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27 October 2020

Flinders Quartet and Deborah Cheetham's 'Bungaree' (Peggy Glanville-Hicks Commission)

Flinders Quartet: Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba (violin), Zoe Knighton (cello), Helen Ireland (viola) and Wilma Smith (violin). Image: Flinders Quartet: Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba (violin), Zoe Knighton (cello), Helen Ireland (viola) and Wilma Smith (violin).  

In this article, cellist of the Flinders Quartet, Zoe Knighton, talks about working with Deborah Cheetham on the Yorta Yorta composer's new work Bungaree. A videoed conversation between Zoe and Deborah forms part of the latest instalment in our series of 13 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Commissions, initiated by the AMC in response to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. The Quartet also developed and recorded the first movement of the work as part of the project. A streamed premiere of Bungaree will take place in Melbourne on 25 November - a work by Ella Macens will have its first performance in the same concert. The Quartet is also workshopping and performing works by emerging composers in three events on 4, 8 and 14 November.

When we called ourselves Flinders Quartet, back in 2000, we were in our mid-20s and really didn't think through the name other than, 'Flinders St Station and Matthew Flinders - and hey, he was an explorer. That's pretty cool'. The naivety and lack of depth in our understanding of the various implications and symbology of that name makes me cringe now, but working with someone as generous, intelligent and supportive as Deborah Cheetham AO helps us realise that the way forward is to try and understand and acknowledge the past through the acquisition of knowledge, and find a way of living with the truth in the future.

The commission of a new work by Deborah Cheetham came in response to her magnificently moving work Eumeralla, a war requiem to those who died in a massacre south of Port Fairy. Sung in traditional language and premiered with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in June 2019, it was one of the most moving performances of which I have been a part, one of those rare occasions when realisation and art converge, and the importance of the music is more than validated. But more than the pure emotional response was the awareness that Deborah Cheetham has an incredibly powerful compositional voice. As a mere musician, I'm aware of when music 'fits' me and when it doesn't. Those occasions of a perfect fit, like this one was, are joyous.

How does a humble string quartet aim to heal and find answers? I'm often embarrassed by my lack of knowledge where the colonisation of Australia is concerned. Through writing this piece, Deborah has not only educated us, and helped to relieve our paralysis, she has written an extremely emotive piece. For me, the best pieces are those with many layers. I'm reminded of a famously brilliant performance of the violin solos from Ein Heldenleben: when the conductor congratulated the concertmaster and started to talk about the context of the work, the concertmaster confessed that he had no idea of the story behind the violin representing Richard Strauss's love, Pauline - the point being that it is not always necessary to understand the context of the piece to play with conviction and to evoke an emotive response from the audience, but it certainly helps.

Deborah's new work for us is inspired by Matthew Flinders's comrade in his circumnavigation of Australia, Bungaree. The best thing about this three-movement string quartet, titled Bungaree - is that it is a piece of music which evokes an emotional response without having to know the backstory, and this is vital for its longevity. As musicians, we always feel incredibly privileged when we have the chance to play a piece that has the capacity to go beyond just being beautiful music, and to be part of a change in group consciousness about how a certain topic is viewed. Having said that, I do believe that the world needs more music that is just, well, beautiful. Glorious sounds that go together. Bungaree ticks that box as well.

If you have ever had the chance to be in the same room as Deborah, you will certainly remember it. The first time I heard her speak at length, I had the same euphoria as a preppie has, listening to their first teacher, combined with the awe of listening to a great leader: words of complete sense combined with intense intelligence.

How does it feel to breathe life into a piece for the first time? We all feel an immense responsibility when we play someone else's music. Which is all of the time. The responsibility is even greater when that person is sitting right there, listening.

Music has to live on its own, and Deborah knows that. From the first rehearsal, she had us striving to go beyond p and mp, semiquavers and demisemiquavers, and listening to how the music was flowing through us. As Deborah says, 100 years from now, when this music is played (and I know it will be - perhaps to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of a statue, or the naming of a concert hall in Bungaree's name), those future players will have to find their own way.

Having the composer's permission to feel where the music is taking us, adopting nuanced rhythms and dynamics, is completely liberating. As a musician, too much instruction on the page can be paralysing. Imagine being an actor, and having constant directions in the text?

Romeo, (1 sec pause)
(3 sec pause and slight intake of breath. Look up to the sky, then down to the garden. Count to 5.)
Wherefore Art thou Romeo?

For me, that would not bear well for a convincing performance.

As ever, working with a living composer has affected (and in a good way) our approach to all composers, especially those we can't converse with any more, like Beethoven. Knowing which markings to take literally, which ones would be implied, and then trusting ourselves to let the music dictate. It's a wonderful thing when musical conversations with the living lead to endless musical conversations with the dead.

Flinders Quartet is deeply grateful for the support of project partners: City of Melbourne, Creative Victoria, Creative Partnerships Australia, Australia Council for the Arts, Besen Family Foundation, All That We Are and 3MBS Fine Music Melbourne. FQ's 2020 Composer Development Program is presented in association with Team of Pianists and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria)

> Deborah Cheetham - AMC profile. See also www.deborahcheetham.com.

> Flinders Quartet - homepage

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