One of the brightest highlights of this year’s Canberra International Music Festival will be the COVID-delayed world premiere of Andrew Ford’s Red Dirt Hymns.

Featuring Luminescence Chamber Singers, cellist Freya Schack-Arnott and guitarist Hilary Geddes, Ford’s songbook – four years in the making – brings together the words of 16 contemporary Australian poets, essayists and folksingers in songs of praise dedicated not to a god, but to the land.

Here, Harriet Cunningham speaks to Ford about the evolution of an idea in strange times, and what it takes to create a secular hymn.

Photo © Rachel Claire / Pexels

January, 2020. The east coast of Australia was on fire. The air was full of smoke and ash. Andrew Ford, composer, writer and broadcaster, remembers it well.

“The fires were getting closer to us. We evacuated, twice, and the second time the fires came quite close and at the last minute changed direction and headed off to Bundanoon.”

Ford was in the middle of writing a commission for the Australian Youth Orchestra at the time, a piece which reflects on climate change, titled The Meaning of Trees. The delivery date was not until later...