The Griffyns are back – with Songs from a Stolen Senate

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the performing arts industry, as we all know, and that, of course, included our beloved Griffyn Ensemble. However, they clearly didn’t spend the time twiddling their thumbs, because this weekend they returned to live performance at the new Belco Arts Theatre. What a thrill it was to see and hear these special musicians again – and with an inspired and inspiring program*. Titled Songs from a Stolen Senate, it featured music commissioned from some of Australia’s leading First Nation musicians. Their brief was to use Parliamentary text – hence the performance’s title – to create “song and storytelling from the perspective of their own life stories”. This is the first in an ongoing series that the Griffyns say will explore how Australian identity has been forged since European settlement.

It was a brave program, because it involved the Griffyns working collaboratively with a number of Indigenous Australian musicians and laying themselves bare to the discomfort – to leaving one’s comfort zone – that such collaboration inevitably entails if it’s conducted honestly. However, it also showed what such collaboration undertaken with open hearts and good will can achieve, which is why I started this post with the words “inspired and inspiring”. Of course, it goes without saying that Indigenous Australians have experienced discomfort – and much, much worse – for a long time, so it’s time that the rest of us opened ourselves up to that too, as Jimblah said in his video statement during the show.

Promo published on YouTube in October 2020

So, who did they collaborate with? With indigenous artists from around Australia: Warren Williams (Aranda country musician), Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse (Noongar singer-songwriters), Norah Bagiri (singer-songwriter from Mua Island in the Torres Straits), Christopher Sainsbury (Canberra-based Dharug/Eora composer), Brenda Gifford (Canberra-based Yuin composer), and with Canberra poet, Melinda Smith, who undertook parliamentary research and helped with the lyrics. If I understood correctly, to these original five collaborations were added Gina Williams’ beautiful Wanjoo welcome song, chosen by Griffyn soprano Susan Ellis; a piece composed by the Griffyns in collaboration with local Ngunnawal visual artist, Richie Allen; and the song “Not in my name” inspired by hip-hop artist from Larrakia nation Jimblah’s call for us to “activate”.

And what, exactly, did they collaborate about? Well, these won’t be a surprise as the musicians explored the sorts of topics you would expect, including the Stolen Generations, climate politics, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, assimilation policies. The original brief was, as I’ve said, to use Parliamentary text, but some of the musicians needed to go wider. For example, Norah Bagiri wanted to write about climate change and rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, but that has not been covered in Parliament, so it was to the UN that she and Melinda Smith went! Similarly, Gina Williams was interested in AO Neville, the notorious Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, so they used words from the Western Australian government.

Anyhow, the end result was a musical program performed by the Ensemble, supported by beautifully curated verbal contributions from the creators, presented on a large screen, interspersed with the live music.

Program (jotted down in the dark so perhaps not quite right)

  • Wanjoo welcome song (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Instrumental work (Warren Williams)
  • The view from the shore (Norah Bagiri)
  • Music from Ngunnawal Country (inspired by local Ngunnawal Kamilaroi visual artist, Richie Allen)
  • Breathe (Brenda Gifford)
  • What are we to do (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Not in my name (Jimblah)
  • Red kangaroo standing (Christopher Sainsbury)

Some of the issues that came out through the program included exploration of our national anthem’s notion of “young and free” (Gifford) and the fact that Noongar language didn’t have words for “stolen” and “freedom” (Williams and Ghouse):

They have no word for stolen
They have no word for freedom
What kind of civilisation is this?

All the pieces were strong, engaging and musically interesting, but I found “What are we to do” and “Not in my name” particularly haunting.

The program ended on something a little more hopeful, Christopher Sainsbury’s “Red kangaroo standing”, which was inspired by Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, to serve as a government minister, and to be appointed to cabinet. Sainsbury, I believe, wanted to leave us with a positive sense of where Indigenous Australians are now and of non-Indigenous Australia’s increasing openness to Aboriginal culture. However, I couldn’t help hearing a touch of irony in the the last words of the piece – and of the program – “thank you”!

The Griffyns’ current line-up has been together for several years now, and the simpatico – musical, intellectual and yes, I’d say, emotional – that is clearly between them makes these concerts not only of high quality, performance-wise, but a real joy to be part of. It goes without saying that I look forward to their next concert. (Meanwhile, if you live near Castlemaine, Victoria, you can see this program there on 28th March.)

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director, mandolin), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (voice), Kiri Sollis (flutes), and Chris Stone (violin)

* This program was intended to launch the new theatre at Belco Arts last May, but COVID-19 stopped that. It was then presented, virtually, last September in the Where You Are Festival, for which I booked, and then missed!

The Griffyns “play” music

Musical Instrument Playground

Some of the instruments, including the Bicycle Hurdy-Gurdy.

We always say that musicians play music, or play their instruments, but the Griffyns took this to a whole new level last weekend when they presented their “Giant All-Ages Instrument Playground” concert. Were we surprised? No, because this was the Griffyns, after all …

However, being prepared to be surprised also meant that we didn’t know what to expect. Here are some of the descriptions they used to promote this concert, which, they explained, was created by them and their “crackpot team”! You get the drift:

Griffyn have brought in Jim Sharrock (famous for his Musical Mushroom Gardens), and visual artist Byrd (one of Canberra’s pre-eminent mural and graffiti artists) to join West Australian Mark Cain (of AC/PVC fame), to collaborate in making this unique collection.


We’ve transformed satellite dishes, PVC pipes, foot pumps, balloons, skis, tin cans, fence-posts bicycles, wooden boxes, garden utensils, and more into some of the most incredible musical instruments you’ve never seen!


