Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Random Round

I’ve been exploring Percy Grainger’s Random Round this week. The Random Round is a piece of very tonal, attractive but quite experimental music, way ahead of its time. Grainger was a truly original thinker, radical and visionary who explores ways of bringing performer-choice and invention into a composed chamber music piece. He wrote it in 1912-1913, for an unspecified range and number of “tone-tools” [instruments].

The score consists of a range of melodies, accompaniment figures and short ostinati, organised into six specific sections. There are some fixed rules about how players must go from one section to the next, and some recommendations that can be followed at the discretion of the “band-boss” [conductor]. The material isn’t interchangeable between sections.

When the Random Round gets put together it can have a very ‘composed’ feel – the sections of music and their specific material and the free order with which you can play them, give a finished version of the piece a strong sense of thematic exposition, development and recapitulation. It can be difficult to achieve this kind of structure using workshop processes; the riff-based group-devised workshop processes that I (and other exponents of the ‘Guildhall School system’) often use can sometimes be harmonically or thematically ‘static’ (unless you have a lot of time to develop and memorise other material that can link to earlier thematic material). The challenge of creating music that has a sense of development and return in a group context using workshop processes is one I have been exploring on and off for the last few years. Grainger’s Random Round offers a possible structural model, I think.

The sad news is I was supposed to be building a project around the Random Round this week, but we couldn’t get hold of an appropriate score or set of parts for the musicians to work from. I wonder if there isn’t one available in Australia? I have been working from a manuscript of the work, written in Grainger’s cursive hand, complete with crossings-out and excited afterthoughts. His ideas literally jump off the page and you get a wonderful sense of his creative energy… but it is hard to read and work from in an ensemble. I am thinking that before I return it to the library I will write out some simple parts of the various ostinati and melodies, so that I can use it with groups in the future.


Making human connections through music – day 3 at the refugee centre

My third visit to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] was different yet again. When John and I arrived we were struck by how quiet the place seemed. “Yeah, it’s pretty dead around here,” the activities officer agreed, and went to see who he could round up. The MITA residents are nocturnal creatures – our music session starts at 2.30pm on a Saturday, which is around the time many of them are just getting up for the day. When you don’t get to bed before 6.30am, 2.30pm is an early start!

We started with a small group, and the numbers stayed small for the rest of the afternoon. First to arrive were Hussein, the Iranian singer from the previous two visits, his friend Ashraf who had written out all the Farsi lyrics in English spellings for me on my first visit, and another young man from Afghanistan that I hadn’t met before named Mohamad. Another Afghani man, Ali, a regular member of the group, also wandered over. The three of them grabbed drums and we started with ‘Soltane Ghalba’, the soulful, lyrical love song in 3/4 that I’d found on iTunes and downloaded for these sessions. John played along with the CD, learning the chords on the guitar, and I worked with our newest recruit, Mohamad, teaching him how to play the melody on the glockenspiel. It’s quite a long melody but as it is a sequence of four phrases, it’s not hard to memorise and is very satisfying to play.

As in previous weeks, we moved quickly from song to song, usually before each one had finished. The pace at the beginning was very much set by Hussein. Our second song was Saghi emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete. We sang this one through several times, stopping every now and then to remind our singer to keep an ear out for the accompaniment and not rush ahead. The structure of ‘chorus–instrumental–verse–chorus’ became more consistent. Ashraf and Hussein proved to be a strong drumming team. Ali, working with the side drum and tambour as a makeshift drumkit, maintained a steady pulse throughout, and seemed much more comfortable within the ensemble than he had in previous weeks. He smiled constantly – he was happy to play simple rhythms and just participate, varying mainly the volume and strength with which he hit the drums, rather than the rhythm.

However, I was unsure how long the rest of us would be able to cope with the extreme volume coming from Hussein’s playing, which was particularly vigorous and intense that afternoon. There can be lots of reasons why people play excessively loudly – they may have hearing damage, for example (not uncommon among refugees or people who may have had ear infections remain untreated for long periods), but it can also be a kind of blocking mechanism that resists connections with other people. I wanted to see if we could introduce some dynamic variation.

Continue reading

Talking about Timor Leste

I have a presentation coming up soon, as part of the Arts Education 2011 Colloquium series at the University of Melbourne. If you are in Melbourne, please come along:

Date:         Monday, 1st August, 2011
Time:         5.15 – 6.45 pm
Venue:      Frank Tate Room, Level 9, 100 Leicester Street, Carlton

Toka Boot [Big Jam]: Four months making music in East Timor

From October 2010 until the end of January 2011, musician Gillian Howell undertook an Asialink artist residency in East Timor [Timor Leste]. This presentation describes – through words, pictures and video– the fruits of that residency, and some of the challenges that arose. From a concert for Human Rights Day in Baucau, to informal jams with children on the veranda of her house, to workshops in kindergartens, language classes, and remote mountain villages, Gillian’s experiences revealed much about what it can be to be a musician within a community.

