The Secret River. Film music by Burkhard Dallwitz

Erkki Veltheim, Ceridwen Welsh, Charlotte Jacke, Jon Heilbron, Yinuo Mu, John Barrett, Rebecca Simpson, David Herzog, Burkhard Dallwitz, The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jan Chalupecky. TV miniseries of the novel by Kate Grenville
Film Music
ABC Classics 481 1824
Reviewed by , September 1st, 2015

The Secret River is a two-part television series based on the novel of the same name by Australian author Kate Grenville. It provides a devastating account of the brutality of life for first white settlers in Sydney and along the Hawkesbury River, and for the Aboriginal people whose land was overrun and whose people were killed in the process of this emphatic desire for land ownership. Indeed the difference between cultures portrayed is much about the difference between living with one’s natural surrounds and fighting against them, a lesson we still often fail to grasp.

Burkhard Dallwitz, composer

Burkhard Dallwitz, composer

Australian composer, Burkhard Dallwitz is used to the ‘fighting against’ scenario in his screen scoring having written the soundtrack for Underbelly. He also wrote the music for the menacing Truman Show collaborating with Philip Glass and picking up a swag of awards including a Golden Globe. Dallwitz is used to writing edgy, highly rhythmic scores. His approach to The Secret River is quite different.

Here the music is often sparse and still. However in the overture ‘Our Hawkesbury’, the melody and lush strings with Irish flute and bodhrán-like drumming capture the Celtic stamp of ownership the new arrivals desire. It is appropriately majestic and expansive, in many ways suggesting the ending in addition to the beginning. The final scene is of the new settler couple we have followed throughout surveying their English-like property with its clipped grass, ornamental fountain and circular driveway. It is such an incongruous image given the beauty of the surrounding eucalypts and scrub and the horror of the carnage we have witnessed that has made this stately home a possibility. And then one thinks of one’s home in the burbs.

It is with the protagonists’ interactions with the Aboriginal people who dwell around the Hawkesbury that the music changes. Dallwitz uses steely harmonics and sonorities with short melodic riffs to great effect. He employs piano, violin and cellos drawing on natural harmonics and drones in the music’s vertical organisation. The music is both warm and unsettling and perfectly captures the ambivalent relationship between original and new inhabitants who initially try hard to coexist.

The Secret River: filming Tim Minchin as Smasher Sullivan

The Secret River: filming Tim Minchin as Smasher Sullivan

Dallwitz loves new tone colours and his ‘The Promise’, reflecting an assurance given by the husband to his wife that they will return to England in five years if things don’t work out, uses an old Tom Waitsesque piano to highlight the wife’s unrealistic longing for ‘home’. He brings back this sound quite frequently. In the gathering held at the couple’s initially scant setting, the pipes, piano, military drum, bodhrán and violin keep the new families warm as they dance around the campfire.

There are times when Dallwitz combines the busyness of the new settlers planting crops, setting up home against long, metallic drones of the surrounding environment and this is most effective.

In the build-up to the climactic massacre, in, for example, ‘My Place’, Dallwitz develops an unsettled feel again through held metallic harmonics, clashing strings and a deep, deep drone. The harmonic sustenance rises into the surrounding space. It permeates everywhere. ‘The Massacre’ is an exaggeration of all these themes, everything moves slowly, resolutely and the piano provides a feeling of utter grief edging up from a major melodic third to the fifth against its minor tonality in the left hand.

Since the ‘hero’ has, at times, shown warmth and caring to the Aboriginal people, it is greed, ultimately, the need for more and for it to be ‘mine’ that is irreconcilable. The son is an observer of the aftermath, the carrier of his father’s ‘secret’ and he will never forget or forgive. And so in ‘I See you Dickie’, Dallwitz indicates the length of time that he and his father will carry this burden. Again, it is pure mourning, pure loss.

How does Archie Roach and Shane Howard’s final duet in A Secret River help ameliorate this tragedy? It doesn’t. But they write and make music together as they have done for a lifetime now. And here Howard is the husband, wishing he could turn back time, while Roach watches nature allow more flowers to bloom in the aftermath of the slaughter of Aboriginal people.


Burkhard Dallwitz

The Secret River

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