At university, pianist and composer Elizabeth Drake became involved in student theatre, joining the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory. ‘At the same time as the Pram Factory, I was performing all around Australia with different orchestras and playing a lot of concerts. I certainly wasn’t doing much university work…!’
Drake studied piano and music overseas, undertaking structural training that put her in good stead for future work. While initially reluctant to compose, she has arranged music and dance scores for countless theatre, television and film productions. A self-described extrovert, her favourite part of any job is collaborating with others.
For Radio Reimagined, Drake and her long-time collaborator Karen Cummings have produced a song cycle of songs from the 30s and 40s, reconceptualised in a contemporary setting. The pair met in the late 80s, when Cummings was working for a union. ‘I was teaching piano - she came in and told me that people had told her that she has a lovely voice. “But I’m a social worker!”’
Cummings went on to perform for groups including Deborah Cheetham’s Company and Opera Australia, and a friendship between the two quickly developed. ‘It is political and intellectual things we have in common, that’s why we get on, and why we liked doing [Radio Reimagined] - we feel it is political.’
The songs are on the darker side: Ballad of the Drowned Girl, for example, tells the story of Rosa Luxemborg. ‘Rosa was a socialist and a feminist who was found murdered in a Berlin canal. She was anti-capitalist, and could see then how dangerous it was going to be. These things remind us that people knew then - and should know now - to get on with social change.’
Despite the grim reality of some of the songs, Drake explains that while they do signal a warning (she gives the example of climate change) they also offer hope. ‘We were nervous at first that it would seem really dark, but we listened back and found them so uplifting.’
The tension lies in the juxtaposition of uplifting music with sombre lyrics and truths. ‘It’s a good way of going about life really: have that beauty in you, that sense of idealism or utopia, while understanding the reality of the situation.’
Listen to Elizabeth Drake and Karen Cummings - In Dark Times at Victorian Seniors Festival radio Reimagined Music Features.