Metropolis: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Ben Walsh and The Orkestra of the Underground perform The Arrival. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ben Walsh and The Orkestra of the Underground perform The Arrival. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ben Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground’s score to The Arrival is a timely exercise in empathy. Shaun Tan published his picture book in 2006, five years into the “new normal” of Australian immigration policy. Since the Tampa crisis of 2001, both major Australian political parties have sought to outdo each other in the cruelty with which they treat asylum seekers arriving by boat. It is debatable whether this cruelty, including indefinite detention in deplorable conditions, is coherent with or the best way of achieving their most common justification: stopping deaths at sea. With the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez recently finding that aspects of Australia’s immigration policy violated the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, now is the perfect time to reconsider the place of “the arrival” in the Australian imagination. Instead of demonising them as “illegals” or “queue jumpers,” The Arrival paints those seeking a better life in a new country as resilient and grateful members of the community.

The Arrival is remarkable for its unpolemical yet highly emotional depiction of immigration, the result of Tan’s extensive research into the migrant experience. Throughout the thousand-or-so images of the wordless picture book, one follows a father as he leaves his family in a town menaced by some unnamed evil. He arrives in a strange new land, finding accommodation and work thanks to small acts of kindness from others with their own stories of persecution and war. He is finally reunited with his family in the new land. In a touching final scene, his daughter gives directions to another new arrival. In Walsh’s production, stills from the picture book are projected behind the band in glorious detail, with minimal panning to give the scenes a greater sense of movement.

It is a shame that Tan does not write more, as he is one of the most beautifully-expressed individuals I have had the pleasure of hearing and reading. At the beginning of the concert, Walsh read a letter from Tan explaining that the last thing anyone who has written a book or a PhD wants is to see their work projected on a screen. However, seeing and hearing Walsh’s musical accompaniment to the book brought him back to its inspiration: The stories of migrants who leave everything behind to form a new life, granting hope and insight to us who take peace and security for granted. He concludes, “We are all the children of migrants.”

It is notable, however, that the sympathetic characters in The Arrival all seem to share their own personal stories of migration. Are people for whom the memory of fear and flight has faded a lost cause? Absent, too, is the xenophobia so many migrants experience upon arrival in a new country. Tan may have held some hope in 2006 that a Labor government would try a different tack on immigration. After ten more years of the new normal, I wonder whether Tan would draw the book differently today.

The reader is able to empathise with the protragonist of The Arrival because he leaves a world that would be relatively familiar to any reader. The protagonist’s fashion and surroundings are roughly Eastern European. The Orkestra of the Underground mirror the protagonist in white shirts and waistcoats. They reflect his implied nationality with an energetic Balkan brass band sound augmented with the percussion of Walsh, Gregory Sheehan, and the seamlessly-integrated tabla of Tarlochan Kandola. The Orkestra of the Underground is a band of extremely talented musicians and each player is given a truly awe-inspiring solo.

The protagonist arrives by boat in a new city that is utterly foreign. The clothing, animals and language that Tan creates for the city resemble those of no culture in existence. From that point on, the reader has no more purchase in the world than the protagonist as he learns to navigate the city and understand the local food and language. It was evident (after hearing a few days of weird and wonderful musical worlds at the Metropolis New Music Festival) that the music of The Arrival does not change with the protagonist’s surroundings. Instead of confronting the listener with a completely alien musical world when the protagonist arrives in the new city, Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground continue to paint the dramatic arc of the work in the dance-rhythms of his homeland. To be fair, an hour of hardcore avant-garde music might not have the desired cathartic effect, but I was left wondering what Tan’s strange new world might have sounded like.

The ensemble provided compelling incidental music to accompany the story, sliding seamlessly between “exogenous” musical accompaniment and painting “endogenous” sounds from the images. A roll on the tabla becomes the running feet of soldiers, a tuba makes a very convincing foghorn and a heavy bow on the double bass sounds like creaking wooden planks. Perhaps most striking is the moment where the protagonist encounters a curling black tail like those menacing his hometown. The ensemble stops in its tracks as the traumatic trigger floors the protagonist. The Arrival has had a long run, enjoying sold-out shows around Australia. I only hope that more people have the chance to see this beautiful and important work.

The Arrival
Ben Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground
Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Recital Centre
6 May 2015

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