Ian Mitchell (clarinet/clapsticks), Caroline Balding (viola/clapsticks) and members of Gemini (reciters/percussion) will give the premiere of Fire in Song by Sadie Harrison on 2 May 2020 as part of the Late Music York Series, at the Unitarian Chapel, York. Fire in Song tells the creation story about fire for the Yolngu group of Aboriginal Australians who live primarily in north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The work was written during the catastrophic bush fires that swept much of Australia in 2019-2020. It reflects on the Aboriginal approach to the fires, one that remained largely ignored in news coverage at the time.

The work is in seven movements:

I: The World's Lament

II: Bandicoot and the Hollow Log

III: Quail and the Burning Twig

IV: Honey Bees and the Paperbark Swamp

V: Honey Bees and the Tall Grass

VI: Baru the Saltwater Crocodile and the Ancient Fire

VII: Lament for the Whole World


The outer movements provide a contemporary context - dark, abrasive commentaries on the current extreme climatic events with the central movements based on Aboriginal songs and dances from Northern and Central Australia. The story of fire's creation by Baru the Saltwater Crocodile and the joyful unification of clans as it was spread across Australia by animals, insects and birds is recited by percussionists to the pulse of Aboriginal clapsticks:

'The fire spread inland from the ceremonial ground and burnt the nest of Wangurra (Bandicoot) forcing him to hide in a hollow log (larrakitj) to save himself. Djirrikitj, the Quail, picked up a burning twig from this fire and flew away with it, dropping it at Matamata. There is a large paperbark swamp at Matamata, where native honey bees live. Fire from the burning twig dropped by Djirrikitj took hold of the tall grass in the swamp area and the native bees fled to Djiliwirri in Gupapuyŋu clan country. Thus, Gupapuyŋu honey and Gumatj quail are  linked through fire. Through fire, bandicoot, quail and honey bee the clans are linked. Through ceremonies the ancestral lands are linked -  linked through fire in songs.’

Fire in Song was commissioned by Gemini with funds from a private donor, and is dedicated with much affection to David Lumsdaine and Ian Mitchell, teachers and supporters both.

(24 Feb 2020)

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