MPavilion 10 Music Commission
WOMINJEKA SONG CYCLE
BY DEBORAH CHEETHAM FRAILLON AO
Yorta Yorta woman, soprano and Short Black Opera Artistic Director Cheetham Fraillon will compose a new work for the Wominjeka Song Cycle to debut at the season’s opening.
‘The Wominjeka Song Cycle is a significant commission which Deborah has grown and evolved in concert with MPavilion over the past decade. Each song sonically represents a particular pavilion; together the cycle celebrates an enduring yet dynamic place and the knowledge we share and create in it,’ said Naomi Milgrom AC, commissioner of MPavilion.
Since MPavilion’s inception, Cheetham Fraillon has composed a musical expression of welcome in the traditional language of Bunjil’s River Country to open every season. With each work, she responds to the MPavilion architect’s vision and design. Cheetham Fraillon will create the tenth composition for the Wominjeka Song Cycle and perform it with the Dhungala Children’s Choir 16 November.
‘Ten years ago, Naomi Milgrom AC invited me to write the opening song for the first MPavilion and, in doing so, embedded a First Nations voice in this visionary project. With the guidance and deep knowledge of N’Arweet Aunty Carolyn Briggs AM, the Wominjeka Song Cycle has been a deeply considered continuous journey as I have responded each time to a new design, a new architectural voice,’ said Cheetham Fraillon. ‘Every MPavilion invites us to consider our sense of place and cultural knowledge through song in a location where knowledge has been transferred and culture has been lived for 70,000 years.’
As a composer, I have concentrated on the setting of First Nations’ languages from across the continent for over 20 years. There are protocols, permissions and the process of understanding with respect, which precedes each compositional journey. The MPavilion songs have been made possible through the scholarship, cultural knowledge, wisdom and generosity of N’Arweet Aunty Carolyn Briggs AM. Without her, this Song Cycle would not have been possible.
Each year of this project, I have responded to a new design, a new architectural voice. But underpinning this has always been a sense of continuity. When we make music on this continent, whether as a soloist with a backing track or with a full symphony orchestra at our command, we are part of a tradition which is older than anywhere else in the world.
The MPavilion Commissions have provided me with the inspiration and opportunity to extend my understanding of the Country I live and work on, the lands of the Yallukit Weelum. Like so many of us living in Melbourne, my journey of understanding Boon Wurrung language and culture began with one simple word: Wominjeka. I say simple, but there really is so much to this word. In truth, it was my own understanding that was simplistic to begin with. I thought I knew, but when I was ready to understand Aunty Carolyn shared with me the true meaning of this ubiquitous word.
Wominjeka – come, state your intention.
It is an invitation, but not without consideration. The Boon Wurrung require each visitor to declare their purpose for being on these unceded lands. This is an entirely reasonable premise for the start of any relationship. It is a statement I have taken very seriously since moving my life to this country from Gadigal lands in 2006. Why have I come to this place and what will my contribution be?
The MPavilion Wominjeka Song Cycle has provided an invaluable opportunity, not just for myself as a composer and lyricist. It has also afforded the members of Dhungala Children’s Choir and soloists from Short Black Opera a uniquely empowering opportunity to connect with new audiences and share cultural knowledge through song.
These works are designed to be performed live at the opening ceremony of each MPavilion. Beginning in 2014, the Federation Bells – played by percussion duo Zela Papageorgiou and Hamish Upton – accompanied the Dhungala Children’s Choir who, at the time, were celebrating their fifth anniversary. The clarion sound of the bells worked well in the al fresco setting, losing none of their charm,even when set against the slightly lower pitch of the occasional tram bell.
By 2015, the choir numbers had grown, as had the children themselves, and I realised that the 1000-strong audience at the opening needed to have a sense of being enveloped in sound. So the collaboration with my cousin James Henry Little emerged and the backing track for Womindjeka Elements 2 gave birth to a ceremony which included choreography and performance by Rheannan Port. This composition was made especially significant by the addition of a virtuosic flute solo played by my daughter Tamara Kohler (Founding Director, Rubiks Collective) and a soprano solo by Shauntai Batzke (Founding Member, Short Black Opera).
