Image: Dr Alana Blackburn performing Earthsong.

The creative arts are a vehicle for storytelling that can help us feel, see and understand – they can even to help us regrow.

Dr Alana Blackburn, Armidale recorder player and Senior Lecturer in Music at UNE, recently premiered a new multimedia performance work titled Re-Growth? after receiving a Create NSW grant. The performance was created to develop awareness of the environment and climate change by reaching people in a creative and respectful way. It responds to past tragedies as a springboard to a better future for regional communities.

The impetus for this work was born from the drought and bushfires of 2019/2020 and the vivid impact they had on the New England area. “I wanted to find another way of reaching out to local and national communities in a way that the news couldn’t,” described Dr Blackburn while discussing why the arts are well-placed to address environmental issues. “Scientific researchers have been calling on interdisciplinary action to engage the public, in particular, the creative arts to evoke emotional responses to climate change.”

Alana Blackburn performing Airsong.

It is the arts’ ability to shape and frame a narrative that makes a multimedia performance the perfect medium to highlight these issues. As such, Re-Growth? presents an engaging narrative about climate change impacts through storytelling and the use of imagery, sound, and metaphor.

Re-Growth?’s themes address aspects of climate change, but more specifically they relate to place, land, and the environmental challenges many have experienced recently. “I hope this piece communicates to people in a different way to mainstream media” said Dr Blackburn. “This work is unique. The sounds of New England have not been used in this way before.  At least not in a way that uses sonic art to inform or evoke personal connections and meaning to an area. The piece is made of 4 movements – Firesong, Airsong, Watersong and Earthsong, each of these movements combines sound recordings from regional NSW sewn together as a soundscape to accompany visual work and my live improvisation.”

Dr Blackburn was not alone in creating this work, in addition to the support provided by the Create NSW grant, Alana has worked with an amazing team: Dr Ros Bandt (composer, sound artist), Jutta Pryor (video/visual artist) and Jim Atkins (sound engineer).

Composer and sound ecologist Dr Ros Bandt was commissioned to write the work and provide her expertise to the performance. Dr Bandt is an internationally acclaimed sound artist, composer, musician, researcher, scholar, and most recently the winner of the 2020 Award for distinguished services to Australian Music at the APRA/AMCOS Australian Music Awards.

Alana Blackburn performing Watersong.

Dr Bandt, Alana, and sound engineer Jim Atkins, built aspects of the performance from extensive fieldwork by capturing sounds from various areas of NSW including wind passing through Narrabri satellites, walking on scorched earth from the fires around Dorrigo, underwater sounds from Dumaresq Dam taken by a hydrophone, and sounds of koalas and lyrebirds. The performance quite literally captures the sound of regional NSW.

The striking look of the performance is the work of visual artist Jutta Pryor. While describing some of the most emotionally resonate moments from of Re-Growth?’s premiere Dr Blackburn explained: “The stage directions for me were to be amongst projections, becoming part of the environment. One audience member said he was worried that I was ‘on fire’ during the opening of Firesong.”

Re-Growth?, which was premiered in Armidale on December 16th, was performed alongside Australian compositions by local composer Benjamin Thorn, Associate Professor Donna Hewitt (UNE) and Damian Barbeler. The program has future performances planned including the Newcastle Fringe Festival, and an upcoming workshop/performance with the UNE SRI and students of NECOM in the near future.

Not only did the premiere prove to be a powerful and effective first showing of the performance, but Re-Growth?’s creation has already yielded academic fruits for Alana. “I presented a paper on the project at the Australian Sound Recording Archives conference in November last year,” said Dr Blackburn, “which focused on ‘creation, use and preservation of sound recordings during the present time of pandemic, climate emergency and social and political upheaval’. There were some amazing examples of the use of sound, and as a performer it’s an area I certainly want to contribute more to.”

Keep an eye out as further plans and performances of Re-Growth? are made – you won’t want to miss it.