Wednesday, July 31, 2019


*The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined.

Image promoting 'Stone'  from Wagga Wagga Art Gallery site

Choreographer/performance artist Linda Luke’s ‘Stone’ is described as an ‘intimate and atmospheric performance’ and a ‘meditation on nature and deep time exploring the symbiotic relationship between evolution, geology, rivers and humanity’. The work was developed with support from CREATE NSW, the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and Booranga Writers’ Group and specifically references this locality and the Murrumbidgee. I saw the final of three performances at the Links Gallery last weekend.

Morrow Street, Wagga Wagga (my photo)

We approached the Civic Precinct in misty winter twilight to see the 45 minute performance. Visible through the sliding glass doors were multi-coloured stools and figures surrounded by surfaces that looked as if the contents of a technicolour piƱata had exploded and stuck to them! This was the unlikely pop art prelude to the monochrome hues and serious mood of the work we were about to see.

Polychrome explosion - Wagga Wagga Art Gallery entrance way (my photo)

Roughly twenty five people, ranging in age from pre-schooler to sexagenarian, turned out to see ‘Stone’. An un-mic-ed staff member, as far as I could make out, asked the group to wait in the main gallery space so we could be admitted and all take our seats simultaneously and thus minimise disruptions. Viewing the amazing Art Express exhibition again while we waited was no chore and inevitably several people did wander in after the performance began.

After what seemed like several minutes of pregnant silence, the performance in the darkened space began under projected grainy images evoking flowing water and textured bark and accompanied by Liberty Kerr‘s percussive cello notes.  Next came the occasional clinking of stones as they rolled from atop a large meandering pile in the centre of the performance space, hitting the floor, suggesting an underlying upheaval. Surely, steadily, a human hand snaked from the mound, forming shapes resembling a plant shoot or a bird’s head emerging from an egg.  Slowly a full arm appeared. Tentative, hypnotic writhing and darting movements ensued. Then legs, one at a time with feet turned out like those on the Manx flag (sans armour), projected above the stones, as if testing the safeness of the air. Then the performer, Linda Luke herself, gradually arose from the stones, crouching, then standing as if willing herself to occupy minimal space, and lit with eerie shadows, her eyes closed seemingly reluctant to encounter even muted light, perhaps roused from hibernation. 

Feet turned out like those on the Isle of Mann flag (sans armour)

The projections continued to play across the surface of her body, across the stones and onto a series of screens behind her.  The impression was one of natural elements merging and changing continuously. Linda wore a simple gauzy grey-black costume with some reddish tinged striations, her arms and legs bare and her face partially veiled some of the time.  A good surface for the play of light and shapes though my mind did also conjure a fleeting vision of a  faded flannel Annette Kellerman style swimsuit.

Alice Docker wearing the kind of  one-piece swimsuit popularised by Annette Kellerman. 
Image sourced from Australian Dress Register site

The cello produced sounds like breath and heartbeats, and as my partner noted later, not unlike the rhythms of much Australian Indigenous music. More strategic silences were employed. Linda’s movements suggested a creature both in confrontation with aspects of nature and also melding into its organic environment. Eventually she did so, almost literally, by slowly backing toward a series of screens at the rear of the space.  Densely mottled images projected uniformly across her body and onto the screens, she did seem to fade into them and to become absorbed.

There was a long pause before the audience broke into patchy clapping as each member decided for themselves if the performance had concluded.  A further pause and Linda returned in more conventional lighting and thanked CREATE, the gallery and us.

I felt moved by the concentrated intensity of the performance and thought its evocation of an ancient river and surrounding trees and terrain very effective. The work made me contemplate nature’s pre-human existence and its endurance into a future possibly also devoid of human life. One of my companions said he thought ‘Stone’ was about rebirth, the other that he thought it had the feel of a Dreamtime story.  I shared the view of one of them that the movements were not quite smooth enough to do the concept full justice when compared to say Lindsay Kemp’s seamless gliding and nuanced gestures or the fluid movements of many contemporary dancers.

