Archive for September, 2007|Monthly archive page

Workshops, training, collaboration

It’s been a busy week. I think they are all busy now, pretty much until I get on the plane to fly to Paris at the end of November. Here is what I have been working on:

Australian Youth Orchestra

Today I led an improvisation workshop for young musicians from the Australian Youth Orchestra as part of their collaborative Style Workshop with The Cat Empire. It’s a collaborative project that takes the AYO musicians quite a way out from the traditional orchestral musician role, into the realms of improvisation, devising and composition. They started the project with me, doing a workshop on the ideal mindset for improvisation and creativity, building an awareness of factors that can inhibit creative responses, and trying their hands at a number of different creative tasks. They created what I felt were some truly original pieces. They have raised the bar pretty high now, for other students with whom I do the same tasks! Later today they will work with Tony Gould, one of Melbourne’s great improv gurus. From tomorrow they start working with The Cat Empire guys. Then on Thursday night all the music created through the collaboration will be performed in concert.

One of the violinists was also present at my ANAM talk, and it was nice to see her again and follow up some of the discussion points that were raised on that day – in particular the distinction she (and one or two others) made between music listening and music making. We chatted in the break about ways of listening to music, and the difference in the way we listen to music we know well and have played, to the way we listen to something new.

One of my tactics as a listener is to try to listen with ‘new ears’, to hear every sound as new and unexpected, and to try to put myself into the composer’s imagination.

I have another project coming up with AYO in November – this time with the Young Australian Concert Artists (YACA) program, during their Regional Residency in Albury. We’ll work together on two projects with primary school children. Probably inspired by music of Shostakovich.

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Seeing with our ears

Today I worked with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, the coolest bunch of 8-13 year olds in Melbourne, in my opinion. We are doing a two-day project exploring ideas of John Cage, as part of our preparation towards the bigger Musicircus project in October.

I decided to approach this project in a very open, experimental way. Literally experimental – I planned a series of open-ended musical and theatrical experiments and today we went through them one by one, noting the ones that were most effective for the group. Here are a couple of the things we did:

  • Creating theatre and music out of the everyday – entering the space one by one with instrument in case, unpacking it, warming up, putting it away, changing places, unpacking it, warming up, etc. Some interesting montages of sound, movement, and incidental noise.
  • Composing in the space. Two groups of children, group A is in the performance space, allowed to walk, stand still, or sit on the floor. Group B is around the edges of the space, with instruments, and tracking a certain person in group A. When their person walks, they play pulses on A, timing it to the person’s stride. When they sit on the floor they play E. They are silent when the person stands still. We tried some variations of this idea, but this was the basic idea.
  • Composing melodies using chance processes. You can see descriptions of our process here.

We also had a lengthy discussion on questions like : What is music? What is composing? How do you know when a performance is taking place? How do you know when it begins/is finished?

I was impressed by their responses. Comments included observations about intention:

“Even just the sound of feet walking down the street can be a composition – if I think about it, it’s composing.”

We listened with eyes closed to the sounds of the world, and I asked them to listen the first time, simply noticing all the detail, and the second time as if it was a recording of a composition. They agreed that they listened in a different way the second time; one girl said,

“When I listen as if it is a composition I’m interpreting it.”

And lastly, just a lovely musical turn of phrase:

“I see better with my ears.”

I came home today and pieced together a structure collating the results of all our experiments into one performance. We start rehearsing again at 10am, and perform at 3pm.

Days like today remind me of how much I love what I do, and give me a very satisfying sense that I am doing exactly the work I should be doing. My work sometimes feels overwhelming and draining, but mostly that is because of all the peripheral stuff – logistics, coordination, budgets, communication, tricky personalities etc. (Same things that come up in any job). The actual music work is in fact really inspiring, challenging, and a lot of fun. I make an effort to remind myself of this when I get frustrated with having so many different jobs and so many different projects in my head.

what a day…

Today’s rehearsal for Hunger was hard work. There were tears… though they were mine, which is better than them being someone else’s. At least I know I can take care of me!

Rehearsal time is tight. The music is set but still needing further rehearsal. Some of the cues are still being worked out. We have a lot of gear that we move from room to room. We need to be supportive of each other and work as a team, because everyone in this group is juggling a lot of projects and everyone is more fragile than they would like to be.

I know I am worn out. I finished the Language School projects just yesterday. I am neglecting my Masters studies, which worries me. I have a 2-day project next week that I still need to fully plan. And then the week-long puppet extravaganza the following week. A total of just 4 days off (including weekends) for the whole school holidays. (I am an idiot, it must be said, for letting myself get so over-committed).

I don’t mind the work time, – I am more stressed by the large number of projects and plans I need to have in my head. It means I need to find time to make a lot of plans, and because I have so many projects to realise, I need to make the plans really detailed, because there is not enough space in my brain to be beautifully, creatively responsive in the moment, or at least, to rely on that.

I struggle therefore with planning time, and with support time, in which to speak with collaborators, meet with my Orchestra colleagues to sort out various logistic details before the next rehearsal, and just a bit of time for me, to relax and refresh before the next project.