The sound worlds made possible by well-designed electronic composition continued to suit each pavilion until 2019, when I felt it was time to return to live performance. I created the Bunjil Ngalingu quartet, built around the gorgeous vocal talents of Jessica Hitchcock (Founding Member, Short Black Opera) with Toni Lalich at the piano and Bridget Phillips on cello.
There is little I can say about 2020 that has not already been deeply felt by each and every one of us. Words are barely adequate to describe the sense of shock and loss of humanity suffered around the world, and the particular effect on those of us living in Melbourne. With singers forbidden to sing, only music in its purest form could stand. And so I created a viola solo for Aaron Wyatt. Wooroongi Biik – Strong Country. This short work summons the feelings from the darker times of the pandemic and I am unapologetic for this sentiment.
When the Wominjeka Song Cycle took the form of a live recorded concert, I made the decision to orchestrate and arrange each of the songs, leaving only the Wominjeka Boon Wurrung and Bunjil Ngalingu in their original form. My reasons were twofold. Firstly, to harness the exquisite acoustics of Australia’s greatest Recital Hall, and to bring together as many musicians as possible to reimagine these songs after facing two years of an existential threat to the music and live performance community in Australia. The Wominjeka Song Cycle is as much about healing as it is celebration.
This performance brought together the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with Orchestra Victoria and members of Ensemble Dutala in a rare and hugely significant Southbank collaboration under the baton of Noongar conductor Aaron Wyatt (Artistic Director, Ensemble Dutala). Together with members of the Consort of Melbourne, under the leadership of Steven Hodgson, Dhungala Children’s Choir and our soloists, we represented the larger family of musicians who make live performance in Australia possible.
The longevity of the MPavilion Music Commission demonstrates a deep level of understanding of the place and purpose of music in life. Music is central. It is the way of mapping our own identities and giving meaning to the world around us.
MPavilion 9: WOMINJEKA NGALINGU
Wominjeka Ngalingu was composed for and performed at MPavilion 9’s opening; Cheetham Fraillon and the Dhungala Children’s Choir returned to the Gardens to perform in January. Listen here.
But before that, all MPavilion Music Commissions were performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre. For the first time, audiences were able to hear the Wominjeka Song Cycle as a complete work – with a full orchestra, choirs and soloists. A moment of reconciliation, this musical achievement was an expression of optimism for our shared future. Listen here.
Photograph by John Gollings.
MPavilion 8: GALNYA YAKARRYMDJA
‘2021 marked a year of hardship for the Boon Wurrung. It was time to sing in my own language and bring a message of respect and healing to them. In the Yorta Yorta language, Galnya Yakarrumdja means a beautiful way of being on or coming to Country. We take this meaning further to mean respect. I wrote this song of respect for N’arweet Aunty Carolyn Briggs AM – for her knowledge, wisdom and vast contribution to our lives as Australians living on this continent. When next we perform this song at MPavilion, we will face the Birrarung and sing to the ancestors of the Yallukit Weelum, drawing strength from Bunjil’s river country,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by Anthony Richardson.
MPavilion 7: WOOROONGI BIIK
‘Lockdown. Isolation. Yet, music lives on. The country remains strong and is a source of inspiration. Wooroongi Biik literally means strong country. Apart from each other, it is all we needed. Since January 2018, Aaron Wyatt and I had been forming a strong partnership from which developed the beginnings of Australia’s first Indigenous chamber group, Ensemble Dutala. Now Aaron’s abilities as a violist came to mind. The strength and subtlety of this particular member of the string family suited my mood and purpose for this year of solitude and melancholy,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by John Betts.
