A Tasmanian Requiem


Julie Gough, Manifestation (Bruny Island) 2010
Giclee print on Hahnemuhle photo rag paper, ed: 10
Image 400 x 600 mm (paper 600 x 800 mm)


A Tasmanian Requiem is a production of music, voice and visual art that concerns the aftermath of the European invasion of the island now known as Tasmania. It will premier in Hobart in April 2018.

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Creative Synopsis

The establishment of the British colony called Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 continues to represent a disturbing and contradictory element in Tasmanian history. It is popularly considered as the foundational event for the state of Tasmania – the beginning of European settlement, and all that is now familiar. However, this focus fails to adequately recognise that Palawa/Pakana (Aboriginal people) already lived on the island, and have done so for over one thousand generations.

The incapacity of today’s non-Aboriginal Tasmanians to engage with this continuum of history is largely due to a reluctance to acknowledge that the ‘settlement’ of Tasmania was neither peaceful, nor moral. Over ninety percent of the Aboriginal population were dead within twenty years of British arrival – due to displacement from their productive lands, social disruption, and massacres by soldiers, convicts and settlers.

The ‘Black War’ between settlers and Aborigines is unacknowledged in official Australian military history, yet its conduct was to be essential to the establishment of the colony. This silence, along with a reluctance to accept the implications of this terrible history for us all today, stands in the way of our ability to make peace with the past and to embrace the reality of an island that has a social and cultural history; not 200 years, but over 40,000 years old.

A Tasmanian Requiem is a long-overdue mourning for the near genocidal death that was unleashed on Aborigines by the British. But the idea of extinction and absence of Aboriginal people and culture in Tasmania is too often held as fact, and has too often served as an excuse to leave the past unspoken – denying the survivors of this fatal impact a contemporary presence.

A Tasmanian Requiem acknowledges the continuation of a deep and complex Indigenous culture in Tasmania – one that is now intricately bound together with the almost forgotten mythological foundations of Western culture. A Tasmanian Requiem will explore the interactions of these cultures through the lens of the Christian Requiem Mass. Key works of Renaissance, Enlightenment and Modern literature are interwoven with Palawa/Pakana voices to explore the moral dimensions of the European imagination, its search for a new Paradise on the island, and the events that have hidden that place from view.

Key Personnel

Music: Helen Thomson.

Libretto: Greg Lehman.

Visual art: Julie Gough.

Producer: Frances Butler.

Director: Robert Jarman.

Musical Director: Gary Wain.

Libretto Development

Gregory Lehman


When British ships first arrived to claim what was than called Van Diemen’s Land, the island was already home to hundreds of Aboriginal families. These people had existed for at least 40,000 years on the island. During this period Tasmanian Aborigines endured an ice age and over 10,000 years of isolation from the rest of humanity. The result was a complex society consisting of several language groups, which developed a unique range of cultural beliefs and practices, including a rich tradition of visual and performing arts, maritime technology and a detailed cosmology.

The British took little interest in Aboriginal culture. Instead, the first three decades of their colony’s history involved escalating conflict with Aboriginal tribes as more and more land was annexed for settlement, sheep grazing and agriculture. During this time, the Aboriginal population was reduced from more than three thousand to less than three hundred. Many were killed by officially armed Roving Parties and in a series of massacres.

In 1832, the last Aboriginal resistance fighters accepted a treaty, and the Tasmanian Black War was over. However, instead of honoring this treaty, the Governor condemned the survivors to permanent detention on an offshore island, where most were to die without ever seeing their homelands again.

During this time, the fate of Tasmanian Aborigines was held in the hands of Evangelical Christians, only to be abandoned when they were no longer considered a threat to the colony’s future.

These terrible events, played out little more than two lifetimes ago, have left an indelible stain on the island’s history. They cast a dark shadow that haunts the conscience of those who now enjoy the spoils of colonial victory over Tasmania’s first people. The Tasmanian Aboriginal families that survived celebrate their achievement my maintaining ancient cultural practices and a profound connection to the island as an ancestral homeland. But their lives are also haunted by loss and the generational trauma that plagues survivors of such a brutal impact.