Don’t get me wrong about Hunger though. It is looking and feeling very strong. Every time the two companies come together in rehearsal to put the next scene on the floor, it feels very magical. And tickets are selling well – we are one of the Festival’s best sellers! That’s pretty exciting.

Collaborations are never easy. I feel like we are still discovering (and learning) the best ways for these two companies to work together, how much to set, how much to score, what can be improvised and intuited, where there is space, how best to integrate the unique skills of all the performers… It is an incredibly ambitious and courageous project in this regard, and not without risk. I love being part of the creative team as we try to nut out the solutions to these questions, through the creation of beautiful, memorable, cheeky, anarchic content. But we need everyone in the company now to trust and commit to the show, and what it is, and what it can be.

Friday night films

Tonight, after a tiring last day of term at Language School, I took myself off to the movies to see Forbidden Lie$, Anna Broinowski’s documentary about Norma Khouri, who wrote the “non-fiction” bestseller Forbidden Love. I really liked this film. It is a snappy, clever documentary in the way the story is told. She uses some techniques I really liked, of playing back interview footage to characters in her story, to get further reactions from them. It was an effective device or symbol for all the onion skin layers that she (Anna Broinowski) thought she was unpeeling, only to learn she was being conned along with everyone else. Go see it. It’s excellent, intriguing film-making, and a very fascinating central character.

I meant to post about the film I saw last week too. I went with two girlfriends to see the Peter  Whitehead film, The Fall. Whitehead is a cult 1960s film-maker, a retrospective of his work has been playing in the city, and I was interested to see this film, which was described in the various publicity as his best.

Hmmm. I felt underwhelmed, I have to say. It starts off nicely vague and undetermined, lots of abstract shots, fast-paced street footage, and some vainly-placed shots of our director looking moody/thoughtful/arty/pensive.  There was definitely some interesting material. It is set in New York against a background of anti-war protests, and student sit-ins at Columbia University.

To start with, as my friend H said, we were happy to indulge him. Hey, it was a Friday night at the end of a long week. We were not a demanding audience. A few shots of cool clothes and images of New York at that time – all makes for a good night at the cinema.  But after one particularly gruesome scene involving an axe (“America’s finest”), a piano and a live bird, during which I covered my eyes, I felt far less generous. It is one thing to make a comment on the hypocrisy of those war-mongering, fear-driven times, it is another to do so using a living creature. Arrogant sod. It was pretty sickening stuff, I thought.

My friends had seen another of his films the week before, which they said had been completely different – lighter, sillier, more playful, more frivolous. Set in London. Carnaby Street.

Moving on… Here are a couple of things we enjoyed laughing about after the film:

Things we learned from this film: that there was some truly dire experimental theatre going on at that time.

Favourite quote: “The hippies are armed!”

End of Term 3

Today my two primary classes at Language School had their final music lessons for the term, and presented their compositions to students, teachers and parents at the End-Of-Term Assembly.

We started off the day reasonably well, doing a run-through of the song I have taught all of the primary students in their weekly assembly (Inanay – by the gorgeous group Tiddas – on the Sing About Life album). We sing it in two parts, which they are managing really well now. It is not an easy harmony for this age group.

Then Lower Primary practised their question-and-answer music Can I have some more please? No, you can’t! They have riffs that they play on glockenspiel that follow the rhythm of the words.

They were so unfocused! We have had a few tricky lessons these last few weeks – their regular teacher hasn’t been with them all the time, some of the students who speak and understand quite a lot of English have been absent from school (thus depriving the newer students of peer models), and these two key factors have meant that the structure of the piece doesn’t really seem to have sunk in. At least, that’s how it seemed at this morning’s rehearsal. I felt a bit frustrated by the end. Was this project too difficult for them? Mel (Melbourne Uni work experience girl who is shadowing me on this project) agreed with me that it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, when we consider what they achieved last term.

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John Cage project – update

Yesterday I worked with the musicians from the Orchestra who will be involved in the John Cage project that I wrote about a few weeks ago. We had a 2-hour session to go through some of the ideas, and in particular explored two ways of generating melodic material through chance processes.

Cycle of 6

This task involves dice. The 6 numbers on the dice represent each beat in a repeating loop (or cycle) of 6 beats. Each player chooses a note to play on their instrument (with young players I ask for their ‘favourite’ note, or most reliable note… Less of an issue with orchestral musicians!) and then throws the dice. If it lands on 3, they play their chosen note on beat no. 3 of the cycle of 6. We do this until each person in the group (6 players per group) has their number and is playing in the right place. It doesn’t matter if two people are playing on the same beat, or if some beats don’t get covered by a note.

Then 2-3 people are asked to shift their note to the off-beat in between their chosen number, and the next number. Thus the note that was on beat number 3, is now played on beat number 3+ (‘and’).

A melody, made up of all these different notes, starts to be revealed. We write out the melody (or work it out by ear) so that everyone can now play it in unison.

