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Why Voss?



Rarely does an artistic work weave so many cultural influences as to inspire a whole new journey of exploration some 50 years after its creation. Such has been the legacy of Patrick White's novel Voss, first published in 1957 and an iconic Australian narrative of journey, exploration and discovery.

Through a remarkable series of seminars, concerts, events and screenings, held in Canberra between 14 and 17 May, 12 organisations embarked on a unique collaborative venture to explore Voss. Led by the National Film and Sound Archive, with key contributions by the National Library of Australia, AIATSIS, the Australian National University, the National Portrait Gallery and Manning Clark House, 'The Voss Journey' set out to investigate three main strands relating to the novel:

* The novel's sources, meanings and myth-making.

* Its indigenous and non-indigenous pre-history, through the journals, maps and scientific findings of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, whose expedition diaries Patrick White so fastidiously recorded in his notebooks, and the colonial music history associated with Leichhardt that was re-claimed by Richard Meale in his 1986 opera based on the novel.

* The slow, unfurling cultural legacy of Voss over 50 years through the transformation of the novel into other artistic forms--opera, film, literature, painting, music, theatre, photography and ethnography--some projects realised, some barely begun.

Peopled by a teeming cast of creative and public figures--a cultural rollcall almost unparalleled in Australian history, encompassing Patrick White, Sidney Nolan, Harry M. Miller, Jim Sharman, David Malouf, Richard Meale, Moffatt Oxenbould, Peter Sculthorpe, Manning Clark, Dr H.C. ('Nugget') Coombs, Curt and Maria Prerauer and a host of others--webs of relationships and collaborations formed, sustained and sometimes sundered around Voss. Nor could we pass over major organisations that were catalysts in the Voss legacy: the ABC, the Sydney Opera House, Opera Australia, Screen Australia (encompassing the former Australian Film Commission), the Adelaide Festival of Arts and the Sydney Film Festival. The historical timeline we created represents an initial research 'map' that shows the journey.

The National Library's special collection viewing brought together items from over 15 manuscript collections, as well as a selection of music, pictures, maps, programs, posters and rare books. Visitors commented on the extent to which these myriad of collections 'spoke' to each other to uncover the elements and themes of the Voss story. Perhaps most exciting was the presence of many of the main protagonists, who told and relived their parts in the Voss story through documents they had once created and long forgotten. Members of staff were able to attend the viewing and relate brief accounts of their professional experiences in describing and managing these collections.

The Library's seminar in which the key participants reflected on the transformation of the novel into opera was memorable. The event was enlivened by performances of two young singers from the ANU School of Music, Ben Connor (as Voss) and Karen Fitz-Gibbon (as Laura Trevelyan), with Alan Hicks accompanying. We were fascinated to hear an alternative ending to the opera by Richard Meale and David Malouf, reconstructed by Vincent Plush (a former composition student of Meale's at the University of Adelaide) from sketches in Meale's papers. Meale's reasons for discarding it were poetically presented through the replay of excerpts from his recent oral history for the Library.

Like many good ideas, 'The Voss Journey' began with a simple notion and grew serendipitously. The event stimulated an unprecedented cross-institutional voyage of discovery, replete with many significant themes and multiple layers, but perhaps most notably exploring the ways in which Australian artists and people interact with their land and culture.

Robyn Holmes, Curator of Music, National Library of Australia

Vincent Plush, Head, Research and Development, National Film and Sound Archive
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Title Annotation:National Library of Australia on Patrick White's novel
Author:Holmes, Robyn; Plush, Vincent
Publication:National Library of Australia Gateways
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Previous Article:Ninth Australian Library History Conference: collections, characters and communities.
Next Article:Then and now.

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