Naretha Williams is a Wiradjuri woman who defines her wide ranging practice as a mix of 'composer, audio artist and experimental multimodal practitioner'.
The release of Blak Mass recently is a testament to those talents. From jarring electronics to the deafening chords of an organ - which are actual recordings of her playing the Melbourne Town Hall’s Grand Romantic Organ, the largest in the southern hemisphere.
The imagery Naretha's sound evokes is dark and chaotic: something she's captured perfectly in the video for the album's first pulsating single, Chaos Country.
Naretha is haunting in this clip, hovering above her keyboards she says she saw herself personifying concepts of magic and conjuring, "and that kind of manipulation of untangible space".
Dancer Carly Shepherd embodies the organ in her movement, telling Naretha she saw her body as "bloodlines... Country, and the chaos within that".
The double helix of two DNA strands coil across the screen at sporadic moments - a homage to the incorporation of her own genetic makeup in the album, using DNA sequences and applying them to musical scales and patterns in her sound.
The Point's Rachael Hocking caught up with Naretha Williams to discuss making art in isolation, the journey of Blak Mass from a one-off stage performance in 2019 to disc, and the inspiration behind Chaos Country.
So tell me what exactly is Blak Mass meant to be about?
So Blak Mass started as an offer and invitation from Miles Brown, who's the curator of musical instruments at the City of Melbourne to come and write a work. So I was commissioned to write a work for the organ, and we were able to build it around the YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival in 2019. And of course, me working in the way that I do and being a conceptual artist, I of course approached it from that place specifically around looking at the Melbourne town hall as a site, and also looking at the organ itself and the context of these things in the place of the city of Melbourne. So the writing's really informed by all of that and from there. And so I went in to sort of meet the instrument, I guess you could say. It's fairly monumental, literally, like it exists across several floors of the building of the town hall. So there was quite a process around getting to know the instrument and understanding it and seeing how it worked and seeing what was happening with the pipes and how all this volume of air was being pushed through, kind of looking all through the back of it.
You talked about the organ in terms of its place in Melbourne as a city. Can you tell me more about that and what you were trying to do when you were asked or invited to take on this instrument as part of your project?
Well, I was looking at the city of Melbourne, that particular site. I was considering the land, like our sacred land that is in quite an already interesting and culturally significant area. Like the Maribyrnong, Birrarung, the Yarra river runs very close to that, so the land holds a lot of information already. And then you have this enormous structural building that's kind of sitting there, almost felt like it was suffocating the land and it was very, very energetically heavy there.
So I'm looking at that and kind of considering not just what the impact and the thoughts around what does the town hall mean there, but physically, what does a structure like that mean on sacred country? It makes me feel almost claustrophobic to think about it in that way, that it's almost like a land can't breathe.
And then you have this instrument that's in there, that's literally breathing. So there's all these kind of really rich little threads that I could sort of pull through in my unpacking of the conceptual stuff.
What does the organ represent to you when you see it and when you hear it? What sort of ideas do you get about who created it and the time that it represents?
In some ways, out of this context, it does feel like a kind of very straight, stuffy old instrument for proper people, you know what I mean? And you have to think about the context of when it was built. And in that time that it was very much for a particular class of people. And also, how it's tangled up in the decision making that was happening within the walls of the town hall as well. So I was thinking about all those kinds of aristocratic sort of people and what sort of decisions they're making on behalf of mob and that kind of thing.
And also that in a musical way, that it's a liturgical instrument. So I couldn't avoid looking at it and its religious reference. And when you think about religion as well, and the impact around that time and what was happening to our people as well, it kind of added to the horror of all the sorts of things that were done in the name of God, really for our people. I kind of worked to bring those things right into focus so that you are unable to look away from it.
It's a pretty amazing performance that you ended up actually putting on. What's the journey been from YIRRAMBOI to this album that you've just dropped?
I guess as far as the record is concerned, it was good to have that outcome. I only performed the work once, which is also partly how I like to work and present as well when I'm sort of thinking about things in a ritual context and in a ceremony context. So I often hold a space just once to sort of launch a work.
But it was, it was great to have an opportunity to then go back into the studio and mix it down. So the organ is actually captured from the live show and then we went in and did another capture of it just by itself, and then kind of remixed the material back in the studio to create the album.
What's it like having this massive pace of work come out this year? You obviously didn't expect last year at YIRRAMBOI that 2020 would look like it does now. Having this pandemic, having lockdowns and isolation, especially down in Victoria, and then Black Lives Matter as well on top of all that, what has the release been like for you in 2020? Has it changed the way that you planned on releasing?
It kind of did. Having not ever done this before, the process and the timelines are also new to me, as far as there's an extra kind of element just literally as far as production, as far as pressing the record. So we had to kind of work around that timeline as well for once they're pressed and returned, and then strategies around release and planning.