The Circularsawruses have come to town – Roll up to Belconnen Arts Centre to experience the launch of the Griffyn Ensemble’s Instrument Playground! The Griffyn Ensemble have assembled a crackpot team of musical musicians and makers from across the country and the Canberra community to create and compose on some of the most curious sounds to have ever hit the capital. Hear such wondrous musical inventions such as the wintry Ski Bass, the Bicycle Hurdy Gurdy, and the Flutes of Many Mouths.

Although this concert has been in Griffyn director Michael Sollis’ mind for some time, its timing was perfect because it followed the recent three-part ABC documentary, Don’t stop the music, on the importance of music education for children. One of Sollis’ hats is Music Viva’s Artistic Director for Education, a role which involved him, at least in the beginning, working with the late (wonderful) Richard Gill.

Anyhow, some of the concert was beautiful, some exciting, and some – yes, we have to admit – challenged the ears, but it was all good fun. It started with fun, in fact, with a musical pun sort of fun, when soprano Susan Ellis, supported by other members of the ensemble, entered the performance space singing a “Walking Bass” complete with hiking poles. From there Susan Ellis featured again, singing Cold Chisel’s “Flame trees”, with Kiri and Michael Sollis on “flutes”, and Holly Downes on her quad bass – but look, there were, at my rough count, some 13 or so pieces performed, so I’m not going to list them all. Instead, I’ll just share some representative highlights.

Performing the Little Drummer Boy

The audience was flummoxed when asked to identify the Bicycle Hurdy-Gurdy version of the Beatles “Blackbird” and was entertained by the Flutes of Many Mouths (or was it Many Hands?) version of “The little drummer boy”. The Surgical Glove Bagpipe was a sight for sore eyes – and, well, what it was for the ears depends a bit on your attitude to the bagpipes – but I recognised the tune, which was a start! Most of the pieces were familiar, or recognisable, which was probably a good thing given the instruments were all invented. Best to ease us in gently!

However, there were some original pieces, such as Michael Sollis’ “Baloons” (the spello remaining because, he said, it’s hard to erase highlighters, in which the music was written). It was performed by Holly Downes, Michael and Kiri Sollis, and Chris Stone on their chosen, more-or-less appropriate-to-them instruments. Audience members had copies of the colourful score and were asked to identify which “line” was for which instrument. We passed – just – I think!

There was, in fact, quite a bit of audience participation. Jim Sharrock, on a sort of slide-guitar-with a tin-can soundbox, was joined by Susan Ellis, to lead us in “Tannenbaum”. Towards the end, young students from Aranda Primary School, who were scattered around the audience, joined in, playing their parts, as conducted by Michael Sollis, on tiny wind instruments made of PVC pipes.

And I must mention an appropriate piece for the time of year, “Cicada”, composed by Paul Kopetz, and from his Australian Backyard Suite. The words go:

A hazy Australian summer. A scorching stifling day. All creatures of water, bush, and sky are still, awaiting the coolness of sunset. All except one – the cicada. His relentless tune defies stillness and is stillness. His metronomic song drips from gum trees. His symphony of survival deafens our senses.

It seemed well-suited to a “buzzing” performance on the Griffyns’ invented instruments. (You can hear a version on YouTube.)

This might all sound a bit “silly” but it wasn’t. It was fun – and it was about serious musicians showing us how you can make music out of just about anything, and how it’s more important to give it a go than to stay on the side and watch (as we did, skedaddling before the audience was let loose on the instruments at the end. We did, in our defence, have another event to go to.)

For a little introduction to what we experienced, check out this promo video:

Once again, it was something completely different from the Griffyns. It wasn’t the most restful concert we’ve been to, but it was one of the most joyful, not to mention inventive. And we can all do with a bit of joy and invention in our lives, can’t we?

Griffyn Ensemble (and Friends): Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes, Susan Ellis, Kiri Sollis, and Chris Stone with special guests Jim Sharrock, Mark Cain, the Circular-sawruses and some children from Aranda Primary School.

The Griffyns inspire us in Science Week

Griffyn Ensemble One Sky Many StoriesIt’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).

The Griffyns … wah! wah! wah!

Last weekend was the last Griffyns concert of the year – and what a delight it was (except for the wah! moment). It was their 10th anniversary concert and they called it Griffyns Go Wilder. Knowing the Griffyns, as you do by now if you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that that could mean anything but in fact it meant, in its literal meaning anyhow, that the concert would be devoted to the music of the 20th century American composer, Alec Wilder.

Instruments set up before concert

Setting up before the concert

What a great choice it was for an end-of-year-anniversary concert. They have performed Wilder before. I particularly remember soprano Susan Ellis doing a lively, audience-engaging rendition of “Sea fugue mama” in 2013, and I remember being very sad about having to miss their American songbook concert in 2010. Anyhow, it was a great choice because Wilder’s music is versatile, including “classic” chamber work, film music and jazz-influenced pieces. The music the Griffyns chose for this concert had a light end-of-year touch, while also being musically varied.

The concert took place in their “home”, the Belconnen Arts Centre. The room was set up with tables which were decorated with past programs (plus some nibbles to go with drinks we could buy at the bar – and we did!) It was a delightful touch, giving the concert an intimate friendly feel, which their concerts tend to have anyhow. To match the setting, the program was organised into three courses: Entree, Mains and Desserts.

And so the concert started with something a little serious, though not heavily so, Wilder’s Air for Flute and Strings, with Kiri Sollis on flute supported by Holly Downes (double bass), Michael Sollis (mandolin), Chris Stone (violin) and Laura Tanata (harp). A perfect start because Kiri is always mesmerising to watch and hear.

