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Violinist shines new spotlight on Australia nuclear tests

The name Maralinga brings blank stares from most people, the melodic word hardly indicative of what happened in that isolated stretch of Australia -- secret nuclear tests by Britain.

Lara St. John's violin is an anonymously donated Salabue Guadagnini from 1779 © (AFP)

Lara St. John's violin is an anonymously donated Salabue Guadagnini from 1779 © (AFP)

The name Maralinga brings blank stares from most people, the melodic word hardly indicative of what happened in that isolated stretch of Australia -- secret nuclear tests by Britain.

A leading violinist, Lara St. John, is trying to bring the episode further into the public eye with the piece "Maralinga," whose orchestral version will have its US premiere Tuesday in a free concert in New York's Central Park.

Britain, seeking to become a nuclear power after World War II, carried out 12 major tests in Australia and hundreds more minor ones with the permission of prime minister Robert Menzies.

Most tests took place in Maralinga in South Australia, whose aboriginal community was largely removed although remaining residents and servicepeople were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

"Maralinga," the 11-minute piece written by Australian composer Matthew Hindson, is driven by forceful glides down the violin as the music brings out the violence and alienation of the nuclear tests.

The work builds into a distorted echo of "God Save the Queen." According to St. John, Hindson based the descending five-note motif heard throughout the piece on a chant from aboriginal people from the area.

"A lot of people are just sitting with goosebumps," the Canadian-born violinist said of audiences.

"I think this piece is so strong and effective that, even if you don't know what it's about, you're going to be somehow impressed," she said.

Maralinga has been a frequent inspiration for music. Australian rockers Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly, as well as a side project of English progressive rockers Yes, have all written songs about Maralinga.

But St. John said that even some young Australians were unaware of the nuclear tests when she performed the work before them.

"I felt that this piece alone educated a whole bunch of young Australians as to what it was -- and it certainly did for me and for people in other places in the world," she said.

An independent approach

St. John shows off her pet iguana Cain during an interview with AFP at her apartment in New York

St. John shows off her pet iguana Cain during an interview with AFP at her apartment in New York (© AFP)

St. John, speaking to AFP in the Manhattan apartment she shares with a friendly iguana named Cain, has charted an unusually independent course in classical music by running her own label.

The talkative 46-year-old acknowledges that she had little business acumen when she started her label Ancalagon, which was the name of her previous pet iguana.

She said her approach has allowed her to champion contemporary composers such as Hindson, whom she hails, but which she intersperses with better-known works.

"This year I had, I think, two Mendelssohns, three Tchaikovskys. Not that they're not great, but we need more stuff in the repertoire, and we need more people to be excited about that stuff in the repertoire," she said.

St. John -- who recounts her discovery of Roma music in Hungary at age 11 as life-changing -- in 2014 and 2015 put out separate albums that adapt music from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

She had a break in the early 2000s when Apple contacted her and asked if she wanted to put her album of Bach concertos on iTunes.

Largely unfamiliar with the nascent downloading platform, St. John agreed -- and the album became a top classical seller on iTunes, which at the time had little classical music.

(She earlier caused a stir with her 1996 debut album of Bach solos by appearing topless -- but covered by her violin -- on the cover, a symbol of the nakedness of the Bach performances.)

"In pop and rock, they're bemoaning that nobody buys music anymore. But in classical nobody ever really did to that extent, except if you're The Three Tenors or something like that," she said.

Her sales at least keep her in the black -- and able to produce more recordings.

"That's all I really want. Nobody goes into classical music recording to make money. It's to make art and to make things that will last forever."