Four rainforests in two days

Last week was a City Beats week, which means two joy-filled, action-packed days of composing with some very imaginative, lively, sparky children. The four schools that are taking part in the 2013 City Beats program came to ArtPlay for their second workshop, this time creating music inspired by rainforests. (Our theme for 2013 is ‘Landscapes’. In the first workshop, back in March, we created Desert Music).

For Rainforests, I wanted to get the children exploring the musical potential of very resonant sounds – things like bowed crotales, heavy Federation Handbells tuned to specific pitches, the tam-tam, a suspended cymbal, as well some smaller instruments like Indian bells, finger cymbals, an energy chime, and a kalimba. I think of these as being ‘wet’ sounds (as opposed to dry, scratchy sounds that very short, squat sound envelopes). In this project I also introduced two pre-composed pieces of material, as a way of locating our rainforest firmly in our own region, the Asia-Pacific. The first was a melody, Rorogwela, recorded in the Solomon Islands in the 1970s. (Go here to read about the melody and how it became well-known around the world in the 1990s thanks to a band called Deep Forest). The second is a version of a Balinese Kecak (monkey-chanting), that I learned through working with the Melbourne-based gamelan group Byar (for more about Byar read here).

We began by sitting quietly in a circle and tapping two fingers against the palm of the hand. “Close your eyes,” I suggested, “and listen to the sound that this makes when all of us do it together.” We closed our eyes and listened. “Can you hear the rain?” I asked. “Can you hear the sound of the rain hitting the big thick green leaves of the rainforest trees?” The children nodded and gave little smiles of recognition, eyes still closed as they tapped their palms and listened intently.

Next, we brainstormed words about rainforests (birds! snakes! rain! trees! coconuts! etc), then listened to an arrangement I’d written of Rorogwela (for my assisting trio of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians, playing trumpet, xylophone and double bass). The children learned to sing the trumpet melody by humming along with it, then we selected words from the brainstorm list, organised them into phrases or sentences with me specifying how many syllables each line of music could accommodate, then we sang through the completed song, accompanied by the MSO players.

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We learned to perform the Kecak (three interlocking rhythms, one bar of 4/4 each – see the rhythms in the photo above, along with the words we used to help us learn and remember the rhythms), performing it with words, with clapping, and with a loud, explosive CHAK! sound. It’s a high-energy activity, exhilirating and exhausting!

Then we broke into small groups to create three more sections of music – a dreamy, floating soundscape that featured many of our highly resonant instruments and bowed metal sounds, and that ended in a ‘dawn chorus’ of bird sounds (courtesy of a collection of whistles I brought along from home); a carefully-crafted gamelan-inspired piece featuring the handbells playing hocketed melodies invented by the children, and featuring the tam-tam and bass drum as structural markers throughout; and a very rhythmic, groove-based piece for xylophones and djembes that included Kecak rhythms and new melodies and rhythms composed by the children, arranged into an instrumental piece.

We recorded all of our music in the last 10 minutes of the 2-hour workshop. Later in the year, the children will return to ArtPlay to paint what they hear in their recordings from each of the City Beats workshops.

I shall close this post with a very beautiful arrangement of Rorogwela by Jan Garbarek. It is a sublime performance – but note that Garbarek called this a Pygmy Lullaby… He got the origins of the music quite wrong, attributing them to Africa rather than the Asia-Pacific region. I think Deep Forest may have had something to do with that. Nevertheless, enjoy this beautiful playing. I will post the recordings created by the City Beats children when they are ready.

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