BEHIND THE SCENES with Hollis Taylor

Olive Pink isn't exactly well known in America and, in fact, many listeners here may wonder if she's a real person. Is she a familiar historical figure in Australia

Pink is basically unknown in Australia as well, with the exception of Alice Springs where she's known as an eccentric, not as an anthropologist. The Olive Pink Botanical Gardens in Alice gives her some notice as a botanist and a biography ( The Indomitable Miss Pink: A Life in Anthropology ) was published several years ago by Julie Marcus

Then how did you discover her

I came upon her namesake gardens while we [Taylor and friend, musician Jon Rose] were traveling in Alice Springs. First, the name got me -- it couldn't be real! Then as I began to find out about her, I thought perhaps a radiophonic work could come of it, so we made a point of recording hymns on the piano in Alice Springs (where she lived for years) as a starting point

What about Olive Pink made you feel "a radiophonic work could come out of it?

She was an eccentric. There were lots of issues rubbing up against one another, which can make for good theater and good music. She was passionately involved in the rights of Aboriginal people but downright rude to those people she didn't think were on her side; she was her own worst enemy (or was it just the courage of conviction?) -- a botanist involved in native flora who would quit watering a tree she had named after a person if she fell out with that person. Her life was full of conflicting issues and was extreme in many, if not all, ways -- that's Olive Pink in name and deed

Why did you start the project by recording such hymns such as Onward Christian Soldiers and Abide with Me

Circumstance dictated it. I didn't have any piano music with me, so we borrowed a hymnal from the local Lutheran church. The Lutheran church in particular sent many German missionaries to convert the Aboriginal people, often to tragic effect. Olive Pink was very anti-church, yet quite militant in her personal beliefs on human rights, and I liked the irony of that

I understand that the (untuned) piano you used to record the hymns we hear in Shocking Pink has an interesting history of its own

It was brought to Alice Springs by camel in the 1800s. Alice Springs is a high desert town at the foot of the rugged MacDonnell Ranges and was the main stopping point for the historic 1877 telegraph, which ran from Adelaide to Darwin. From there an underwater cable was extended across the sea to Java and on to London, thus connecting Australia to the rest of the world. The visionary in charge was Charles Todd, whose wife was Alice. This poor camel would have brought this piano up around this time from Adelaide, a very long way

How did the letters between Pink and her doctoral professor become such an important element in the piece

There is not much that remains of her writing, but since I had access to these letters here in Sydney, they became the focal point. It's usually easier when one doesn't have too much information at hand -- the weeding out process is done for you. Her hand was revealing -- lots of underlining, exclamations, capitalizations, and other methods of emphasis. She was a woman with a point of view

*Editors note: Hollis Taylor graciously provided excerpts from her book Post Impressions, based on her "Great Fences of Australia" project. Taylor and her partner Jon Rose traveled 30,000 kilometers around Australia "bowing fences." Music from the "Great Fences" project is featured prominently in "Shocking Pink."

Playing a fence proposes new ways of looking at things for the audience and for us. Although we have a few ideas from all the fences we have played, ones we have made and others we have come upon, fences differ more significantly from one to another than, say, violins. Violins have a range of sound quality, but not nearly that of their longer string cousins

Cello and bass bows bring out the fence song and dance, both the hair and the stick, although occasionally we add a found object as a tool in our percussion artillery. The acoustic sound of a fence is sometimes scarcely audible, more a suggestion of sound than a production of it. We rely on small contact microphones stuck into the wooden posts to amplify our efforts

In bowing fences, accident, improvisation, and intuition take over. (This assumes ninety years of collective experience wielding the bow.) The making of music is where we generally start to see our luck surface, and we take great efforts to encourage it. We play barbed wire fences to whose sound the barbs add a jingle. We play electric fences, which send a sort of rhythmic clicking signal along with whatever is being bowed. They send a different signal up your arm, and I prefer to reserve this for Jon. We excite (the technical term for making a string vibrate) taut fences and slack ones, new and old

