The town of Wittenoom is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, north-east of Perth. In 1966, the town was officially “shut down” due to health concerns from the asbestos mining which took place at the nearby Wittenoom Gorge.
Wittenoom is the site of Australia’s greatest industrial disaster to date.
This installation combines music, image, and spoken word to convey the importance of family, home, and, most significantly, memory.
The disaster has claimed over 1000 lives to asbestos-related poisoning. My grandfather who emigrated there with my grandmother in 1950 from Scotland was one of those victims. His job at the mines was to clean the machinery, and, with no protection provided, his lungs slowly filled with blue asbestos fibres, killing him years later.
The poisoning also affected those outside of the mines – the townspeople of Wittenoom. Excess asbestos tailings were spread along the red-dust streets to “add colour” – where children playing would handle the blue asbestos and breathe the lethal fibres directly into their lungs.
Wittenoom is now little more than a ghost town. With a population of 8 – all of whom receive absolutely no government services – the town retains no official status, and as of June 2007, has been removed from all official maps and road signs.
I have come to think of my compositional process for this work as a gathering of “artefacts” – a kind of research project culminating in an aural and visual collage.
The first step I took was in making field recordings of different types of construction work. Many of the sounds that I gathered were what I felt to be reminiscent of the types of sounds that would have been heard in the Wittenoom mines – such as digging, drilling and other machinery noises. These sounds were to serve as the overall “constant” of the piece – an electroacoustic backdrop over which other elements would be added.
The other elements consist of two short “laments” – one for electric guitar and one for piano. The various features of the pieces (such as melody, rhythm, and bass) were carefully separated and then reassembled to give the music a fractured, distorted feel.
The overall sound of the first lament, “Shutdown,” is very much inspired by bands such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. The production on many of their songs brings to my mind a desolate landscape that is both beautiful and unforgiving – this is something that I have tried to capture with this lament.
The second lament, “Memorabilia,” is concerned with an inner monologue. The music sustains a tension that reflects the spoken words, and does not allow for a release until the final note.
Audio can be streamed through the following links:
For the visual element, I chose to have various images presented in a slide show. These images include personal family photographs from my grandparent’s time in Wittenoom, contrasted with images of the surrounding landscape, and nearby abandoned mine.
The two laments are to be listened to through headphones. This is important for two reasons: for a direct intimacy which allows the listener to focus on the spoken words, and to muffle (though, not entirely block out) the diffused electroacoustic element occurring in the room. “Echoes” of various occurrences of each of the laments appear throughout the diffused recording – a gesture which considers the significance of memory.
The first of the texts, Shutdown, was written by my friend, Lois Christie, with this project specifically in mind. Certain lines are taken directly from archival interviews with men who worked in the mines at the time of the disaster. In the recording, lines of the text are inter-cut with synthesised voices reading out government-style warnings – as if from radio broadcasts.
The second text, a poem entitled Memorabilia, was written by Tawona Sithole, a poet originally from Zimbabwe, and now living in Glasgow. Tawona told me that he had been inspired to write the poem after visiting St. Mungo’s Museum in Glasgow, where he had seen many Zimbabwean artefacts in storage.
Despite the fact that the poem is not directly related to Wittenoom, I found that it shared many resonances with the people and history of the town.
Much has been documented about the Wittenoom disaster. It has inspired books (e.g. Dirt Music, a novel by Tim Winton) and songs (e.g. Blue Sky Mine by the band Midnight Oil). The shock-waves of the disaster stretched far beyond Australia and still continue to impact on the families and friends of the victims.
I consider this work to be both a public and personal record of the Wittenoom disaster.
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