March 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Scored earth

By Chloe Hooper
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The National Museum of Australia’s grand courtyard has been transformed with a constantly changing soundscape

It’s 8.50am, 10 minutes before the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, opens to the public. At the grand courtyard near the entrance, a cleaner is mopping the floor, a giant concrete map. It is a regular task as the space is most frequently visited by birds – parrots in the morning, crows in the afternoon, wood ducks taking the night shift. Their droppings are prodigious.

Across from the cleaner waits the musician and composer Genevieve Lacey. Almost three years ago, she was commissioned to create a sound installation for this area. Her brief: to transform the courtyard into one where people would choose to spend more time. Today she is revealing her work, Breathing Space, to the museum’s staff.

Around her a group slowly gathers, a mix of lanyards and apprehension.

The courtyard, named the Garden of Australian Dreams, was conceived by the museum’s architects in the late 1990s as a high-postmodern middle finger to Howard-era politics. Its design protests the nation’s history of colonial whitewashing, and is deliberately jarring. But while the courtyard’s map, and absurdist fences and water features, capture a vein of suburban amnesia, it can also give the feeling our collective national dream is set on a fading minigolf course.

Dressed casually with a floppy sunhat and large, ready smile, Lacey – an internationally renowned recorder virtuoso – wears her acclaim lightly. She introduces herself to the staff and explains that Breathing Space was born early in the 2020 COVID lockdown. She’d told the museum’s director, Mathew Trinca, of her concern for a generation of Australian musicians who were suddenly out of work. Trinca, who was struggling himself with a newly shuttered institution, decided to make a commission. “It was amazing,” she says, “to go to colleagues and be able to say, ‘We have work for you, we have a project for you.’”

At first, Lacey wondered how to make this concrete space, only skirted with trees, more garden-like. The phenomenon of rewilding, of restoring natural ecosystems to urban spaces, intrigued her. Could she “plant with sound, bringing what is a man-made environment to organic, pulsing life”?

With her long-term sound engineer, Jim Atkins, Lacey divided the courtyard into six discrete areas. Different compositions with their own “sonic footprints” play in each space, but merge to form a hyper-real, bush-like symphony that morphs through the day – mimicking a bright morning, then afternoon languor and the drift towards twilight.

A little after 9am, the vocals of Sunny Kim – “ethereal bird-like, insect-like, shimmering”, as Lacey puts it – emerge from a stand of Italian alder trees. The high cicada-like sounds of the musical group Speak Percussion play across the top. This music migrates to a stand of brittle gums, from which viola player Erkki Veltheim can be heard playing a long B note, using very soft vibrato “to give a shimmer or haze”. The viola then makes a sudden crack, like a whipbird.

Lacey tells the museum staff that “the sound world” with which she is intimately acquainted stretches from medieval times to the late Baroque: “What we call early music.” She smiles, explaining she is fascinated by the era’s “attention to very exquisite sonorities, and in particular, antiphonal music, which is something creatures and animals have done right through time, and that’s a call and response. Just as creatures would do for mating, for warning, for biological reasons, humans have always done it too.”

In Breathing Space, there’s a call and response between field recordings of native creatures and the musicians they’ve inspired. Lacey gave Speak Percussion’s Eugene Ughetti audio files of insects such as the Wallum sedge clicker, a cicada found in northern New South Wales and south-east Queensland. “He spent days not just imitating them, but learning their rhythmic patterns.”

Next, Lacey takes the staff to a space she calls “the living room”, a structure originally conceived as a satire on “white cube architecture”, the standard fare of institutional buildings, as well as the Australian dream of home ownership. This “house” has a kidney-shaped pool and no roof because “the sky is the limit”.

Lacey is less interested in architectural puns than in drawing people’s attention to the sky. Here, she wanted halo-like sounds. Mindy Meng Wang is plucking an ancient Chinese harp called a guzheng, “which you play by putting beautiful extensions on your fingertips to get the most resonance”. And Vahideh Eisaei plays another plucked instrument, the classical Persian qanun. Lacey points out that the musicians use tremolo to give their instruments “a constant shimmer”.

The staff stare up at drifting clouds. It’s hard not to be affected by such beautiful sounds.

Every hour, Lacey warns them, “the spell is somehow broken”. A visitor may, for instance, hear the unexpected: “rice grains being dripped onto a cymbal, like rain on the roof, because there is no roof”.

“Shall we move on?”

