(Not) making plans

Timor is, I suspect, a place where projects automatically have an emergent design, because there are so many unknown variables that can disrupt the best-laid plans. It seems wise to keep things somewhat fluid and be ready to recognise and respond to opportunities for interesting exchanges as and when they arise.

Despite knowing this and being perfectly comfortable with it (I am an improviser, after all), I can’t help but imagine possible projects that I’d like to develop. Everytime I talk with someone about the residency, or I read another chapter in one of the many books that have been lent to me by old Timor hands, or I imagine the residency based on the things people have told me about the country, I start to imagine projects – big, small, new music, traditional music…

There are a couple of things quite practical things I’ve been told about: (1) There’s a young musician based in Dili who has been doing a fantastic job setting up a music school (teaching guitar and drums mostly, I think) as his own initiative. He deserves some support and further input so there is an immediate connection there. He is also keen to develop his music-reading skills. I learned to read music when I learned to play the recorder (back in grade 2), and this is true for a lot of the other musicians I know. I always feel that it must be a frustrating process to learn to read music when you can already play an instrument proficiently, so I think there is great value in learning to read music through playing a new instrument. Recorders have a bad reputation, but it can sound lovely when it is played well. A decent plastic recorder won’t be affected by the humidity of the tropical wet season in Timor, and it is simple enough to play that you can progress with both playing and music reading quite quickly. I’m thinking of adding a few recorders (descants, trebles, tenors and sopraninos) to my suitcase.

(2) There is also a music school in Dili that has had quite a number of students enrolled in instrument learning, and has trained teachers in music teaching and early childhood music. They are keen to re-establish some of the group music-making programs they’ve had in the past but that have waned due to factors like needing an initiator, or equipment getting damaged and not getting fixed. I’m hoping to be able to work with them to reinvigorate community performances, as playing an instrument makes so much more sense when you share it with other people and use it as a way to reinforce social connections.

These are two quite concrete, practical projects, but my imagination gets most fired up by other things:

