Bangarra’s music is wholly unique. Scores are contemporary, but deeply connected to the land. The organic and the synthesised effortlessly coalesce. And more often than not, dancers moonlight as singers.
Interview with composer Steve Francis
How do you begin working on a score for Bangarra?
"It all starts with the story and also, quite often, Stephen Page will have some wonderful visual idea. It’s very rare that he dictates the feel of a piece – he’s more interested in the intent and the story, and lets me interpret how that should sound. With every piece I try and find the ‘key’, and by key I don’t mean whether the music is in D minor for example, but the key that unlocks the piece. It might be a traditional element, or it might be a sound, a melody or a even a single word. As an example, in 'Bogong Moth Harvest', I started with some sounds of butterflies and moths I’d previously recorded. In the end, I manipulated the wing flaps. As a result they became less literal and more of a texture within the score. How the flaps led to a conversation between some pizzicato strings, I’m not sure, but it was the definitely the rhythm and timbre of the sound that was my kick-off point for the piece."
How much of the Dark Emu score is from live or organic sources, and how much is electronic?
"There are atmospheric elements: wind, rain, moths, flies, cattle. And there are also recordings of live instruments such as cello, percussion, guitars, piano and a couple of seventies synths. The vocals are obviously also recordings. As for the other elements, I wouldn’t quite describe them as electronic. Even though they are drawn from instruments on the computer, they are often based off real instruments that have been sampled and then reworked to sound nothing like the original recordings. I have a number of guitar effect pedals that I run unconventional sounds through to completely re-voice them. On this production I’ve also used some great new string libraries that were recorded at Air Studios in London. To be clear though, even with all these computer tools, I still have to write the score and play in every note you hear. When the deadlines are looming I sometimes wish the computer could do it for me."
Can you explain how cultural consultants contribute to Bangarra’s scores?
"A lot of pieces that we’ve taken from the book for Bangarra’s production of Dark Emu belong to the language of the Yuin region. For Stephen it’s always important to show respect and to include the cultural elements from the areas that relate to the story we are telling. We have been blessed to collaborate with both Lynne Thomas and Warren Foster on this production. Warren came and sang a 'Whale' song, a “Baiame” song as well as vocals and language for 'Forged by Fire' and the 'Rocks of Knowledge'. Lynne is contributing her voice and some language as well as being our cultural consultant. She also brought us a recording of her father, Guboo Ted Thomas, singing a song, which is about the ancestors moving through the land. The gift of having this song incorporated into the score is very special. Another special guest is Dark Emu’s author Bruce Pascoe reciting some of his own words and a poem by Alana (Valentine). As always the cultural elements are hugely important – without them, Bangarra’s scores would just be music."
Bangarra’s dancers often sing on scores. Tell us a little bit more about that process, and how important it is to the finished work.
"We’re really lucky to have that diversity of talent in the company. In the opening section, 'Dark Spirit of the Sky', Beau Dean Riley Smith sings a melody. Choreographer (and former dancer) Yolande Brown has leant her voice to all the choral sections in 'Bowls of Mourning'. Similar to last year’s Bennelong, I’ve worked with Dramaturg Alana Valentine to incorporate text into the score. In the section 'Crushed by Ignorance' you will hear Tara Gower perform a poem that Alana wrote, and 'Smashed by Colonisation' features Waangenga Blanco, Daniel Riley and Rikki Mason performing another poem of hers. These are combined with the singing of Elma Kris, Jasmine Sheppard and Tara Gower. Similarly to the cultural elements I think having the cast perform on the score they dance to, creates a connection that transcends the music. As I did last year, I have referenced a melody and also some lyrics from an earlier score by the late David Page. It feels appropriate that his music lives on in this new score that owes so much to him."
What do you listen to when you’re not working?
"I listen to FBI Radio in the car: it’s my favourite radio station because they play a lot of local bands. There’s a couple of Icelandic composers I really love: Olafur Arnalds, who writes very moving scores as well as solo work, and Jóhann Jóhannsson, who created beautiful, beautiful work: on the face of it very simple, but undercut with wonderful complexity and detail. I suspect they both have had an influence on Dark Emu, not by design, but mostly because I just love the worlds they create with music."
“I don’t analyse what I’m trying to do. I just try and find a jumping-off point and let the music guide me.”