A Tasmanian Requiem acknowledges the loss and trauma experienced by Tasmanian Aborigines, while celebrating the cultural strength that has enabled survival. The project also recognises the moral cost of this history for all Tasmanians – those descended from the settlers who participated in the murder of Aborigines – and more recent arrivals who, having learned of the violent history of the island, can find no refuge from the island’s fractured relationship with its past.

A Tasmanian Requiem is about loss of innocence. It is set in an Antipodean paradise where European arrival plays out a familiar Biblical story of sin and exile. This project seeks to offer an opportunity for atonement, intersecting elements of European musical and literary history with Tasmanian Aboriginal culture to reach beyond the beginnings of civilisation and remind us of our common humanity, and our shared present.

Eternal Rest

The foundational narrative of this production emerges from the Requiem Mass, a mass for the dead that originated in the Medieval period. The Requiem Mass is named from the Esdras of the Biblical Old Testament, which provide an account of the return of Jewish people to Palestine following their exile in Babylon around 450 BC. This text influenced early Christian belief in last things – the immortality of the human soul, its survival after death and the influence of the present life on the soul’s future. It is from the Latin version of the Fourth Book of Esdras that the phrase requiem æternitatis comes – to give eternal rest.

Today the Requiem mass is performed by the Catholic and Anglican churches, with variations found in Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and Methodist ceremonies. The mass involves prayers, readings and hymns, with fragments of Psalms sung in response (antiphony) to readings by a choir or congregation. The Gregorian Chant is central to this tradition, and draws on musical traditions from Roman, Gallic and Frankish Christians of the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

The Requiem represents one of the most ancient continuing traditions in Western spiritual belief. In coming together to pray for forgiveness and peace for those who have died, participants in the mass are reminded that they too must take responsibility for their own sins. The tradition of the Requiem Mass teaches that moral transgressions have lasting consequences, alienating sinners during their lifetimes, and even beyond death – beliefs shared by all the great religions of the world.

Exile and Sin

According to Jewish scholars, the exile of Israelites to Assyria in 733 BC characterised suffering and oppression, while the exile of Judahites (Jews) to Babylon in 597 BC involved temptation. These historical events are likely to have predated and influenced the writing of Genesis; the biblical text that establishes the origins of the Jewish people and their covenants with God as his ‘Chosen People’ with a ‘Promised Land’. They also came to symbolise both the cause and consequence of exile.

It is in Genesis that the popular Christian idea of ‘Original Sin’ is to be found. Genesis tells of how, following God’s creation of the world, he placed Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, in the Garden of Eden. Here they lived in a state of innocence and unity with God. Unashamed of their nakedness, and at one with nature, the idea of a perfect and natural human state was established. This was brought to an end when, tempted by a serpent, they selfishly ate forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. As punishment, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden, denying them fruit from the Tree of Life, and condemning them to mortal lives.

Palawa/Pakana culture also has its creation stories. In these, Tarner the kangaroo is our ancestor, transformed into Palawa by the creation spirit Moinee. Prior to this transformation, Palawa had no knee joints and could not sit down. The spirit Droemerdeener broke his legs and cut off his tail, forming him as human. When Palawa was able to sit down for the first time he said it was Nyerrae (good, very good). This is a story not only of the beginning of Palawa/Pakana people and culture, but of how the island of Tasmania became home to our ancestors.

The European idea of a Garden of Paradise is likely have origins in Sumerian traditions dating back as early as 5000 BC. It also appears in Islamic, Greek and Persian mythologies, making it one of the most deeply embedded mythologies in Western culture. The Garden of Eden can be seen as representing many things. In Jewish tradition, it may refer to the Promised Land and the Temple of Solomon, representing the Kingdom of Judah and Israel prior to exile.

For many Christians, Eden has come to symbolise what has been lost in their moral lives – denying them happiness and fulfillment. It also represents the hope that an existence in unity with God and/or nature may be re-found during their lifetimes, and beyond death.

