Wowak (Breathe) Creates A Musical Partnership In Perth

Published in Arts  
'WOWAK (Breathe)' 'WOWAK (Breathe)'

Western Australia’s rich Noongar culture will be celebrated in 'Wowak (Breathe)' as part of the Fremantle Festival’s winter programme 10 Nights In Port.


A collaboration between four Noongar family groups and the Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO), ‘Wowak’ combines traditional and contemporary Noongar dance, song and storytelling with classical music to create a unique evening of song which is sure to impress.

Here, Composer Rebecca Erin-Smith chats about what audiences can expect from ‘Wowak (Breathe)'.

What can audiences expect from 'Wowak'?
They can expect an exciting multidisciplinary show that combines western and Noongar music traditions in a vibrant, filmic, orchestral environment.

How long did it take to develop the show from concept to finished product?
I came on board the project about two months ago when the basic idea for the show was just coming together in a tangible way. Through many discussions between Karla [Hart, Artistic Director] and myself we fleshed out, musically, what would best highlight the wonderful nuances of the songs belonging to the Noongar families. Karla wanted a true collaboration between the Noongar families' songs and Western music – we put considerable effort into developing the show in a way that gave each idiom space to breathe and speak for itself, and, simultaneously, giving something new to the other. The goal was a true symbiosis.

Can you take us through the rehearsal process? What was involved and what were some of the challenges you and the performers faced?
This was a true bucket-list project for me, and it was a real journey of musical problem-solving! This is to be expected when you bring together two unique musical idioms with clearly-defined and established parameters. Western and Noongar musics are centred on completely different concepts of rhythm, pitch, and extra-musical 'stuff'. While western music (usually) tends to prioritise the notes on the page, Noongar music prioritises the conveyance of a specific energy, emotion, or concept – the music is informed by the context in which it is performed, western music usually the inverse. This makes Noongar music considerably more fluid than is possible with a full orchestra! They require ink on a page to function. I tried to reach a balance between this fluidity and comparative rigidity, bringing improvisational elements, body percussion, and unusual techniques to the orchestra, and requesting their flexibility in what constitutes a beautiful, orchestral sound. The rehearsal process has consisted of a full rehearsal with orchestra only, in which there was a lot of talking to explain the concepts and less-usual musical aspects. The PSO musicians have been very patient and kind, and thrown themselves into this project wholeheartedly, for which I am very grateful. The following rehearsal is with the full cohort – orchestra, dancers, singers, and narrators. It's sure to be a hell of a party!

What was the inspiration for the show’s title and how does it relate to the music and stories featured in the show?
The title of the show means 'Breathe'. This has certainly informed the composition process for me. The music is full of space and light, and plays with tension and release in a way that (hopefully) makes whoever is on the receiving end become conscious of their own breath. There are a lot of musical gestures that more literally interpret the concept of breath – big swells of orchestral colour, undulating textures, and overarching structures that shape the music like one big inhale and exhale.

Are there any particular aspects of Noongar culture that you hoped to capture within the show? Why did you choose these aspects in particular and how do you think you have done this?
I've tried to distil the natural music of Noongar land – the birds, the bush, the fauna, water, breath, and fire – into musical form. If you listen carefully you will hear that each song is peppered with little gestures resembling birdsong, percussive snippets that recall rain and beating hearts, and unusual instrumental techniques that conjure the sound of flames and rushing fire. In fact, the score explicitly states directions such as 'shimmering heat' and 'like stirred wind'. For each song, I sat down with the performers from each family who spoke to me about the stories behind the music – what was at the heart of each song. We spoke at length about what each song is designed to achieve, what is describes, and what it communicates. These are not my songs – nothing has been left solely to my interpretation. My one goal was to take these stories, learn as much as possible about their origins and intents, and create a musical environment that supported this and lit it from within, using the strength and enormous colour pallet of the orchestra to augment the original tunes.

What impact do you hope the show has upon the audience?
I hope that the audience leaves with a sense of connection – connection precipitates understanding, and understanding spearheads respect. I feel immensely privileged to be able to contribute to this project in such a meaningful way, and to create a musical environment that not only supports, but celebrates Noongar culture with enormous gusto and utmost respect.

'Wowak (Breathe)' plays Freo.Social as part of 10 Nights In Port (Fremantle Festival) 21 July.

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