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A songline of the universe


In the world of music, the creation and first performance of a new oratorio is no small event. Even more so when the oratorio, by the Melbourne composer Nicholas Buc, deals with nothing less than Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity. Its text was written by a geneticist and a poet working together, Jenny Graves and Leigh Hay. 

Its composition was initiated by the Heidelberg Choral Society, under the direction of Peter Bandy, performed it at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 18 July 2023, as part of the XXIII International Congress of Genetics, being held in Melbourne. The entire oratorio was presented with an accompanying video animation by Drew Berry, a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Whereas Joseph Haydn composed his oratorio, The Creation, using a text drawn in part from Genesis, the Psalms, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Buc’s Origins offers an account of the story of the universe in terms of contemporary physics and genetics, without traditional religious language about God intervening in the universe. Its story begins with nothing less than how nothing becomes something, what the opening tenor solo describes as magnum mysterium, a Latin phrase that evokes the sacred mystery of creation: ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.’

Origins, richly orchestrated by a composer with a gift for cinematic narrative, is immensely exciting to sing.  While it avoids talking about God (whose name in Jewish tradition has always been too sacred to be named in speech), the libretto evokes the language of sacred wonder at how in an instant ‘bursts time, matter, energy, a sea of light and radiation flooding … Beauty and power of simplicity. The beautiful, miraculous appear from nowhere.’  We move from the creation of the universe to the ‘rocky horror’ of the Hadean era, when gravity battled with vast cosmic energies to create one minor planet ‘in a humdrum galaxy’ that we call earth and became a pale blue dot – an image made famous by the appearance of earth to astronaut Neil Armstrong (although one could add that it is also an ancient image in Hindu meditation).


'We have to recognize that songlines are never static. From time to time, they need to be updated, just like the story of creation. There is never just a single songline to help us on our journey.'


We follow the story into the origins of life not just in Pilbara’s ancient rocks, but through the lens of the discovery of DNA as a double helix by Jim Watson and Francis Crick. They drew on key insights from Rosalind Franklin (1920-58) , a pioneering biochemist, who would die before Watson and Crick were officially beatified by the Nobel Prize committee as having discovered the core genetic mechanism for transmitting life. Buc uses a wide range of musical styles to present both the drama of discovery and the absurd controversy new ideas have often provoked, as happened with ‘Mr Darwin’s dangerous ideas,’ generating suspicion not unlike that provoked by climate science in our own day. The gift of the poetry of Graves and Hay is that it explains to non-scientists not just how DNA was discovered, but how it provides the foundation from which different species have evolved. There always has been a struggle for existence in the generation of multiple species, at the same time as a struggle for order simply to survive.

For me, the most moving part of Origins is that concerned with extinction, a line of thought that had not been raised when Haydn celebrated creation: ‘Most life that ever lived is gone. Fossils and ghosts all that remain.’ A chiming bell calls us to remember this profound passing, all the more real as we move from the Holocene to what is now called the Anthropocene: ‘Extinction is a part of evolution, but the sixth extinction is upon us – that is all our own.’ As in all great stories, there is a moment of choice for us as humanity. What Augustine called original sin is present for modern humanity as a tendency to dominate, once a survival mechanism, but now threatening our very future as a species. The oratorio concludes by reflecting on our potential for understanding through wonder and awe, ‘that we are made of stardust,’ and so our capacity to glimpse our place in the universe.

It would be too simplistic to describe this oratorio simply as a secular scientific composition that rejects religious ways of looking at the world. By reminding us of what Aristotle recognized as the foundation for all inquiry, namely wonder and awe, it opens up a way of what David Suzuki called the sacred balance, a vision that many different religious traditions have sought to teach, although sometimes without sufficient attention to the complexity of the web of life. One way of considering this oratorio is to see it as a new kind of songline, cultural DNA as it were, telling the story of creation in a way that draws on the language of contemporary science.

In Australia, the first peoples of this land have survived for many thousands of years by telling sacred stories about the creation of their particular land and its potential sources of water, shaping identity and cosmology. Scriptural narratives deserve to be treasured as another form of songline, telling the journey of spirit ancestors in order to provide a map for the present. Our world has moved on from Haydn’s time. We have realized that there are many more songlines that we can learn, as we discover more about the particular patch of the universe in which we live. We may not understand all the different languages in which songlines may be passed on. Yet we can still benefit from their beauty and multiplicity, refusing the tyranny of reductionism, whether scientific or religious.

