Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Discovering the magic of books

Recently I put together what is probably my last Timor-Leste video – and my first iPad movie creation! It shows the book-making project that my friend Victoria Ryle (from Kidsown Publishing) led on the veranda of the Lospalos house in November 2010, with a group of local children.


Timor-Leste is a country with extremely low levels of literacy, particularly among the adult population (though there are now improved stats coming in for school-age children, which is very good news and testament to the hard work in building up the school education provision across the country in the last decade). There is not a strong book culture among the general population as far as I could tell – what books are available for sale are in Indonesian, and hardly any books are published in the national language of Tetun. The Alola Foundation has published/sells a small number of children’s books (3-4?, possibly a few more) in the national language of Tetun which I bought in Dili and took with me to Lospalos. Beautiful classic children’s books by wonderful authors like Mem Fox (you’ll see an image of one little girl pouring over a copy of Whoever You Are, as if she is trying climb into the pages). But the lack of books for children to look at means that children rarely get to see their national language in print, telling stories that are relevant to their own lives. A children’s book in their local language, Fataluku, is almost unheard of!

When Victoria and her husband Simon came to stay with me in Lospalos we decided to hold an impromptu book-making workshop. Children came along and were invited to draw pictures of things they liked, to paint and colour them, and to have their photograph taken. All of this visual material went back to Melbourne with Victoria, and less than 2 months later, two books had been created. You can see examples of the books on the Kidsown website here and here.

When the books arrived at the end of January, we held an impromptu Reading Club on my veranda. Children gathered together to read the new books, and the books I’d bought in Dili. Those who knew how to read, read to their younger peers. Children read aloud to patient, listening adults. The youngest children watched and listened, and many of them held books for the first time, learning to turn the pages when prompted.

The video shows photos of this book-making and book-discovery experience. The great news is that Kidsown Publishing has continued to work and run workshops in Timor-Leste, working in partnership with the Alola Foundation, Ministry of Education (Government of Timor-Leste), Many Hands International and World Vision. The books are part of a larger literacy and children’s literature initiative, and the flexibility of community publishing is giving the possibility of publishing books in local languages, supporting young children to develop literacy in their mother tongue first.

Imagining the Manningham Community Jam

A project I will be working on over the next couple of months is the Manningham Community Jam, a large-scale music event to open the Manningham Community Square [MC2] community hub building on Doncaster Road in Melbourne. This brand new building is nearly finished and the Manningham Community Jam is part of the program of events to open it to the public. The building is light-filled, contemporary and purpose-built, it will house the public library and art gallery on the ground floor, with the top floor a dedicated community arts centre with dance studios, art studios, rehearsal spaces and a few offices. The building will also house a number of community organisations and support services.

The idea with the Manningham Community Jam is to bring together all the music groups that already exist in the area – several choirs, jazz bands, rock bands, a marimba group – and members of the public to play the building into being and warm the space with sounds. I’ll be composing the musical skeleton that the Jam will be based on, working with each of the groups to develop sections of this, and then leading a large-scale jam with members of the public and the groups. I’ll have a team of professional musicians working with me on the day. It’s going to be great!

On Friday I had a tour of the new building and heard about which groups had expressed interest in participating. Seeing the building and the possible spaces we could use always helps me begin to shape the musical ideas. Outside the front of the building is a small stage and the starting idea is for it to be an outdoor jam, with the participants facing towards the stage.

In the entrance of the building things are quite open-plan, with a stairway leading up and two further levels with balconies/bridges overlooking the foyer area.

Looking at this range of possible ‘stages’, the organisers and I couldn’t help but imagine how it could be if we had some of our groups positioned on each of these balconies, playing in turn. One of the desired outcomes of the community jam is for these local music groups to be featured in some way, so could we begin the jam with short but characteristic presentations from each of these groups, presented as a kind of music installation? We may have groups such as an Italian Women’s Choir, a senior citizen’s choir, a jazz ensemble, a brass ensemble… I like the idea of starting the jam with a short performance from a group on the highest balcony, followed by another by another group on the next balcony, and so on, cascading the sounds one by one down to the foyer where the marimba group could then perform, and have the rock band positioned outside the front of the building, as a way of drawing the general public out of the building and onto the forecourt for the big jam proper.