Lindsay Kemp, A Domenica in Negli Anni Ottanta 

‘Stone’ largely achieved its artistic and aesthetic goals. If for me it inadvertently referenced Annette Kellerman's preferred swimwear and made me nostalgic for Lindsay Kemp, I can live with that.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Both Kinds of Music

The earliest 'pop' music I remember hearing was an Andrews Sisters’ EP of ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ and 'Oh, Johnny’ that belonged to my grandmother. Then there was my parents’ Sammy Davis and Frank Sinatra collection – text on the sleeves all in Spanish because they bought the records in Argentina. We also mysteriously owned a Burl Ives’ 78 of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ and Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord’. I'm talking the late 50s, early 60s, only Sammy and Frank could have been considered vaguely contemporary. Burl, Laverne, Patty and Maxene were quaint, if catchy, a description which also applied to most of the offerings on BBC radio’s ‘Children's Favourites’ which we listened to on Saturday mornings. 'Nellie the Elephant' and  'I Don't Wanna Play In Your Yard' come to mind. Sometimes Dad tuned our only transistor to Radio Luxembourg, a pirate station, but I can’t remember any of the shanties they played. 
The Andrews Sisters - they swung!

As young girls, my sister and I had the obligatory crush on the Beatles and slept with black and white photos of our faves, given away in packets of Birdseye frozen peas, under our pillows. Me – John;  her – Paul. We had just one of their records, a mono EP, the one with the arty shot of the fab four, faces in half shadow, on the sleeve.  Though there is no way you could play music in the car in those days, in my mind the refrain: ‘and then while I’m away I’ll write home every day’ is inseparable from our drive away from our Lancashire home of 3 years to return to England’s south.

 'and then while I’m away I’ll write home every day...’

As teenagers the same Paul-fancying sister and I lived in the granny flat under our house in 'The Shire', an infamous southern suburb of Sydney, Australia, not Hobbiton. There the radio was mostly tuned to 2SM.  I remember top forties stuff like ‘I Did What I Did For Maria’ and ‘Ma Belle Amie’ as well as a smattering of ‘golden oldies’. Hearing 50s songs prompted me to see the movies ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and I experienced the bizarre frisson of feeling ‘nostalgia’ for a decade I mostly missed or spent in rompers.

I owned just one record as a child, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves.  I had asked for a recording of the folk song attributed to Henry VIII only to be disappointed that Mr Williams had omitted the vocals.  Much later I acquired a few more ‘discs’. In about Year 8, a precocious classmate gave me a cover version of ‘Hair’ for my birthday.  Vocals were very much present on that record and I sang along, enthusiastically pondering why ‘pederasty sounds so nasty’ and, less provocatively, where ‘the Waverley Building’ was. 

In my teens a boyfriend gave me Cat Stevens’ ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ and the follow up album ‘Teaser and the Fire Cat’. Both featured the singer’s own folksy (and possibly proto Islamic) cover art. It was the sleeve design, and of course the incomparable ‘Maggie May’, that attracted me to Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’. However I was soon rocking and thrashing to every track on the LP until a coating of tomato sauce applied at a party we held in the flat rendered it unplayable. I had never heard of mondegreens in 1971 but I am pretty sure that at his near hysterical bluesy best Rod screeched ‘every preacher tastes of stale donut’.

Loved this sleeve art on 'Every Picture Tells a Story'

American Pie’ and ‘Hot August Night’ were omnipresent in the early 70s. I have never tired of the poignant catchiness of Don McLean’s hit with its tantalising references to pop history, although Madonna later tried valiantly to ruin it for all of us. However even as I gyrated with my peers to ‘Crunchy Granola Suite’ and ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’ I felt there was something a bit naff about Neil Diamond, not least his name and jumpsuit.  Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, Carole King and Bette Midler all entered my orbit in the following years but somehow I didn’t encounter Dylan, Bowie or Springsteen… That was because my popular music education was arrested when I fell for a moustachioed uni student I met at the theatre. He was studying IT and ‘serious’ music and though he never introduced me to Cobol and Pascal, I was plunged into a parallel musical universe where Beethoven and Rossini (from the ‘Clockwork Orange’ soundtrack) emanated from his car’s tape deck. John Cargher’s ‘Singers of Renown’ followed The Goons every Saturday afternoon on ABC radio and Kiri Te Kanawa’s recording of ‘Les Chansons d’Auvergne’ was played obsessively at home by our thespian flatmate.  I was soon hooked on that and on the sublime arias Cargher played to say  nothing of his velvety blended Scottish-Argentine accent. 