In a profound way, we are being asked to modify our constitution in order to recognize the first peoples of our land. That document is another form of songline, telling us who were are and who we might be. Its scope is necessarily limited in character. But we have to recognize that songlines are never static. From time to time, they need to be updated, just like the story of creation. There is never just a single songline to help us on our journey.




Constant J. Mews is Professor Emeritus at Monash University, attached to the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies. He sings in the Heidelberg Choral Society.

Main image: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region to Earth on July 12, 2023. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via Getty Images)

Topic tags: Constant Mews, Songline, Nicholas Buc, Origins, Oratorio, First Nations, Creation, Referendum



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Existing comments

“It may or may not have happened, but it’s still true.” If I were to say those words to a detective, he (or she) may think I’m being a tad evasive. The Genesis story in the bible teaches us important truths about how God works in the world, then and now. New songlines are always emerging and our nation has the chance now to be inclusive in a new way. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Brilliant article, Constant.

Pam | 25 July 2023  

I agree with you Pam, but I'd go one step further and suggest that although song lines, creation stories, and origin myths may or may not be objectively true, they can still convey powerful insights or truths about the human condition, societal issues and moral dilemmas. The myth, though, always says as much - perhaps more - about the myth-maker as/than it does about the mythical event.

Ginger Meggs | 26 July 2023  
Show Responses

Thoughtful as always, Ginger. Like the book of Job, Genesis defies easy categorisation. Both are powerfully written and stay with us. I can’t bring myself to say they are “myth” in the usual sense of the word.

Pam | 27 July 2023  

Reductionism and essentialism are fascinating ideas.

The entire canon of English is founded on relationships between a few more than twenty-six alphabets, 'a few more' given that English often uses words from another language which employs the same Roman characters, but with diacritics. Only a few more than twenty-six. I don't know how many songlines there are in the history of the planet but if they are written in English, the writing is only using twenty-six (and a few more) Roman alphabets.

The entire 'canon' of the physical universe is founded on relationships, if the Standard Model is correct, between seventeen fundamental particles. Only seventeen. One electron, which is a fundamental particle, "looks" like any other electron. One proton, which is not a fundamental particle, "looks" like any other proton, possibly because the different fundamental particles "inside" it are identical with all of the fundamental particles like them that are "outside" that proton.

How many musical tones are there?

It's how the samenesses are mixed and matched which makes the differences. Or organised to be mixed and matched.

How many organising principles are there which are just repeated? Perhaps, this is where reductionism and essentialism break down. Or don't.

s martin | 26 July 2023  

While, not having heard Nicholas Buc's composition, I refrain from comment on its musical merits, I find its links with the biblical account in Genesis as presented here tenuous, to say the least - more of a substitution for than a rendering of the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis; a new paradigm ("cultural DNA, as it were") that appears to ignore key theological elements of the traditional biblical account such as creation by word with purposeful and benign intent by a sovereign, transcendent Creator.

John RD | 01 August 2023  

The massacres happened there is no doubt about it:
Young Peevay (song title).

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird-
Boy spread your wings and fly!

Peevay resistance fighter!
Blackboy from down Cape Grim,
Detested the new white whalers-
Shot two hundred of his kin.

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird.
Boy spread your wings and fly.

Taken by George Robinson,
In eighteen forty two..
There on Port Phillip Bay,
Angered at his folk’s massacre-
Fought for his people that day.

Cops tied my hands behind me
Said I killed two white men…
Told me to pray to Jesus,
Not to worry bout those kin…
Cool down boy!

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird-
Boy spread your wings and fly.

V 4
Dragged to a timbered valley,
Hood pulled o’er my face,
Given a new rope necktie-
Hauled up a Coolabah tree.
How’s that boy?

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird-
Boy spread your wings and fly.

No witness at my trial then,
Bluecoats watched me jerk n’ dance.
Smiled and lit their pipes there-
Knew that I had no chance..
Poor black boy!

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird
Boy spread your wings and fly
Then when I stopped breathin’,
Cut me down from that Coolabah!
Cut my sac for their kid’s marble bag
Hacked my ears for their pickle jar.
How’s that boy?

Lift up your head young Peevay.
Lift up your head and sigh!
Lift up your head you waterbird.
Boy spread your wings and fly.

Francis Armstrong | 14 August 2023  

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