Five Short Blasts is a rich invitation into the complex world of Fremantle’s Swan River, says Alison Croggon
It’s safe to say that I’ve never before woken for a show at 4am. Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow is that seeing the sun rise over the Swan River with the team from Five Short Blasts was amply worth the momentary pain of dragging my sleep-deprived body out of bed.
Created by Melbourne sound artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, Five Short Blasts was originally commissioned by the City of Melbourne in 2013. Since then it’s journeyed to Prague, Hamburg, Brighton and, most recently, to Fremantle for the Perth Festival, which is where I finally caught up with it.
Each iteration is specific to each city. In this case, the soundscape includes 30 voices of those who live and work by this river, with cultural consultation from Noongar Elder Marie Taylor. Threaded through this collage of sound and voices are a couple of beautiful texts from Noongar writer and academic Cassie Lynch and Melbourne-born Indigenous writer Tony Birch.
Five Short Blasts is an irresistible concept. Its title is drawn from a maritime signal that means “I am not sure of your intentions, and am concerned that we will collide”. As the artists say in the program, every aspect of the show is inspired by this expression of uncertainty, “drawing attention to the shared act of navigating the unknown”.
Our little flotilla of ten small orange boats pushed off from East Fremantle before the sun rose over the horizon, as the dawn light filled the world with colour. Immediately there was a sense of suspension: that we, bobbing on our fragile crafts, were caught between night and day, between water and sky, between the shore and the ocean.
The audio is broadcast from speakers on each of the boats, which allows the experience to be at once intimate and open to the ambient sounds around us. As we float past the limestone cliffs and the remains of the bushland, we’re immediately plunged into a deeper sense of our temporality: winding together Aboriginal story and geological history, Lynch reminds us that the Swan River (called Derbil Yerrigan by the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, the traditional owners) is itself a brief flicker in geological time, the limestone cliffs formed beneath the seas of the Cretaceous era. “This is marginal country,” says Lynch. “A temporary softness that clings to the edge of the oldest surface rock in the world.”
We hear from people who live and work on the river, from the police Search and Rescue teams and, as we head towards the industrial end, from people who work in the docks, the great network of cargo ships loading and unloading goods and connecting Fremantle (and Australia itself) with the rest of the world.
The intimacy of the soundscape is a rich memory prompt: an account from an English migrant reminds me that I too arrived at Fremantle on a ship, days before my seventh birthday. This place was my first glimpse of Australia. And in Melbourne I too live near docks, so there is a visual language that feels familiar: the massive cargo ships, the black swans and pelicans. But the limestone glimpsed through the vegetation is strange, a reminder that this is different country.
Five Short Blasts is an invitation to look: at the water, as the sun rises over it, casting a path of golden ripples over the surface, at the swans and pelicans and cormorants breakfasting around the boats, at the vegetation and homes and industry that line the river. There are people out and about along the shore: some, like two trombonists, are part of the show, but the person walking their dog perhaps isn’t. It’s impossible to know.
Disembarking, I felt refreshed. Most of us don’t get enough space or time to notice the environments we live in and move through, to remember that they are beautiful, that they are fragile, that they sustain us spiritually as well as physically. And as headlines every day reveal another aspect of the environmental crisis we’ve created, valuing these things is now much more than a luxury: it’s an urgent necessity.
Five Short Blasts, created by Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Marie Taylor, Cassie Lynch, Bec Reid and the water communities of Fremantle. Perth Festival. Sold out.