Archive for April, 2008|Monthly archive page

Eyes and Brisbane skies

Time for a photo post….. during our recent visit to Brisbane SB and I tried to capture the Brisbane evening skies. We couldn’t resist putting ourselves in the picture too.

Project status report – forums, PD, research, writing…

This was a good work for finishing off a couple of one-off projects. It was a busy week – but it was also a shorter one with the public holiday for Anzac Day yesterday. Here’s a bit of a status report on the various projects swimming around in my head, or just completed.

Teacher and Artist Forum – collaborative partnerships

This was a Professional Development day for both teachers and artists presented by ArtPlay and funded by Arts Victoria. I was one of three artists invited to facilitate some of the sessions – a wonderful teacher was also part of the facilitator team, along with ArtPlay’s Creative Producer, and a Lead facilitator from the University of Melbourne. It proved to be a very interesting day – valuable and inspiring. I presented two workshops – my brief was to run an activity that teachers and artists could take part in together, and in which they might have very different perspectives about how it could be used in a school context. I taught them Read the Circle, and we then built up some compositions around it using voice and body percussion.

The most interesting parts of the day were the discussions about what works well in partnerships, and where the stumbling blocks can be. There was an overall aim to gather as many thoughts together as possible and to end the day with the creation of a kind of template for artists and schools to use when planning a collaborative project. I spoke for 30 minutes on two projects – I talked about one that had worked amazingly, serendipitously well, and considered what was in place to generate this success; and about one that had proved to be quite challenging, all the way through, despite a lot of planning, experience and good will. The teacher was the last of the facilitators to speak, and she just was perfect. So succinct and clear, in mapping out the roles and responsibilities in an artist-in-school residency.

I think an important thing to learn as an artist going into a school for a residency is to have the confidence (and trust) to say what you need, and what you think will work best. For me, this means longer classes (an hour at least) and small group sizes (around 22 if we are doing whole-ensemble work with body percussion or voice; about half that if we are doing instrumental composition). I feel filled with a ind of horror when I hear about young artists going into schools where they are timetabled to work with every class in the school, with short lesson times in order to fit them all in. Of course it is important, and ideal, that ‘everyone have a turn’. But it is, I think, more important that the quality of the experience for the students be the best if can possibly be. This means proper funding, and settings as close to ideal as possible. If it means you only work with three classes, for 90 minutes each, then that is perfect. Those three classes will have an extraordinary experience. Put together a longer-term plan that sees each class having this kind of experience, three classes at a time, across 2 terms, so six classes participating in a year. The next year, the next 6 classes can be the participants, and so on until the whole school has taken part. At which point, ideally, the artist starts again.

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Looking for ‘engagement’

I was at Language School today, and this post is about something I have noticed for the last few weeks – the way that the students show their engagement in different ways and how valuable it is to be open to seeing ‘engagement’ manifest itself in a big range of behaviour.

Here are some student snapshots:

Assunta, a Sudanese girl in Upper Primary, is really struggling to cope at school. There is all kinds of crazy upheaval going on at home, and so she is experiencing lots of confusion, distress and anger, and this is being played out at school. In class, if she decides to sit out awhile, or lie on the floor, I usually let her without commenting or questioning it, as it seems like ‘time out’ is often just what she needs. In music she can be very focused and engaged on what we are doing (watching, listening, joining in, working cooperatively with the teacher and other students), but often switches, all of a sudden, to far more disruptive, aggressive behaviour.

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Prisons, ethics, and conferences

It has been quite an up-and-down week. Started in the prison. I have written about those last two sessions. The prison project has been one of the most interesting of all my projects. Here are some of the aspects of it that make it so interesting:

  • It is the first project that other musicians in the orchestra have really engaged with. In fact, other musicians and other management staff members. I would have thought lots of our projects in the past could have warranted similar interest, but no. It is the prison project that they all ask about. There have been lots of questions. The three musicians presented a report on the project (after the first two sessions) at a Full Company Meeting a few weeks ago, and got great feedback and buzz.
  • The creative team. This has been a truly delightful team of creative minds, from the singing roadie, to the sound designer, to the three musicians from the Orchestra, to the music teacher who works in the prison. Also including the researcher, who has been present in every session and building her own relationship with the prisoners, and with the project material. I have felt more supported as a project director in this particular project, than I have in many other, less challenging projects.
  • Restrictions. We are constantly negotiating all sorts of restrictions, and have been, right from the start. It was the restrictions of the prison, and its transient population, that led to the complex structure of the project. Lately, it is one of censorship and what the final recorded product should sound like. We get very mixed messages from the prison authorities about what they want the final recorded product to sound like. On the one hand, they came close to pulling the project completely last year, due to concerns about being ‘soft’ on prisoners. This year, they are refusing to let us record any sounds of the prison world (keys, doors closing). the prisoners want us to include this stuff, but the prison management are adamant that the recording should not include any sounds, in any context that might allude to the “harshness of prison life”. Hmmm. Ultimately, we need to work with all of their restrictions, and still come up with a product that meets our own artistic expectations and demands. That’s our challenge.

Now that all the workshops are completed my attention as the Project Director turns to all that recorded material. D, sound designer, is going to put all the Pro-Tools sessions onto an external hard drive for me to listen through, at my leisure. We are talking hours of footage here! I will identify all the sections, and moments, that I think we will use, and log these in detail, including the characteristics about each that I think will link thematically. After this, we give a CD (or set of CDs) of all this raw material to the Prison staff, and they need to approve, or veto, each track.

