Archive for the ‘Australian Art Orchestra’ Category

New York Jazz Club 2

Back in October, I led the second KEY composition workshop, with Australian Art Orchestra musicians Jordan Murray and Philip Rex. We were taking inspiration from the music of New York jazz trombonist Josh Roseman (who owns his own jazz club), so I called the project New York Jazz Club, and people signed up the moment bookings opened.

We created two pieces – a laid-back A-minor groove, and a frantic, schizophrenic contemporary piece that jumped between genres, styles and pastiche with a randomness that would be right at home in any downtown New York club.

Take a look:

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Musician’s Toolkit

Last weekend Tony Hicks and I led a 3-hour workshop on free improvisation as part of the KEY program (the Australian Art Orchestra’s program of workshops at Signal in Melbourne). We call this series of short workshops the ‘Musician’s Toolkit’, because it focuses on skills and techniques that are useful for all musicians, playing in any genre. The KEY program is geared towards teenage musicians.

Here’s some footage and sound from the workshop – read on for a description of what we did to get to this point.

Getting started

Free improv is a big topic to tackle in just 3 hours! We started by discussing roles that you can take in an ensemble – assertive and passive, or foreground and background, for example. This led to our first whole-group improvisations, which were characterised by fairly homogenous playing, traditional sounds and tonalities, and very little space, and opened up dialogue about the importance of shape, structure, endings, and having both a macro and a micro view of the work.

Duos – switching roles

We then divided the group into duos and trios and asked them to develop together a short improvisation, in which all the players switched roles (ie. started in the foreground, but the move to the background, or vice versa).

Fast and loud

The performances that the duos and trios came back with highlighted the carefulness with which most of them played. To encourage a freer approach to sound and technique, Tony led a short, intense loud group improvisation, cueing the group as a whole or individuals to play loud and fast – as loud and fast as possible. The group visibly relaxed and became more animated during this task. They took more risks and exerted themselves far more.

Personal challenges

By now, we knew quite a bit about the roles and musical vocabularies each student tended to veer towards. We wanted to challenge these, and push them to discover some new possibilities for themselves and for the ensemble. We sat in a circle and Tony gave each person an individual ‘challenge’ or ‘project’ to focus on for the rest of the session. These included things like:

  • Singing and playing
  • Multiphonics
  • Incredibly fast, finger movements while exploring the full harmonic series (overblowing) on the instrument
  • Percussive articulations on wind instruments
  • Extremities of pitch, and playing for longer periods of time on the oboe
  • Inventing a scale (as a way of pushing people away from familiar tonalities)

Each person then spent 7 minutes (we were short on time at this point) getting to grips with this personal assignment. They then teamed up with 3-4 other players (of ‘like’ instrument or assignment, where appropriate), and worked together to incorporate these new ideas and sounds into small group improvisations.

Whole-group improvisations, second time around

We listened to the latest improvisations from the small ‘assignment’ groups, then drew everyone together again for some final whole-group improvisations. We’d heard some wonderfully inventive sounds from each of the sections.

“Let’s aim to have no more than 2 sections playing at a time,” suggested Tony, “until such time as the music demands more. Aim to maintain some space in the music…”

The difference between these improvisations and our earlier whole-group efforts was impressive – the young players now demonstrated a much greater sense of adventure, and a more acute awareness of the playing going on around them. They worked together in sections far more than earlier, and (generally) left a bit of space for other instruments. No-one played all the time.

Handing over responsibility, with a bit of information to get things started

I think that for this age group of young musicians, the range of tasks is key. They are motivated and engaged and will listen to explanations and ‘teacher-talk’; however, their independent work is really impressive. They get straight to task, work incredibly cooperatively, and generate some truly original material. It’s one of those situations where I think the challenge for the adults is to remember to get out of the way! The young people love to get input, but they also thrive on the independence and ownership of the task.

This was the first Toolkit workshop for the KEY program. We have another coming up in two weeks time, and more planned for next year. Each one is led by an Art Orchestra musician on a topic of their own choosing and in their particular area of expertise. As the workshops roll out, I will be logging what approaches and workshop structures are most effective with this age group. Today, the small group work opportunities gave the workshop a particular buoyancy and momentum.

New York Jazz Club

The projects are rolling out thick and fast at the moment! It’s a couple of weeks ago now that I led the New York Jazz Club project for the Australian Art Orchestra at Signal. We had a very productive and focused two days of workshops, generating about 30 minutes worth of new material with a group of 13 talented teenagers.

Here are some photos from the weekend:

Playing by ear

I’ve led two composition projects recently that worked with just a limited range of pitches, and it’s interesting to see how this restriction helps the participants hone in their aural skills and pitch awareness.

The first project was with teenagers at Signal. Linked to the Australian Art Orchestra’s ongoing collaboration with musicians from South India, we developed an original composition that took inspiration from one of the AAO’s movements of the work Into The Fire, borrowing a mode, a tala (like a time signature), some melodic phrases, and some structural ideas and rhythmic patterns.