We then moved onto Mains, a selection of jazz-influenced pieces from Wilder’s octets, with wonderful titles like “Her old man was suspicious”, “The amorous poltergeist” and “Neurotic goldfish”. Those of us not in the know were surprised that some of these pieces had been conducted by none other than Frank Sinatra. The things you learn at a Griffyns concert! Anyhow, Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined the ensemble for the Mains, as did Sally Greenaway playing the Canberra School of Music’s beautiful Australian-made harpsichord. They provided the instrumental depth appropriate for these mostly jazz-influenced selections. Not particularly demanding. Just perfect dinner music.

Desserts were something again, but before it the Griffyns announced they were giving us a present for their anniversary. It appeared – a big gift-wrapped parcel – and what (or who, more to the point) was inside, but the always-up-for-it Susan Ellis, complete with champagne glass and a bottle of bubbly. Move over Marilyn! (Why didn’t I get my camera out then!)

And then the final course started – with Susan Ellis leading off in a beautifully soulful rendition of “Blackberry winter”. And oh boy, by the middle of the week, did the opening words sound prophetic:

Blackberry winter comes without a warning
Just when you think that spring’s around to stay

This final course included two more songs, plus a duet, “Suite for flute and marimba”, with Kiri Sollis (flute) and Wyana O’Keeffe (marimba). We’ve seen these two play duets before. Their familiarity with each other always makes these performances special. The concert ended on a piece chosen by the audience, the song “Little Girl Blue”. (I can’t recollect what I voted for from the choices given but this was a very acceptable winner!)


Quartet performing John Gage's A story

Holly, second from right, performing John Gage

Before I get to “the wah!” moment, I’d like to share what the Griffyns nominated as their favourite memories from the last ten years (and I hope I’ve got this right):

  • Holly: her a cappella debut with John Gage’s “A story” (The Lost Mapmaker, 2014)
  • Matthew: the Pacific Islands concert, 2008, at the NGA, and a piece called “Buwaya (and the crocodile weeps)”
  • Kiri: being asked to play the recorder which she hadn’t done before, and having to play the whole range of recorders
  • Laura: playing in the dark for the Northern Lights concert, 2015, particularly the whale song piece.
  • Wyana: playing the Southern Sky concert, 2013, in the damaged telescope on Mt Stromlo (she snuck in a second choice too, but I’m only giving her one here!)
  • Susan: all the collaborators they’ve worked with over the years (musicians, dancers, to artists and scientists)
  • Chris: the discussions about Susan’s dramatic entrances!
  • Michael: doing the Northern Lights tour in 2014 with astronomer Fred Smith, and discovering that two Griffyn Ensemble subscribers, were, quite coincidentally, on the same tour. “Special”, he said.

For me, there have been many, many highlights. A favourite piece has been Gorecki’s “Goodnight” (performed at least twice by Kiri Sollis, Laura Tanata and Susan Ellis). It’s a beautiful work. And I’ve loved so many concerts that it feels almost a betrayal to nominate one, because others keep popping into my head, but I’m going to say it anyhow, the Behind Bars concert (2012). To hear music composed in POW and Concentration camps really was something else.

… and now, THE WAH!

I was suspicious, and anxious, before the concert that maybe there wasn’t going to be a 2017 season. We’d heard no mention, and their promotion for this last concert did not include the usual reference to a next season announcement. And so it turned out to be. As Michael explained, the Griffyns, in the age-old Australian tradition, would be taking six months long service leave in the first half of 2017. Fair enough, I suppose. They deserve it. Not only have they worked darned hard to present over 200 excitingly diverse and innovative concerts since 2007, but now most of the members no longer live in Canberra. Putting on these concerts is quite a strategic challenge.

But, all is not lost. They will be back in the second half of the year with a new idea, a five-day Griffyn Ensemble Festival. Save the date – 30 August to 3 September – they said. We have.

Meanwhile, thanks for the memories …

Other versions on YouTube of some of the music:

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flutes) and Chris Stone (violin) with past members Matthew O’Keeffe (clarinets) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion), and special guest Sally Greenaway (harpsichord).

The Griffyns meet Red Note

Some Griffyn Ensemble concerts are intellectually challenging and some are educational, some are musically innovative and some are simply good fun, but some, like this week’s Castles of Refuge, are just plain beautiful.

Castles of Refuge was the third concert of this year’s four-concert season and was presented in collaboration with Scottish new music group, the Red Note Ensemble. In fact, it’s been a bumper week for Griffyn Ensemble followers, as they presented three events involving the Red Notes, though unfortunately we missed the first one:

  • Noisy Nights, Wednesday 12th October, The Front Gallery Café: Red Note premiered four works by Canberra composers, and hosted a 10-minute composers challenge.
  • Red Note Ensemble, Thursday 13th October, Belconnen Arts Centre: From the minimalist calm of Arvo Pärt to the wild imaginings of Witold Litoslowki, from the romance of Robbie Burns to the folk sounds of the Hebrides and Morocco, this concert included works by Pärt, Lutosławski, Béla Bartók, Luciano Berio, and lovely music written by Red Note members, cellist Robert Irvine and violinist Jackie Shave. It was a delightful concert, and wonderful for us to hear this skilled, personable group strut their usual stuff.
  • Castles of Refuge, 14th/15th October, National Portrait Gallery.

Castles of Refuge is the concert I’ll focus on here, as it was the Griffyn Ensemble’s subscription concert. It took the form of a more traditional chamber music concert, that is, it comprised three pieces of reasonable length, with the only “non-standard” component being recorded audio in the last piece. There were no audiovisual images or dancers or artists or outside-speakers. Just music. Once again, I love the way the Griffyns mix it up, the way they comfortably present different concert formats to suit different goals.