Once that has happened, D and I can start working through whatever we are left with, processing sounds, layering, building up compositions and movements, and identifying where the gaps are that will be filled by the musicians in the studio. We go into the studio at the end of March. I plan to choose raw footage as judiciously as possible, in the hope that little, if any, will get vetoed. However, given the apparent changeability of concerns for the prison management, the preferred emphasis feels somewhat less than predictable.

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The singing roadie

This afternoon we concluded our prison workshop project – the workshop side of things, that is. We finished the project with two consecutive workshop days, so saw lots of the same guys again today as we saw yesterday.

At the start of the session I wrote up the list that D (sound designer) and I had compiled of all the things we still needed – musically, and recording-wise – on the white board. As we worked out way through the session, completing things, I crossed off the tasks. There was a pleasing moment of ceremony when the time came to cross off the last item. ‘It’s a rap!” someone called. “It’s in the can.”

Today’s session started with a surprise. The prison’s program staff had managed to persuade another unit – possibly in the relevant government department, I’m not sure – to let them buy a didgeridoo in time for today’s session. I wouldn’t have thought it were possible to do it so quickly, but somehow the didg was bought – a beautiful, honey-coloured, warm, throaty didgeridoo – and was there at the start of our workshop.

One of the guys knew how to play it and started straight away. Another guy – Joe (not his real name), the one person who has been in all of our sessions and wrote the poem that has been quite a focal point for compositions – picked up one of the Japanese temple bowls and got it started with a low harmonic hum. R, our cellist, also started to play. We found ourselves in the middle of a mesmerising, free improvisation without even realising it.
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Prison project – planning the last 2 sessions

Tomorrow and the next day I go back into the prison for the final two music workshops with the inmates. This evening I have been listening to some of the material we have created so far in our improvisations. I don’t have recordings of everything – this is a very prolific project, with a lot of material created. Our sound designer burns me grabs when he can but things get hectic in our workshops, especially at the end when we have to pack up and re-account for all the gear, so I only have about 40 minutes of material to listen to so far.

Even so, it is pretty interesting. I thought I’d write this post to record what my thoughts are at this midpoint. Given that every workshop plan I have made so far in this project has not been followed at all (due to the momentum in the workshops always taking us in new, unexpected directions), it could be interesting to look back at the end and see how much things did or didn’t change.

One thing that we haven’t really been able to develop so far is stories, or writing, or words of any kind. It is a tricky thing to broach. I sense the guys are wary of the starting points I suggest – wary of being expected to reveal or disclose personal things, or highlight the life experiences that have brought them here. I try to suggest quite neutral starting points – but in their neutrality they raise suspicions. For example, in the first week I suggested a project focus might be musical maps – of any kind – imaginary or otherwise. But the immediate reaction was quite negative and frowning.

I think that any writing work we do, or development of any words specifically for the piece, needs to focus on the things we all share, rather than the notion of things that separate us.

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Musical Alphabets – words to play

I have blogged in the past on some of my projects that focus on Musical Alphabets. I cover quite a range of different approaches under the idea of ‘alphabets’, but one of the things I like to do with ESL students is ask them to list all the words they can think of that can be spelt with the letters A-G (the musical alphabet as it appears on our classroom percussion instruments) and to try playing the words.

Here is our list of words:

Age, aged, ace, aced

Bag, bad, bee, bead, beef, beg, bed, beaded, begged

Cabbage, cafe, cage, cad, cab, caged

Dag, dead, dab, dabbed, dad, deaf

Egg, egged

Fade, faded, fee, fed, feed, face, faced

Gee, gaff, gag, gagged, gab,

We have made some beautiful musical pieces in the past where each person plays their chosen word, and we try out different words in different combinations. Students might also write a melody by stringing a number of words together.

In a class of 15 students, we listened to each of the students’ word choices, tried out pairs and trios together, looking for pleasing combinations, then decided on an order of words for our class composition. We had a ‘chorus’ that everyone played that we returned to several times, giving our composition a Rondo form.

Lots going on!

These last few weeks have been soooo full. School holidays means school holiday projects with the orchestra. Plus a visit to Brisbane to see family up there. Plus other nice distractions in town… here is a summary:

ArtPlay Ensemble

Last week, in the second week of the holidays, the 2008 ArtPlay Ensemble convened for its first project of the year. We spent two days composing pieces inspired by Debussy’s Three Nocturnes. Here’s some of the compositional starting points we used:

  • I chose two very similar 4-note chords from the Debussy score for Nuages (the first of the three Nocturnes) and asked each child to choose two notes from each chord. They then played an oscillating pattern that moved from one note to the next. This created a similar effect to Debussy’s aural images of clouds floating across the sky.
  • Debussy’s Nuages seems to set up cloud images that are then have a shaft of light superimposed on them (my interpretation) – a musical interjection or motif that contrasts in colour and temperament to the cloud movement. Debussy’s often feature tritones. I divided the Ensemble up into 4 small groups. Each group took 2 tritone intervals and developed 2 possible shards of light that featured one of the tritones.
  • The groups then created their own arrangements of Nuages that used their cloud mode music and their shards of light.
  • Individuals from the Ensemble also improvised solos using the notes of the pentatonic scale featured by Debussy in the B-section of Nuages. For many it was their first experience of improvisation in performance.
  • We moved onto Fetes, the second of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Here the Ensemble created a rocking bass line in 9/8, and a series of vibrant melodies, all using notes from the Mixolydian scale on g. (Fetes often has a mixolydian colour to it). As a B-section, we took inspiration from Debussy’s passing procession and created our own processional music that started off quietly, suggestive of being far away in the distance, and gradually increased in volume, as it got closer.

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