Iron in the Blood

by Jeremy on August 11, 2016


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John McBeath

★★★★★ – 5 stars

This is an extensive work of broad musical, historical and narrative scope. It’s a musical adaptation of Robert Hughes’s iconic Australian historical work The Fatal Shore The Epic of Australia’s Founding (1986), complete with narration by Philip Quast and William Zappa.

Composer, conductor and saxophonist Jeremy Rose has orchestrated jazz based music as exposition and ambience for this enormous work, assisted by funding from the Australia Council for the Arts, performed by Rose and the 18piece orchestra. 

As the cover notes by Paul Grabowsky state: “Rose’s music deftly summons up the provenance of the new arrivals [to Australia] with reference to folk song, fife and drum marches and a hint of the 18th century drawing room.”

Australia’s early history is expertly portrayed in 11 tracks of uniquely blended narrative documentary and jazz composition. From the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788 through until Hughes’s words of summation, this documentary holds the attention on both musical and descriptive levels.

The arrangement features various solos throughout, notably Rose’s soprano sax alternately floating, climbing and drifting over the orchestra in Time Immemorial Pts 1 & 2. Numerous other solos feature Matt Keegan on tenor sax, Paul Cutlan on baritone sax, Callum G’Froerer on trumpet, James Macaulay on trombone and several others.

The music enlivens and dramatises the narrative, which at times is fearful and cruel and is occasionally uplifting, but the orchestrations always add depictions and dramatic illustration to this absorbing documentary.

Andrew Aronowicz
★★★★½ “Harrowing history told by a bold, emerging Aussie voice.”

Jeremy Rose read The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ seminal account of Australia’s invasion, colonisation and transformation into a penal colony, in 2012. He was struck by the brutal reality faced by prisoners shipped over from the continent, as well as by the Indigenous population, and eventually found a way to engage with that dark history through music.

Iron in the Blood is a series of scenes performed by Rose and the Earshift Orchestra, underscoring narrated excerpts of Hughes’ work, read by actors Philip Quast and William Zappa. The excerpts give an overview of the struggle of the convicts, as well as the cruelty of British officers and lawmakers. The descriptions of the treatment of the original population – particularly the genocide of Tasmania’s Aboriginals – are harrowing. Musically, Iron in the Blood is an eclectic experience. Tracks draw on more conventional jazz idioms, while art music traits are present too, including sonic landscapes with dislocated, chromatic harmonies and extended instrumental effects. Some of the most intriguing features are the extended, frantic, improvised solos, often underscoring the most disturbing parts of the narration.   Individual performances and sound are excellent, and the narrations are enjoyable both on a theatrical and educational level. Rose has really honoured this awful chapter in our country’s history.



Geoff Page

★★★★ – 4 stars

Iron in the Blood is jazz musician Jeremy Rose’s ambitious and heartfelt tribute to Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore (1986). Although some academic historians may demur, The Fatal Shore remains a crucial book for understanding the brutality of Australia’s colonial origins.

To create his eleven-part tribute, Rose has assembled The Earshift Orchestra, an ensemble of seventeen musicians, nearly all of whom are youthful, like the composer. Two accomplished actors, Philip Quast and William Zappa, perform short excerpts from Hughes’s book (which are sometimes excerpts from original documents themselves).

These are cleverly and movingly integrated into the work as a whole.

Rose’s composition and orchestration here is reminiscent not only of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans but, at times, of Igor Stravinsky and Peter Sculthorpe. It is a powerful mélange to which Rose has added much of his own as well. Listeners tend to think of jazz as primarily improvisation but a great deal here is written down – then stirringly performed in the idiom. There are also several improvised solos, including a couple of memorable ones by the composer and others by trumpeter Nick Garbett and saxophonist Matt Keegan, to mention just two. The rhythm section of Joseph O’Connor (piano), Thomas Botting (bass), and Danny Fischer (drums) also plays an indispensable role – even when playing rubato.

The sources of Iron in the Blood are not only to be found in the work of the composers and arrangers mentioned above, but also in British folk song. The optimism in these parts is a useful counter to, and relief from, the harsher textures portraying the (still-astonishing) savagery of the ‘System’.

This project was supported by the Australia Council with cooperation from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is hard to imagine money being better spent.



John Clare

A few words adjunct to the inspiration for this exceptional work.

