Winner of the Oral history Victoria’s 2017 Innovation Award, Across the Water is a musical composition for solo cello and narrative digital track. This work is a collaboration between cellist Stephanie Arnold and composer Robert Davidson. It was made using oral history interviews that Stephanie conducted with Melbourne-based asylum seekers, and uses the contemporary compositional technique of speech melody to recount their journeys and arrival in Australia. This technique uses music to mirror the role played by pitch, rhythm and sentence stress, emphasis, pauses and hesitations of recorded speech.
“Across the Water is about the act of listening itself. As a work of musical performance art it asks for the audience’s aural attention in a unique way. The use of speech melody, repeated, edited phrases and musical imagery challenges audiences to listen not just to what is being said, but how it is being said, and to imagine and understand why it might be said. Overall it attempts to convey the power that listening has in providing someone else with a sense of value and worth through acknowledging their story.
After learning about projects from the centre for oral history and digital storytelling at Concordia University Montreal, I became interested in the role of performance and art in storytelling and oral history. I began to think about how I could combine oral histories with speech melody to create a musical work which addressed the often overlooked narratives of asylum seekers and refugees within the wider Australian conversation on seeking asylum. I asked composer Robert Davidson to collaborate with me on the project and over a two year period we discussed and shared musical ideas in response to the interview material I collected.
The Interviews with the participants for this project took place over many months and often involved sitting down together, sharing a meal or coffee. We got to know one another which is crucial to a project like this. Using Concordia’s ethical guidelines I made sure I was taking the highest level of care with the material that the participants shared, and this included protecting the anonymity of each participant, and in some cases disguising their recorded voices. During the editing process I re-engaged the participants to make sure they agreed with the selections I had made. The relationships I have made with the participants continue and sharing feedback with them about these performances remains a crucial part of this project.
While the issue of asylum is a substantial part of Australian conversation, a key challenge for members of the Australian public is direct engagement with asylum seekers. Acknowledgment of asylum seeker opinions and perspectives as part of the national discussion, can support the control and authority asylum seekers have over their story. For the asylum seekers involved in this project, this kind of acknowledgement is a sign of listening, understanding and respect.”
“Hearing Stephanie’s interviews with these three people...I found empathy much more present than in simply reading the news. It was a real challenge to find music that would allow each individual to be heard as they are, while attempting to underscore the deeper meaning behind the words - the intonation, which conveys so much. I aimed to make music which is an analogy for listening - the music itself listening to the speakers - because this is what I find myself needing to do a lot more of: to listen to people who have been through traumatic and challenging experiences, to learn from them rather than projecting my own thoughts. I wanted the music to bring a sense of heightened presence and awareness, rather similar to how a painted portrait can bring a timelessness to an image of a face, as it is based in careful, long-term observation and presence. These compositions are musical portraits, based in careful listening to the voices, and the depth of emotional communication conveyed by each individual through their voice."