Musical revelation of hidden thoughts sends powerful message

By TONY WAY.  Published July 2020 on The Age
Flinders Quartet, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, July 23
Revelation is not only for investigative journalists. Artists have a crucial role in bringing buried emotions to the surface by engaging with contemporary society.
Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender by Melbourne composer Katy Abbott is a telling example of such engagement.

In 2013, Australians sent some 2000 letters to asylum seekers detained in Nauru. Practically all were returned unopened. By bringing to light the letters’ expressions of compassion, shame and sadness, and by highlighting this act of government suppression, Abbott questions our national conscience.

Throughout this hour-long work for string quartet, mezzo-soprano and narrator, Abbott asserts the primacy of the heartfelt words. The minimalist-style score, in which musical ideas are scattered and coalesce, is not so much a setting of the texts as an emotional framework on which to hang a variety of sung and spoken textures.

The final, simple phrase “we welcome you here”, intended to be sung by performers and audience, grows into a powerful mantra of hope beyond reach.

Dr Katy Abbott has composed a powerful new work for Flinders Quartet. Credit: Chris Hopkins

In delivering what is both a disquieting piece of social activism as well as a moving affirmation of human solidarity, Abbott was blessed with performers perfectly in tune with her vision. The Flinders Quartet (for whom this work was written) engaged sensitively with singer Dimity Shepherd and narrator Richard Piper, both of whom made clarity and sincerity their hallmark.

The irony of revealing these “hidden thoughts” during the pandemic lockdown reinforces Abbott’s message, one that should not be returned to sender.