For 19th century Christians about to commence a new life in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land, these biblical traditions easily translated their own experience into one of exile and promise – that a new start was possible in a new land – and that Van Diemen’s Land might offer the chance of a return to Paradise. However, Christian teaching says that the consequences of Original Sin can only be overcome through the forgiveness of God, and a final judgment after death – a return to Paradise must be earned by living a good life.

The greatest irony and tragedy of Tasmania is that in seeking a new Paradise in Van Diemen’s Land – a return from the exile brought about by Original Sin –Christian colonists brought suffering and oppression to the Palawa/Pakana people whose home they invaded; imposing exile on others. In doing so, the British unwittingly repeated the actions of those who sent the tribes of Israel and Judah into exile. In this way the grinding wheels of colonial history have created a great cycle of dispossession.

In A Tasmanian Requiem, the actions of the British against Aboriginal people in Tasmania are portrayed as compromising the European hope for a new beginning. Instead of finding a place in Paradise, the colonists repeat the sins of Adam. When they selfishly choose to abuse and kill their Aboriginal neighbors rather than respect their presence, they find themselves exiled from the Garden – welcoming nature is transformed into a terrifying wilderness as they are haunted by the realisation that rather than escape Original Sin, they have refreshed it. The uneasy relationship with wilderness continues in Tasmania, with Palawa/Pakana people constantly required to challenge the understanding of wilderness as an ‘empty’ land – reminding contemporary Tasmanians that it is a cultural landscape created by our ancestors over millennia.

The constant presence of Palawa/Pakana culture and voice in the production questions the imposition of European mythologies of alienation in our cosmos, and recognises the irony of these traditions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite European attempts to exile Palawa/Pakana from their home, it becomes clear that our presence is enduring. The colonial dismissal of a spiritual and intellectual basis to Aboriginal culture is challenged in A Tasmanian Requiem as Palawa/Pakana voices consistently interrogate the foundations of European morality and mythology.

Sources of Text

A Tasmanian Requiem draws on several sources for the spoken and sung parts of the libretto. Principal text comes from the Latin mass. This follows traditions of European ceremony dating back to the first Roman Missal of 1570; in turn derived from Latin masses first performed in the second or third century AD, when Latin began to replace Greek as the language of Christian worship. The Requiem Mass circumscribes not only the moral framework of Christian colonialism, but also invokes the ancient and classical origins of the Western World.


Fragments of the languages of Tasmanian Aboriginal people have been preserved in the records and journals of several European explorers, settlers and others who recognised the importance of Tasmania’s Indigenous culture. Today these are being revitalised by some Aboriginal people to create a lingua franca that can be used for everyday communication. However, to reflect the sourcing of text in A Tasmanian Requiem from the Roman Missal and other historic sources, the use of Tasmanian Aboriginal languages will draw on records from the period of encounter and conflict during the first part of the 19th century.

Palawa/Pakana language will be incorporated to preface, accompany or interrogate text drawn from the Latin Requiem Mass and other European sources below. Together, these texts will symbolise the confluence of language, culture and time in Van Diemen’s Land during the period of British invasion. Palawa/Pakana language, together with accompanying visual elements in the staging will create tensions, contradictions and contrasts with the language and ideas that are drawn from European sources – ensuring that Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and cosmology is established as a preceding and enduring presence throughout the production.

Everett (Puralia Menamatta)

Elements of the Aboriginal voice will also draw on contemporary poetry, specially commissioned for the project, by Tasmanian Aboriginal philosopher, poet, playwright and author Jim Everett. Through this contribution, Jim will extend the ‘Learning to Understand’ principle he established with fellow Aboriginal philosopher David Mowaljarli in 1989, presenting Aboriginal being as a ‘higher-order’ intellect of belonging and unity with Country.

Jim’s poems extend the presence of Palawa/Pakana voice in the narrative by incorporating English language as an expression of Aboriginal culture – demonstrating its strength in embracing the contemporary world.