Gillian’s experiences also reveal the complexity of being an outsider in Timorese society. She considers this with reference to Timor Leste’s legacies of centuries of European colonialism, brutal years of occupation, times of conflict and times of fragile peace and UN Administration, and how this history has influenced Timorese interactions with malae [foreigners].

This was not a research project, but a documented music residency in a remote community. Gillian reflects on her experiences as a practitioner working in this somewhat isolated environment, with descriptions drawn from her online journal (, illustrated by films and photographs taken during the residency.

Music in immigration detention, part 2

I made my second visit out to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] recently, leading music workshops with the young men there. Once again it was a session with lots of music and energy, that demonstrated  the way that music offers these young men a way to explore their skills and their sense of identity through music. It also generated some interesting questions about ways of working with structure and form (in terms of music, and in terms of workshop content) in this challenging environment.

My first visit was 3 weeks ago, with the following two sessions postponed due to illness (mine) and a lock-down (at MITA, due to a public protest). I was joined for this second visit by a volunteer, John. John is a guitarist and mandolin player (though an economist by trade). The MITA Activities Officer also took part in the session.

During the week I’d been thinking about establishing a bit more structure in the workshops. Would the group benefit from, and respond well to, a warm-up activity of some kind? I planned a simple task that would teach us all each other’s names and kept this in mind as a starting point. However, the first guys to arrive began playing instruments as soon as they entered the space and once they’d started, it wasn’t easy to stop them. The level of English is generally very low, and without an interpreter, it is more effective to go with the flow of their energy than to try and impose a different activity to what they have started themselves.

Continue reading

Observing musical leadership

As the person who is usually the project leader, I’ve loved just being a member of the full ensemble for last week’s Beethoven project, leading a small group, playing my instrument (bass clarinet that week) and watching another person lead the overall process. It has been an opportunity to observe someone with a very similar process to my own (which means I have some insights into where he is taking the group with the different tasks he sets) shape and guide the musical content as it evolves.

Firstly, it’s been interesting to be on the receiving end.  I’ve needed to receive and interpret instructions, to respond to tasks without knowing how the material would be used in the overall composition – all the things that participants in my projects experience and respond to. I’ve noticed different things about the group energy and about the leader’s energy that I can use in my own projects, through participating in someone else’s project.

I’ve loved observing the way that Fraser asks questions and sets tasks for the group. I think that the skill of asking questions (or setting tasks) in a creative project is one of the most important skills, and it is a subtle art in itself. The way that tasks are given – the words that are used, the clarity of the starting point, the restrictions or essential criteria that inform how all the different groups’ creations will fit together in the larger piece – makes a huge difference to what each of the groups come up with in response. Some of Fraser’s questions or tasks are similar to ones I like to use, but others are different, and it’s been valuable to be able to hear these, and observe the ways groups have responded.

On warm-ups

We started each day with a warm-up. I know that for me, a good warm-up has always been a cornerstone of a project, a powerful way to assert the spirit of a project and build a cohesive sense of the group. However, sometimes of late, I’ve begun to question the efficacy of warm-up activities with some groups. For example, at Pelican PS I’ve learned that warm-ups really throw the older students off. They find them too confusing, too unrelated. Lessons at Pelican work better if we jump straight into the day’s work with no preamble or easing-in. Similarly, I find that the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble children often arrive on the second day of a project ready to work. They need very little group warm-up at all, and I’ve wondered if the workshop really benefits from the process.

There was one day this week where I arrived feeling incredibly tired and lacklustre. As Fraser got the workshop started I decided to observe myself in the warm-up, and compare how I felt at the end of it to how I felt at the beginning. I wanted to monitor its effectiveness on me.

That morning, Fraser taught us the Chair game. (The children loved this game. They wanted to present it to their parents at the end of the week. One of the MSO players said he wanted to play it all day. Fraser expressed amazement at the oddly frenzied way our group played it – unlike any other group he’d ever played it with, he said). By the end of the game, I realised that I did indeed feel more relaxed, awake, alive, and definitely ready to work. So, I shall persevere with my warm-up investigation for my projects.

It was also interesting to see Fraser teach another warm-up game that I often teach here. It is one I learned in England during my studies there, and I always loved it, always found it incredibly fun, energy-building, focus-generating, playful… However, it has never really worked here. It involves people using their voices and physical gestures. I’ve never been able to get a group in Australia to generate the kind of energy that the game needs to work its magic. It wasn’t all that different for Fraser either, and we talked about this later – the game was fun, but it never quite worked. Perhaps it is just a game that doesn’t suit the Australian psyche or energy, or the way we use our voices… or our relationship with our voices. Interesting.

Time and Space

I’ve spent the last 5 days working on a single project. That’s right – five full days on a composition project (the sort of project I normally do in two days) with a group of 24 young musicians, five music students from the conservatorium, 4 professional musicians, the project leader and myself. And the project isn’t even finished yet – there is another full day, then a final rehearsal call, and then the actual performance.

