Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Sunday lunch

Readers in Australia may be interested to tune into ABC Classic FM (105.9FM in Melbourne) this coming Sunday 3 June – I will be the featured musician on the Music Makers program, starting at 12.05pm. More information can be found here.

Taking ownership

Ownership is a key theme in composition workshops for me. When participants feel a sense of ownership over the music they are playing, they commit to it in a whole-hearted and quite serious way, and that commitment shows in the sound, the focus, and the body language of the player.

I’ve recently returned from a 3-day composition project in Carnarvon, Western Australia. The project was the education component of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Reef Project, which brings together musicians, surfers and film-makers for an extraordinary collaboration, in partnership with Tura New Music. The composition project involved a team of ACO musicians, guest artists, and 32 young musicians from Carnarvon and Geraldton – small towns halfway up the coastline of Western Australia. Working as a large ensemble and in small groups, we composed a series of original works inspired by the spectacular coastline in that part of the world, in particular Gnaraloo Reef.

It was the first time that any of these young players had been part of a process like this. They were open and curious, and as the project took its course, their confidence in what they were creating increased.

However, it was on the third day that we saw the most transformational change. I’d invited a further group of 30 younger beginner musicians to join the project on the last day. They were to spend the last hour of our rehearsal with us, learning parts to play in that afternoon’s public performance of the newly-created work. I sent the new players (who were generally a few years younger than the ‘main band’ we’d been working with the previous 2 days) to stand behind one of the more experienced players playing the same instrument, and asked the ‘main band’ players to teach the newcomers what to play in the sections of music they would be joining us on.

Instantly, the room was buzzing with activity. The older ‘main band’ players took their teaching responsibilities very seriously. They shared notes and rhythms, and some of the quarter-tone fingerings we’d been experimenting with on the wind instruments. Some couldn’t wait to turn around and start sharing these techniques and musical information which only 2 days before, they’d invented through experiments and improvisation. As one of the ACO musicians commented later, “You could just see their stature growing!”

Perhaps this was the most powerful moment in the workshop for some of them. Perhaps it was only at this point that they realised what they’d achieved. They already felt a strong sense of ownership of their music, but they had no real-world context for it at that point. Teaching it to someone else was a powerful and authentic validation. In that moment, they transformed from well-meaning kids who try, to composers and makers of their own music. The energy shifted and the performance moved to another level from that point on.

“Mud-brick… cow-dung…”

What: Fits of the giggles among the sopranos

Where: Choir rehearsal at Pelican Primary School

When: Thursday afternoon, last 30 minutes of the day

I look up with irritation. “What, Hafsa?? What is so funny?”

Hafsa looks a bit embarrassed to be singled out, but says in a small voice, “It’s because of cow-dung!” and she and all her friends all start giggling again.

We’re at Pelican Primary School and singing a song called Shelter that I wrote with students from the English Language School at the end of last year. It’s a very upbeat, catchy, danceable song and it’s become part of the Pelican Choir’s repertoire in 2012. The song is all about the right to housing, and at one point lists all the different things a house can be made from – in the experience of the Language School students who come from all parts of the world. At the time that we wrote the song, one boy from Ethiopia spoke with great excitement and confidence about houses made from cow-dung in his country and so that phrase made its way into the song – have a listen:

Brick. Plant. Rock. Concrete. Glass. Cow-dung. Mud-brick. Bamboo… Tarpaulin. Steel and wood.

Normally at Pelican Primary School’s choir practices, we keep strictly to task. At that time of day, too many transitions or moments of ‘down’ time can mean the end of any concentration, so I keep the teacher-talk to a minimum. But on this day, the question of cow-dung gave us the opportunity to have a really interesting conversation.

“Why do you think all these words are in the song?” I asked the children. “What are they referring to?”

A few people offered their thoughts, and one identified the common theme – these are all things you can build a house with.

“A house from cow-dung? That’s disgusting!” they all chorused in delight and disgust.

