When composer and broadcaster Andrew Ford returned to his home at Robertson after fleeing the Black Summer fires, it was though the world had changed.
“We left home twice in January 2020, fearing we’d be cut off the first time and the second time because the fire had crossed the Kangaroo River and we knew there was nothing to stop it climbing the escarpment,” he says.
Robertson went unscathed in the event, unlike nearby Bundanoon, Wingello and Exeter where southerly winds of up to 90 km/h pushed roaring flames into the villages, destroying 14 houses.
When Andrew and his wife returned home to Robertson, a cold, yellow fog filled with smoke and ash clung to the sleepy village. Flakes of ash drifted like snow in the eerie light, filling the dog’s bowl again and again over the following days.
Three years later, Eden Ablaze, Ford’s String Quartet No 7 will have its world premiere at the Canberra International Music Festival with the world-renowned Brodsky Quartet. They’ll be sharing the stage with didgeridoo master William Barton at the Fitters’ Workshop for Bach, Barton Brodsky on Sunday, 30 April.
Eden Ablaze was written for the Brodskys, friends of 25 years’ standing, who were frantic with worry for Andrew as the fires made international headlines.
“We had the idea of writing a piece that would be like reportage from the front line, you play it as soon as you can,” he explains. “The music almost appears out of the fires.”
The string quartet should have premiered with Barton at a concert in Bristol only months later, until the pandemic intervened. But that pushed the premiere to a very suitable venue in Canberra, where the community endured months of fear through that terrible summer.
The work’s name references the actual town of Eden on the far South Coast, but also Andrew’s reflections on the impact of ancient rainforest burning for the first time.
“Unlike the bush, rainforests are not supposed to burn. There’s no natural regeneration through fire in a rainforest,” he says.
“The connections those forests had with ancient Gondwanaland is also with a kind of Eden, so the fires represent a loss of innocence too, if you can say that about a forest.”
Andrew was already writing a larger orchestral work about climate change and while he set that aside for the string quartet, the two overlap in several ways.
The orchestral piece was performed by the Australian Youth Orchestra in December and builds towards a musical quotation from Handel’s Largo, ombré ma fui from the opera Xerxes.
“The king is standing beneath a plane tree, singing in praise of its shade, its generous and gentle shelter,” Andrew says.
“My orchestral piece was called The Meaning of Trees, from that African proverb that says the meaning of trees is the shade they provide. In the orchestral piece that musical quotation screams out at the end, like an urgent cry.
“But in Eden Ablaze it’s at the beginning and it’s played very gently, very beautifully, very quietly with scurrying strings around it. I wanted to make something beautiful, somehow, out of the horror. At the very end the strong players have descending specks of sound, a kind of musical realisation of the ash falling gently from the sky. And there’s fury in between.”
He says the orchestral piece and Eden Ablaze are reminders of what’s at stake for the natural environment, how immense the catastrophes can be.
“Being Australians, once the fires are over we think that’s that. But of course they always come back, and it’s only faster and more furious the next time.”
Eden Ablaze premieres at the Canberra International Music Festival on Sunday 30 April in the Bach Barton Brodsky concert, 7:30 pm, at the Fitters’ Workshop. Concession, under 30 and youth tickets are available.