MPavilion 6: BUNJIL NGALINGU
‘For almost half of its existence, Short Black Opera has consisted of three core members: Toni Lalich, myself and Jessica Hitchcock. 2019 was Jess’ final year with SBO; in 2020, she would unleash her talent on the world of independent music festivals. To mark this rite of passage, I decided to compose a trio for the SBO team and so Bunjil Ngalingu came to be. Very early in the composition process I knew I wanted to include cello, so the trio became a quartet. For the first time, I included a significant amount of English text to paint the picture of the traditional food source of the Boon Wurrung: the yam daisy or Murnong. Once again, Bunjil returns to guide us over the flowing waters of the golden fields of Murnong,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by Rory Gardiner.
MPavilion 5: YARRAN NGARANGA YINGA
‘In 2015, I started mentoring the Wiradjuri soprano Sara Prestwidge; her lyric coloratura was the inspiration for this work. I turned to James Henry Little for the technical elements and all-important Waa call (for the Boon Wurrung people, Waa protects the waterways; for musicians, Waa protects the beat). Both Dhungala Children’s Choir languages (Wadawurrung and Yorta Yorta) are used for the first time. The work is restrained harmonically, as though we’re in a constant search for something. When it breaks free into the major key, it feels as if the light of understanding has been turned on and we can celebrate together. But the last word belongs to the cicadas. For the orchestral version, their sound is created by the Kulap. Used by Torres Strait Islanders, these seed pod rattles are an integral part of dance ceremony,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by John Gollings.
MPavilion 4: NGANGA YINGA
‘You’re not meant to have favourites, but this has to be mine. The pavilion’s stature and internal circular structure brought out the expansive melodies, building throughout three verses with a grand climax followed by the reaffirmation of the text in barely a whisper. The overlapping message of Wominjeka – sung in three-part harmony by Dhungala Children’s Choir, blending with the warmth of Shauntai Batzke’s voice – makes for a life-affirming work. The opening holds a special place in my heart as it was the last event my sister-in-law, Susan Devereaux, attended in Melbourne before cancer claimed her life. She had supported the Dhungala Children’s Choir from Bunbury and often travelled east to support the work her sister, Toni Lalich, and I had achieved with these young voices,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by Timothy Burgess.
MPavilion 3: wominjeka birrarunga
‘The opportunity to work with Tabla Master Dr Aneesh Pradhan and harmonium player Sudhir Nayak presented a delightful opportunity to embed the culture of the architect in a song of welcome and acknowledgement. In this Music Commission, I began to explore the rhythm and tempo of the Birrarung-ga – the land immediately surrounding the river. I also returned to the story of Bundjil as a source of creative inspiration. The ideas of return and continuity are at the core of the Song Cycle,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by Rory Gardiner.
MPavilion 2: Wominjeka elements 2
‘By 2015, I realised the launch needed a sonic scope that would envelop the audience, so I invited my cousin and composer James Henry Little to collaborate. James and I could not be more different in our approach to composition and that is precisely what was needed. James works exclusively with synthesised sounds and wields his software powerfully, creating dense sound worlds. To his harmonic structure, I added vocal melodies for soloist Shauntai Batzke and the virtuosic flute solo, played by my daughter Tamara Kohler. To this, we added another essential element of First Nations’ ceremony: dance. Rearranging this work for orchestra was a challenge due to that density, but when you have the finest orchestral players in Melbourne to write for it makes for an exciting journey of possibility,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by Rory Gardiner.
MPavilion 1: long journey boon wurrung
‘MPavilion 1 provided the perfect start to this journey; a music box through which light and melody could flow. Dhungala Children’s Choir made their debut, enchanting the audience as the pavilion opened to reveal the carefully choreographed performance. Located so close to the Birrarung, I wanted the lyrics to function as a celebration and invitation. The river of mists is an evocative description and reminds me of the way voices are amplified and reflected by the surface of the water. In this first Song Cycle, I introduce the creation beings of Bunjil and Waang (Eagle and Crow) and the notion of a journey between knowing and understanding. The melody is playful in character, with the rhythmic structure of Long Journey Boon Wurrung provided by the language itself,’ Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.
Photograph by Earl Carter.