The mode had 6 pitches ascending and 5 pitches descending. We learned it aurally, slowly, and got the participants to improvise on it and invent short patterns and phrases. Later, when we began to teach melodic material that was taken directly from the original (again, aurally), I was impressed by how quickly the group found the pitches and memorised the phrases. They were already becoming sensitive to the ‘taste’ of the different pitches within the mode, and their relationships with each other. Or if they weren’t, they were getting better at making more accurate educated guesses as to which note in the 5-6-note mode was being played.

That group was a jazz and improvisation group so perhaps their ears were more ready to be put to use. The following week, with a group of classically-trained younger musicians at ArtPlay (aged 9-14 years), we were creating short sections of music using only the notes of the Aeolian mode (A to A on the white notes of the piano, A natural minor). The group was tired, and uncertain how to proceed. I reminded them, “We’re only using these 7 notes! You don’t need to guess, just notice if it is going up or down from where you already are, and if it moves by step or by leap. Then find the note. And listen for its flavour!”

A little while later, I felt a shift in the group. We’d reached a section in the music where I wanted everyone to create a short riff, working in instrument sections. I wanted them to do this quickly, there and then, as we were short on time. What I felt was a shift in energy, where enough of the participants suddenly understood that every one of those 7 notes would sound “good” and “right” and that all they had to do was arrange some of them in a rhythm. Suddenly, we had riffs bursting out all over the group. One player would invent something, and the others in that section would learn it from them, on the spot.

“That’s the idea!” I thought to myself. There is something really liberating about the discovery that you can figure out how to play something by listening to it. Some young players instinctively understand this, but others are filled with trepidation. It takes courage to blow or bow those first tentative notes, trying to match pitches or play by ear – but how thrilling the energy rush is that you get when you realise it worked!

One more project to go

One last project to prepare for before I go off on my one-week holiday to Sandy Point (no mobile phone coverage, no landline, no internet). This weekend is the third gathering of the Signal Art Ensemble, a project I am directing with funds from the City of Melbourne and musicians from the Australian Art Orchestra.

With this project we are going to compose music to accompany some extraordinary visual images by the film artist Louise Curham, taking some initial guidance for our music from the compositional overview of SOAK by Alister Spence (being performed by the Art Orchestra later this year). The images are hypnotic – Super 8 film that has been treated and manipulated with imposed animations/scratches (?) over it, and very vivid, rich colours. Also some interesting superimposing of typeface. I think the young people will enjoy working with this material. (There’s a great sample of her work on You Tube, below).

It’s my last project at the end of a very full period of projects and performances, but fortunately it is also far less structured than the others. The focus in very much on improvisation and the young people taking part are full of ideas. Musically we might start off with some grounding work in improvisation (in particular ‘finding endings’ in free improvisations, playing in 10/8, and building up some ideas using a range of percussion instruments I shall bring in with me that are all made of metal – some gongs I bought in Cambodia, silver shakers that my mother brought back from Ethiopia for me, and a range of beautifully pitched bells that I bought years ago in Bulgaria.

Signal Art Ensemble in the Jazz Festival

On Saturday the Signal Art Ensemble gave its first public performance, as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. We performed two pieces that the group had composed themselves, taking inspiration from the Australian Art Orchestra’s Miles Davis: Prince of Darkness concert. Here are  couple of photos from our rehearsals, on the day of the performance:

For one of the pieces we created, each person had to devise their own graphic score, organising their ideas according to time durations on a stopwatch, rather than bars and a conductor. Here are a couple of examples:

These are photos that I took with my little camera. However, the official photographer for the project was the young and talented Tarrant Kwok, and some of his images will be up later on the Australian Art Orchestra’s website, and on my website, once I get it going.

The future of classical music?

I came across this blog by Greg Sandow today, which I’m adding to my blogroll. Greg is based in New York, and writes about classical music, audiences, new media, and many other things. He is exploring many different aspects of the classical music world, from the point of view of performers and composers as well as audience members. I found it interesting reading.

I puzzle over what it is that I personally want from orchestras. I don’t always feel very patient with the typical performance format. I’ve blogged about my desire to only attend concerts that are in some way life-changing – a tall order, and you can read that post here, if you wish follow that train of thought further.

Last week I went to hear the Australian Art Orchestra perform their Miles Davis: Prince of Darkness concert, and the two pieces that everyone wanted to talk about afterward were the new work by Anthony Pateras, which used the vast, broad space of the Melbourne Town Hall to great effect, and was an incredibly engaging, intriguing work to listen to, and the techno-inspired interpretation of Davis’ Black Satin which was loud but vibrant and fascinating in the way he utilised the band and the electronics. (Gratifyingly, these were also the two pieces I chose to focus on with the young musicians in the Signal Art Ensemble. I chose well!). Continue reading