Music review: Ngapa William Cooper, Adelaide Festival 

A world premiere collaboration that focuses on Australian hero and Yorta Yorta Elder, William Cooper.

I was deeply moved by the performance of Ngapa William Cooper (‘Uncle William Cooper’) at Adelaide Town Hall last Tuesday, following its debut at Ukaria Cultural Centre the previous Friday. The ornate neo-classical splendour of the venue, with its magnificent marble pillars and towering organ-pipes, made me feel like I was back in the Vienna Musikverein, and somehow seemed an appropriate setting for a work that is redolent with a sense of history and occasion while being rich in musical and cultural complexity. 

The song cycle is a follow-up to Compassion, a 2013 collaboration between Anglo-Australian composer Nigel Westlake and Israeli-Australian singer-songwriter Lior, which was based on ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts. Their new work is co-written and co-performed with Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung songwriter-composer Dr Lou Bennett (who is also Cooper’s direct descendant) with additional lyric content by Sarah Gory, and, like its precursor, is a stylistic crossover with contemporary classical and popular elements. It’s also similarly cross-cultural in inspiration and has the same underlying theme of ‘compassion’ at its heart. 

The work celebrates Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper who, as Secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League led the only march of protest in the world at that time against the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938. Cooper and his fellow protesters marched from his home in Footscray to the inner city of Melbourne and attempted to deliver a petition of condemnation to the German consulate (which, needless to say, refused to admit them or receive their petition). 

Cooper had previously called for Aboriginal representation in Federal Parliament in his petition to King George V – a petition that (in an act of rich historical irony) Prime Minister Joe Lyons likewise failed to pass on to Buckingham Palace. Perhaps unsurprisingly Cooper saw the parallels between the plight of his people and the Jews in Europe, asserting that: ‘We are a very small minority, and we are a poor people, but in extending our sympathy to the Jewish people we assure them of our support in every way.’ 

The work began with a stirring traditional ‘Call to Ancestors’ by Lior and Bennett, who stood facing each other and sang in Hebrew and Yorta Yorta. Six sections followed, telling the story of Cooper’s protest and concluding with a reflection on his legacy, with the voices of both singers interweaving, accompanied by Andrea Lam on piano, Rebecca Lagos on percussion and Kees Boersma on double bass. 

Westlake’s music is highly accessible, using a base language of post-Impressionism peppered with elements of jazz and rock, and is full of tonal colour and syncopated rhythms. In terms of harmonic progression and melodic material I found it a bit static and repetitive at times – reminding me of an older generation of Australian composers like Peter Sculthorpe or Ross Edwards – but it was richly evocative, especially in descriptive passages like the one that accompanied the protest march itself.

Lior sang in English from Cooper’s perspective, his voice finely spun and delicate as a reed instrument, while Bennett’s rich, bluesy contralto responded with words and phrases in Yorta Yorta that were intuitively connected with the content of each section, evoking themes of endearment, loss, family, protest, mourning and commemoration. Bennett also provided additional percussion in one movement using shaken eucalyptus leaves, which evoked a sense of place and ritual, and reminded me of the sound of wings in flight. 

Read: Music review: Julia Jacklin, Adelaide Festival

Before interval, two works were performed by the redoubtable Australian String Quartet. Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (Homeward) was a thrilling opening, written very much in a post-minimalist idiom; this was followed by arch-minimalist Philip Glass’s nostalgic and lyrical String Quartet No. 3 ‘Mishima’, which was originally written as a film score for the Paul Schrader movie about the Japanese author (and quasi-fascist) who committed seppuku after a failed military coup (possibly a somewhat off-key choice in this regard, given the content of the main item that followed).

Both works were given incisive renditions by the Quartet, with superbly blended sound, exquisite tonal range and (in the Dessner) pounding rhythmic attack.

All in all, then, a musically satisfying evening – and, in the case of the song cycle, a timely and fitting tribute to a towering figure in the ongoing struggle for racial justice in this country and across history. 

Ngapa William Cooper, Adelaide Festival

Composed and written by Nigel Westlake, Lior and Lou Bennett
With additional creative lyric content by Sarah Gory

Nigel Westlake, Lior, Lou Bennett
Andrea Lam, Rebecca Lagos, Kees Boersma
Australian String Quartet

Ngapa William Cooper was performed on 7 March 2023 as part of Adelaide Festival.

Wolfgang von Flügelhorn is a writer and critic based in Perth.