Michael Sollis introduced the concert, suggesting that the concert’s three Australian and British pieces explored isolation. He then left it to us, the audience, to ponder how, as the concert progressed.

The concert commenced then with the Red Note quartet and Griffyn’s soprano, Susan Ellis, performing Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s five-movement song cycle “Sea chronicles”. Ellis introduced the piece, speaking a little about the two ensembles’ recent experience of the sea during their workshop at Four Winds in Bermagui, and reading a couple of excerpts from poems she’d be singing. The piece, our program notes said, “celebrates various dimensions of our coastal environment”. The songs are drawn from Australian poems: Victor Daley’s “The nightingale”, Rex Ingamell’s “Sea chronicles”, George Essex Evans’ “By the sea”, Elizabeth Riddell’s “Life-saver”, and Adam Lindsay Gordon’s “The swimmer”.  

This was so beautiful. At times Ellis’ voice united almost completely with the strings and at other times rose powerfully above them, her lovely clear voice sometimes conveying melancholy and calm, and other times power and drama. The program notes said:

Most of the texts in this piece (all by Australian poets) emphasize the celebrative and reflective qualities of the sea rather than following the European tradition of the sea as a metaphor for human struggle. 

I take the point about this distinction but yet, as we Aussies know, the sea isn’t always benign, and Ellis told stories of death and body bags as her sea claimed the life of a lifesaver.

The concert’s middle piece, Seavaigers”, was composed by Scotland’s Sally Beamish and was written, our notes said, “for and with two of the foremost soloists in the Celtic tradition, Chris Stout and Catriona Mckay”. Griffyn’s Chris Stone introduced the piece, calling it a “double concerto”. He would play the fiddle solo, while Kiri Sollis on flute and Michael Sollis on mandolin would represent the harp! Fair enough. The rest of the two ensembles’ musicians, sans soprano, completed the performing group for this three-movement (“Storm”, “Lament”, and “Haven”) work. The notes explained that the region which inspired the work comprises some of the world’s “most beautiful and romantic seascapes” but has also “claimed countless lives”. The piece roams over various emotions, some mournful, some more up-beat, as the movement titles imply.


Chris Stone on violin, “Seavaigers”

The playing here, as in the previous piece, was tight and evocative. Amazingly so for musicians who had only been working together for two weeks. Clearly their Four Winds workshopping alongside what seemed to be a level of simpatico between the players was at work here. There was a lovely ensemble sound, with the solo parts, fiddle and flute, playing confidently, lyrically, but never completely stealing the show. This was Mr Gums’ favourite work of the evening and it was beautiful, but fence-sitter me would find it hard to name one above the others.

The concert concluded with the whole ensemble, in a semi-circle, performing Gavin Bryar’s mesmeric “Jesus blood never failed me yet”, which, as you may know, was written to accompany a repeating loop of an unknown homeless man’s song recorded in London. Running for 23 minutes, it has a simple structure, commencing with the audio loop of the man singing, quietly at first and becoming louder while gradually, starting with, in our case, cello then viola, the instruments joining in one by one, with soprano Susan Ellis last in. Again, I loved how her voice at times merged almost completely with the recorded voice and instruments, and would then rise in a subdued yet powerful harmony. She, then the instruments in reverse order, slowly dropped away again, until we were left with the recorded voice on its own, fading away. So simple, so sombrely repetitive, and yet so emotive.

And that, folks, ended yet another wonderful Griffyn concert. Mr Gums and I repaired to our favourite after-concert supper spot, Muse (Food Wine Books), to ponder what we’d just experienced – and to look forward to the last concert of the year featuring the work of Alec Wilder.

Other YouTube versions of some of the music:

  • Paul Stanhope’s Sea Chronicles IV, performed by Jane Sheldon and the Ironwood Chamber Ensemble
  • Sally Beamish’s Seavaigers, performed by Chris Stout (violin), Catriona McKay (harp) and the Scottish Ensemble ·
  • Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, from the album for The sinking of the Titanic (1975)

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute) and Chris Stone (violin).

Red Note Ensemble: Tom Hankey (viola), Jackie Shave (violin 1), Kathy Shave (violin 2) and Robert Irvine (cello).

The Griffyns do it!

By “do it” I mean, yes, “it”, that is “sex”, but I don’t mean they literally did it. They can be cheeky at times, but not that cheeky. No, the sex we’re talking about here is strictly reptilian. Let me explain …

The Griffyn Ensemble’s second concert for 2016 was designed to align with National Science Week (as they’ve done before, as in their 2014 Do you believe concert? ). Titled Sex and Dragons, this one came about, said artistic director Michael Sollis to The Canberra Times

 … when Stephen Sarre approached me and told me about the sex of dragons … At first I didn’t think it would really work as a program but then I thought that evolution is very like telling a story and that a sequence of base genes is like the notes in a musical scale.

Water Dragon

Water Dragon (not the Bearded Dragon, but closely related!)

And so was born a concert which explored the sex determination of the Australian (Central) Bearded Dragon. Now, if a musical concert inspired by and, in fact, teaching about sex determination in reptiles sounds like an impossibility to you, you don’t know the Griffyns. This was one of their multimedia concerts: it combined a musical program (of course) with video footage of reptiles and interviews with scientists from the University of Canberra (UC) about their “cutting edge research into the genomes of reptiles”. This includes exploring how high temperatures cause sex reversal in the embryos of the bearded dragon. What does all this mean – for the dragon, for us, for the world in fact?