It’s been wonderful to enjoy the space that so much time brings to the creative process. There is time to get to know each other and build rapport in an easy, unpressured way; time to laugh, have fun, and be playful without each of those tasks needing to link to a specific creative outcome; time to explore ideas – including some we might not end up using, but that capture our imaginations at the time; time to refine our ideas and learn to play them well; time to hone, to memorise and to develop performance finesse. We were in the hands of Fraser Trainer, a highly skilled and inspiring musical leader from the UK.

Most of the projects I lead for orchestras run for only two days. While we certainly fit a lot into those two days, and create very detailed, original music, I’ve often felt that the pace that we set means that the young participants barely have time to process all the new things they are doing, before the project has ended. They have an intense, immersed experience, but only one night’s sleep before it is all over. How – and when – do they begin to digest the experience, reflect on what they have learned, and how the experience has added to their perception of their musical selves?

It is a common curse in both arts and education (maybe elsewhere too) that there is a far greater capacity to ‘pull out all the stops’ for a visitor, in terms of resources and time. For example, I know that when I go into a school as a visiting artist, I am given more space in the timetable – a full day, for example, with the students missing other classes in order to do the music project – as well as the support of a teacher in the room with me. These are luxuries that the regular music teacher does not enjoy in their week-to-week practice.  But these efforts can hopefully bring changes to the local environment after the visitor has gone.

This 5-day project offered a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when more time is allowed. “How’s it going?” a senior manager of the orchestra asked me at lunchtime on Tuesday (day 2). “I mean, usually, by this time on the second day, you are getting ready to perform, aren’t you?” So, that significant difference is noted. I think it was an eye-opener for everyone. Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to conceive of projects that have more expansive timeframes, or a range of timeframes. Hopefully too, this project will mean that there will already be an understanding of how much difference the length of a project can make to the young people’s experience, and to the overall depth of the work.

Music moves my world

It’s the midpoint of the school year – the middle of the mid-school-year holidays in fact, but ‘on holidays’ is the last thing I feel! Lots of projects on the go, lots of projects finishing and others starting. My mind is whirling with music and ideas most of the time, and in some ways I want to keep up the pace, just to get everything out and realised. But it is also a good time to take stock and reflect on the range of things I’ve been doing, what I’ve been learning and what I’ve been inspired and moved by.

My last posts were about my first visit to the immigration detention centre two Saturdays ago. Illness (my own – last weekend) and public protests (at the detention centre, leading to a lockdown – today) have meant I have not been able to progress the projects any further as yet. However, I’ve spent quite a bit of time developing ideas in response to the participants’ requests for songs and instruments on my first visit. I’ve been learning two of the songs they suggested and I’ve also sourced a harmonium, in response to a request from one of the participants. I hope he knows how to play this – my own attempts this afternoon were unconvincing! I’ve also lined up a volunteer who will join me at the centre for the workshops each week. We’ll have a repertoire of four songs initially, each which we can extend with improvisation if we choose – two songs from Afghanistan, Lambada (why not? They all knew it and obviously liked it! It is an international anthem these days), and a song from Australia (again, as requested by the participants) with a link to indigenous Australia.

The last week of term 2 was a week of project endings. At the Language School we presented each of the three class’ compositions at the end-of-term performance, and it was another memorable and moving concert. Memorable because of the quality of the children’s performances and the learning journeys taken by some of the students in particular, and moving because of the ‘farewell’ element, saying good-bye to those students who are now ready to make the move to mainstream school. Sixteen students (out of 39) received certificates.

Lower Primary sparkled as they sang their song inspired by prepositions and directional language (“Hey you, where’s my shoe?”). Middle Primary gave us lumps in our throats with their song about friendship and feeling ‘happy on the inside’, and Upper Primary drew us all into the fun and energy of their rap/dance/song “It’s all about love”, which included audience participation of singing and clapping off-beats, stadium-rock style.

At Pelican Primary School, the stand-out class was the Grade 4/5, who played through their class rendition of California Dreamin’ not just once but four times! They sang in two parts, and maintained the accompaniment on the xylophones and tambourine. This level of musical independence and confidence was fantastic as it allowed me to concentrate on my guitar part, which is still at that fragile stage of needing my full attention. “Well done to us!” I told them at the end. “We just performed the whole song all by ourselves, without any help from the CD. That’s a big achievement!” Their teacher nodded in agreement. They left the music room very pleased with themselves, and singing all the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown) at the top of their voices.

I never got to finish my project at Darling Secondary College. The residency is not going to be continued next term and the teacher decided to end it in the second-last week of term. I felt sad for the students – we didn’t get to complete the projects we’d been developing, or perform them to anyone else, and they’d done so much up to that point! It was disappointing not to be able to say good-bye.