Blue Mountains Theatre, June 6

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Photo: Peter Karp Photography

Taken prisoner when the Japanese overran Ambon (in modern Indonesia) during World War II Lloyd Swanton’s uncle, Stuart Swanton, died in the island’s notorious POW camp. This grim piece of family history stirred Swanton to commemorate in music an uncle who at grave personal risk kept a diary that survived.

Ambon is such an ambitiously large-scale integration of music, spoken word and projected images that this world premiere lasted two-and-a-half hours. If structurally slightly too long, it is an extraordinary achievement in terms of conception, content and realising Swanton’s desire to illuminate and commemorate the suffering and resilience of these Australian servicemen.

His 12-piece ensemble is essentially an enlarged version of his regular band The catholics, performing within wildly different idioms according to the various dictates of the work. All players were improvisers, but virtually no soloing occurred that was not in some way advancing the work’s narrative.

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Photo: Peter Karp Photography

The spine of that narrative was the spoken-word material skilfully penned and adroitly delivered by Swanton, himself. When he read directly from the diary what hit home was the abiding humour in the face of such horrors and adversity. This dichotomy, in turn, was a hallmark of the music taken as a whole: humour, desolation and ferocity were as thickly entangled as vines in a jungle.

Swanton’s bass, meanwhile, was the axle around which turned the mighty wheel of Paul Cutlan, Sandy Evans, James Greening and Alex Silver (wind), Fabian Hevia, Ron Reeves and Hamish Stuart (percussion), and Michel Rose, James Eccles, Chuck Morgan and Jon Pease (strings). Memorable solos came from Swanton, Evans (soprano saxophone), Greening (trombone), Morgan (ukulele, and as wistful as a letter from home) and Pease (fiercely primal guitar).

While some of the music lay within The catholics’ regular oeuvre, much of it was a programmatic world away. A long feature for the strings could be shortened, but Ambon was a conceptual and compositional triumph, with flawless sound in this new venue.