  • The main ‘culture’ of Lospalos is agriculture. The people are subsistence farmers, largely. Here in Australia, we are so used to thinking of culture in terms of the arts. How might you celebrate local culture such as agriculture through an arts medium? Would it make sense to the local people to do this, or would it just be indulgent and plain weird? I start to imagine pieces that are build around the sounds of this agriculture-focused environment. I don’t know what they sound like…
  • Young children are plentiful in Timor Leste, but there isn’t much for them to do other than entertain themselves. Once they reach the age of seven or eight they will begin to share some of the household responsibilities – up until that time I gather they tend to be responsible for their own amusement somewhat. Early childhood-focused activities are pretty much non-existent. One book I have read made the surprising statement that Timor is a country where there are no traditional lullabies, or no tradition of singing lullabies to babies! (Can this be true?) And there are very few songs written for young children. I begin to imagine songwriting projects, where I write songs with the children in the local language (which in Lospalos is not Tetum, but Fataluku). We could make a collection of songs, and get it printed and distributed. Is there local radio? Could these songs get recorded and broadcast so that children throughout the district could sing them?
  • Lospalos has a stunning and much-lauded natural environment. The district is home to Timor’s first (only?) National Park. There is some incredible ancient rock art in the parks, worthy of World Heritage status. There are jungles and forests. During the years of the Indonesian occupation, resistance fighters lived in the jungles. They became acutely attuned to the tiniest nuances of sound in these jungles. I am interested in developing a project with the Lospalos elders, and there will be many veterans among this group. Could their memories and interpretations of these sounds of the natural environment be the basis for a composition? Would it be safe to do this, or could a project like that cause painful memories and traumatic experiences to re-surface in people’s minds? Am I suitably skilled as a facilitator to ensure their safety? Are there other organisations or people in Lospalos who might be able to provide this kind of supportive role?
  • How do I build trust and familiarity between myself and the local people? I imagine starting my work by focusing first on the children – working a bit with the school system, as well as the children who aren’t part of this, creating playful, engaging projects that draw them towards the music program and also make it visible. By building relationships with the young people, I will start to build trust with the adults. I begin to imagine a program where each week there is a new project that focuses on a different age group, and at the end of the week there is an informal performance that everyone in the community is welcome to be part of. Children, very young children with their siblings, adolescents, mothers with their babies, workers (would they have time?), elders… create a culture of celebration, and celebrating local people.
  • Traditional Timorese music was repressed under the Indonesian occupation and today, its usage is scattered (I gather). Traditional songs and dances and still performed, but there are many unique instruments that are getting lost, as the few people who can play them (or build them) are getting older, and the skills and traditions are not necessarily being passed on to the younger generation. As happens so often in traditional societies when the rich Western world begins to get involved, the young people are not necessarily keen to maintain their cultural traditions – they identify themselves with the west, and want the modern things that that world offers. I hope to learn as many traditional songs and music as I can. I imagine using these in the projects that I develop with the community. Other visiting musicians have already done much to collect and archive songs from the many different communities within Timor-Leste – I hope I will be able to access and explore some of this material while I am there, and share that of it which is unfamiliar with the local community so as to celebrate it with them.
  • By all reports, life in Timor is slower than it is for me here in Melbourne (no surprise there). I imagine having time to reconnect with the instruments I play – the clarinet, saxophone, and most recently, the flute). I will be living in a house, and I imagine finding time each day just to play – to improvise and invent, and record my experiments each day in a kind of improvisation journal in order to see how they develop. This is an idea I have got from Tiny (my partner, a wonderful musician, who will be joining me in Timor from December). Perhaps in my exchanges with local musicians there will be people who can help me improve my rather rudimentary guitar playing.
  • I imagine using visual arts somewhat to support group compositions. I like the idea of creating maps with project participants – maps of the heart, maps of their lives, maps of the local environment, maps of the future, maps of the past. We can take inspiration from the Surrealists’ map of the world, which distorted the size of the different countries to demonstrate how significant a particular culture was to the Surrealists. They were inspired by the art they had seen from Asia, Africa and South America, so individual countries in these areas dwarfed the countries of Europe, for example (not that that is so far from the geographical truth… discounting Russia of course). In the children’s maps, what will the biggest things be? And how can we interpret their maps into sounds and music?
  • Instruments will be pretty much non-existent, I gather. No, that’s not completely true. I have heard rumours of some Jon Madin-made marimbas in Baucau, for example. And apparently there are guitars all over East Timor, although they are not usually in tune. In Lospalos, however, I gather there is not much. So I imagine making instruments. What can we scour and source from things that are already there – water bottles, metal, wood, old parts of things, rubbish? What can we make from these? Yesterday I talked with my colleagues who have set up the Ping! project, linking regional and remote schools across Victoria with music-making opportunities and online resources. They’ve got downloadable videos on their site that show how to make all sorts of fabulous instruments from junk. I need to check out all the resources like this that I can find. I am not sure what kind of internet access I will have while I am there, so the more I can download and store in my computer to share with people there, the better. My host organisation, Many Hands, also has an offer from someone to purchase some instruments that could be used in this residency and would then stay with the community – what are the essential instruments for my projects?

Not making plans… just brainstorming and imagining! More coming very soon.


1 comment so far

  1. John on

    There is a stack of autoharps at Arte Moris in a cupboard in Galaxy’s old rehearsal space. I think they were donated by Edith Cowan university.

    Three or four of them are in good condition. I tuned them all up and taught a few people to play them years ago, but as far as I know they’re probably back in the cupboard again. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you found some useful purpose for them.

    I imagine you’ll know most of them, but if you drop me a line via email (can you see the email address I entered in your comment form?) I can e-introduce you to some people who might be able to give you some good information while you’re there.

    Good luck with your project, it sounds great.


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