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.


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