An extraordinary musical event takes place next weekend in the remote mining town of Cobar, north western NSW. An old, 10 metre tall water tank, long disused after a dam was built, has been re-purposed as a site of perpetual music.
And both the music and the project has, in part, been inspired by one of the late Kathleen Petyarre’s dotted canvases.
Her work caught the eye of composer (and Sydney Symphony Orchestra violinist) Georges Lentz who was in the process of working out how he could take his ethereal music – often inspired by Psalm 19’s opening, “The heavens declare the glory of God” titled by its Latin translation, Caeli enerrant – to an outback he barely knew. When he saw the Utopia artist’s ‘Untitled‘ (2007), a myriad of dots against earthy outback colours, he immediately “saw both stars and desert sand in those dots – then realised that my music is dots on the page too, pointillistic music”.
Further study of the canvas took him deeper into the parallels between art and music: “There are four obvious lines in the painting which I see as symbolic of the four string instrument lines. I also feel a sense of spirituality which in Australian Indigenous culture has retained a freshness and authenticity it has often lost in Western culture, a feeling of endless space going way beyond the edge of the canvas. All these are things I see in Kathleen’s painting. They also happen to be the very things that have always inspired my music”.
He clearly needed that artwork in his life despite a daunting price. How could he justify the cost? “When I realised that it spoke to me musically, I understood it could be an investment for life.”
Lentz then began writing string quartets to reflect these preoccupations – along with the sublime poetry of William Blake – and turned to Sydney’s Noise Quartet to both record them and improvise around them. The result stretched to 6 hours – before Lentz himself took to electronics to extend that to the 24 hours needed to provide a perpetual stream of music pouring into the ether 24/7.
And that ether is now constrained, not by the rusting, graffitied sheet metal of the original tank, but by a concrete cube inside it that Australia’s preeminent vernacular architect, Glenn Murcutt has designed. An oculus in the roof will be open to send the sound skywards and allow listeners to connect with the heavens from the monastic concrete bench that limits comfort levels inside.
That concrete cube – surprisingly cool apparently even when the temperature outside is 40 degrees C – is broken only by blue artworks forming the Chapel’s four corner windows. They’re the work of local Ngyiambaa Wangaaypuwan artist, Sharron Ohlsen. The local newspaper hails her: “For 30 years an artist she brings a truly creative vision to her town, which she says has always been a part of her”.
England’s William Blake (of ‘Jerusalem’ fame) seems to sum it all up:
“There is a Void, outside of Existence,
which if enter’d into
Englobes itself & becomes a Womb”
And those words are carved into the concrete.
Sadly, I discover that you can’t actually visit the Chapel when you like, but have to pick up a key, pay a bond and return the key between the limited hours of 8.30 and 4.30. Bookings can be made, though via firstname.lastname@example.org
Or by phoning the Great Cobar Museum on (02) 6836 5806
Looks like Petyarre may end up in the pantheon of artists who inspired compositions with van Gogh, Hokusai, Hogarth and Seurat!