One exception was Handel whom I just didn’t ‘get’ then. It was the use of repeated and quaint sounding phrases in his oratorios that got me sniggering. I thought declaring Jesus a ‘wonderful counsellor’ was seriously weird and that George Frideric could have come up with something a bit more apposite than likening the son of god to an effective therapist.   I am more mature and better  educated now and am only tempted to giggle at ‘we like sheep’ – I mean, who doesn’t, in the paddock or on the plate?

The soundtrack to our lives wasn’t entirely classical. While we didn’t see pub bands and cult movies like ‘Performance’ and ‘Lisztomania’, we did sit up late and watch black and white Busby Berkeley and Astaire and Rogers movies, the pop culture of the 1930s! Seeing these films was a liberation for me as whenever musicals were screened at home my father complained that people did not burst into song like that  ‘in real life’ and responded to any terpsichorean activity by the men in the cast by yelling ‘dancing poons’ and turning the TV set off. 

A foretaste of my passion for aqua-aerobics? Busby Berkeley's trademark style.

We weren't completely Amish about modern music though, and fell hard for Ian Dury and the Blockheads in the 80s – I think my Essex background partly accounted for that. However my poor training in live rock music performance sent me home in a taxi from their concert at the Capitol with a migraine. We were exposed to Madness and Dexy’s Midnight Runners on The Young Ones and I did follow British pop of the 80s for a while, UK Squeeze a particular favourite. I also went to a party once where ‘Ant Music’ was played over and over but it took Adam Hills years later to convey Adam Ant’s full cultural import.

About this time, someone I worked with had a brother in a band called The Skolars and also used to go and see some guys called The Cockroaches. All I saw of either band was flyers taped to telegraph poles.  I believe the former traded in their Newtown black for some colourful turtle necked garments and had modest success a while later.

 Some grungy garage band from Newtown

Pregnant with our first child I discovered Carmina Burana. The baby heard it in utero at the Sydney Opera House and then kicked along to the CD at home.  In his first year of life he was piggybacked around the house to ABC ‘Classic Kids’ – Flight of the BumbleBee and the William Tell Overture particularly delighting us both.  I liked the songs on the Tim Buckley tape a friend, recently unlucky in love, gave me, but failed to realise that his death  some 15 years earlier was the loss of a great talent. Fortunately he bequeathed the world  Jeff, equally talented, and sadly equally accident prone.

I thought ABBA 100% Eurovision material, i.e. horribly kitsch, when they won that contest and didn’t  really warm to them as they went on to take the world by storm.  Being deeply pedantic I disputed that a history book on a shelf could repeat itself and that Agnetha’s and Frida’s sexual surrender could have unfolded in ‘quite a sim’lar way’ to Napoleon’s military one. (I certainly hope they didn’t suffer piles like he did). I did appreciate Toni Colette’s and Rachel Griffith’s ABBA homage in Muriel’s Wedding though assumed it was a parody. When I finally saw ‘Mama Mia’ I had to admire its sheer exuberance (Pierce Brosnan’s singing notwithstanding). Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus also gave ’Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ associations I could live with in their eponymous comedy series. Anyway, doing aqua-aerobics for over 20 years makes ABBA’s music inescapable and it is good to exercise to.

Maybe surprisingly my musical education was further enhanced by my Masters studies. A favourite lecturer on 'Work & Learning' played us songs such as Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’,  Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Working Life’ and  Roy Orbison’s ‘Working for the Man’ and proved that a very respectable critique of capitalism exists in popular music. I continue to learn at my exercise classes in the pool. I have encountered Coldplay’s ‘When I Ruled the World’, Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and  Mental As Anything’s ‘Live It Up' there as well as the most bizarre upbeat cover of Helen Reddy's 'I Am Woman' (difficult to splash around merrily to: 'you can bend but never break me' and 'yes, I am wise but it's wisdom borne of pain').  I both recalled and learnt heaps about western popular music (including the all-important Adam Ant) by watching Spicks and Specks. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan snuck in to my consciousness too, courtesy of a work colleague, and I had the pleasure of seeing each of them live in Sydney with my niece.

Alan Bro, Adam Hills and Myf Waughurst - Spicks and Specks conjured up my repressed pop memories and taught me lots of stuff I didn't know. 
I continue to discover a lot of pop music retrospectively. Michael Jackson in the saturation coverage during the weeks after his death, Elvis, also posthumously, because of a marvellous 2 part doco shown on SBS, and a multitude of blues artists through Martin Scorsese’s amazing  2003 series.  Our radio is permanently tuned to ABC Classic so that is the music that still dominates my days. I recently let the side down by not voting in their Top 100 Favourite Composers, or I may have actually let the composers down personally if some of the station’s promos are to be believed. Thing is, I don’t have a single favourite composer or artist or even a list of ten of them.  

