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Sculthorpe’s cross-cultural compositions

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Event description

Experience Australia’s vast landscape and nature through the immersive sounds of composer Peter Sculthorpe while surrounded by the finest Western Desert paintings of the Pintupi masters. Canberra’s Ellery String Quartet and pianist Jasmine Li present some of Sculthorpe’s most enchanting chamber music including the powerfully affective Quamby Bluff  String Quartet no.14, Into The Dreaming for Cello, and Djilile for Piano.

Peter Sculthorpe’s (1929-2014) ethereal works evoke sounds and feelings of Australian deserts and bushlands. His compositions are influenced by non-Western traditions, including First Nations music, culture, and histories, while firmly grounded in the Western classical idiom. His most famous pieces include Kakadu (1988) and Earth Cry (1986) for orchestra.  

Into the Dreaming (1993), originally titled Cello Dreaming, was written for the Uluru Recording Project for Belinda Webster of Tall Poppies Records. The project brought together cello pieces composed by ten Australian composers, marking the tenth anniversary of the returning of Uluru to its First Nations owners. The work was inspired by ‘a quiet, solitary walk in the Valley of the Winds at Katajuta, in the Uluru National Park.’ Sculthorpe dedicated the song to his friend Lillian Peart, who passed away on the day he began to write the music.

Djilile (1986/89) is a piano adaptation of a First Nations melody collected from Arnhem Land, northern Australia, in the late 1950s by anthropologist A. P. Elkin and music professor Trevor A. Jones. ‘Djilile’ is a well-known chant in the area, which means ‘whistling-duck on a billabong’. Having a particular fondness with this melody, Sculthorpe used it in his other compositions, include Port Essington (1977) for strings, Kakadu (1988) for orchestra and Dream Tracks (1992) for clarinet, violin, and piano.

String Quartet No.14 (1998) was inspired by the story Sculthorpe’s father told him during his childhood in Tasmania. According to the local legend, colonial government soldiers once drove a tribe of First Nations peoples to the bluff’s edge and forced them to choose either jumping off the bluff or getting shot. As they jumped off, they cried out ‘Quamby! Quamby!’, meaning ‘Save me! Save me!’ This incident remained in Sculthorpe’s mind all his life. In 1998, when the Launceston Chamber Music Society commissioned Sculthorpe to write a chamber work, he decided to write a piece about Quamby.

String Quartet No.14 contains four movements: Prelude, In the Valley, On High Hills and At Quamby Bluff. Prelude presents most of the musical motifs on which the quartet is based, followed by the sombre second movement, In the Valley. In great contrast, On High Hills is sweet, calm, and lyrical, based on a melody Sculthorpe conceived in his schooldays. The fourth movement At Quamby Bluff is restless and questioning, including musical themes featured in the previous movements. The hymn-like section represents Westerners asking for forgiveness for the violence committed against Tasmanian First Nations people during the early nineteenth century at the Quamby Bluff massacres. The last movement, however, ends hopefully with some musical resolution.

String Quartet No.14 reflects Sculthorpe’s concerns with social justice issues and his desires to create a connection between his music and First Nations Australians.

This concert is curated by Jasmine Li as part of an internship at the Drill Hall Gallery for her Masters program with the ANU Centre for Art History and Theory.

The Ellery String Quartet are a dynamic group of young musicians, formed at the end of 2021 and based on Ngunnawal/Ngambri land (Canberra) consisting of Brad Tham, Anika Chan, Pippa Newman, and James Monro. They are based at the ANU School of Music and supported by the Wesley Scholars program. They aim to push the boundaries of a ‘classical string quartet’, performing a wide range of repertoire in diverse venues across Canberra. Highlights include an astronomy-themed concert in the Yale-Columbia dome at Mt. Stromlo in October 2022, performing Scandinavian folk songs at Canberra’s Floriade festival, and hosting programs of classical and contemporary music in venues ranging from Wesley Uniting Church to Gang Gang Cafe. They have collaborated with various notable artists including William Barton (10th Anniversary of the National Arborteum), John Schumann (“Do We Still Have Time For Henry Lawson” at Canberra Writers Festival) and Ronan Apcar and Lynden Bassett (“Apcar’s Holland” and “This is What We Have Today”). They especially enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with local Canberran composers and musicians.   

James Monro is in his second year at the Australian National University, studying physics, pure mathematics, and cello performance. He is a casual cellist with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and a member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO).  

Beyond orchestral playing, James is a member of the Ellery String Quartet and has been selected for the AYO’s 2024 Chamber Players program. Described as a "dynamo on the cello" he recently performed the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the National Capital Orchestra, Helen Musa (Canberra City News) writing that "Monro captured the increasingly violent and despairing nature of the music [...] before bringing the work to a dazzling conclusion, to wild acclaim." James has also performed Dvorak, Elgar, and Lalo cello concertos with orchestras. As a hobby, he enjoys composing, and has played his solo cello work Heptagonal Autobiography at Government House for Musica Viva’s 75th Anniversary, and for the launch of the 2023 Canberra International Music Festival. 

James is a Wesley scholar and holds the ANU Friends of the School of Music Performance Scholarship and the Ruth Pfanner Scholarship. He studies cello with Rachel Johnston, and his other teachers include Simon Cobcroft and Li-Wei Qin. 

In 2021 James was awarded a bronze medal in the International Physics Olympiad and competed in the International Linguistics Olympiad. In 2023 he won the Canberra Mini Cello Festival competition, and his chamber groups won first prize and audience prize in the ANU Friends Ensemble Music Prizes in 2022 and 2023. In 2020 he won the rank of recitalist in the National Youth Concerto Competition and his piano trio received the Druce Family prize in Musica Viva’s Strike a Chord competition.   

Jasmine Li is a Taiwanese-born pianist, piano teacher, and postgraduate student at ANU. She has been playing classical piano since the age of six, and received Bachelor of Music from ANU School of Music in 2022. She is currently studying Master of Art History and Curatorial Studies (Advanced) at ANU School of Art and Design. Jasmine believes that music and visual art are both powerful forms of expression which represent and communicate the intangibles, such as feelings, ideas, memories, or experiences. She wishes to share the thrills of being ‘touched’ by art through her research and performance. 

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Image: Makinti Napanangka, Untitled (detail), 2003, acrylic on linen, 244 × 183 cm. Courtesy the artist, Papunya Tula Artists and Utopia Art Sydney.


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