When composer Nicholas Ng first heard of the Harvest of Endurance, a 50-metre scroll depicting two centuries of Chinese Australian history, he knew he had found something special.
The scroll, painted in the traditional gong bi style by artists Mo Xiangyi and Wang Jingwen, was commissioned during the Australian Bicentenary celebrations in 1988.
It has been stored at the National Museum of Australia since 1992, rarely on display due to its size and delicate nature. There are 36 panels on the scroll, exploring things such as the gold rush, market gardeners, the Chinese Revolution, politics and racism, even the Melbourne Olympics.
But on May 4, as part of the Canberra International Music Festival, it will be an integral part of a performance which has been seven years in the making.
In 2010, Ng curated a festival at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Encounters: Musical meetings between Australia and China, and part of that involved commissioning Australian composers, such as Elena Kats-Chernin and Anne Boyd, to write music inspired by the scroll.
At the initial performance composer Peter Sculthorpe was set to perform his piece based on the final scroll but had to withdraw due to health reasons and Ng had to improvise on his erhu, a traditional two-string fiddle, for the .
"It's always felt unfinished," he said. "But when we started thinking about it again, the Canberra Festival seemed the most appropriate place to bring it all together again, given the scroll's home is the National Museum."
CIMF director Roland Peelman has been a supporter of the project from the start, Ng said.
"Roland has wanted to remount the project ever since and actually have all the music completed," he said.
"We've got all these contemporary composers, who write in different styles, and that's what's beautiful about it, we can bring different sounds together but they are unified by the story behind the scroll."
Ng loves the story of the scroll. His own grandfather left China during the revolution and fled to Singapore. His own family then emigrated to Australia. In the late 2000s Ng moved to Canberra to study under Larry Sitsky - who is one of composers - at the Australian National University's School of Music, completing a PhD in composition and ethnomusicology. It was during his time in Canberra he first heard of the scroll
"I've been studying Chinese Australian history and music since I was an undergraduate, I've always been encouraged to pursue the field," he said.
"I wanted to find something that would link music and the visual arts and the history of it all.
"The scroll became the thread that tied it all together."
The Harvest of Endurance: A scroll and a concert, featuring William Yang as the narrator and performed by Ensemble Offspring, The Song Company with Luminescence Chamber Singers, will be performed in the main hall of the National Museum of Australia on Thursday May 4 at 6.30pm. Cost: $67 adult, $62 concession, $30 under 30, $25 under 18. Bookings essential. cimf.org.au
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