It’s a small galaxy after all

by Sep 30, 2021Creative Development, Griffyn Ensemble, Southern Sky0 comments

It is humbling to reflect how this incredible project started in a hotel lobby in Tallinn more than ten years ago

This was originally published in March 2012.  A lot has happened in ten years: Since this article was written I have been fortunate enough to perform ‘Southern Sky’ to over 40,000 people across Australia and Scotland.  I had the most incredible experience writing a partner piece to Southern Sky, ‘Northern Lights’, whilst in-residence in the Arctic with Fred Watson.  I’ve also had the incredible pleasure of working with Australian country music icon Warren Williams, from Aranda country in the Northern Territory to create ‘One Sky Many Stories’.  It is humbling to reflect how this incredible project started in a hotel lobby in Tallinn more than ten years ago. 

From Island Universes, March 12, 2012:

Later this month I’m directing the Australian premiere of a performance with astronomical proportions (quite literally) – a musical exploration of the Southern Sky from The Griffyn Ensemble and astronomer Fred Watson, under the stars at the ruins of Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra before performing in Melbourne and Bendigo. It’s fitting that a piece of music of such ambition has reminded me of how small a world we actually live in – from Estonia to Australia – through the bizarre series of coincidences which allowed the work to ‘come home’:

Last September whilst in Tallinn, Estonia, I contacted a few composers of works who I had performed or had programmed with Griffyn (that Estonia has produced the wealth of composers, conductors, and musicians which have been exported across the globe is in itself remarkable). One of the composers was the maverick Urmas Sisask – a legend in Estonia known throughout the world for his choral works. Only a few weeks before that meeting, Griffyn had performed the Aussie premiere of his Zodiac suite, and his music was intriguing – relentlessly original, connected to astronomy, and beautiful and bizarre at the same time – the kind of material that the Griffyn Ensemble laps up.

After a series of confused emails (Urmas does not speak English and I do not speak Eesti) we arranged to meet in the Hotel café, and I seconded a friend of mine, the lovely Kristel Pedak to translate. We discussed his theories of music and astronomy, the musical observatory that he built in rural Tallinn, and towards the end, my home town of Canberra. To this, he excitedly exclaimed ‘oh yes, that is where the big telescope was’ (a messy translation – it took a while to work out exactly what each other were saying!). As it turned out, Urmas had been to Australia about 15 years earlier under the commission of Estonian House to visit observatories and Aboriginal rituals around Australia and write the second of his Starry Sky Piano Cycles – ‘Southern Sky’. He was particularly inspired by his time at Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra, before it burnt down during the infamous bush fires of 2003.

Estonian composer Urmas Sisask

The intrigue of Southern Sky continued: although it was inspired by Urmas’ time in Australia, based on Australian rituals and astronomy, and frequently performed around the world, it had never been performed in Australia. The piece had a lot of allegory to Aboriginal mythology concerning bushfires, and Urmas performed the piece in Estonia a week before the Bush Fires ravaged Mt Stromlo in 2003. With an uncanny coincidence, he dedicated that work to the people of Canberra (the irony was not missed by Estonian Newspapers who reported the Canberra bushfires in the following week).


My interest at this point was sky high (excuse the pun). Upon returning to Australia I purchased the music and found it to be a work of indescribable quality – like much of Estonia and it’s music, and naturally falling into Griffyn’s unique instrumentation.

But fate still had a role to play in bringing Southern Sky to Australia – I contacted astronomer Fred Watson to see if he wanted to collaborate in the Australian premiere of the work in the burnt-out ruins of Mt Stromlo Observatory – a fitting tribute to the composer, and the observatory which inspired him. I had never met Fred before, but had frequently heard him on ABC Radio, and always found him incredibly engaging and fascinating to listen to. I also knew he had a musical interest, having worked with Australian composer Ross Edwards (which incidentally, was the only Australian composer Urmas was familiar with when we met last year). Fred then informed me that he was about to embark on a tour of Northern Europe in search of the Northern Lights – and he had already hoped to meet Urmas during this trip, being familiar with his interest in Astronomy and Music – of course a meeting was arranged, and the rest will become history!

So, we are now a few weeks out from the premiere of Southern Skies, and it’s exciting to be able to bring this work back to Australia for the first time, performing it under the stars at Mt Stromlo Observatory, and then making our Griffyn debut to Melbourne and Bendigo. This is music – Estonia and Australia sharing new art through the medium of the constellations – a living tradition, a shared language, and a connection between people and places. The stars really have seemed to align.

Michael Sollis, before Southern Sky came to Australia in 2012