So, what do you know about the ZW sex-determination system? No, not XY, but ZW. I knew nothing, but now I understand, at least, how much more complicated reproduction and sex determination is than I had realised. Throughout the program, interspersed with music, several UC scientists explained their passion for dragons and for the research they are undertaking, research which expands our understanding of how sex is determined. As they described their research, they also provided insight into the scientific research process – how you often find what you expect to find, but also about how “the more you look the more you see”. The exciting thing about this research is not just that the sex chromosome can be overwritten by temperature but that this happens in the wild. Scientists have been able to create sex-reversal in amphibians in the laboratory but in the dragons this happens naturally in the wild, which means that what they are doing has real relevance in nature. I can understand why that is exciting!

But, it wasn’t all science. There was music, and Michael Sollis, in addition to doing the interviews and filming the videos, devised a musical program that offered an often humorous or whimsical – but also serious – commentary on the science.

The program started with most of the ensemble performing Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 5”, a “counting song” which conveyed the codification aspect of the scientists’ work, particularly in relation to mapping genomes. This more formal “scientific” song was followed by one reflecting on the human implications of sex-determination and sex-reversal, The Kinks’ hit “Lola”! It was sung by Susan Ellis with a thoughtful expressiveness that balanced humour with something more sensitive and poignant.

As the scientists “took” us into their dragon laboratory, and with footage showing what “characters” these dragons can be, clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe played Ross Edwards’ “Binyang” accompanied by Wyana O’Keeffe on clapping stick, providing an evocative Australian desert setting for our bearded dragons. I do enjoy Ross Edwards, and Matthew and Wyana did him proud.

The central – and longest – piece of the concert was another Australian composition, “Snark-hunting” by Marth Wesley-Smith, using percussion, flutes, double bass, and keyboard. Again, it combined seriousness with, in referencing an imaginary animal, a touch of humour. Arranged by Sollis, it was wrapped around more scientist interviews and delightful dragon footage.

Which is the rooster/which is the hen? (Leslie/Monaco)

And so the scientific narrative and musical journey continued. We learnt about sex-reversed animals and how their insides don’t match their outsides, how at high temperatures all dragon embryos become female and, most fascinating, that the sex-reversed female dragons are the most bold. Bolder than the shy “natural” females and bolder too than the males! But, sex-reversed females, who are also more fertile, don’t have the female chromosome so cannot produce female offspring. We also heard how the Y-chromosome is losing its genes and that in certain spiny rat species the sex-determining gene has already moved! There was also talk of a “loving” gene, and the fact that the female relatives of gay men, we’re talking humans now, have significantly more children than other women. In other words, this research into sex-genes, and how they work, has a long way to go.

Somewhere here, a whimsical little music box played “when you wish upon a star”. What a cheeky little insert that was.

Back to the music, the snark piece was followed by Sollis’ clever “Bearded dragon” which represents, musically, the secret genome code the scientists are developing. The number sequence is embedded accurately in the work Sollis said and could be decoded if you had the skills!

The next three pieces of the program were an eclectic mix, starting with the amusingly appropriate jug band piece, “Masculine women, feminine men”, led with classy aplomb by Susan Ellis. (Quite a different look to the YouTube version I found below!). This was followed by two quieter, more reflective pieces, by American composer David Lang – “lend/lease”, featuring Kiri Sollis on her favourite piccolo and Wyana O’Keeffe on percussion, and the soulful “you will return” from “death speaks” with Susan Ellis.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Bowie)

What does all this mean, the BBC apparently asked our scientists? Well, for a start, it simply increases our understanding of chromosomes, reproduction and sex-determination. Each piece of evidence changes our knowledge. A scientist’s job, in fact, is to be ready to change their views on the basis of new evidence.

And, of course, when we think temperature, we have to think climate change. What impact might this have on sex-determination in dragons (and potentially in other species)? The jury is out. Dragons have experienced climate change before, and are still here, but this human-induced change is faster. Will they survive this one? Then again, their evolutionary response is comparatively rapid, so … The questions are many as you can see.

The concert ended with the ensemble performing David Bowie’s “Changes” interspersed with a little more counting, nicely bringing together science and emotion to conclude what was a satisfyingly coherent and tightly performed show. “Time may change me,” wrote David Bowie, “but I can’t trace time”! True, but we sure can enjoy beautifully performed, entertaining, provocative concerts like this with the time we have.

Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:

Griffyn Ensemble: Founding members Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute).

The Griffyns are mummified

Those Griffyns, if you haven’t realised it from my previous posts, are a brave and versatile bunch. Their latest outing, the Ear of the Cat, was inspired by musical director Michael Sollis’ residency in Egypt last year. Performed last weekend, it was the ensemble’s first real concert of the year and was included – a first for them I think – in this year’s Canberra International Music Festival.

Holly Downes

Brown cat Holly Downes playing her double bass

Another first, sort of, is that it was designed to appeal to children or, as the Ensemble’s promo describes it, it’s “a staged production for the young and young at heart:  a show all about cats, magical keys, video games, and a green soup eaten by ancient kings”. (I say “sort of” because the Griffyns did create and perform a school version of last year’s ANZAC Dirty Red Digger program.)

So, a staged production featuring cats. Here is how the Griffyns explained it:

Come on an adventure of discovery as deep within an underground Egyptian tomb, four mummified cats are woken by a mysterious sound. Join these inquisitive cats and be led by your ears, as you journey through an unfamiliar new world of haunted mazes, video games, and the streets of contemporary Cairo to help the cats find a way to belong in the land of the living.