Peter Sculthorpe and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu are my favourites when I want to submerge myself in the essence of my country, George Gershwin and Lenny Bernstein are my favourites when I want to feel the sheer exhilaration of America  in the first half of the 20th century, Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf are my favourites when I want to hear the rawness of women’s pain given voice. I am not averse to a bit of Paul Simon, Georgie Fame, Patsy Kline or Marianne Faithfull either.

Variety is the spice of musical life! Looking forward to The Sapphires this week in Wagga and Bach in the Dark in Gunning soon!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Jeffrey's Picture

White bordered, oval-framed,
Formed of nuanced Kodak greys.
Your romper suit unsullied
By crease or cereal or reflux.
Dark eyes shining.
Your face one careless grin.
Your parents’ pride and joy!
In America, your mother tucked your picture among
Pages of closely-written airmail paper.
In Australia, my mother retrieved it with delight.
That was you in San Mateo once
and you in memory until last year
when we met again online.
Now both middle aged and bereaved.
You, the last of your tribe,
Finding comfort in baseball and heavy metal.
Me, chronicler of mine,
Finding hope in myriad small connections.

Jan Pittard© 2018

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Finding my inner Anzac

As a child in the UK when my mother referred to ‘broad bronzed Anzacs’ the expression mystified me both because I had no idea what an Anzac was and because my transplanted Australian father’s physique, while undoubtedly broad at some points, sported a pallid dermis with no trace of metallic sheen.  When later we moved to Australia and lived in Puberty Blues land I began to ‘get’ the bronzed bit and realised that Max Dupain’s prone 1937 ‘sunbaker’ epitomised the type visually (despite actually being an Englishman). And in hindsight, my Uncle Eddie’s insistence that a hot shower was the best cure for sunburn certainly captured something of the masochistic spirit that can imbue Anzac commemorations.

Max Dupain 'The Sunbaker'
My real introduction to the Anzac legend came in first year high school when my class was asked to write a dramatic account of scaling the cliffs at Gallipoli.  I don’t recall being given any context for the event but, for one raised on Enid Blyton and John Buchan, a total ignorance of Australian history was no obstacle to writing a piece of wonderfully mawkish jingoistic prose.  I was awarded a prize for my efforts by the Caringbah RSL!

Continued immersion in Sutherland Shire society did not bring improved knowledge of World War 1 and  Australia’s participation in it (let alone New Zealand’s, but that is for another post) or even much awareness of the annual Anzac  Day march itself. I was however introduced to the vital aspect of mateship that involved my dad and uncle (my uncle was at least an ex-soldier) disappearing to the RSL for the day on April 25th and returning completely pissed.  Soon I renounced Blyton and Buchan and embraced Alan Seymour’s ‘The One Day of the Year’ with every fibre of righteous indignation in my being, conveniently overlooking its message of compassion for those who clung to their military service as the sole source of pride and meaning in otherwise empty lives. 

Theatre On Chester's poster for their 2018 production of Alan Seymour's play about Anzac Day 'The One Day of the Year'
Come the 80s and I had still not studied much Australian history but had, through my Fine Arts course at uni,  been exposed to the ‘making of a nation/cutting the colonial ties’ view of our participation in WW1. Peter Weir’s 1981 film  ‘Gallipoli’ was lauded for depicting the Anzac experience through the stories of Archy and Frank, two athletic innocents  from the West Australian bush, caught up in the war’s mangled tactics and resultant carnage. The image of Archy’s body reeling as the first of a barrage of bullets hits him has become emblematic of a generation of youth laid waste by the Great War.

Archy (Mark Lee) succumbs, final image from Peter Weir's  Gallipoli.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Says it in a nutshell… 

But still I felt strangely detached. The world depicted in ‘Gallipoli’ was essentially one where fighting for Empire, macho stereotypes (both benign and calculating), volunteering as adventure seeking and an affinity between athleticism and soldiering prevailed. The tragedy was that these were exploited not that there was something flawed in the very concepts. That was my reading when I caustically dismissed the film as being about ‘a load of mates mucking about in the desert on camels before getting their heads blown off’.

