“a conceptual and compositional triumph” John Shand, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
After some years in development, and a number of sold-out concerts, Lloyd Swanton’s intensely-moving, highly-acclaimed Ambon suite is now released as a double CD on Bugle Records. Lloyd’s uncle, Stuart Swanton was one of some 1,200 men sent as part of Gull Force to the island of Ambon (in present-day Indonesia) in late 1941, in a vain attempt to defend it from a vastly-superior Japanese invading force.
With no choice but to surrender, Stuart and his mates were then held captive on Ambon for the next three and a half years in one of the worst prison camps of the entire Asia/Pacific theatre. Like the majority of his POW mates, Stuart Swanton did not survive. But he kept a secret diary in a coded shorthand, which was brought back to Australia after the war, and is the only substantial surviving diary written by a soldier on Ambon.
Lloyd has drawn on numerous musical elements referenced in his uncle’s diary to create a diverse, sweeping suite of fourteen pieces of music which brings meaning and life to the Ambon story. Jazz, military marches, work song, island music, gospel, spoken word and visual imagery are all recruited to the task of reanimating the tragedy; shining a light on an aspect of Australia's World War II history that is all too little known. Just a few examples of the wide terrain covered in this double album: Swanton came across three hymns composed by his uncle in the 1930s and has resurrected them for this project, presenting them with more than a nod to the Ambonese tradition of church brass/wind bands; one notably providing a backdrop for Swanton reading excerpts from his uncle’s diary that are by turn poignant, funny, and appalling, occasionally revealing arresting moments of kindness and compassion.
A standout is Top Brass, where Swanton, inspired by a diary entry in which Stuart and his mates spend an afternoon trying to make sounds with broken band instruments, set himself the task of writing a piece entirely for broken and hybrid brass and wind instruments. The result is bitterly comical and hauntingly beautiful. Swanton also wrote a suite within a suite, for an island string band, inspired by references in the diary to camp concerts on makeshift instruments, and featuring James Eccles playing Stuart Swanton's viola on its first public performances since the 1930s, along with some breathtaking solos by Chuck Morgan on ukulele. Reviews of Ambon’s concert premiere were glowing. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "an extraordinary achievement", and "a conceptual and compositional triumph”.
Ambon is now released as a double CD, warmly recorded at Sydney’s Studios 301 by Tim Whitten; performed by twelve of Australia’s top musicians: Swanton on double bass, Sandy Evans and Paul Cutlan (wind), James Greening and Alex Silver (brass), Chuck Morgan (ukulele), James Eccles (Stuart Swanton’s viola), Michel Rose (pedal steel guitar), and Jon Pease (guitar). Providing immense drive and colour are percussionists Ron Reeves (Indonesian kendang), Fabian Hevia (cajon) and Hamish Stuart (drum kit).
The double album, richly packaged with a booklet full of historical photos, and copious information and explanation by Swanton, artfully opens out the story of Gull Force to a wide audience. Lloyd says "I wanted to pay tribute to the bravery and decency of my uncle. I wanted, whilst not shying away from the confronting horror of Ambon, to musically identify elements of joy and beauty in the tragedy. And finally, I wanted to draw people into the story, as I believe it’s an important one for all Australians, and in fact anyone with an interest in Second World War history. As I got deeper into this project I realised that, as both a professional musician of long experience, and someone in possession of this precious and rare historical document, I had a veritable obligation to bring this important story to life musically, as best as I could.”
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