Program Notes: Barcaldine

Barcaldine [1992]
For solo cello, with seven other cellos, live or pre-recorded

To have lived in the 1890s would have been to have lived in what was possibly the most exciting time in Australia’s history.

The decade before Federation, this was the time when Australians stood poised to cut the apron-strings to Mother England. It was a time when we held the destiny of our emerging nation in our grasp: within our reach was a revolution of the spirit and a declaration of the republic of the will. All this was before us, a full century after those two other great revolutions, the ones in America [1776] and France [1789]. Many commentators of the day held great hope for the Australian revolution. Could it be the third great revolution of the Western World, the chance to get things right?

Around this time, Oscar Wilde wrote, No map of the world is complete without Utopia. As a symbol of the workingman’s aspirations for a better and more equitable life, the Utopian movement took strong root in Australia. This was the time when that firebrand Scottish journalist William Lane was riding round the countryside, preaching the dawn of a New Age of Socialist Utopian Communalism to the bush cockies who would soon join him in the jungles of Paraguay.

Everywhere, it seemed, there was debate, ferment and hope. At no other time in its history, before or since, arguably did the destiny of Australia seem so promising. Over a century later, we look at Australia today and ask: where is that promise, that hope?

Underlying much of my music from 1980 onwards are themes that toll like a bell through Australian history – Utopia lost; false and fallen prophets; tall poppies who find that barren soil will not sustain their dreams. These can be heard in two pieces for multiple instruments, the Eureka-inspired horn piece Bakery Hill Rising [1980] and the trombone piece Gallipoli Sunrise [1984]. It can also be heard in two song cycles, the companion pieces The Plaint of Mary Gilmore [1984] for mezzo-soprano and piano and The Warrant of Henry Lawson [1989] for baritone and piano. One day,I hope, it may pass to a projected full-length opera O Paraguay!, as yet unwritten. And it animates this present work for cello ensemble, Barcaldine.

In Queensland in the early 1890’s, thousands of shearers were on strike for better pay and working conditions. All the instruments of authority – the police, the judiciary and the Tory government in Brisbane – were in the pockets of the capitalist landowners. It had all the hallmarks of a textbook Marxist class-struggle, too common in Australian history – at Eureka [1854], at Gallipoli [1915] and again on the steps of Parliament House, Canberra [11th November 1975] – that moment of danger, excitement and brush with destiny that seems always to manage to slip between our fingers. Pretty small beer, admittedly, when compared to the events of Yorktown or at the Bastille. But this is em>our Australian history, we sing of what we have.

One of the centres of organised resistance by the shearers was at Barcaldine in central Queensland. By March 1891, one thousand men were encamped in a huge canvas town of three main streets, with a library and reading-recreation room. Over a huge tree by the railway station, the Tree of Knowledge they called it, flew the blue ensign of Eureka, the Southern Cross. Under its branches, men read the rallying verses of Henry Lawson and plotted plans of treason.

In my Barcaldine, the solo cello is the voice of reason and hope. Seven other cellos fan out in a V-formation, around and behind the solo instrument. They debate the musical agenda of the solo voice.

The first section of the piece outlines the context of that debate, not in any literal way, more in the sense of different ideas passing from one voice through an assembly of other voices in a more textural way. The second section, marked with a motoric energy, evokes the train journey to the coastal town of Rockhampton. There, the fourteen principals of the strike were put on trial. Twelve of them were found guilty and sentenced to three to twelve years’ imprisonment, with hard labour.

The third section of the piece brings a verse of the folksong, The Struggle in the West. The chorus of this song evokes and typifies the spirit of events at Barcaldine :

There’s a struggle going on in the West, boys,
A battle for freedom and right.
Though tyranny’s raising his crest, boys,
We’ll conquer or die in the fight.

Watching all this was a frightened young schoolgirl. One year on, Margaret Hoare was to celebrate her eleventh birthday on ship as it sailed across the Pacific to join William Lane’s Utopians in Paraguay.

Through the agency of my good friend Anne Whitehead, the Sydney-based screen-writer and doyenne of our little contemporary band of Pataguayanistas, I first met Mrs Margaret Riley at her home in Tugun, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, one afternoon in August 1985. By then she was 105 years old, as bright as a button and remembering it all – Barcaldine, Paraguay, William Lane and her schoolmistress, Mary Gilmore – as though it were yesterday.

Margaret Riley maintained that Barcaldine had brought Australia closer to armed revolt than at any other time in its history. Unequivocally, she asserted that Barcaldine gave birth to the trade union movement in Australia and to the genesis of the Labor Party itself.

Margaret Riley died in 1989, taking Barcaldine and Paraguay to her grave, the last survivor of William Lane’s Utopia. My piece ends with an image of the young Margaret gazing at the sunset across the Queensland plains, three flights of birds passing across her gaze.

Barcaldine began life as a radiophonic piece in July 1990. When the Bush Begins to Speak is based on the writings of Henry Lawson and the recorded voice of Margaret Riley. It was commissioned by what was then the Audio Arts Department of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and directed by David Chandler.

Then, and subsequently for the concert version of Barcaldine, the cello music was created for John Napier who recorded the seven accompanying parts in the studios of the Sydney Conservatorium. John gave the first performance of the piece in the Old Darlington School of Sydney University on 29th October 1992. The eight-minute piece is dedicated jointly to those two good friends, Anne Whitehead and John Napier.

Copyright Vincent Plush
East West Center
Honolulu, Hawai’i
16th December 1992