To my knowledge, no immediate relative of mine had served or died in a war. There were no stories of awaiting telegrams with dread or mourning  war dead. No framed photographs on the sideboard of young men in uniform who would never return. No disoriented, damaged soldiers who did return but then stumbled trying to pick up life with their families. Maybe that was why I couldn’t identify with the Anzac personae in Weir’s movie or in much of the other Anzac mythology. 

A dramatization of Charles Bean’s war journalism and diaries I saw some time in the 90s began to tease out for me the disparate, paradoxical threads of how the Anzac story has evolved. The production may have been called ‘The First Casualty’ in reference to US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson’s 1918 remark about truth and war reporting, that would certainly have been apt.  Australian troops could be almost insanely brave and they could also be culturally insensitive yobbos wrecking Egyptian bordellos whilst contracting and spreading syphilis. What to report to the folks back home? Not the full story that’s for sure. Probably not until Vietnam, the war that came into our living rooms, was much quarter given to the idea that the public might benefit from knowing the complex, confronting fact that there are not simply ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in a conflict.

I knew about the shell shock that afflicted so many WW1 soldiers and had encountered stories about survivors of WW2 and the Holocaust who never spoke of what they had experienced.  In the aftermath of Vietnam and Afghanistan our society began to understand more about post-traumatic stress disorder and since the late 20th C there has been a growing acknowledgement of the mental health impacts of war and the displacement, dispossession and persecution that are part of war. In the last few decades we have begun to welcome formerly excluded Vietnam veterans, women who  served in the armed forces as nurses and the descendants of Aboriginal diggers in Anzac Day marches. There have also been attempts to look at the Gallipoli story from a Turkish perspective, like the 2015 film Gelibolu. 

While April 25th is the anniversary of a specific event, the connotations of Anzac Day are broadening and the conflicting emotions I have always felt about the day are becoming reconciled.  There may still be beers and two-up, but the day isn’t merely an opportunity for white blokes to hit the grog and valorise amorphous ideas of mateship and their unexamined masculinity.

Along with this evolution, the discovery of two great uncles, both Lance Corporals who served in the AIF in France during the Great War, has brought a whole new personal dimension to Anzac Day for me. My husband’s great uncle Howard Ricordi Gunderson was a locomotive fireman in Newcastle who volunteered in 1915 at the age of 27. The records show that whilst on active service he was treated for mumps, venereal disease, influenza and injuries sustained in battle four times, the last unsuccessfully. He succumbed to his wounds on 14 April 1918 and is buried in Ebblinghem Cemetery,  France.  The correspondence between his brother Charles and mother Flo and the British army trying to determine what his injuries were and to obtain photographs of his gravesite makes for harrowing and poignant reading.
Howard Gunderson's name listed amongst the WW1 casualties, National War Memorial
My great Uncle Frederick Charles William Pittard was luckier. He was 21 years old when he signed up at Warwick Farm in August 1915 recording his job as ’clerk’.  He trained at Victoria Barracks and embarked for France early in 1916. He suffered at least two episodes of shell shock and was hospitalised for injuries five times. During 1917 he enjoyed three months’ respite from battle, undertaking, then delivering, training in England. He was repatriated to Australia with a serious fracture to his right forearm in October 1919 and discharged from the army in January 1920.
Apparently Uncle Charlie, as he was known, had reduced strength in his right arm for the rest of his life, but he returned to clerical work, built a fine house in Harbord, stood for Council, administered the annual Warringah Shire & Manly Agricultural & Horticultural Show and fathered my first cousin once removed, Norma, before dying, grieved by both his widow and his mistress at his funeral, in 1956 (the year I was born). 
Great Uncle Charlie, Frederick Charles William Pittard (1894-1956)
The belated kindling of the Anzac spirit in my bosom began with the discovery that great Uncle Charlie existed, that he was a digger, with seeing him pictured in his uniform, reading his military file and talking to his granddaughter, Diane, about her recollections of him. A sense of personal connection began to form.  Encountering the Gunderson family, feeling their sense of pain and loss, tracking their quest for more information about the cause of Howard’s death and for images of where he lies, almost ten and a half thousand miles from home, did the rest.  

Receipt signed by his mother for 3 photographs of Howard Ricordi Gunderson's grave at a cost of 3d each.