Excerpt from Chapter One of Like a Living Thing: The Evolution of the Sydney Opera House
Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard had also used the ambisonic software in 2009 to create a multi- dimensional sonic environment for Nick Cave’s narration of his novel The Death of Bunny Munro with music and sound effects. In 2011 Nick Cave became the personification of the way that rock and roll is now central to the broadening of the Opera House’s cultural scope by so naturally connecting with so many aspects of its arts ecosystem.
His composition “The Ship Song” was interpreted as an ensemble piece in a video directed by Paul Goldman and uploaded to YouTube in 2011 featuring all of the Opera House’s resident arts companies and several, mostly Australian, rock musicians, filmed in the backstage and service and rehearsal areas of the building as well as the theatres, foyers, and then, in a majestic swoop upwards from the monumental steps at dawn, to the familiar aerial tourist brochure glamour view of the harbour.
He hadn’t appeared in the “Ship Song” video but by 2011 his artistic pursuits that now include writing novels, screenplays, the libretto for an opera and soundtracks for movies and theatre productions was becoming understood as a natural thing, a talent for collaboration fostered within the artistic community formed in punk-rock era Melbourne.
His songs also have their own lives completely apart from him, at the Opera House in the repertoires of cabaret singers Ute Lemper and Camille, heard during an interval for the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet in the Drama Theatre, and in the wider artistic community as the subject matter for a modern dance show Underworld and a puppet show based on the Murder Ballads album.
The diverse adaptations of his songs even contradict one another. “Red Right Hand” has been featured in the schlocky, ironic horror movie series Scream, a bucolic, dreamy advertisement for the food and wine district of the Barossa Vally in South Australia, a Seussian-style childrens book and the song’s protagonist, a maybe Messiah, maybe Devil, has been sculpted as a Lego-like mini figure. The song has also mapped the psychological universes of two television series. The X Files, which presented good and evil as a struggle between mysticism (the existence of aliens, creatures from the realms of cryptozoology and conspiracy theories) and scientific verifiability and logic and reason. “The show is basically a religious show,” said series creator Chris Carter. “It’s about the search for God. You know, ‘the truth is out there’.” And most recently generated the entire world of the gangster television series Peaky Blinders beginning in 1920s Birmingham.
The setting of “Red Right Hand” is the dead heart of a modern city. It began life in one of Nick’s notebooks as a list of heroic infrastructure projects, government buildings and factories that in the early days of the industrial revolution would have suggested progress and betterment for all, but were now broken and crumbling, within a poisoned environment, and populated only by ghetto encampments of people whom progress had passed by. Peaky Blinders winds time back to when the industrial city was new, shiny, and dangerously, seductively alluring. “The horses are bigger and blacker, the men are stronger and more rugged; the women are more glamorous; the lipstick’s brighter,” said Helen McCrory who plays the matriarch of the gangster gang. “It’s almost like a graphic novel.”
It’s too tidy and not exactly accurate to cast Nick Cave as the personification of Utzon’s wish that a living Opera House continually renew itself by renewing timeless myths as the modern city evolves, but just as Utzon quoted from myths fixed in enduring artworks for the design of the Opera House — Hamlet’s Castle in Denmark — Nick’s songs frequently have a core based in myth. When the Bad Seeds gave the first official performances of the Push the Sky Away album over three nights in the Concert Hall at the Opera House in 2013 their set included “O Children”, a song from an album that’s a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus Myth, as Opera Australia were performing an operatic setting of the same myth in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. What makes Nick valuable when one era is ending and a new one is still hazy and settling in is his steadiness in uncertain times when the metaphors that unlock myths require recalibration.
As the Opera House was beginning a new era in 2011 Nick had just concluded the Grinderman experiment. He’d taken three Bad Seeds and formed a band to re-evaluate his entire process of writing, recording and performing music. He jettisoned story songs with a tidy narrative arc and retired the symbols and metaphors he’d consistently relied upon. The post-Grinderman Bad Seeds songs have a fragmentary, stream of consciousness, conversational structure, transferred directly from everyday life: things he’d observed from the window of his study, or on tour, his destinations circled on maps torn from in-flight magazines and pasted into his notebooks, and indirectly through the internet. However the internet removes weight and consequence, everything is equal and ultimately unverifiable, fact and fallacy side-by-side, “And Wikipedia is heaven”.
The songs have a new freshness and directness, as if torn straight from his notebook, the deep-thinking and memories and wondering interleaved with lists of activities and everyday observations. The grounding factor is the date meticulously hand-stamped into the notebooks. The Bad Seeds concerts at the Opera House served the same function as those date stamps and map references, defining a beginning point for that album going out into the world, at a place on the map the Opera House’s fame has made recognisable the world over, weighted in time with a string section drawn from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, bringing with them the ballast of centuries of music, and a children’s choir, representing hopes for the future.
Local string players and children’s choirs were added to the concerts in outdoor venues and theatres built in the 1920s in the other cities during that Australian tour but there was something especially resonant, though unstated and probably unintended, about those Opera House concerts that connected those performances to everything other performance ever staged at the Opera House, as a symbol of the country’s culture, embedding them in a cultural timeline.
This cultural resonance is what sets Opera House performances apart. In 2014 an awkward Neko Case announced to the audience that her appearance in the Concert Hall made her feel as if her face was on the $10 bill for a day. It was the same year that William Gibson identified her as the model for Flynne, the heroine of his novel The Peripheral. “I’m not trying to predict the future,” he said. “I am trying to use science fiction to somewhat understand an unthinkable present.”6 He listened to Case’s album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood while he was writing The Peripheral to channel the voice and personality of Flynne. In 2016 Beth Orton, the model for Case, one of the heroines of his previous Blue Ant trilogy appeared at the Opera House during Vivid Live. “I have always regarded music with lyrics as a species of fiction,” William Gibson told the New York Times in 2008, publishing a playlist that included songs by Neko Case and Nick Cave.