It’s been two years since I last wrote about the Griffyn Ensemble. In that post I reported that they were not returning with their usual season in 2017. Wah, I wrote. They did, in fact, perform in 2017 – presenting a special Music Festival – but I didn’t write that up, because I was unwell and barely made the concerts. They’ve returned again this year, this time with a concert designed to coincide with National Science Week. And what a concert it was, because it was much more than “just” a science inspired concert. As you’d expect.
One Sky, Many Stories
Now, when the Griffyns “do” science, more likely than not it will involve astronomy. They have collaborated with composers and scientists in the past to create programs focused on the skies. In 2012 and 2013 they performed Estonian composer Umas Sisask’s Southern Sky composition, which he created in the 1990s after visiting Australia, and in which he incorporated his response to indigenous Australians’ ideas about astronomy. Those Griffyn performances included astronomer and science communicator Fred Watson introducing each movement, describing the constellations and stars referenced by the music. In 2015, they presented director Michael Sollis’ response to Sisask’s work, Northern Lights, which he composed after visiting the Northern Lights on a tour with the aforementioned Fred Watson.
And now, three years later, they’ve produced a new show titled One Sky, Many Stories. To create it, Michael Sollis and past-Griffyn Wyana O’Keeffe went to Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory to work with indigenous performer-composer Warren H Williams and other local musicians. Their aim was “to discover and create some more stories and songs about the stars” and the end result was last night’s event which combined “music, film, and astronomy to explore Western and indigenous conceptions of the night sky.” The music combined a selection of reworked movements from Sisask’s “Southern Sky” with new pieces composed by Warren Williams and themselves. Once again, Fred Watson was present to guide us through the program, linking the music to the science and the stories.
There was no printed program so I don’t have a list of the pieces played, but the music was eclectic in style, which is a hallmark of Griffyn concerts. You never know what you are going to get. In this show, ballads, jigs and country-rock style pieces were interspersed with new chamber music. I was impressed by how well soprano Susan Ellis’ classically trained voice blended with Warren Williams’ more country-music-mellow style. In some pieces, the versatile Ellis backed Williams’ words with haunting, mystical sounds, but on one occasion she sang a “Southern Sky” piece in its original Eesti while Williams sang his part in Western Arrernte. (I must say I love that we are more frequently hearing indigenous languages spoken/sung these days.)
Wyana O’Keeffe’s percussion playing – on a range of instruments from vibraphone to hand-struck wooden drum (a cajon?) – drove much of the concert. It was clear she loved being involved in the project. It’s one of the great things about Griffyn Ensemble performances, in fact, the enthusiasm with which they share their music and engage with their audience – and the way they balance serious musicianship with a more relaxed informality.
Culture meets science
But it was about more than music. It was about ideas, and how we think about the stars, ourselves and the universe. And so, interspersed with the music were Fred Watson’s introductions – to the various constellations represented in the music, including Sagittarius, Oktans and Reticulum – and video clips of Tennant Creek residents from all ages and various cultural backgrounds speaking about what sky and stars mean to them. Some of these meanings were philosophical or spiritual, some wishful, and some self-deprecatingly humorous. They were an engaging, but also integral, part of the whole: they encouraged us, the audience, to consider our own responses to the sky and stars and conveyed the diversity of responses different people and cultures have. It was unfortunate, however, that we couldn’t always hear all the words (perhaps due to the room’s acoustics.)
Anyhow, I loved one person’s story that he had always believed he heard the stars twinkling until he was told it was the crickets! Other people talked about stars representing people who passed away, and another how separated lovers use stars to feel together across space. Some talked about how the sky informs them about bush tucker and the seasons. And some struggled, like I would, to find the words to explain exactly how they felt. One lad got quite mixed up with his stars and galaxies and constellations and how they all fitted togehter and decided that they were all just “one big dimensional plane.” I felt his pain!
But, check out this YouTube teaser. It will tell you more than my words ever could.
It was a different line-up from the usual Griffyn Ensemble, as you’ll see in the list at the end of the post, but the combination resulted in an engaging, sometimes toe-tapping, concert that entertained while also giving us plenty to think about. I liked the idea suggested by Fred Watson near the end that maybe not everything’s measurable, that the point may be less about what happens to the universe and more about the universe happening to us.
The concert ended with us, the audience members, being invited to pin our own written wishes-upon-a-star onto Comet Bryn Leon (named for Michael and Kiri Sollis’ brand new baby boy) on the wall. I do hope they share those wishes on their website sometime in the future – perhaps when they are no longer waking up through the night sharing the stars with Bryn!
Meanwhile, a big thanks to Michael Sollis and the Griffyns for their ongoing commitment – and contribution – to the Canberra music scene. They are to be treasured.
Griffyn Ensemble (and Friends): Michael Sollis (director and mandolin), Susan Ellis (soprano), past member Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion), Alex Castle (flute, filling in for Kiri Sollis who had just had a baby), with special guests Warren H. Williams (keyboard, guitar and voice), Rachel Pelser (electric guitar), and Fred Watson (astronomer).