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Super8 meme

I have been tagged by my sister (of the post-teen trauma blog) so must now write eight random facts about myself, then tag someone else’s blog.

  1. When I joined the primary school percussion group in grade 1 I didn’t know how to read music. I was one of the youngest members. I just hit different notes that I thought sounded nice. The teacher Mr Savage used to warn us not to ‘play at random’. I had no idea what that meant at the time so figured he wasn’t talking to me. A couple of years later (after I’d learned to read music and was a much better group contributor) my friend and I confessed that that was indeed what we had been doing.
  2. I have a piano accordion, and one day I will learn to play, and accompany myself singing Jacques Brel songs (thank you Caroline for introducing me to him). That is my small, private musical ambition.
  3. When I was 14 my friend entered the two of us onto The Early Bird Show’s Top Twenty Teen Teams. A horrifically daggy name for a segment, but the premise was straight-forward. Answer questions about popular music by being the first to press your buzzer. Emily and I won the Grand Final. We got prizes – things like records and a large, impressive double-cassette recorder. Woo-hoo! I got recognised by other teens on the school bus. I wore my favourite op-shop clothes. Fame – my first 15 minutes.
  4. I like to rollerblade but I only rollerblade on flat surfaces. No hills. This is because I don’t know how to stop. I tend to crash into the side of something instead.
  5. I have a small, illicit crush on someone right now.
  6. I think one of my great fears in life is a lack of due recognition. But also know I need to get over that. 🙂
  7. I have a love-hate relationship with my clarinet… but love it, really. Miss it lots when I don’t get time to play.
  8. I am going overseas in ten weeks. Yay!! (you will hear more about this trip. Getting very excited. Countdown starts this week).

I’ll tag this to my friends Sue and Symon, resident in Paris, the glamour-ducks! Their blog is always filled with photos and stories from their latest travels – this time cycling along the Danube to Budapest and back. Very intrepid.

Visual cues – floor marks

At the Language School last week I discovered a new visual cue, or tool. For a few weeks now we have had a line of blue sticky-tape stuck to the carpet. It was put there for a lesson some time ago, but never got pulled up, and I have noticed how the students pay attention to it without being asked, how they often sit in a line along it, or behind it, and that it gives them a sense of how to organise themselves in the space.

I have to emphasise that, because there are such limited English language skills in a class, it is not always easy to communicate things like where you want the children to sit. When there is great excitement in the room, or the children are tired, or distracted by other people, words do not always get heard! The sticky-tape line has already played a useful role – it is such a simple thing, and of such a distinctive colour, it is easy for the children to focus on.

The other day, with the Lower Primary class, we were giving them each a turn with the violin – tucking it under the chin, holding the bow, trying out the bow on the string. They were all incredibly excited and eager, and had to wait patiently for their turn.

It is often noted in the school that children who have spent a lot of time in refugee camps find some of the turn-taking routines, and other gentle behaviour, quite difficult to remember. So much of their experience in life has been that pushing to the front (and others out of the way) ensures you get food/a turn/water/seen. These are strong survival skills in the chaos and unpredictability of a refugee camp or post-conflict context. There are three children with this kind of background in the class, and when they came up to the violin they would grab it, and cling on determinedly.

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Listening and making

Last week I presented a talk at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), attended by students and staff of the Academy and members of the public. I spoke on The role of an elite musician in the community. It went pretty well, I felt, with some good discussion at the end that various members of the audience weighed into.

I’ll post my paper here very soon, but in the meantime some interesting points were raised that I felt required further discussion, in which two questioners made a distinction between music-making and music-listening. The first questioner suggested that these were two separate things (in particular when thinking about music education and the kinds of community-based roles elite musicians might play) . The second person, a student, made the comment that, while she loves to play, she doesn’t really like listening to music, and doesn’t enjoy going to concerts.

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“You dance good, miss”

Friday afternoon lessons with the secondary students can sometimes feel a bit uphill. It is the end of the week – they are tired, I am tired, and even though they are a wonderfully good-natured and cooperative class, sometimes we are just not at our best on a Friday afternoon.

Not so last Friday. We have spent the last few weeks building up a piece for performance that uses material developed through a few different tasks – energetic, syncopated rhythms made from students’ names; improvised riffs on the pentatonic scale; and drum ‘alphabet’ rhythms – as section content for a piece that I really like. It is a bit West African in feel, and we have developed words that we sing in unison with the main xylophone riff.

Last week we agreed that this piece could do with either a rap, or a dance section. On Friday we created the dance. A number of the students are enthusiastic dancers, so we started by sharing ideas for moves.

I should add here, I LOVE dancing. It is years since I took any classes (which I do periodically, for fun), and I have certainly never studied it seriously. But when I develop dance content with my students I always join in, and I always hope they will teach me some new moves.

Once we had a bank of possible moves built up I performed them one by one for the students and they voted ‘yes- keep it’ or ‘no – lose it’. Then we looked at all the moves that had got a ‘yes’ vote and decided together which order they should go in in the dance, and the number of repetitions each should have.

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