People Power – the history behind Maria Grenfell’s Tarraleah

By Stephanie Eslake, 2022

For many of us who live on the wild island of Tasmania, it’s a common past time to hop in the car and drive for hours across winding roads, between dense forests, and over rocky cliffs. And we can only drive so far before passing an old power station. Enormous pipes travel down the faces of the mountains, and nearby dams hold bodies of water, all helping to generate electricity.

In 2014, local composer Maria Grenfell wrote a piece called Tarraleah that would honour our hydro scheme. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra reached out to her when Hydro Tasmania was seeking music for its centenary, which would honour the contributions of former workers and their families.

Maria had already developed her own memories of adventures to the island’s impressive power stations – including Tarraleah.

“My family and I went on a short holiday to Tarraleah some years before I was part of the Hydro project, and we loved the peaceful location, and the beautiful houses that are still intact and beautifully designed,” Maria shares. “Also, the wind in the bush, the birds, and the magnificent huge pipes that rush the water down into the gorges – and, of course, the cows!”

Tarraleah was commissioned for construction between 1938-51, and it was built into the landscape of the Central Highlands region. Water barrels through tunnels and canals before dropping 290 metres, where it finally flows to the power station, alongside water from Tungatinah Power Station. With six turbines, it can generate 93.6 megawatts of electricity – enough to sustain thousands of homes.

This enormous infrastructure project was made possible due to migrant workers who travelled to Tasmania after World War II. Many came from Poland to live in the small Tarraleah Village, which was built to house them as they worked on the hydro scheme.

While writing Tarraleah, Maria undertook research into this crucial part of the island’s history. She says one story that struck her was the arrival of 300 Polish ex-servicemen who were offered work building the stations, often in dangerous conditions.

“They initially thought they would be going to New South Wales, but were persuaded to travel a little further because they were needed in a place called Tasmania, which none of them had heard of,” Maria says.

“It would have been terribly hard for them to land in a freezing cold place, on the other side of the world from their homes and families after Poland was devastated by the war, wondering how they would rebuild their lives.”

To share their stories, Maria chose to compose traditional folk songs and hymns into their music, reimagining fragments of memorable tunes. One hymn that inspired her was called Bogurodzica – ‘Mother of God’.

“This is a medieval Catholic hymn from the 10th-13th centuries that was often sung at war time and to bring protection to those in need,” Maria explains.

“I am very interested in ‘re-composing’ hymns and folk tunes, particularly those that are relevant to a work I am writing. In this piece, I have taken the melodic contour of the hymn, which is not notated with any rhythm due to the age of the hymn – before rhythmic notation was invented!”

The composer adapted these fragments into a melody for French horn, before writing a faster section that juxtaposes another melody against it.

“It is fascinating to see how music connects people and their stories,” Maria says. For this reason or another, Maria didn’t compose the sounds of the power station itself, or an interpretation of the infrastructure. Instead, she wrote music that would have reflected the lives of those who lived in Tarraleah Village – “sounds that echo the birds in the trees, and the sounds of water and the environment”.

Tarraleah was given its first performances in Burnie, Zeehan, and – of course – the Great Hall of Tarraleah itself. On reflection, Maria says these families’ “work was so important in bringing Tasmania into the 20th Century”.

“Capturing power from natural sustainable resources is a very relevant topic today. So it is not just a part of our history that has no connection to us in 2022 – quite the opposite.”

Hear the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra perform Maria Grenfell’s Tarraleah as part of the concert Chopin Piano Concerto, 7.30pm September 2 in the Federation Concert Hall.