“Well,” I said, ever the practical one, “It’s probably really sensible if you live somewhere where there aren’t enough trees to chop down for wood for your house, because everyone needs some kind of shelter. In lots of countries, people build their homes from whatever is available nearby.”

I described some of the houses I’d seen in Timor-Leste, where all the different parts of the bamboo plant were used – the sturdy trunks would be used for the frame, thinner trunks or branches sliced longways would be tied tightly side-by-side to make the walls, and the long stringy leaves would be intricately woven and thatched to make a strong water-proof roof. They were fascinated by this description and sat quietly, picturing these houses.

“But Gillian, how could you make the bamboo house strong enough to stop people getting in?” one boy asked me. I thought about this, and explained that the doors could close, and they could probably be locked with a padlock but that if someone really wanted to break in, they probably could. The boy looked worried at the thought of this, but I went on,

“But the people live in small communities, where they know everyone. They all work together and help each other, and so they trust each other. The moment someone new arrives in the village, they would all know about it, and be watching carefully. Knowing each other well like this helps to keep their houses safe,” I explained.

One boy at the back of the altos then shared a story about helping to build his family’s mud-brick house when he was living “in Africa” (he’s lived in Burundi and Kenya as a refugee and maybe some other African countries as well).

“And best of all,” I said, in closing, “That cow of yours is going to keep doing droppings every single day! This means that you could build your cow-dung house for free! It might take you a long time – I’d be getting my kids to make the bricks everyday when they came home from school, as part of their chores – but it wouldn’t cost you a lot of money!”

By now, they were all completely sold on the idea of a cow-dung house and they sang their hearts out for the last few minutes of the day. I think this was my favourite choir practice of the year so far.

‘Culture Jam’ – Music and Mandarin

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be starting my artist residency at Elsternwick Primary School (EPS), a state primary school in the inner southern suburbs of Melbourne. EPS has very well-established music program and a strong performance tradition; they also take languages very seriously and have a full-time teacher of Mandarin (the school has almost no students of non-English speaking backgrounds).

The aim of the residency is to explore ways that voice and speech can be embedded and integrated into music compositions. I’ll be working with just 15 grade 4 students across terms 2, 3 and 4 to create an original music outcome that has Mandarin language in it (in all sorts of ways) and that could be used as a tool to help other students in the school improve their Mandarin.

Our creative music efforts will be focused around a number of field trips and visits to Mandarin-speaking people. The first visit is to my other students at the English Language School – after playing some music games and ice-breakers together, the EPS children and the Language School children will engage in conversations about culture and knowledge from their countries of origin. The EPS children will speak in Mandarin for the conversations with the Chinese children (they’ll speak in English with the children from other countries), and record their conversations on small voice recorders.

Rules for harmonious living: Found near the entrance to a communal living area, Shanghai, 2010.

In Term 3, they will visit China Town in Melbourne CBD, where they will record themselves buying things from the shops in Chinese, ordering food in a dumpling restaurant, and talking with the Chinese people they meet (elderly people, working people, and quite possibly some university students), and recording all of these conversations too. Lastly, they will meet with a Chinese musician who lives very near the school – he will play his traditional instruments for the children and answer their questions. All this will be recorded too.

Meanwhile, we’ll be exploring different ways of using voice and speech in music compositions – anything from songs, to speech melody, to electronic music, to iPad apps (this means I have to buy an iPad – yes!) to compositions with a mix of live and recorded sounds… Excerpts from the field recordings will find their way into the children’s creations (or at least, that’s our intention at the outset). I’m gathering examples of music to listen to and discuss, and we’ll also do a lot of group-composing workshops to get the composition ideas flowing.

The project is called Culture Jamming, and I’ll be sharing its progress (and its challenges) with you over the coming months. What do you think of the project idea? What music would you play to your students to get them inspired with a project like this? Have you explored using recorded speech in any student composition work or music technology? Please share your ideas and experiences!