At the beginning of a recent ashes series a team of young English public school chaps – part of the otherwise convivial balmy army perhaps – foregathered in one of the pubs along George St, Sydney, and began singing with relish Bound For Botany Bay (Farewell To old England forever etc) just to remind us that we were all convicts. Why weren’t they beaten up? Because we are really gentlemen – or more likely because few of the younger drinkers in the CBD would have known the song or given a thought as to what it signied. Furthermore, in some quarters it has become fashionable to claim a convict or two among one’s ancestors. Me? No idea and do not care.

In Melbourne of course the feeling has been a little different. Melbourne’s white ancestors were not convicts but settlers, according to some. Further, they came not from over the sea but overland, to reach the excellent grazing near Port Phillip Bay. Having lived in both cites I can report that it is possible to fall down one of the old diggings in the bush behind my sister’s place on the road to Bendigo. Film and popular music critic Lynden Barber (himself from England) once remarked that Melbourne felt “faintly European”. Hmm, I think it has a distinctive Melbourne feeling. The gold diggings, incidentally, accounted for some of its prosperity.

If you live in Sydney, as I do now, it is possible even in modern times to feel a curious presence, a clanging but increasingly muted resonance, specially if you live – again as I do – in one of several places around the harbour. Oh yes, many were convicts. My grandfather was originally a bushman who rode in the Light Horse in World War 1, but some time later he lived on the north side of the harbour where it was still possible to keep a horse, which in this case used to hide from him behind the same tree each morning. Sometimes it gave a little whinny of excitement when my grandfather came closer – still pretending he could not see the sweet nag. The family also had a pet kangaroo which came and went, opening the gate on its own. He also fought bare knuckles, bossed shearing sheds and spoke to trees without embarrassment.

My point here is that some of us can still feel in this the old Australia. The beginning of my era saw refugees arrive at Maroubra, eeing from the rise of Adolf Hitler. There were Aborigines at school and a suburb of them at nearby La Perouse. They once simply lived here, but were now demoted to wards of the state, often treated with disdain. This is part of this project’s concern.

Whichever was your era, it is still fascinating to look back further. The late Robert Hughes (undoubtedly our best known art critic) looked back at the most abrupt change of all in his very impressive book The Fatal Shore. Some felt he was too harsh, and later he confessed this might be true. But it all happened. It is a matter of emphasis.

Sydney composer and saxophonist Jeremy Rose has incorporated some of Hughes’s best prose – which is very good indeed and well read by Quast and Zappa – and a few convict songs, into a long, dramatic, foreboding and sometimes dissonant and chilling series of brilliantly orchestrated fragments and longer themes played by The Earshift Orchestra, which includes some of Melbourne and Sydney’s most gifted players and improvisers. Rose will be familiar to many as the leader of a band called The Vampires who create colour and excitement using reggae and Latino rhythms. More recently he has shown himself to be an impressive – indeed distinctive – writer of longer musical forms. While sections of this work are basically massive punctuations, the volume also drops radically at whiles, giving rise to tranquility and rather beautiful liquid twittering and singing clarinet, soprano saxophone and ute. These lovely atmospherics oat over Paul Cutlan’s wonderful baritone saxophone, which suggests the curious beating drone of the digeridu. Joseph O’Connor’s lyrical pianistic complexities and the percussion of Danny Fischer and Botting’s double bass also help lift these sections above the earth even as they suggest the earth itself.

These devices are all most effective in the sections “Time Immemorial 1 and 2”. This is where Hughes’s concept of the end of a wall made of thousands of miles of distance is introduced. It is indeed the end of that barrier. The end perhaps of eternity. Some extraordinarily perceptive and superbly cadenced thoughts of Captain Cook are also read. Had a very poor education that man. Hmm.

Brilliant effects are also achieved, realising graphically and very musically the delirium of slow starvation that fell on the intruders. While the Aborigines ate well and failed to convince the white men they should eat what they ate. In the narration there is the fascinating comparison made by Hughes of the jubilant American sense of space (“Go West young man”) and that of the early white Australians, as in the section “The Melancholy Bush”.

There are too many details here to allow a comprehensive description of the work. Note however how the reeds are sometimes made to dance sinuously and to rise in a series of melodic undulations harmonised to an almost banshee shrillness and simultaneous eerie sweetness. More bluntly, the work is often dramatic, forceful, even jarring, and also brilliant in its voicings and changes of momentum. The trumpet section sometimes blasts up high in a way that may remind some of the old Stan Kenton orchestra.

There is an appreciation included in the notes, by Paul Grabowsky, himself a master of orchestral expression I am thinking now particularly of Ringing The Bell Backward. This is a period of impressive conceptual Australian works, including Lloyd Swanton’s Ambon, Paul Cutlan’s Across the Top and the band Baecastuff’s Mutiny Music.

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