Chris Stone

Mummified cat, aka violinist Chris Stone

It was a 45-minute (or thereabouts) program that took us from a mummy’s tomb to the streets of Cairo. As we walked into the performance space we were confronted with four colour-coded mummified “cats” (Holly Downes, Susan Ellis, Chris Stone and Michael Sollis) lying on pallets down the length of the hall (in the Ainslie Arts Centre). Gradually, to the call of sophisticated cat Kiri Sollis’ gorgeous piccolo – acting like a Pied Piper, perhaps? – the cats awoke and shed their mummy bindings, and started looking for a way out. A key was found but were they brave enough to venture out? Perhaps not – or not quite yet. This was, though, a multi-media performance, so while the cats crept about, uncertain of what to do, we were entertained by video interviews with young Egyptians about life and cats in Cairo. They were engaging as young people can be and added a dose of reality to the fantasy being enacted in front of us – but finally we discovered that the “ear of the cat” is the shape into which you tear and then fold pita bread to eat green Mulukhiyah soup. You can always be sure to learn something new from the Griffyns!

Now, what else to say? Michael Sollis’ clever music, which supported the narrative, varied from cattish-wailing to foot-stomping, from discordant sounds reflecting anxiety and uncertainty to lyrical jig-like and sometimes jazzy ensemble pieces conveying confidence. Laura Tanata’s harp played a gentle encouraging role throughout. Soprano Susan Ellis, reminding me of a spunky (less tatty) Grizabella from Cats*, prowled the room looking for answers, and at one point carried on an evocative and entertaining squeaky “conversation” with Kiri Sollis’ piccolo (if I’ve remembered correctly). The whole ended with a “miao chorus” inviting audience participation.

While the “story” was about mummified cats, it called up, for me, a broader archetype – sophisticated town cat versus nervous country cousins – and, as in all good stories, they all got together in the end.

I must admit that I’m not sure I fully comprehended all the connections being made as the story progressed, perhaps because coming from an older generation I’m not so good at quickly absorbing multiple inputs, but I always enjoy seeing what these skilled performers come up with. They make music meaningful and fun, and present it with a great deal of warmth towards their audience. I look forward to their next concert.

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Piccolo), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).

* Ian McLean who reviewed the performance for City News was also reminded of Grizabella! I think it was the long fur coat.

The Griffyns experiment with Utopia

In a recent Monday Musings, I referred to the fact that the Griffyn Ensemble’s last concert for 2015 would be about the New Australia Movement’s Utopia experiment in Paraguay. That concert took place this last weekend, and what a concert it was. The Griffyns – yes, I’m a fan – just keep getting better. Well, actually, they’ve always been good musicians, but the concerts are becoming tighter, more coherent perhaps, while still retaining the freshness, inventiveness and intimacy that we members so enjoy about them.

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

The Griffyns do like to move around town, so this concert was held in the foyer of the National Portrait Gallery. Not surprisingly, there were a couple of portraits of Dame Mary Gilmore on the wall behind the performers. The venue worked nicely (even though we do like the Belconnen Arts Centre’s friendly little bar!) The acoustics – to my ears – were excellent, and the natural, early evening light coming in through the big windows was just delightful.

But now, the music, which, appropriately, all came from Australian and South American composers. At the start, musical director Michael Sollis announced a change in the program, swapping the third piece, Gerardo Dirié’s Ti xiuhtototl, with the fifth piece, Eric Gross’s Rondino Pastorale. I wondered why – and whether it might become evident as the concert went on. It did, because Gross’s work and the piece preceding it, George Dreyfus’ Mary Gilmore goes to Paraguay, are lyrical, pastoral pieces evoking idyllic scenes appropriate to the ideals of the new Utopia. By contrast, Gerardo Dirié’s piece is more plaintive, sombre, even a little discordant. In terms of the story being told, it fit better towards the end of the concert as the Utopian dream is starting to fail. The story, in other words, was conveyed musically as well as through words spoken and sung by Susan Ellis who, with a twinkle in her eye, played an older Dame Mary Gilmore looking back on her Paraguayan experience.

The program was, at roughly one-hour, shorter than many Griffyn programs, but it ran without a break, transitioning seamlessly from piece to piece. The concert opened with Sollis speaking a promo for New Australia – “Start your life afresh”, he exhorted. This was followed by Laura Tanata on harp and Chris Stone on violin playing Nigel Westlake’s Beneath the midnight sun. It was beautiful, with Tanata’s gentle, lyrical harp offset by the more plaintive violin, suggesting to me a little uncertainty (for the new colony, I mean, not the musicians. Their playing was mesmerising, and set a high standard, which was fortunately maintained).

Ellis then took up the story from Gilmore’s point of view, and we heard the ensemble play Dreyfus’ accessible, melodic piece which, with its hints at times of a rousing, western movie theme, conveyed the excitement and enthusiasm of pioneers. I loved Kiri Sollis’ flute and Stone’s violin here. It’s a crowd-pleasing sort of piece, and was played with a verve which carried us all along. Gross’s piece continued this positive tone, while Ellis, as Gilmore, told us nostalgically that “I wish I was back in Cosme” (Cosme being the name of Lane’s second settlement in Paraguay).

This was followed by the central piece of the concert, Vincent Plush’s “The Paraguay songs” from The plaint of Mary Gilmore. It’s a rather tricky piece requiring Ellis to sing words from Gilmore’s letters. Yes, you’ve read correctly, from letters – that is, not from verse, but from prose. I sat up. Good prose, of course, does have rhythm, but these were letters, not crafted fiction. Here are a few lines from the program:

Communism as we have it is alright, Harry*, and we are getting on — slowly, of course, but in a year or two what is now is, will have gone, so beautiful, so rich in bird-life, and plants. And the history! And the story of the war. If you were only here Henry.

See what I mean? It takes some singer and composer to make that work. I was impressed by how well and expressively Ellis, not to mention the full ensemble, rose to the challenge.

