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In Conversation with The Abbotsford Mysteries podcast team

The Abbotsford Mysteries is a podcast, featuring a series of songs based on ex-Abbotsford Convent resident, Patricia Sykes’ evocative book of poetry of the same name. It is an intensely intimate and evocative exploration, capturing a sense of what life was like for the thousands of girls and women inhabiting Abbotsford Convent during its period as a monastic site between 1863 – 1975. Sykes herself was a child at the Convent and interviewed over 70 ex-residents to research her book of poems.

Quand Sascha Kelly came across the book whilst working at 3MBS Melbourne, the community radio station that is a tenant based at the Convent, she was incredibly moved and had the idea to put the poems to music and share them through a podcast. Sykes was thrilled by Kelly’s idea, and together, with composer Andrew Aronowicz, they created a  song cycle, which convey the incredible emotional weight and social significance of these poems, introducing a new perspective for Convent visitors today. 

 We sat down with the team, to discuss the podcast and the inspiration behind this moving and ambitious project.  

Sascha Kelly – the producer 

Why was it important for you to bring Patricia Sykes’ poems to life through music?  

Patricia’s work was begging to be sung. If you ever have the privilege to hear Patricia read, she has a gift for rhythm, and an ability to transform an atmosphere. I thought producing these as musical pieces would amplify this.  

What was it about the poems that first captured your intrigue?  

I was working at 3MBS and had only just begun to discover and learn about the history of the precinct. I was drawn to the idea of producing a song cycle for female voices to tell the stories about the Convent, and then I came across Patricia’s writing. It was a complete gift. Her words transported me and created a window into the lives of many different worlds. I wrote to Patricia, and connected her with Andrew, and the project started from there.   

 Why is it important for visitors to know about the complex and layered history of Abbotsford Convent?  

I believe in the quote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Personally, I felt was it important to educate myself about the history of the site that I might have encountered, experienced, or witnessed, if not for the location and generation of my upbringing. 

Patricia Sykes – the writer 

You left the Convent not long before your 13th birthday. What inspired you to return all those years later and what was it like the first time you stepped through those gates? 

The ghosts of incarceration are not easily dismissed. Stepping through the gates felt oddly wrong – naughty even – because they were standing open, people coming and going, freely. It was poetry that inspired my return. I’ve loved poetry since childhood, and it was the subject of my BA honours thesis at Monash University. However, it was not until I’d had two collections of poetry published that I felt confident enough to embark on the Convent collection. My anthropology minor at university had shifted my view of the Convent. Instead of deprivation, I’d begun to see layers of complexity, a richness, especially when I returned to the Convent occupying a studio as a tenant. 

 What was it like listening to the 70 ex-residents you interviewed? Was there anything you took away from those interactions that you weren’t expecting?  

It was eye-opening: humbling, humorous, and at times disquieting. Being in the orphanage I had little or no insight into life in the other two houses St Mary’s, for country and disabled girls, and Sacred Heart, the laundry section, which housed “wayward girls” and older women. The ex-residents who responded to the advertisements I placed in national newspapers had been in one or more of these sections between 1927 et le 1970s when it closed as a religious institution in 1975. This enabled me to write a broader, more representative collection. Being trusted with such potent memories was an immense privilege. Some were devastating but it was not my right to play censor and I wove the stories verbatim throughout the collection, highlighting them in italics but excluding proper names to protect privacy. 

 What was it like hearing your poems put to music? Was there anything that surprised you about this?  

I’d say extended rather than surprised me. I’m a librettist as well as a poet and have collaborated with Australian composer Liza Lim on a chamber opera and a song cycle, but to have my own poems set to music was an unexpected gift. I have sung all my life, both at the Convent and with two women’s choirs, and musicality is central to my poetic practice, but Andrew’s visioning of my words, images and themes, gives voice to them in the visceral way only music can, entering the body as vibration as well as sound. In effect, the song cycle transports me to multiple dimensions and I’m indebted to Andrew for his intuitive and compositional skills.

 Have you attended any events at the Convent? How has your book, and now this podcast, impacted your perspective of the Convent?  

Most of my visits to the Convent revolve around my book and the podcast: my six-month studio residency, the reunion I organised as part of my research, the launch of The Abbotsford Mysteries, the many song cycle research meetings and discussions, and the launch of the song cycle itself. I also read at an outdoor Christmas event organised by the Convent some years ago.

My perspective of the Convent is coloured by my time in the orphanage, of course. However, the fact that it has become an arts precinct has enabled me to revisit it on my own terms, as a poet. While my reconnection was personal, it became more and more communal, thanks to the interviews with the 70 ex-residents, and Andrew’s song cycle, a deeply wrought work that has taken some of my Abbotsford poems on a powerful musical journey. While I still experience a frisson when entering the Convent gates, I need only remind myself that the creative arts are the Convent’s identity now. 

 Andrew Aronowicz – the composer 

 What was your inspiration for the compositions you created for Patricia’s poems?  

Obviously, I was heavily inspired by Patricia’s words – the poems themselves, which make up her anthology, The Abbotsford Mysteries. However, the symbols and images the poems contain were also an inspiration for me. For instance, the first song sets a poem describing the river Birrarung, and so the musical lines mimic the shape and flow of water. Another song describes the shimmering fabric used to make garments and robes for the priests; the musical gestures aim to capture this quality of shimmering beauty. I was also trying to capture the voices or ‘speakers’ of Patricia’s poems – the women and girls who lived at the Convent, and whose stories are contained in the poetry. The interviewees themselves are anonymised in the text, but the quality of speakers are retained: their ages, their emotions, ambitions, and experiences. I tried to capture these in my song settings. 

Were there any challenges for you in creating these compositions?  

I think my principal challenge was in the decision-making. You have to make so many choices when setting words to music! What notes do I use? Is that the right chord? Should I drop that part out there? Sometimes the setting was obvious – the second song in this cycle, Creed, couldn’t really have been set any other way. But the other poems/songs weren’t as clear to me – so I had to be strict with myself, limiting myself to different processes and resources so I wasn’t paralysed by choice all the time. I’m still learning to trust myself and the compositional decisions I make. 

What do you hope listeners will take away from hearing the pieces?  

I hope they might be moved, and that the song cycle raises listeners’ awareness of the Abbotsford Convent’s rich and complex past. I’d love for listeners to see, hear and walk through the precinct differently, with a deeper awareness of the stories and histories that reside within the grounds and the walls. I also sincerely hope they might be inspired to find out more and to get their hands on a copy of Patricia’s wonderful poetry anthology – there’s so much more beyond the five poems I chose to set to music! 

Listen to The Abbotsford Mysteries Podcast

Purchase Patricia Sykes’  book of poetry