And of course, corona hit and I was stuck overseas for an amount of time. And then coming back and then having to release an album in this scenario is kind of strange. You would usually be booking gigs and have some kind of other engagement around a release. And at the same time, it's kind of like we kind of need it. It's nice to have something tangible that's going out, even though I'm stuck here in lockdown. And that's all very strange on that level.
And I think the timing around the release in relation to all of the political discourse around Black Lives Matter and all of these issues that are really active in conversation at the moment, was really unplanned... it's just interesting in that it has been positioned in this particular place and time with what's going on, and that may inform how people respond to it as well, of why it may be of interest to people.
Yeah. And it's also a really interesting time, just with this nation, having that ongoing conversation about who we are. At NITV, we've had a lot of focus this year on Captain Cook's legacy, because it's 250 years since he sailed into Botany Bay. And what that has meant for this nation's story and its history and the stories of all the different nations that were here before.
I want to know what you think of the role of artists, especially in 2020, and especially First Nations artists when it comes to trying to tell that story of who we are?
I think it is as important as ever. And I think it's really worth fighting for, because the arts practice is where we as individuals have most agency and can really kind of claim and assert our sovereignty. We are able to make and create and present works that are undefined by outside influences. This is, I actually find it one of the most important avenues for having these political conversations, in fact.
I saw the video for Chaos Country this morning. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the clip and talk about the references as well, to DNA, which I find so interesting and very pertinent to this conversation.
Well, the DNA, the actual composition methodology that I'm working with and that I've worked with on the album and that I kind of do on an ongoing basis, is around looking at, sort of examining the complexity of my own bloodlines. So looking at my bio data as DNA to inform my practice, to inform my experimentation and musical processes.
So I do things like just using it as a starting point to sort of frame ideas. And a sequence or a section of code might be matched to a musical scale, or it might be mapped to a certain technical parameter. Or I might see patterns in the code that help me make decisions about an arrangement or something like that. So that's where that comes from and why it's visually featured in the video as well, just so that we could have that link back to it.
And we were in lockdown, we didn't plan to do the video in the way that we did. I mean, we thought initially that we would have access to the studio and there would be all this footage of the organ and this sort of thing. So we had to think more about what the messaging was and how else we were able to achieve it within the studio.
So tell me some more about some of the other images in that video. We see the body used in very, almost abnormal ways and the imagery on your body as well and use of smoke.
What sorts of messages did you decide on when you were trying to make this video in isolation?
All the content is fairly consistent, but I guess we went a little bit deeper as far as things around connection to country, things around the practice, like magical practice, which I'm kind of quite into. So there was a lot of more abstract ideas around conjuring and that kind of manipulation of untangible space.
And also, Carly [Shepherd] who danced in it was almost embodying the organ. It was almost like she was the organ and the sound of the organ. And so how she was responding to it, she said something really interesting to me in the studio as well, she was like, "Yeah, Chaos Country. I've been thinking about Chaos Country, literally the bloodlines within the body and how the body is country and the chaos within that."
And that's why I wanted to work with Carly, because she gets this stuff and she really just kind of embodies the work in a way that is just so raw and genuine.
Yeah. It definitely comes across... What is your relationship to your DNA?
Well, my relationship, I guess I'm irritatingly technical, I'm always thinking about how do I filter it down? What is the source code? And so while I have acknowledged my father's Wiradjuri line, I also acknowledge my mother's English, Irish, Chinese lineage. And the last run of code, there were some other things that were coming up that I wasn't aware of either.
So a lot of my practice is around really investigating ideas around our identity and looking for ways to distill it. So I'm looking at that really in a very sort of binary sense going, "Okay, what does all these zeros and ones mean in the specific combination that is me? And how do I use that to inform my work?"
My last question is just basically about the release of this album in 2020. What do you hope people take away from Blak Mass when they experience it?
I hope that they understand the interrogation. I hope that they kind of take away, kind of understand the interrogation of the place of the town hall and the instrument and reflect on other things that we could and should be interrogating, either in place or within communities. And thinking about our place as individuals, as our own identity and how we interact and what are those intersections and how does it interface? So that kind of reflection. And what is the context in the modern world for people like us and where do we go with that?
The sound of it, it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea. In fact, it's probably a very narrow audience that will appreciate the sound of the music. But part of that was very deliberate in the sense that sometimes I find that there's still a little bit of detachment or denial around the horrific history of this country.
And that it's often so uncomfortable that people don't like to sit with it and then try and look away from it. So if when you're listening that those feelings come up, the point is that that is actually what I'm saying. We have to be able to confront the past and these situations and you have to be able to sit with it and acknowledge it in order to sort of process and move on. You can't walk away, it's time to face the music, so to speak.