All the inside musicians would need to then come back downstairs (using the elevators probably) and out through the front doors in order to be featured in the jam as well.

However, moving people during an event is not ideal… It would be much more straightforward if we just kept everyone in the same place throughout. We don’t have any planned rehearsal time with the inside groups, to get them familiar with the space and where and when to move downstairs… perhaps we could schedule this in though? Maybe the day before?

I’m also not a great fan of the outdoor jam as managing sound and volume – so that everyone can hear each other, and most importantly hear me – can be a lot more problematic. No soundcheck on the day, apart from immediately before the event starts. However, the outdoor space is the largest space there is, and if all the groups that are expressing interest decide to participate, and if we get our anticipated take-up on the day, then there could easily be 600 or more people there.

The Community Jam is not a long event – we have 45 minutes in total, and following the Jam there will be a Time Capsule ceremony, which the organisers want all the general public to be part of. The Time Capsule ceremony will be the last event of the day.

I’ll continue to blog about this project over the coming weeks as it evolves and takes shape. It will culminate on Sunday 16 September.

Interestingly, opening a new building with community music making is a popular idea in current times – Melbourne’s main concert hall the Hamer Hall is opening this weekend after a major 2-year refurbishment. There are several months of activities coming up to mark the re-opening and one of them is an event called Raising the Roof, involving community ensembles from all across the state, which is going to be fabulous, I think. But that’s not until September 30th – we at Manningham will be setting the trend! And it is wonderful to think that bringing amateur musicians and music-making novices into prominent public spaces is a feature of the contemporary zeitgeist.

ISME Community Music Activity commission, Corfu Town

The location for the Community Music Activity [CMA] commission seminar was well-chosen, to say the least! Could we ask for a more beautiful backdrop to our week of inspiring, stimulating and provocative conversations than this?

This little cove was just around the corner from our conference venue, the Ionian University’s Reading Society building, a small museum with a meeting room at the top that we reached via a winding staircase (having already climbed one set of stairs to get to the front door).

We had nearly forty different presentations throughout the week, as well as a poster session and a Cafe Discussion in which new ideas for research and partnerships were explored. More on that later.

Looking back, there were a number of themes or strands that evolved through the presentations and subsequent discussions. I’ll offer very brief summaries here, taken from the notes I made in the sessions at the time. One emerging theme was about school-based music educators learning from community music practice, and vice versa. We were strongly urged towards greater awareness and commitment to ‘artistic citizenship’ within music education practice, with ‘citizenship’ referring to meaningful action for the betterment of society. While some community music models adopt this ethic (such as many of the ‘intervention’ models), perhaps others, working within pre-existing structures such as community orchestras, brass bands, perhaps choirs (though less so, as community choirs often have a social change or social response agenda and have less hierarchical structures) could consider their work through this artistic citizenship lens. Music education in schools and other formal settings could also reflect on the influence of (or lack thereof) such an ethic or commitment to social good and the betterment of society in their work. Indeed, what are the values that drive your work?

Also within this strand came the call for greater entrepreneurship, as a process of value-creation within music-learning settings in schools and communities. When teachers and community music leaders approach a new environment the way an entrepreneur might, with questions such as, “What are my values? Who or what is the market? What are the opportunities here?”,  rather than with a specific outcome in mind (such as the formation of an orchestra, or an instrumental-teaching program along familiar lines), new program models can emerge. The presenter Michelle Snow gave the example of the Sistema Fellows program running out of the New England Conservatoire that trains a small group of musicians each year to go into under-served communities and engage people in ensemble experiences. Exactly what those experiences will be evolves over time, as the Fellows approach their designated communities with this entrepreneurial spirit and develop their work in response to what they find.

Things took an interesting turn when it was proposed that, given the importance of participatory music-making to the Community Music field, and that this lies in uncomfortable contrast to the emphasis on presentational music-making that music and/or music education faculties have within higher education settings, a music faculty might not be the right place to site Community Music. Many people see participatory music-making as presentational music-making done badly – the core values of two are often at odds with each other, but it is the presentational model that occupies prestige and recognition in the professional field, with Music Education working as its wing man, often focused on preparing students for presentational outcomes (think school band curriculum) and on delivering music appreciation outcomes to ensure students become good audience members for professional musicians.