We occasionally put percussion instruments to wooden fences, which can also be difficult. Due to non-stop traffic noise, we rarely record in a city before midnight. Then, Jon will play these fences while I keep watch for angry residents or police. Imagine our parents reading the record cover: Jon Rose, fence; Hollis Taylor, midnight watch. It's not what our costly lessons or youthful talent promised

Sometimes the wind plays the fence in its natural state. The lament of a long-distance fence is the loneliest howling imaginable. Jon first heard the wind sounding a fence twenty-five years ago near Broken Hill. It was then he perceived the fences as huge string instruments lining the landscape

*Taylor "discovered" Olive Pink at the Botanical Gardens named for her in Alice Springs. In this excerpt from* * Post Impressions , she describes visiting the Gardens.

We hike around her Gardens, following a path up to a vista of vast plains, corrugated hills, and sawtooth mountains. A green and yellow-collared bird fills the air with its "tirrrit." Plains, hills, mountains, birds -- that's all I know about what I'm looking at. The field sciences issue names as a way of taking possession, lashing new discoveries to the trusty rafts of the known. I'm out to sea, bereft of local knowledge, and unable to name another thing or interpret how it all fits together. The Aborigines named as well, but as a path to remembering rather than owning. They understood the importance of mnemonic devices like melody, rhythm, rhyme, and pattern as a tool for remembering

Miss Pink's fieldwork hung in the balance between the two cultures. I'm drawn to her in part because she, too, was a list person, conscientiously scribbling down what others missed or bypassed. (Had I realized at age eighteen that there was a profession where you could make lists for a living, I would have forsaken the violin and become an anthropologist.) One entry from Miss Pink's notebooks inventoried the practical lives of women, material absent in the journals of male explorers

Alice must be rich in naming. I incline my ear, squint, and concentrate, trying to tune into the vista's ecology. Of course, my efforts produce nothing but the same four words utterly resistant to nuance: plains, hills, mountains, birds -- not enough to even begin a rhyme. I'm no better off than if I'd just driven by in an air-conditioned motor home with all the trimmings. No need to get out -- we'll just pull off at this scenic overlook for twenty seconds; or if we decide to stay for lunch, we can always watch a bit of TV while the microwave heats our meal

I don't know (until later) that I'm standing on a sacred hill, or that the small ridge in the middle distance is one of the first sites created by the caterpillar ancestors. I don't know that the gregarious bird is one of Australia's most popular, the budgerigar (I've never even heard the word). Although they can exist without water for some time, these small bright green parrots are highly nomadic and tend to follow the lush grass brought by rains. Then, budgies congregating in large numbers can put so much pressure on nesting sites that some will eventually have to settle for very low stumps or logs. (Later yet I discover that budgerigars are what we Americans call parakeets, but I didn't trust myself to make the connection in this kangaroo court of a place where everything is antithetic.) And how am I to find a wichetty grub (the larva of this large moth is creamy almond in flavor and high in protein, an Atkins-approved food source) -- who will suggest I look for the telltale piles of sawdust that the worms leave as they burrow into the lower limbs of a witchetty bush

The Olive Pink Botanical Garden museum temporarily tranquilizes me by explaining how plants in the Central Australian arid zone deal with stress (such as an irregular supply of water, high heat and radiation loads, intermittent burning by natural or lit fires, soils low in vital nutrients, salt accumulation, grazing by indigenous or introduced herbivores). They cope just like people, by being Avoiders (existing during the most stressful times as dormant seeds or underground buds) or Tolerators (adapting)

I'm grateful for this expert information but tempted to concoct an antagonist, one who counters that perhaps this is just so much Eurocentrizing and anthropomorphizing -- this isn't stress, this is how these plants exist. These florae don't want a lot of water or a soil rich in nutrients. They're specialists. They would die in a pot in my house -- that would be stressful.