A Tasmanian Requiem will include English translations of elements from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, an epic poem illustrating the Medieval worldview of 14th century Europe. This poem is widely recognised as one of the greatest works in world literature, an allegory of the soul’s journey to God.

Dante Alighieri’s depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven strongly influenced the great works of Renaissance art, and later writers including, Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Tennyson. Dante’s vivid descriptions inform the staging of A Tasmanian Requiem, where life’s path is illustrated as a dark wood (sin) in which the traveller is threatened by the wild beasts of hell – a lion (morally corrupt England), a snake (temptation) and a thylacine (Tasmanian wilderness). Dante describes Purgatory as a mountainous island in the Southern Hemisphere, a geographical analog of Van Diemen’s Land, where settlers must contend with the roots of sinfulness before ascending to the Garden of Eden, which is at the mountain’s summit.


John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is another, highly influential epic poem that concerns the Fall of Man. It was one of the most widely published literary works in England at the time Van Diemen’s Land was colonised, forming a dramatic backdrop to the drama unfolding on the island and its moral consequences for the British.

The epic poem by John Milton was first published in 1667 and was hugely influential in 17th and 18th century England. It retells the story of Adam and Eve, their temptation by Satan and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton’s poem was also a strong rejection of Catholicism and represents the forces of Protestantism in English history, written as it was during the English Civil War. Milton criticises the idea of a monarch’s divine right to rule, considering God as man’s natural superior. Importantly, Milton also describes God as ‘Heav’n’s awful Monarch’, pointing out that God, in his omnipotence, cannot be innocent of the evils that play out in Satan’s plan to engineer man’s exile from Paradise.

The epic poem questions the moral foundations of European civility and traditions of religious belief. Milton’s references to the fall of Solomon’s Temple not only indicate his Protestant criticism of idolatry, but also allude to the folly of building structures (physical or social) in the name of God, which will ultimately distract from the word of God, in favour of narcissism and self-interest.

References to ‘Paradise Lost’ in A Tasmanian Requiem therefore serve to question the moral and spiritual foundations of the colonial project in Van Diemen’s Land, as well as establishing God/Nature as an unknowable and fearful presence in the lives of settlers.

T.S. Eliot

A final source of text is the poetry of T. S. Eliot. American-born Eliot is considered one of the 20th century’s most influential poets. His Modernist works include ‘The Hollow Men’. This poem, first published in 1925, draws on Dante to paint a picture of post World War One Europe, describing the passage of souls into the kingdoms of death. Reference to this work emphasises the lasting impact of war for contemporary audiences of A Tasmanian Requiem, with the famous line “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams”.

References to Eliot also pay tribute to Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, a work that, in common with A Tasmanian Requiem, also takes the tradition of the Requiem Mass and turns it to moral purposes of great social and ethical relevance to contemporary audiences.

The other Eliot poem from which text will be drawn is ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936). Set in a rose garden, the author contemplates the nature of time and salvation, and the relationship of these to words and music. The poem focuses on the importance of the present, rather than the past (which cannot be changed) or the future (which is unknown); and the possibility of redemption through the recognition of God. Excerpts from ‘Burnt Norton’ offer hope for today’s audiences that thought and action in the present might transcend past moral failures.

Narrative structure

A Tasmanian Requiem will loosely follow the framework of the Requiem Mass by using Latin words and phrases from several parts or propers of the liturgy – for example, Introitus, Dies Irae, Offertorium, In Paradisum. These will be interspersed with Palawa/Pakana and English text to create a constellation of themes and ideas to carry the narrative through to its conclusion.

Together with visual elements of staging, this narrative will take the form of a multimode poem comprising music, voice (spoken and sung) projected image and sculpture. Rather than taking a didactic approach common to conventional written or documentary histories of Van Diemen’s Land, A Tasmanian Requiem will avoid being informative, instructive or moralistic. Instead, the production will engage the audience with the aesthetic products of history – musical, visual and textual ideas and traditions – to invite the audience on a journey through the intersecting world of early nineteenth century Van Diemen’s Land. The narrative will weave parallel journeys – of Aboriginal and European actors on the colonial stage of encounter and conflict, and of souls/spirits journeying from an earthly to a celestial domain – all in search of atonement with a fractured past.