Enlivened by the adventure, Lacey walks towards the opening of an asymmetrical purple tunnel. Above it runs a jagged paling fence, recalling Shrapnel Valley at Gallipoli. Inside the tunnel, she says she had noticed children running in and out, enjoying “the fact it’s a bit spooky”. This is the deepest, most resonant place in the garden, and Lacey decided to enhance the fright factor by adding the noises of nocturnal creatures: owls, possums, gliders, growling koalas and “Tasmanian devils chomping on things”. (She has taken extensive advice on playing all the sounds at frequencies that don’t disturb the fauna already here.) Harpist Marshall McGuire and trumpeter Phil Slater play alongside what she calls “deep time” sounds: recordings of undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents, and “whooshing and popping” recorded from within living trees. She conceives of treasure hunts for children with sound.

Finally, Lacey takes the group to an area she calls “the field”, the site of her installation’s most emotional component. When she began this project, there were two people with whom she wanted to work: Yorta Yorta musician Lou Bennett (of folk trio Tiddas and the Black Arm Band) and Waanyi writer Alexis Wright. “I feel Lou is the heart and Alexis is the spine of the piece,” she says.

Wright allowed Lacey to set her words to music:

            the world will always need its dreamers
            storytellers of the universal local
            leading us back to our country
            the dwelling place of stories

The text is used in subtle variations by a choir of women and non-binary people, aged between six and 87. And because all the music in each separate composition uses only four consonant notes, the work as a whole is always in harmony.

As directed by Lacey, the museum staff stand at the place on the courtyard’s map marked WAANYI, near the Gulf of Carpentaria. “So, Waanyi is Alexis Wright’s Country and what you’re hearing now is Lou Bennett’s interpretation of her words.”

Bennett’s voice is achingly, hauntingly beautiful. Her focus has recently been language retrieval and breathing new life back into language through music. She is chanting two Yorta Yorta words: “light” and “here”, which can also mean “now”.

“So,” Lacey translates, “‘light on this day in this place’. And the kind of singing tradition she’s calling on is a women’s practice of singing up Country. It’s not just about remembering, it’s about literally singing up life: people, creatures, knowledge. It feels fitting and beautiful that it holds the space.”

Lacey asks that everyone takes a moment to listen. The otherworldly chant melds with the sounds of wind and birds and trees and even stones. It is hard to compute the scale of what Lacey has achieved. Breathing Space is an astonishingly complex work that not only changes during the day, it changes seasonally. In fact, the only way to hear Lacey’s composition in its entirety is to stay in the space for a year. It is “most active, most summery, most extrovert” around the summer solstice and then, in “mid June, it’s at its stillest, most contemplative … There are times of long transition when we’re gradually smudging from one to another.”

What she has made is alert to the tiny skitterings of the Australian bush, but it is epic in scale, an odyssey of this country’s sound. By showcasing the nation’s best musicians, she has in turn brought to life a story encompassing First Nations artists and those who have come here from all over the globe. She’s also taken a space that can feel like a monument to the culture wars and pushed it into a more sophisticated conversation about culture and language, and about our relationship to the natural world.

After living for two and a half years wired by this “massive puzzle”, Lacey is privately nervous. This commission has taken “all my brain”, she concedes, “and certainly all my courage”. It is her most ambitious work to date. And when she finishes this tour, she is scheduled to take the museum’s director around the space. Lacey jokingly compares this to handing in her homework to the principal.

Mathew Trinca follows Lacey through Breathing Space, then joins her on the verandah outside the museum’s cafe. He’s a tall, energetic man in a restrained navy suit. Lake Burley Griffin is behind him, with Parliament House perched over his shoulder. Trinca admits that during the tour he’d worn sunglasses to hide his tears. For a long time he’d known the Garden of Australian Dreams needed “something to make it live, and sing, and breathe”. But Lacey’s work has exceeded expectations. “We listen to the musicians literally and metaphorically for what we can learn about what it means to live here,” he says, his face straining. “It is a deeply moving experience.”

He is crying again.

Next year, Trinca will step down from his decade-long role as director, and during his tenure he has tried to “find moments in the requiem of this nation that can move people”. He is well acquainted with those in positions of power not wanting to show emotion, fearing that if they stray from a place that’s unimpeachably rational, their judgement will be called into question. He thinks this has grave consequences for our future as a species. “When you get moments that remind you of deep humanness,” he says slowly, “you should respond to them. And that’s what this is. It’s incredible.”

Lacey sits, listening quietly. She is relieved and delighted, and also overwhelmed to have carried all this music over these years, and to have now handed it over.

“The work,” Trinca says, “has a latent capacity to address the deep human questions of how we extend decency to each other. How to live properly in this land. So I hope for more people to be moved in this space. This stands as a grand emblem of all we’re trying to achieve … Maybe we can all be rewilded.”

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire and The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, and the novels The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

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