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It started with a love-at-first-sight moment in a bookshop. Along with many others, musician Ben Walsh fell hard for Shaun Tan’s celebrated graphic novel The Arrival – and now in the ultimate homage, this weekend as part of the Graphic festival Walsh will set a musical score to its sepia-toned sequences of adventure, loss, hope and home. Shaun Tan tells us more about the experience.

Since its release in 2006, The Arrival has undergone a few adaptations; Red Leap Theatre’s stage production for the Sydney Festival and now Ben Walsh’s Orkestra of the Underground’s musical scoring. Were you surprised that a book lacking dialogue would be adapted? And how does it feel as the original writer/illustrator to view these offspring?

(Note, it was also adapted as a stage production by Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in 2006, six months before the actual book was completed).

No, I have to say that I wasn’t surprised, given that of all my work as a writer and illustrator, The Arrival is actually the most performance-friendly story. In fact, the way I created the book in the first place was very theatrical, literally, because I converted a couple of rooms in my house into makeshift ‘sets’ using cardboard boxes, lights, bedsheets and various simple props. I then invited family and friends (some of whom were actors I’d met during other theatre projects in WA) to play out loosely scripted sequences in front of a video camera. The footage captured from these experiments became the basis for many illustrations.  When working on my final drawings, I would often listen to music appropriate to the atmosphere of each picture, and this helps me find the right level of feeling. And because there is a marked absence of both words and music in the final book, it really invites others to colour in those missing parts. So it’s a story that wants to be adapted; either in the mind of an individual reader, or for an audience, involving co-creators such as Ben Walsh.

By the sounds of things, Ben Walsh has been a longtime fan of The Arrival. How did the collaboration initially come about?

You’ll have to ask Ben – I haven’t met him yet! But I’ve heard a little of his work, including snippets of his score for Fantastic Planet, which is one of my favourite films in the ‘weird’ section of my shelf, and I thought that treatment was a great idea. It didn’t surprise me then that he might take an interest in The Arrival, as we seem to be on a similar wavelength when it comes to visual narrative, especially of the wordless kind – in the sense of being beyond words, rather than simply lacking them.

You said elsewhere that “The Arrival borrows much of its ‘language’ from silent film.” It seems a perfect extension, then, just like the silent films of past, to have a musical score overlaying the images.

Yes, I agree. In fact, the Australian Chamber Orchestra presented such a treatment in 2008, with Shostakovich’s string quartet No. 15 led by Richard Tognetti, played against some images from The Arrival. That involved a selected montage of elements from the book, and out of their original sequence: Ben’s is quite different as I understand he is following the book in its entirety, which I think is the first time it has been presented this way.

Did you imagine it going down this path at the beginning? Have you had any input in the process bringing The Arrival to its musical form?

I didn’t really think about it very much while working on the book. I mean, it did occur to me that the story could be adapted as a film – because it looks like an elaborate storyboard – but I didn’t know how a ‘soundtrack’ might be added. As a visual artist, at the end of the day my world is a silent one, I’m always trying to make sure everything works well in its simplest form, as silent drawings, because that’s all I can give my audience.

You also described The Arrival as, “the imaginary autobiography of an immigrant.” The New York Times said it was not only an immigrant story, but the immigrant story. Were you conscious of this when creating it? And have you had any responses from immigrant communities to any of The Arrival‘s various incarnations?

Yes, the images are all based on research, namely reading lots of immigrant anecdotes from the early to mid twentieth century, and also asking immigrant friends and family about their experiences. I’m not an immigrant myself, so I felt very dependent on such sources, always wanting to keep my imagination in check by making sure that even the weirdest images were basically ‘truthful’. The best feedback I receive about the book usually comes from migrants – both seasoned immigrants and those in current transition. They often talk about the accuracy of feeling in the book. Interestingly, I think the surrealism of the universe means that you have to look inwardly for the truly recognisable content, that is, your emotional empathy with the nameless characters in the face of conceptual displacement. In that sense, each strange sequence holds up a kind of mirror to a reader’s personal experience, demanding private interpretation.

Both The Red Tree and The Lost Thing have also been adapted (for stage, musical scoring, even album homages). What about your work do you think lends itself to this process?

Basically, it’s open-endedness. There is a sense in all of my work that it is somewhat unfinished, or at least unexplained.

Would you ever consider skipping the ‘book’ stepping stone in this process?

Gosh, that’s an interesting question. I suppose so. After all, a good idea can find many forms, and it may be that I’ve just gotten used to the form of a book as the initial testing ground for an idea – maybe because it’s quite a low-investment way form of creativity – in opposition to something like film. But if an idea would work more effectively as a performance than a book, it would seem natural to develop it primarily as a performance. Maybe then adapt it as a book!

Finally – can you let us into what you are working on now?

I recently directed a short animated film – yet another book adaptation – The Lost Thing, which is screening locally and internationally at various festivals; that was an enormous project, albeit only 15 minutes long, spanning a nine year period of production… it’s almost hard to believe it actually done. Well, not quite, as I’m currently finessing artwork for the DVD packaging, in time for a November release from Madman. I’ve also recently completed work on a special edition of The Arrival (due September) which includes additional material collected from my sketchbooks and notes, and a third project is a small book of drawings, The Bird King and other sketches, which will also be due around the same time.

Aug 7, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, $20-25, 9250 7777,

Shaun Tan