Chris Latham: Australian War Memorial’s first musical artist in residence

28 May 2017

It is a great honour to be asked to be artist-in-residence at the Australian War Memorial for the next five years. I will focus on the First World War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War, in that order. As the first musician to be appointed to such a role, I have been tasked with reconciling two opposites: music and war. I will research, recover, restore, and record music from the battles in which Australia fought, and, where no pieces exist, I will commission works and help composers to write music that can speak eloquently about these terrible events, giving a voice both to the lost and to those who lost them.  

In the lead-up to Easter in 2016 I spent a gruelling three weeks doing site visits in the Somme region, preparing a tour for last year’s centenary of that battle. The river Somme is a jewel, a popular summer holiday destination, but the flat chalky plains that surround it are anything but picturesque. The shattered villages were rebuilt quickly after the war to house the displaced inhabitants, and have a grimness to match. The flinty locals, known as “Picards”, readily admit that living in a forest of First World War graveyards weighs heavily on them.

By the time my French mother came and found me on Good Friday, I was a teary wreck, drowning in sadness from visiting more than 100,000 graves. She proposed we go find my great uncle’s grave, an idea which seemed utterly implausible – how could I have a great uncle here that I didn’t know about? That Easter Sunday, after an afternoon of searching, we finally found him in the Adelaide Cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux. He was a few rows over from the Unknown Australian Soldier, taken to rest in the Memorial’s Hall of Memory in 1993. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Latham DSO MC and Bar had led the 2nd Northamptonshire Battalion, which had been seconded to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for the battle to retake Villers-Bretonneux. He was killed by a shell as his men attacked the town, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Finding him made my small family feel a little bigger, and helped me enormously in coming to terms with such an overwhelming subject. It opened my eyes to the fact that it is a great gift to really understand what happened to our forebears, and how the knowledge of that history lightens some unconscious burden. Curiously, I was also there preparing The diggers’ requiem, a major work about the AIF’s experiences on the Western Front, on the centenary of that battle, and his death.

It made me wonder if artists chose their subject, or if it chooses them. We are often the last ones to understand why we are called to make the things we do.

However, with the benefit of distance, there were clues that pointed the way. A childhood spent daydreaming with toy soldiers about the archetypes of manhood – courage, fortitude, sacrifice, and loss. Growing up with Saturday afternoon war movies, the cheap propaganda left over from a previous generation, and the astonishing memorising of vast, seemingly useless minutiae: the details of battles, planes, the names and specifications of the weapons of war.

I was also fascinated by the war service of my family and the damage it had caused. I had two grandfathers who served: one in First World War, another in the Second. Both were unable to love their children (my parents) as a result. My grandmother, who conversely loved everyone, was cruelly haunted by nightmares from her time serving as a nurse in the Somme. My great-uncle Peter, a famous musicologist, had hoped as a young man to be a great pianist and composer, but his shoulder was smashed by a bullet in the war, making it deeply painful for him to play. I know that the opportunity of much of this work is the chance to make or recover works that can release some of this internalised grief.

I began this focus on music and war in 2005, and spent a decade making the Gallipoli symphony. This led to the programs I did for the Canberra International Music Festival and my ongoing work on The flowers of warprogram for the Anzac Centenary. This in turn has led to The diggers’ requiem, jointly commissioned by the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. On 20 and 25 April 2017 I led the Australian Army Band in performances of the Bapaume and Bullecourt movements in both French villages, previewing the full work that will premiere next year in Amiens, France (23 April 2018), and in Canberra (5/6 October 2018), where it will mark the centenary of Australian’s last battle of the war.

I am looking forward also to recording the 100 songs project, a list of songs curated by the Memorial’s Theresa Cronk. All of these songs will have known connections to Australians who served in or were deeply affected by the Great War. It is clear that many of these previously unrecorded works are little gems, and having online access to the performances will help the Memorial’s extensive collection of First World War sheet music come to life.

After 15 years of living with this music of war, I see that the musical works created in the battlefields are an attempt to leave some trace of consciousness and memory in the face of erasure, and that these pieces have something important to teach us. Equally profound are the songs that citizen soldiers sing in the face of death: they reveal an essential truth about the resilience of the human spirit.

I wish to harvest these beautiful flowers from the past, to give voice to these buried experiences, so that we understand more clearly the cost of war, and become more resolved to achieving a lasting peace. 

Chris Latham