With six Melbourne musicians, 11 from Sydney, two actors and 70 minutes of music, recording Iron in the Blood was an exciting, exhausting and emotionally riveting experience.
Iron in the Blood is a project I have been working on for the past two years, inspired by one of the best known books on Australia’s founding, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore (1987). The work is concerned with my feelings about this country – its dark history, its conformist yet sceptical people, its unforgiving landscape, and its timelessness. Reading The Fatal Shore in 2012 had a profound effect on me, changing the way I viewed Australia in many ways. I felt I had been denied the real truth of Australia’s history, which had often been romanticised during my schooling years and in particular, was denied much of the cultural experiences of Australia’s early settlers. The work was motivated along similar lines to Hughes’ desire to explore the origin of cultural tropes in Australian culture, and to revisit Australia’s colonial history, in effect to explain it to myself and convey it through music.
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The work was not intended to have an Australian ‘conscience’ but to assert individual conscious of our surroundings and historical context. The work was intended to resonate with both Australians and the greater international community, just as the book is widely known around the world. The work follows the convicts’ narrative from slavery towards freedom and the incredible brutality and genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines. The work not only reinvigorates the rich tapestry of Australia’s colonial history but serves as a continuing call for Australia to remember its origins and build a future that embraces a broad perspective on cultural identity.
The work uses Hughes’ gripping narration and voices from a variety of primary sources, including convicts letters, doctors, magistrates, captains, soldiers and many more, creating a rich fabric of perspectives, and an oratory history that follows the convicts difficult path from Georgian England to labour camps on the other side of the then known world. The book also conveys a sense of pathos and deep remorse towards the inhumane treatment of Aborigines, including the genocide to the Tasmanian indigenous population.
The project included two days of rehearsals and two days recording. With an entirely new ensemble, and music that was on occasion quite difficult, this posed many challenges. The first day we rehearsed the entire work, the second spending more time on particular sections and getting levels in preparation for the recording the following day. I had composed four new movements (10 in total) since the first stage performance of the work with the Con Jazz Orchestra. I hadn’t road tested this material and so was excited to hear it performed. Here is a performance of a re-orchestration of the second movement Time Immemorial, performed by the SCM Modern Music Ensemble with soloists Steve Barry, Peter Koopman and myself.
The experience was intense, as I had decided to conduct the ensemble instead of performing, as well as co-producer with recording engineer Bob Scott. This involved commenting on players performances in open ended improvisation sections, providing feedback on less defined elements in the score, and managing recording challenges such as headphone levels, spill and most of all time. Melbourne based drummer Danny Fischer did a remarkable job of playing a challenging part, as did Melbourne pianist Joseph O’Connor, who also made a cameo appearance on harpsichord.
The actors Bill Zappa and Philip Quast arrived on the first evening to record the narration parts. Both were seasoned professionals, and the recording session was made easier with their comedic jovial camaraderie. The best part was hearing them sing the chorus folk song, which i had originally planned for the orchestra to read out. Thankfully the actors recommended against this, humorously saying that it was like asking a dancers to sing (most musicians can sing to a certain degree right?).
Here’s the opening line from the work:
The very day we landed upon the shore, the planters stood around us, full 20 score or more, They ranked us up like horses, and sold us out of hand, They chained us up to pull the plough, upon Van Diemen’s Land
The recording was greatly assisted by the ingenuity of recording engineer Bob Scott, who is widely known for his work recording the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Since the recording was at the Conservatorium of Music’s Music Workshop, an entire mobile setup was required. We pushed through the first day of recording with remarkable efficiency, recording two of the most difficult movements and three subsequent movements. Almost half of the second day was spent recording the second movement – Time Immemorial. Perhaps the biggest challenge was recording the harpsichord, which we relocated to the locker room, finding the acoustics ideal. Although it was impossible to conduct Joseph from the Music Workshop, we managed to link some headphones and incredibly long cable. Heres a clip:
On a more personal note, I arrived home from the first day of recording and collapsed in an emotional state of reliving the story of The Fatal Shore. It had been a traumatic experience extracting the text and reading sections of the book several times but somehow the combination of music and narration had a profound effect on me. I felt the brutality imposed on the convicts, the people who’s backs this country was built upon and the injustice caused on the Aboriginal people. The musicians seemed to feel it too, at least those that were compelled to share their thoughts with me.
Thanks goes out to Bob Scott for his tireless efforts recording the project and all the musicians involved: Evan Antwell-Harris, Scott McConnachie, Michael Agenicos, Matt Keegan, Paul Cutlan, Patrick McMullin, Callum G’Froerer, Charles Casson, Nick Garbett, Mike Raper, James MacAulay, Eleanor Shearer, Colin Burrows, Joseph O’Connor, Ben Hauptmann, Thomas Botting, Daniel Fischer.
I look forward to sharing the recording with you.
Jeremy Rose is an award winning Sydney saxophonist/composer Jeremy Rose performs with a wide range of his current projects including The Vampires, The Strides, Compass Sax Quartet, Jeremy Rose Quartet, and has a growing presence as a composer for contemporary and improvised music ensembles. Jeremy has studied across the globe, including Norway, New York, London, and more recently in Greece, Cuba and Bali. Jeremy is currently completing a PhD in composition at Sydney Conservatorium of Music under the supervision of Professor Matthew Hindson. He has received numerous awards including 2009 Bell Award for Young Australian Jazz artist of the Year, was a finalist in the 2012 and 2013 Art Music Awards and a finalist in the Freedman Jazz Fellowship in 2012 and 2013.