So where else could the Community Music discipline be sited? The suggestion was to look at the growing field of Leisure and Recreation (it took me a while to digest this – I struggled to think of any faculties of ‘leisure and recreation’ in Australia – but apparently it is an area of considerable growth). If education is a pursuit of the development of self, and leisure is about undertaking activities that also develop the self and bring happiness and satisfaction in life, then we can start to see where Community Music could fit. Community Music could theorise on what ought to be – a model of values of inclusion, enjoyment and self-growth, a model of “how life can and should be lived”.

That’s some thoughts from the first part of my notebook. More from the Moleskin soon.

Overnight in Shanghai, 2 nights in Rome

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front of late as I’ve been away from home, attending the ISME [International Society for Music Education] conference in Greece.

I flew via Shanghai and spent a night in transit there, in the space age looking Airport Hotel, with its sky-bar reached by a sky corridor.

As I made my way to the airport, I came across this sign:

Yes, I thought to myself. I am here. And this is now. And I am about to start on the Central Path, which sounds very safe and contained, doesn’t it?

I only stayed one night in China, and then it was on to Rome, where I stayed 2 nights and spent my days waking up very early, and wandering the streets in all directions, reacquainting myself with the Eternal City. A favourite place is the Pantheon – isn’t it everybody’s? Architectural symmetry from centuries past. The dome’s oculus was positioned with the summer solstice in mind – on that day, the sun shoots through the hole and illuminates the entrance. I was there just 2 weeks after the solstice, and the sun’s beam was still very close to the entrance.

Then it was back to Fiumicino airport, and on to the island of Corfu, site for the ISME Community Music Activity commission seminar.

Re-imagining ‘The Pines of Rome’

I’ve just finished the second MSO ArtPlay Ensemble project for the year and it was a beauty. The ensemble of 28 children and 3 Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians convened yesterday morning at 10am to start exploring and developing musical ideas in response to the Ottorino Respighi orchestral work The Pines of Rome. By 3pm today we had a freshly-created piece of music, 15 minutes in duration, to perform to our waiting audience.

These projects have been running since 2006 now (with a new ensemble of children each year). The children are selected for their ability to respond to a collaborative creative process, and every year we find ourselves with a very imaginative, thoughtful bunch.

The Pines of Rome is a very vivid symphonic work. Respighi is creating images for his audience – scenes of Rome from his era (1924) and from the days of ancient Rome. The four movements of the work depict specific scenes – children playing under the pines in the gardens of the Villa Borghese; lonely pines near the Roman catacombs with the voices of monks rising up – perhaps present, or perhaps a ghostly echo; the hill of Janiculum (dedicated to the Roman god Janus, god of beginnings and transitions), pale in the moonlight and accompanied by a nightingale singing; and the pines of the mighty Appian Way, the great Roman military road, remembering the footsteps of long-gone armies.

Before gathering on Monday, I invited the children to listen to the Respighi music and draw or paint something in response. Many of them did this. One mother said, “Creating this artwork was such a novel and beautiful suggestion for a child to be introduced to new music.”

There were many responses. Pictured here are the four paintings by Ella H, using acrylic paints layered thickly so that the scenes are rich and densely textured.

The Pines of the Villa Borghese

The Pines Near a Catacomb

The Pines of the Janiculum

The Pines of The Appian Way

Another child drew a nightingale singing against a full moon, carefully creating the feathers with thin coloured pencil strokes, beautifully blended. Another child chose to depict the catacombs, framing her picture with looming pines, with the catacombs entrance a small door set into the side of a hill, approached by a steep set of stairs.

One of the ensemble’s clarinettists took a different approach, letting her hand be guided by her mind as she listened to the music. Her images were expressive and abstract, showing loops and swirls, intense periods of darkness, followed by openness and light.

These composing projects only go for 2 days, and are a complete immersion. There isn’t really any time to take the ideas in the artwork further. But this exercise – suggested for this project as an optional extra for those that like to express themselves visually – reveals the many ways there are for exploring a new piece of music with children aged 9-13 years.

