In 2013, in her role as head of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, Deborah Cheetham travelled to Lake Condah in South Western Victoria to talk to the Gunditjmara people with whom she had developed a partnership to help connect students to Aboriginal knowledge and culture.

Deborah Cheetham Deborah Cheetham. Photo © Kristina Kingston

Standing on the back porch of a building on the old Lake Condah mission site, Cheetham was shaken by an energy that came out of a line of trees. “Sometimes you’ll go somewhere and you’ll feel something, and the next time you go back it’s not quite the same. This has never dissipated, it has only intensified really over the years going back there,” says Cheetham, the soprano, composer and Artistic Director of Short Black Opera.

“It was the sort of vibration of a tumultuous shout coming at you, only you couldn’t hear anything. It was just the impact of the vibration. I’d never felt anything like that quite so amplified before. I think if you’ve ever been to the centre of Australia, stepped off the plane in Alice Springs and just stood...