New musical composition: An artificial social protection

An exciting video performance of a new musical work by British composer Laura Bowler has been released online by Sydney Living Museums. 

The song cycle, titled An artificial social protection, was commissioned from Laura Bowler as part of SLM’s Songs of Home exhibition (Museum of Sydney, August–November 2019), and was performed at The Mint in Sydney’s Macquarie Street by soprano Jessica Aszodi and the Omega Ensemble (violin, cello and harp) in September 2019. 

Omega Enemble at The Mint

Songs of Home exhibition curator Dr Matthew Stephens with (left to right) composer Laura Bowler, soprano Jessica Aszodi, and Omega Ensemble members Madeleine Easton (violin), Justin Julian (viola), David Rowdon (artistic director) and Paul Stender (cello) prior to their performance at The Mint. Image © Sydney Living Museums.

Creative responses to the Songs of Home exhibition included a suite of new compositions that compellingly explore the experiences of both Australian First Peoples and British immigrants to NSW. Commissioned with the aid of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain, An artificial social protection focuses on the lives of women immigrants to the early colony. Initial collaboration with Songs of Home curatorial advisor Professor Jeanice Brooks involved the exploration of diaries, letters and historical documents associated with women who migrated to Australia, whether as the wives and daughters of colonial administrators and settlers, or as convicts. 

Needlework soon emerged as a crucial constant in the lives of women from different social classes and situations. Whether they were charged with producing the fancy sewing that created an appropriately genteel domestic home on the British model, or forced to produce uniforms as convict labourers, women literally sewed the new colony into existence. Dress and textile historian Hilary Davidson and SLM Head of Collections & Access Megan Martin pointed us towards early sewing manuals that shaped concepts of acceptable female behaviour as they supplied patterns for middle-class clothing or for decorative art. Advertisements and regulations for the Female Factory at Parramatta, where women convicts were assigned to domestic service or engaged in domestic work such as sewing and laundry, showed how women’s labour was extracted to underpin the colonial economy. 

No-one can look upon the needle without emotion. It is a constant companion in the pilgrimage of life.

 - Song IV – The needle

Female Factory, Parramatta

Augustus Earle: Female penitentiary or factory, Parramatta c1826. National Library of Australia.

Bowler used these historical documents to create the text of An artificial social protection, combining extracts to produce striking insights into how needlework created early colonial homes. The cycle is made up of five movements, utilising texts from The ladies’ work-table book (1843), texts documenting conditions at the Female Factories and a letter from convict Susannah Watson. The cycle also incorporates many hidden musical references to folk songs that were documented as having travelled to Australia with the convicts, as well as the music of ‘Advance Australia fair’ and the British national anthem. The work not only highlights the treatment of women during this period but also draws parallels with the sometimes archaic expectations placed on women today.

The cycle makes full use of soprano Jessica Aszodi’s formidable acting skill and wide range of vocal timbres. The Omega Ensemble shift between a broad range of playing techniques both to increase the overt physicality of their performance and its parallels with the work of the convict women, and as a way to support the dramatic core of each movement.

The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance given by Gay Hendriksen on the history of the Female Factory. 

An artificial social protection

I – Home scenes

If it be true that ‘Home scenes are rendered happy or miserable in proportion to the good and evil influence exercised over them by women as sister, wife or mother’, it will be admitted as a fact of the upmost importance, that everything should be done to improve the taste, cultivate the understanding, and elevate the characters of those ‘high priestesses’ of our domestic sanctuaries. Home.

II – The Female Factory

The factory was a solid, two-storey structure surrounded by a 16-foot wall.

It was divided into three classes.

The first was for women returned to the government without complaint, the second was pregnant or nursing women and those moved up from third for a probationary period. The third class was the criminal division.

A factory, a prison, a marriage bureau, and employment exchange. All inmates, however, were strictly speaking prisoners.

In the colony, the lives of the convict women were inextricably bound to the Female Factory. The more transportees, the more factory occupants.

Any immorality arising from the disproportion of the sexes could be diminished by official regulation. Convicts might well be reformed by the sanctified state of marriage. Improved convict morals and made them more industrious and reliable.

Some could reform men and provide the increased population essential to the prosperity of the colony.

III – 48 years

It is 48 years, the day after my birthday since I saw your face.

It is 48 years.

IV – The needle

No-one can look upon the needle without emotion. It is a constant companion throughout the pilgrimage of life. And with what tender emotions does this glittering steel inspire the bosom, as beneath its magic touch that which is to deck a lover or adorn a bride, becomes visible in the charming productions of female skill and fond regard. Britannia’s pride is in our hearts, her blood is in our veins. We’ll girdle earth with British arts, like Ariel’s magic chains. Sufficient needlework for the employment of the prisoners not being at present procured. Notice given to the public. Needlework of all sorts is performed at the Female Factory in the best possible manner and at very moderate charges. Sydney, 18th October, 1839. It is a constant companion throughout the pilgrimage of life. The needle.

V – To the ladies

This is a beautiful pattern (instrumentalists speak: comma) and will look well (comma) as a centre (comma), for any moderately sized piece of work (stop). Begin on the width of the canvas (comma) and take 12 threads reducing at every stitch (comma), one thread for six rows (comma), and thus continue decreasing and increasing alternately (comma) to form squares like diamonds (comma) to the end of the row (stop). The next row is performed in the same manner (comma), only you work on the long way of the canvas (stop). Introduce Gold or Silver thread between where the stitches join (comma) and so finish (stop).

About the authors

Laura Bowler

Laura Bowler

Laura Bowler is a British-based composer, vocalist and artistic director specialising in theatre, multidisciplinary work and opera.

Jeanice Brooks

Jeanice Brooks

Jeanice Brooks is a cultural historian of music, whose research interests include domestic music in 18th-century Britain and the use of music in heritage interpretation.