In common with the intent of Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’, it is hoped that the performance will create a space in the present where the audience can ‘learn to understand’ something of the Paradise that the Western world seeks to regain, a state of being that exists at the heart of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, and has survived the disruption of colonisation that stripped away innocence for all who were affected.

Musical Approaches

Helen Thomson


The great challenge and privilege of composing of this work is to unite in music the sweeping, significant, yet hard-to-reconcile thematic ideas which Greg Lehman will explore with his libretto.  Music’s role in this process is to underpin, mirror and highlight the text with melodies, harmonies and timbres which elevate, challenge, and above all, move the listener – my (perhaps ambitious) aspiration here is to move the listener in the active sense of creating change, as opposed to evoking a merely transient emotional response.

The music of A Tasmanian Requiem will seek to open the heart, creating a point of entry which is as much spiritual as it is intellectual. The music of A Tasmanian Requiem aims to convey and underpin the powerful words and themes so effectively that it creates a space where grief and pain can be fully experienced.  The hope is that audience members will embrace the shared responsibility of holding extremely uncomfortable truths up to the light, and, holding those truths and that responsibility, let go of the paralysis that arises out of shame and instead acknowledge and respond positively to the current, unacceptable Tasmanian status quo. If the music of A Tasmanian Requiem can be seen as a journey, then its hoped-for destination is a clarion call to champion the need for change, operating from knowledge and strength; to get actively involved in the much-needed and long-overdue dialogue of calling / responding / grieving / healing which the music of A Tasmanian Requiem seeks to model.


Reflecting in music the weighty, nuanced and multilayered themes that Greg Lehman will explore in his libretto is no small task, and getting to grips with it will be the project of many months.  A few of the musical ideas are already quite well-developed: a precis of these appears below.

Combinations of forces

Greg Lehman’s libretto incorporates a triangulation of languages: Tasmanian Aboriginal language, English and Latin.  Musically, this triangulation will be reflected in the vocal quintet, the brass quintet, and at least two Aboriginal voices; these musical forces will be combined in a number of ways. Each language will not necessarily be uniformly aligned to a particular set of “voices”: rather, the threads of each language will interweave, as will the combinations of the forces, so that a myriad of permutations may be explored.

Antiphony, cacophony, harmony

Shifts in language, timbre and voice groupings will mirror the antagonisms and attractions, paradoxes and convergences of the text – opposition and conversation; difference and commonality; dispossession and reconnection; call and response. The cacophony of jarringly different timbres brutally overlaid will alternate – sometimes rapidly, sometimes in a slow morph – with mirroring of tuning, tone and phrasing so exact that the listener cannot distinguish between individual voices or even between vocal and brass sound.  Harmonies and melodies, many of which will be recast from the Missa pro Defunctis of the Gregorian Chant tradition, will be destroyed / deconstructed, atomised, granulated, de-textualised, de-contextualised, and then recombined, retexted, re-signified, ultimately settling into a powerful resonance built from a strong, flexible, deliberate interweaving.


Greg mentions in his synopsis a “great cycle of dispossession”. The idea of cycles, to represent historical patterns repeating, atrocities committed and recommitted across ages by stubbornly hegemonic forces, will be explored in the employment of permutations and combinations.  This tintinnabulist approach also conjures echoes of church bells, harking back once again to the Catholic Requiem structure which is the skeleton on which the the words and music of A Tasmanian Requiem will be the flesh.

This may seem a gruesome metaphor, but it is apt: the bizarre occult tradition of bones stored in reliquaries resonates, uncomfortably but undeniably, with the casual, abhorrent theft of Aboriginal remains. The mystery of transsubstantiation, transparent tasteless wafer and thin wine into flesh and blood, could be seen as a metaphor for a longing for country, rootedness, the real – the Paradise Lost that is central to Greg’s material.

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