A face for every minute

As a child I can remember an ad on TV that featured a woman whose facial expressions were particularly animated. My sisters and I used to call her The Expressions Lady, and she appeared on a number of different ads. We got used to looking out for her, and sniggering at her over-the-top expressions that seemed so out of proportion to the rest of the action.

Looking at some of the photos of me from the New Music Express project at ArtPlay 2 weeks ago, I think I may be turning into The Expressions Lady.

In my early days as a project leader, no-one ever seemed to capture me in poses like these. Nowadays, they are the norm. Do I mind? Nah! They make me smile. They remind me of how involved I get in these projects, the stories I tell, the images I try and conjure, and the fun I’m having.

Here are some other images from the project:

With one voice

This year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival took the Big Jam concept (opening the festival with a large, outdoor, audience participation music event) in a new direction with ‘With One Voice’. ‘With One Voice’ invited singers from a range of music traditions, all of whom use improvisation in their work, to teach a sample of their tradition to the audience. The Festival invited me to lead and facilitate the event, and devise a musical finale that would draw the different artists’ music together.

With One Voice took place on 2 June and opened with Lamine Sonko.

Lamine is an amazing performer, a Senegalese culture-keeper who is now based in Melbourne. He got us all dancing, clapping, and singing in Wolof language.

Next came the SKIN choir, a Melbourne-based indigenous choir that sings of urban indigenous experience. Each of the choir members is a professional singer-songwriter in their own right.

They taught a song from the Torres Strait Islands; the audience kept one of the lines going while the choir broke into parts, then drew us back together again in the chorus. “They were the stars of the show,” an audience member said to me later.

I found it hard to choose the star of the show though! Next on was Katie Noonan (also MC for the event) who taught the audience to sing the South African protest song Senzenina. Katie then improvised over the top, then invited Lamine to improvise, and invited members of the audience onto the stage to sing alongside the SKIN choir.

Lisa Young took us into an entirely new world. Lisa is a specialist in South Indian vocal percussion, konakol. She deftly divided the crowd into 4 separate groups, taught a part to each group then cued us all in and out while she soloed over the top. The rhythms are spoken, but pitch (high, middle, low, bending, swooping, etc) is important and adds a lot of shape and expression to each line.

For the finale, Katie performed her song Breathe in now, a song about being in the moment, open and present. We layered in the SKIN choir chant from the Torres Strait, Lamine’s clapping movement, and Lisa’s konakol rhythms as an accompaniment to the song. The audience got to revisit everything they’d learned in the last hour and bring it all together in a new context. It was beautiful. The sun was shining, the crowd of 1000 or so was singing their hearts out, and all those different traditions were drawn together. Perhaps a favourite moment for me was hearing Lamine and Lisa trade their respective vocal rhythm traditions in rapid, virtuosic exchange as the music soared into the final chorus of Breathe in Now.

June recap

June has been another one of the busy months, filled with projects and deadlines. Here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to:

  • Directed and co-led ‘With One Voice’, the participatory vocal event that was part of the opening of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival at Federation Square
  • Started the Culture Jamming project at Elsternwick Primary School. We are four sessions in and have completed our first field trip, meeting native Mandarin speakers the same age as the children, and recording our conversations with them.
  • Put a bunch of proposals and applications in for a range of grant-making programs and touring programs.
  • Had a long weekend out of town staying with friends at their farm in Jeparit (about 5 hours north). How beautiful it was to get away. Bright sunny days and cold frosty nights, and the sky filled with stars.
  • Sunday 17 June saw the second of my workshop series at ArtPlay get under way. The New Music Express project was about transforming stories into short bursts of text, atmospheric musical textures and funky, chunky grooves.
  • Attended the working group meeting for Arts Victoria’s Extended School Residencies program – I am the artist representative on the panel. We had a progress report on this year’s projects (which we had agreed to fund in our meeting the previous year), and confirmed plans for this year’s funding decisions.
  • The last few weeks have also been filled with getting presentations ready for this year’s ISME conferences, held in Corfu (Community Music Seminar) and Thessaloniki (main conference) in July. I am flying out tomorrow and will be in Corfu by Saturday!

All this in addition to my regular primary school teaching! My radio interview on ABC Classic FM also went to air this month and was well-received – I have had some great feedback from it, and it was lovely to have my work featured in this way.