The aforementioned rather sombre Dirié work followed this, and was performed, with a melancholic soulfulness, by the four female Griffyns who sang some lovely harmony, in addition to playing their instruments. Really moving. This was preceded by Gilmore telling us about some of the troubles in the colony, and was followed by another sombre-sounding piece, The freedom of silence by Alcides Lanza.

The concert concluded with Gilmore expressing sadness that Cosme did not turn out to be what she expected. She left in 1900, five years after she arrived, because of the pettiness and squabbles. Nonetheless, she never regretted the experience, arguing that while it was not a success, neither was it a complete failure:

… we failed the harshly scornful say … [but] we sowed a seed.

Villa-Lobos’s wistfully sad Song of the black swan (with hints, if my ears didn’t mistake me, of Swan Lake), played by Tanata and Downes, concluded what was a satisfying, well-performed and nicely conceived concert. Roll on 2016 I say … if you are in Canberra, and would like to know more (and even buy tickets), check out their website.

You can hear different versions of two of the pieces online:

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Flutes), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).

* Henry Lawson

The Griffyns take us north – way north

The time has come, I think, to talk about disclosures. I have been blogging for just over six years now, mostly on literature but also, occasionally, on other cultural experiences – including the Griffyn Ensemble. The thing is that Canberra is a small place and we who move around it start to get to know each other. This is not unusual, but it does complicate the issue of reviewing/blogging. I’ve attended seminars and/or read discussions on reviewing “in a small world”. How do you be “objective” (not that we can ever be totally objective) when there’s been personal contact? And yet, how many literary reviewers in Australia do not know, have not met, the writers they review? Similarly, for music reviewers, or theatre reviewers?  Few, I’d say, once they’ve been in the game for a while and are reviewing people who’ve also been in the game for a while.

So, what does this mean? To what degree are “reviews” invalidated by such connections? To date I have disclosed when I have received books for review, but what other disclosures should be made? I’d love to know what you think. Meanwhile, I will say that Mr Gums and I identify as Griffyn Ensemble supporters. We like what they do and would love others to enjoy them too. This, I think, you need to know.

Mt Stromlo burnt out telescope

Waiting for “Southern Sky”, in the roofless, burnt out telescope, Mt Stromlo, Nov 2013

Now that’s off my chest, let’s get to the latest concert, Northern Lights. It was unusual for the Griffyns in that it comprised one piece, albeit encompassing 14 movements, composed by their musical director Michael Sollis. As Sollis explained to us at the beginning, it was his response to Estonian composer Urmas Sisask’s piano piece Southern Sky. The Griffyns had performed Sollis’ arrangement of this, with narration by astronomer Fred Watson, in the Mt Stromlo observatory ruin in 2012, reprised in 2013. That concert too comprised one multi-movement piece. To compose his “response”, Sollis visited the Arctic Circle with Fred Watson in November 2014.

Now, here’s where I want to reiterate the comment I made regarding rereading in my recent review of Peter Carey’s Amnesia. The same goes, surely, for other art forms. Consequently, when Northern Lights finished I knew I’d love to hear it again because there was a lot going on: I know I’ve missed some musical connections and relationships, and some finer points of the story being told. But, I did enjoy it. Let me set the scene …

Griffon Ensemble's Northern Lights

Part of the stage set for “Northern Lights”

The performance took place in semi-darkness in the James O. Fairfax theatre at the National Gallery of Australia. We were given a glossy program booklet which featured photographs taken by Sollis on his tour, one photograph for each movement. It was a bit of a challenge to follow the program in the semi-dark but I managed pretty well. In his introduction, Sollis told us that, while Watson’s tour focused on the northern lights, he was aware of other lights too – particularly the long twilights – and that he wanted to capture this fuller experience in his piece. The semi-dark ambience, with occasional soft changes in light levels, was intended to convey some of this. I rather liked the dark – it certainly helped keep our focus on the music and the musicians for a start!

In keeping with the Griffyn Ensemble’s style, this was more performance than pure concert. Sollis incorporated both science and myth into his work, by paralleling a scientific narration by Fred Watson (via recording) with a Snow-White-like-fairy-story-cum-norse-myth about a young girl who, cursed, is banished from the sunny sky to a dark earth where the sun can’t reach. She must find the sun to break the curse. Consequently, the culmination of Northern Lights was not “The Aurora” (Movement 12), but “Celestial Sunlight” (Movement 15*). The story takes place over 24 hours, with the times marked against the movements in the program (except for the first and last movement).

Now the music. I guess you would broadly define it as modern or contemporary classical – but, before you think it, this does not mean it was discordant or inaccessible. It wasn’t traditional by any means in form or sound, but it was evocative music, impressionistic even, if I dare invoke that term.

The ensemble, in its current line-up, has been together for around 18 months now and they look comfortable together. It’s an unusual grouping of instruments but for the audience, or me at least, it provides some exciting opportunities to hear different combinations of sounds. In Northern Lights, Sollis pushed the instruments, including Susan Ellis’ voice, to convey a range of moods and sensations. We heard whales singing, water dropping, ice creaking, particles popping; we sensed the melancholy of the long nights and the joy of the aurora.

I can’t possibly talk about all 14 movements, so I’ll just mention a few highlights which I hope I’ve remembered correctly. In “Amnesia near a  Stream” (2) played by the full ensemble, I particularly enjoyed the swelling sounds of Laura Tanata’s harp to evoke dawn or, at least, the awakening of the girl sent to earth. I also loved the harp’s gentle repetitive phrases in “Goodnight Aurora” (14), but in other movements this traditionally angelic instrument surprised us with more grating sounds. There was a lovely, melodic, singing folk-like tune, reminding me somehow of the American west, from Chris Stone’s violin in “Under Ground” (8). This piece was accompanied by some beautiful percussive effects from Holly Downes’ double bass. “Floating” (9) featured Susan Ellis, with eerie echo, and the violin. Ellis also moved us with what must surely have been challenging high humming in “Emerging Dots of White” (7). Kiri Sollis was kept busy playing piccolo, flute and alto flute (thought not all at once!) In “Excited Particles Flying High” (11) the piccolo shone as the excitement built. The sound of sheets of paper vibrating and crackling at the end of this movement was wonderfully effective. Through all this Sollis was busy conducting (with his body or eyes), attending to the mixing in of the spoken word components, or playing his guitar or mandolin.

