Australian Folk Songs
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Jenny Gall, Cantara, Elidor Records, 2006, JGIB06
Review by Barry McDonald
[Play Female Rambling Sailor from the CD]
Jenny Gall, in collaboration with musician and sound artist Ian Blake, has here produced a recording of Australian women's folk music that is much more than a fine and inspiring aesthetic experience. This CD of nine songs and two instrumental tracks is also intellectually and artistically challenging, surprising, and at times slightly unsettling. It is strongly unified by its consistent reference to the essential paradox and ambiguity of life. That this is an essence which is at once contemporary and also generations deep, is convincingly expressed by Jenny's seamless juxtaposition of modern piano-based composition (Blue Fox; Gwen Harwood Impromptus) with traditional pieces like A Bhanarach Donn a Cruidh and As Sylvie Was Walking. Right throughout this beautifully crafted album, the ancient is integrated with the modern, the innovated with the long-inherited, the organic with the synthetic.
While Jenny employs symbolic ballad poetry as her main communicative vehicle, ingenious musical support is provided by settings that tightly combine elements as starkly traditional as the unaccompanied voice, with those as experimental as random digital sound generation. Typical of this treatment is her performance of the 'magical' ballad, Green Bushes, where the obscurity of a mythological narrative of death and regeneration is emphasised by the radical ambiguity of Jenny's interpretation of the song's rhythm and tonality. Worlds of meaning – both personal and universal - are further implied by sound effects woven through what is a typically non-standard musical arrangement.
The choice of material here reflects also the paradox of a European-Australian identity. Classic lyrics of the bush such as The Reedy Lagoon and The Stockman's Last Bed – both performed in ways which give them new life and meaning – alternate with ballads like The Female Rambling Sailor and The Bonny Bunch of Roses that exhibit far more explicitly their Anglo-Celtic provenance. That all these songs were learned by Jenny from field recordings of Australian women singers, and the fact that all are performed in a similarly contemporary and convention-defying manner, suggest that the tale of the stock-camp or river bend must be taken together with the portrayal of the elemental forces of love, loss, and ambition, as contributing equally to the expression of a fundamental Australian feminineness.
The sounds you will hear on this recording are clear, fresh, colourful, and thought-provoking. Sung voices of varying timbres are interwoven with the thick complexity of pianos, the simple plucked poignancy of the harp, the brash throatiness of trumpet and trombone, and the smooth richness of clarinet, viola and string bass. Other sounds – no less pleasing - are far harder to classify, having their origin in the infinitely surprising realm of electronic creation.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory