The sounds of music by the sea
The sounds of music by the sea

There is the constant sound of surf as left-handers peel clean and northwards. There is the great, green mantle of the dunal landscape. There are red rock bluffs nibbled away by the Indian Ocean and undercut by its swell, so that blue water is sucked under and white spume sprayed out, casting rainbows.

Gnaraloo Station, on the south end of the Ningaloo Reef and along a dusty road north of Carnarvon, is on the cusp of aridity and saltwater - between the abundant ocean and desiccated landscape.

And it is here that performers, composers, surf cinematographers and filmmakers have come together to create a music-and-film production called The Reef.

It is a joint project between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Tura New Music which, under artistic director Tos Mahoney, is celebrating 25 years of facilitating the development of new music and sound works in WA.

The Reef Residency brings a fusion of live music and film inspired by the surf and landscape of the Ningaloo Coast.

The residency entourage grows to about 50, including lead violinist and artistic director Richard Tognetti and other members of the ACO, composer Iain Grandage, who has written new music, indigenous artists Mark Atkins and Steve Pigram, filmmaker Mick Sowry shooting documentary footage and surf cinematographer Jon Frank capturing gun surfers on the legendary Gnaraloo waves.

I have arrived three quarters of the way through the two-week residency at Gnaraloo Station, precisely at the moment the ACO musicians first rehearse in Gnaraloo's shearing shed. It is here, on Thursday last week, they performed excerpts of the result of the workshop.

The Reef will then tour from Darwin to Kununurra, Broome, Port Hedland and Geraldton before being performed in Perth and then Sydney.

The next day, the shearing shed again resonates in the dying light - but this time to the sounds of songwriter, singer and instrumentalist Steve Pigram, who has come from Broome, and didgeridoo player, songwriter and guitarist Mark Atkins, from WA but living in Tamworth. Both have brought excellent new music to be set into the overall work.

And then, in the morning light, I am standing next to Richard Tognetti on a red bluff, watching surf break over the reef.

Richard is in board shorts and thongs, with a peach coloured towel over his head. His eyes are half on me, half through his mirrored sunglasses on the sets coming in.

Tognetti, 46, is a keen surfer.

The question I want to ask is obvious but I am going to ask it anyway. Could this project have happened anywhere else?

"No," Richard says emphatically. "It couldn't have happened anywhere else. The surf, isolation, aridity, social set-up - all arrows lead to madness."

Madness, in this case is a good thing - a shorthand for some situation which prompts a testing, teasing and prodding of the norm. For innovation. For a true response to the land and seascapes.

"Right from the early stage we said we wanted new music." Tognetti qualifies that by explaining that it doesn't have to be just newly written music - that music rearranged and played in another place to people who haven't heard it before still comes under the "innovation" banner for him.

And so an arrangement of an Alice in Chains song is juxtaposed against the Marlene Dietrich song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and the short arias of Beethoven's Cavatina.

Tognetti also believes that music around the camp fire is an important element of The Reef Residency, and this proves the natural stage for Pigram and Atkins. They play with ACO cellist Julian Thompson and viola player Erkki Veltheim, drawing more out of their organic music.

And it is all set against, and framed by, the landscape. The aridity and the dust. The saltwater and the reef.

The West Australian

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