The Song Company’s upcoming Songs from the Heart tour in September-October 2022, directed by Antony Pitts and Francis Greep, with commissioned music by Sonya Holowell and myself, Elizabeth Sheppard, is designed as a musical interface between Australia’s 252 years of 1770-2022 colonialism, and the nationally affirmed, powerful contemporary Voice of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal First Nations, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Songs from the Heart will be premiered at Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral on 29 September 2022, and will then tour to Parramatta (Riverside Theatres Oct 2), Canberra (Larry Sitsky Room, ANU School of Music Oct 4), Melbourne (The Oratory, Abbotsford Convent Oct 6), Sydney (Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst Oct 7 and 9) and Wollongong (Wollongong Art Gallery Oct 8). With consideration for unavoidable Covid-induced cancellations and rehearsal disruptions during 2020-2021, the Australian Arts Council has just granted $25,000 to fund an additional Australian regional tour of Songs from the Heart in February 2023.
Proclaimed by lawyer Dr. Megan Davis, the Uluru Statement was gifted to all Australians, who have honoured, acclaimed and responded to it in many affirmative ways. My commissioned music for Songs from the Heart is my heartfelt response to the Uluru Statement: it echoes Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s affirmation of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
The Uluru Statement was gifted to the Australian people by the 250 government authorised First Nations Delegates to the 2017 Australian National Constitutional Convention, and distributed online, so every Australian has a opportunity, and an obligation, to read it fully, come to an accurate understanding of the whole text and the significant Anangu art that surrounds it, and respond to it in some meaningful way. Vigorous community based debates have surrounded the Statement: this is normal, and different opinions can and should be teased out and thoroughly explored, as the Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney, and Australia’s Special Envoy for Implementation of the Uluru Statement, Senator Patrick Dodson, have noted. Many Australians, conscious of Australia’s conflicted history, find engaging with the Statement difficult, but a wholehearted response is needed from all Australians, to enable Australia to move forward beyond Sorry, to the lasting Agreement between Australia’s First Nations and its non-Aboriginal peoples, that the Uluru Statement proposed. One way of approaching a personal and community response, is to meditate on the content of the Uluru Statement, though making and listening to music about it. The Song Company’s production, undertaken in consultation with Indigenous Australian composers and communities, echoes and reinforces the Uluru Delegates’ intentions, as one small step forward in the ongoing movement of the Australian people that the Uluru Statement from the Heart initiated.
My music for Songs from the Heart is conceived on a liturgical / oratorical scale that honours the full Uluru Statement as a sacred, uncensored text, an undeniable affirmation of Australian First Nations presence. This approach reflects my lifelong musical training and intercultural experience as an Australian Indigenous scholar and accredited Cantor. As The Song Company performs my songs, a mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal singers humbly walk with, attend to, echo and explore how to understand and enact this practical, forward looking roadmap for Australia. The words written by 250 accredited Aboriginal Australian National Constitutional Convention Delegates, are surrounded by Anangu artwork from the Uluru site itself, that the Anangu artists painted to show the cultural power of Uluru. No other document has communicated the wishes of all Australian First Nations so clearly, to the whole Australian people, and no other document has gained such acclamation and consent from all Australians, at local, regional and national levels.
Besides PM Albanese’s recent endorsement of the Uluru Statement, local Councils, regional bodies and corporations all over Australia have endorsed the Uluru Statement. In my own local area, Parramatta NSW, in December 2021 I moved a motion, as a Member of the 2021 Aboriginal Advisory Committee of Parramatta Council, to recommend that the Council endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. Phillip Russo seconded my motion. The ATSI Advisory Committee forwarded this recommendation to Parramatta Council, and Parramatta Council passed it in July 2022. So these compositions are not merely artistic works; they engaged with, reflect, and are the outcome, of a real Australian grass roots struggle to reach conciliatory consensus at local level at Parramatta, and the challenging creative process that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents engaged in, guided by the Uluru Statement and Makaratta truth telling, to arrive at an Agreement.
The whole Songs from the Heart production seeks to focus deeper audience attention on the clearly written and beautifully painted Uluru Statement from the Heart that was gifted to all Australians. The First Nations composers and singers invite consideration of the Uluru Statement, and The Song Company walks respectfully and attentively through the document. As The Song Company engages with the Statement intellectually and spiritually, the singers model how to walk respectfully and rigorously, as committed colleagues and allies, alongside Australia’s First Nations, by reflecting truthfully and empathetically in song, on Australia’s past, present and future. As Australians we are living through troubled times, but we all share hopes for a better future, and The Song Company’s realistic hope, tempered by discipline and skill, shines through.
Since learning the Australian First Nations way of walking on Country properly is a slow, gradual process, and since everyone is at a different stage of this process, neither The Song Company nor the composers make any claim that the Songs from the Heart music is perfect, culturally expert from all points of view, comprehensive, or definitive. The music simply invokes and enables audience responses to the Uluru Statement, opening the way to this, without undue demands. Due to Australia’s unresolved cultural dilemmas, responses to the Uluru Statement are necessarily diverse, volatile, dynamic, and ongoing. As in all projects with Australian First Nations themes, ongoing consultation with First Nations communities was required, and The Song Company engaged in cultural consultation, early in the project. Songs from the Heart is a beginning – one genuinely heartfelt engagement among many ongoing intercultural dialogues. May all music that honours the Uluru Statement completely and honestly, remain dynamically open to the inspired vision of a better Australia, that is offered to all Australians in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.