The overriding questions are, I suppose, how well did the science work with the fairy story, and does the music hang together as a whole work. I can’t answer that on one performance, but I certainly came away feeling I’d once again experienced excellent musicians playing music that engaged both my brain and my spirit. What more can you ask, really?

Ensemble: Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flutes), Chris Stone (violin), Laura Tanata (harp), Michael Sollis (director/composer plus plucked strings).

* Although the last movement was no. 15, there were only 14 movements, as there was no no. 13 – a nod, presumably, to superstition and perhaps to the mystical aspects of the journey we were taken on.

I spent Anzac with the Griffyns

While other Aussies were attending dawn services, or watching almost 24/7 ANZAC broadcasts on the box, this ANZAC Day, Mr Gums and I chose to remember it by going to the Griffyn Ensemble’s The Dirty Red Digger concert, which was devised by their musical director Michael Sollis. Even more audacious than usual, Sollis managed to create a thoughtful show that married the story of the Glebe Rugby League football team (the Dirty Reds) with that of the ANZACS in World War 1, framed by interviews with young rugby league footballers today. He – and his “team” of engaged and talented performers – had the audience glued to its seats.

In a program that ran for a little over 2 hours, with a short break for half-time (!), Sollis spun a story about men and war and sport, about loss and class war and conscription. The performance integrated music and song, much of it composed (and all of it arranged) by Sollis himself, with archival and documentary film footage. The amount of work involved in putting all this together, the research, the writing, the interviewing, not to mention the composing and arranging – well, let’s just say we are in awe. It certainly conveyed Sollis’ passion for the subject matter – music, history, politics and football.

The show comprised nineteen pieces of music (or eighteen if we count the reprise as one) that varied in style from “classical” to folk and rock, from music hall/vaudeville to ragtime. Between and during the musical numbers, this versatile ensemble recited letters and poetry, and enacted stories with barely a hitch, while on the screen we saw a diverse selection of mostly war-related historical footage interspersed with contemporary interviews with young footballers from the Gungahlin Bulls.

“Man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” (Eric Bogle)

Sollis teased out two main themes through the show: the relationship of football to the Australian labor movement and, by extension, class struggle; and the challenge of manhood and the value of brotherhood for soldiers and footballers, past and present. We shared in the grief for soldiers (including footballers) lost, the humour and pathos of vaudevillian propaganda, and the recognition that many young working class men today continue to find purpose, meaning and mateship in football.

“I cannot engage in the work of recruiting and urge others to enlist unless I do so myself” (Ted Larkin)

Ted Larkin

“ER Larkin” (Unknown) (Presumed Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Rugby League football we learnt had its origins in northern England when working class clubs, unable to survive under the more affluent south’s “amateur” rule, broke away in 1895 to create the Northern Rugby Football Union. This form of football was established in Australia 1908. It represented, the Griffyns told us, a social movement which united young Australian working class men. It was also, from its start, closely aligned with the Labor party. Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who later earned the labor movement’s ire by attempting to introduce conscription in the Great War, was Glebe Rugby League Club’s patron in 1908. He was just one of several Labor politicians who aligned with the Rugby League movement because of its labor movement origins.

Another of these politicians was Ted Larkin. He was Australian Labor Party member for the NSW State Parliament, from 1913, and the paid secretary of the NSW Rugby League. He died at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, and, with his brother who died in the same battle, has no known grave.

You are probably starting to see now the story the Ensemble wove for us as they joined the history of Rugby League football to the progress of the War. It was told through music composed in various styles by Sollis (such as “Heartbeat”, “The Digger’s London Leave”, “Greater Game Rag” and “Conscription”) alongside propaganda songs of the era (such as “What do you think of the Kaiser?” and “Daddy’s in the firing line”) and more recent works like Eric Bogle’s heart-breaking “Green fields of France” and “Working Class Man” (made famous in Australia by Jimmy Barnes). The connections were palpable.

We also heard unfamiliar composers, such as Edouard (or Ede) Poldini, a turn of the century Hungarian composer best known for his miniature piano pieces, like “The Clock”, which featured Kiri Sollis on flute supported by the ensemble. It had a lovely, distinctive tick-tock motif.

“Footy’s my fix” (contemporary footballer)

Interspersed with footage from the Great War, including the Conscription Referendums and the Great Strike of 1917, were interviews with young Gungahlin Bulls footballers and one of their coaches. They talked of mateship, what football means to them, and how they’d feel about going to war should the call happen again. They spoke from their hearts about depression and alcohol, and with humour about the distance between them and those IT guys, the “keyboard warriors”, who are too smart to get themselves beaten up on a football field! Through their comments, and the accompanying footage, Sollis brought working class culture to an arts environment, and as the ensemble belted out “Working Class Man” we saw on the screen those (not really so) simple souls with hearts of gold in our complicated land. It was pretty spine-tingling.

I believe this program will tour nationally. Don’t miss it, if it comes near you. If you’re not moved by the story and impressed by the musicianship of the performers, not to mention challenged to keep up, well, your tastes are very different to mine!

Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:

And you can see sheet music for “The Clock” online, though I couldn’t find a performance.

Team Griffyn: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Flute), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).