In Songs for the Shadowland I have set three mourning poems by indigenous Australian poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal. These poems are both deeply moving and also full of resonances to do with the poet’s Aboriginality, which provide insight into the extraordinary importance placed by Aboriginal cultures on ancestry and respect for the dead. The allusion to a funeral ceremony in Tree Grave is a reminder of the profound cultural expression inherent in traditional indigenous mortuary rites.
In all three texts the poet manages to express with remarkable subtlety and understatement of emotion the devastation at the loss of loved ones, suggesting also the deep hurt caused by European colonisation. Despite the sombre quality of the images, the poet finds moments of optimism which seem triumphant and uplifting in their context. Oodgeroo’s restrained use of language and transparent forms makes these statements all the more powerful. I have tried to echo this sense of restraint in the musical setting.
A wailing horn interlude between the 2nd and 3rd songs functions as pond of reflection and musical commentary. It also plants seeds for musical ideas that follow in the third song. In this horn solo, natural harmonics and weeping glissandi act as a kind of ritual wailing which suggest the subject of the final poem. Although the echo of the wailing horn reminds us of past sorrow, it seems to me that Oodgeroo’s “new day calling” balances sadness with the suggestion of a brighter future.
Songs for the Shadowland was commissioned by the Queensland Biennial Festival in 1999. The second movement “Song” was added in 2001.
Program notes by the composer