the show, there is a second, stripped back piano frame that gets bowed and plucked by cast members during the show. For me the piano is a great metaphor for our transplanted European culture here in Australia, and I use it as such in the show. But I was also keen to have sounds that were less recognizably ‘from a culture’. The sounds from piano frame have come to represent (along with Richard’s songs) the Dharug world – both the people and their land. Do you think there is a prevailing mood or tenor to your composition, tell me about this mood and how this mood is evoked?
I try at all times to stay true to the intention of each moment of the play, and to the broader ebb and flow of its pace. So there are lighter moments, introspective moments, moments of high tension and moments of deep sadness. Overall, I have tried to maintain forward momentum in the score, as Kate so beautifully does in her book, and Andrew Bovell does in his adaption. How do the actors relate and/or attend to the soundscape, is it a background or foreground focus or an ebb and flow between both – can you give me an example or two perhaps?
Neil has a wonderful way of creating transparent theatre, where all the aspects of the story telling are knowingly revealed and celebrated. This means that all the actors create not only foley (ocean waves, digging sounds) but also contribute musically on guitars, a clarinet, an acoustic bass, as well as the piano frame already mentioned. I have tried to ‘cast’ the musicians to appropriate moments in the play, so for example if there is a narration about Thornhilll and intimacy, I’ll ask for the actress playing Thornhill’s wife (the marvelous Anita Hegh) to help underscore that moment. Hopefully this helps reinforce the sense of a world within a world – of a story being created especially for each and every audience member by a troupe of players in a theatrical play pen. What do you love about your role and in particular the director’s vision for this The Secret River on stage adaptation?
I love playing a music score live because it means I can be responsive to the rhythms of any particular performance, and respond accordingly. If a scene is particularly aggressive or tender, then I can alter the music to suit, hopefully maintaining the rhythm of the show. Neil‘s theatrical craft is so finely honed, my job is easier than it might otherwise be.What has been the most challenging aspect for you during the rehearsal process?
I have a new daughter, so in fact the most challenging aspect was flying up and back every week to Melbourne, trying to spend enough time with both my families – my home one, and my Secret River one. What has been the most satisfying aspect during rehearsals for you personally so far, I imagine it might include something along the lines of the joy of alchemy, the magic that happens when all the disparate components and voices and characters mix?
Absolutely. Getting to sew many of the threads of my creative life together in one show has been deeply satisfying. Some of the indigenous actors on this show are old friends, and getting to work with them musically in a theatrical context, so that indigenous and non-indigenous musics can be heard side by side has been an absolute pleasure. It feels like I’m as Australian as I can be in this cast, and that’s primarily because our indigenous cast members are so endlessly welcoming.
Sydney Theatre Company's The Secret River by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield, is now playing as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. Until 9 Feb, 2013. Further details»Image credit:–Top right – Colin Moody and Iain Grandage. Photo – Heidrun Lohr