Sounds From RoR’s Production In Central Australia: The Ntaria Aborigine Ladies Choir of Hermannsburg

December 5, 2011

This audio recording of the Western Arrernte aborigines who have formed the Ntaria Ladies Choir in Australia’s central desert, was made by “Reach Of Resonance” director Steve Elkins in June 2009, near the intersection of the Caterpillar Dreaming and the Honey Ant Dreaming. These crisscrossing “songlines” are sonic maps in which they sing all of the surrounding landscape into existence. This music reflects the intersection of their songlines with the Lutherans who established missions in this remote part of Australia in the 19th century. So this particular music (and the Western Arrernte language it’s sung in) cannot be heard in any other part of the world.

As Barry Hill has written so eloquently in his outstanding and massive volume on the collision of these two cultures (titled Broken Song:  T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession):  “It seems not to have occurred to any Lutheran that there were certain affinities between their religious beliefs and those of the strangers they were among. The tribes had in common a sacramental culture. They subscribed absolutely to notions of eternity. They had rituals that enacted commitments to transubstantiation, where matter and spirit interpenetrated. They shared a culture where certain words and songs were sacred, and one that rested on the assumption that the ordering principle of reality was invisible because it was a spiritual one. The material world was there for all to see – and to share as both tribes were uncommonly communal, at least in principle – but at the same time its meanings were located in spiritual history. As a result, the true believers in both tribes shared powerful characteristics: they did so because of their passion for converting the material into the spiritual. To this extent the religious teachers of both cultures were masters of metaphor, or poets of reality.

A poem is a manifestation of the seamless web of things, that may be named or not named, depending on the way we have cast ourselves in the greater song.  At the beginning of Lutheranism, at its very heart, was the act of translation. Its genesis story entails the vocational task of carrying the Word from one language to another, with all the faith that that entails. Faith, first of all, that the city of Babel could be re-addressed, that the Lord’s injunction that no man would understand the language of his neighbor was capable of revision. Faith also in the capacity of language to transmit the Word across time and space: from one culture to another, even though they might be worlds apart.

As a disciple of logos, Strehlow (the head of the Hermannsburg mission who sought to collect and preserve the last breaths of the Western Arrernte songlines as they died) was in a crossroad position analogous to Plato in the age of Homer…Before Homer, the poet was the singer and the seer, the prophetic, divine muse at one with music and dance. After Homer, the poet was weaned from the religious functions belonging to the oral culture because of the advent of writing. Plato wanted to shift the Greek mind from one way of being to the other. Prior to writing, the oral tradition exalted poetry and poets as the best vehicle of ‘preserved communication,’ and the techniques of poetry increased the powers of memory by cultivating an unquestioning commitment to the tradition by all manner of means: repetitions, music, rhythms, dance and, most importantly, the practice of mimesis, whereby the audience was seduced into full sympathy with performances that involved re-enactments and identification with the figures of whom the poets sang. This was the state of mind that went with this spell-binding poetry, and it has been described as a ‘total state of mind’ that belonged with the poetry that was a total method, a ‘total technology.’ The state of mind was ‘esoteric;’ it was akin to hypnosis, when the audience had to submit to the poet; it altogether fostered automatists in the realm of the irrational, which was inimical to knowledge as critical self-awareness.

Plato wanted to ban poets from his Republic because they were possessed and not quite in their right mind, and could not even understand the meaning of their own words. Ultimately their poems were not open to interpretation; they were a kind of irrational, unpremeditated cry removed from the poet’s intention and reflective consciousness. And so it was Plato’s project to argue for an alternative, a society where another state of mind was desirable. That was a state where self-knowing was possible, where the knower was separate from the known, and where the mind was able to contemplate its own objects. Such a cultural order was facilitated by a repositioning of the poet – moving him, one might say, from the realm of oral mystifications to the space of the written and scrutinisable; from the domain of unreason to reason, from poetry to philosophy. And it was the arrival of writing, which Plato contemplated, that brought all of these contrasts to a head. In the past lay the collective memory, unanalyzed but transported by poetry. In the future lay the text, where memory was objectified, and endlessly open to interpretation…

…it is possible to say that by writing down the Arrernte poetry Strehlow had imperialistically applied his faith in logos to the detriment of the lived, true nature of the original. He had wrenched the poems into the Platonic daylight of rational analysis where they were not meant to be. He had, in a way, domesticated them.”

For more info on the role the Ntaria Ladies Choir plays in “The Reach Of Resonance,” see the short film “An Aural Map Of Australia” here: vimeo.com/24947183

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