Archive for the ‘Residencies’ Category

Risking creativity

This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.

One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.

Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.

Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.

Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.

Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?

Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.

Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.

In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.

This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.

*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.

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When the beat in the street makes you feel complete

City Beats 2013 workshops drew to a close last week. We finished off this year’s Landscapes theme by creating music inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the city – City Beats. (It was only after I’d planned the project that I realised this third workshop would have the same name as the whole program).

Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?

It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha

It’s the City Beat.

For this city-focused workshop, the whole-group composition consisted of a short rap linked to a vocal soundscape depicting all sorts of sounds of the city.  I asked the groups to think about words that rhyme – like ‘street’ and ‘beat’ and ‘feet’ – and that would fit well with our theme. The children brainstormed rhyming words, putting them into sentences, and these came together pretty quickly to form the rap. You can see some of their words in the images below.

We created the soundscape using a Grid Score, setting it up over a cycle of ten beats. Why ten? At first I thought I’d do twelve, but then thought that might be too long. So I thought about doing an eight-beat cycle – but eight seemed too square, too solid and grounded. Ten was the perfect cycle length – uneven enough to give the sounds a sense of never quite landing, and short enough to be achievable (and to fit across the width of the white board).

Grid Score, City Beats G. Howell 2013

I brought along a few bells and whistles to get the soundscape started – we had a bicycle bell, a honky horn, a train whistle, and a strange siren-like whoopee whistle (I don’t know what it is called, it is the kind of thing that might accompany a clown act. The children loved it). We chose numbers in the cycle for these sounds to land on and practiced that first.

Bells and Whistles, City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, working in small groups, the children decided on other sounds that they would hear in the city that they could depict with their voices or body percussion, and decided where they should appear in the cycle of ten beats, and how many numbers they should cover. Once all the decisions had been made and the relevant squares on the grid had been filled with appropriate symbols (you can see below why I am a musician and not a visual artist), we rehearsed it until it was memorised and ready to record.

Grid score and Gillian, City Beats 2013 G. Howell

The choices of city sounds varied somewhat between the groups, but it was the children from the English Language School who really created something unique. Their city soundscape was influenced by the cities they knew well – like Quetta, and Kabul, and Bangkok. They included the sounds of goats and sheep bleating, of the loudspeakers on the minarets of city mosques calling the faithful to prayers, and a traditional song/chant that street sellers from Afghanistan sing. All the children from Afghanistan knew this chant (perhaps it embeds itself into the vernacular the way “Mind the Gap” does in London). The child who sang the ‘call to prayer’ sang it into a loudhailer, in imitation of the thin, slightly tinny sound that the minaret speakers can have. Yes indeed, the city soundscape from the Language School children was an evocative and energetic affair!

With the whole-group chorus finished, we divided into groups of 6, each accompanied by a musician from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to create additional sections of music. One group took xylophones and created melodic material based on the rhythms in our rap chorus. Another group extended the chorus with further verses and some drumming.

Drums City Beats ArtPlay 2013

The third group worked with a fabulous array of orchestral percussion and ‘found sounds’ – bass drum, pitched tom-toms, a tam-tam, a suspended cymbal and two suspended brake drums) – to create a rhythmic city groove, working with interlocking patterns, dynamics, and cues.

Brake Drums City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, in the last ten minutes of the workshop, we gathered together again, performed our music to each other, recorded the performances, and said good-bye.

City Beats days are probably some of my favourite days in the year! There is so much to love. The children come along to ArtPlay thinking they will get to learn a bit of music, and they leave at the end of each 2-hour workshop just buzzing with excitement and energy at all the music that they have created with us. Their teachers are constantly amazed at how much they achieve, and how quickly. And the MSO musicians, ArtPlay staff and I get to spend two glorious days a term hanging out with fabulously creative children, composing and playing original music. Everyone leaves at the end of each day with all sorts of infectious earworms buzzing in our heads.

The schools that take part in City Beats each year are ‘disadvantaged’ schools – schools without music specialist teachers, or that have student cohorts from less advantaged circumstances. They may have high numbers of families in receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or who are from refugee backgrounds, or who, because of financial circumstances, never get to take part in any ‘extras’. The program is fully-funded, including travel subsidies, thanks to the generousity of wonderfully supportive and visionary funders, who know that for young people to recognise their talents, they have to have the chance to explore and discover them first.

City Beats was part of the ArtPlay/University of Melbourne’s Mapping Engagement 4-year research project at ArtPlay. You can read/download a report of the City Beats program here.

Evolution of a song

One of the songs created in workshops at Djarindjin-Lombadina Remote Community School evolved slowly, and was the amalgam of three different musical ideas. It took us a couple of sessions to work out how to make it all fit together.

One section was purely instrumental music created by half the group. Playing chime bars, metalophones and violins, I got them working in E minor and inventing melodies by getting rhythmic ideas from favourite songs. The violinists were total beginners (as am I on the violin) so we worked on open strings and established a simple rhythmic accompaniment.

Gillian and violinists at Djarindjin-Lombadina school

Another section of the music was a guitar-driven section that used G major and C major 7 chords. Tony had taught the students how to play E minor and A minor the day before and they were keen to expand on this.

Guitarists, Djarindjin-Lombadina school (G. Howell, Tura New Music 2013)

Together, we added lyrics to this progression and it sounded like a chorus. The lyrics were in the local Bardi-Jaawi language and listed the names of different family members.

Nyami, mimi, goli, garlu,  [grandmother(mother’s side), grandfather (mother’s side), grandmother (father’s side), grandmother (father’s side)]

Budda, tidda, jaji [brother, sister, cousin]

Birigul, gulamor (mother, father]

My lian feels good when I belong in my buru [my heart feels good when I belong in my country]

Lian burr, lian burr [heart place, heart place]

A third section was created by one of the students working with one of the Aboriginal Teaching Assistants. Together they wrote lyrics about belonging to country, feeling the presence of the ancestor spirits, and the sense of strength and belonging that comes when you are in your own land.

Solo singer, Djarindjin-Lombadina school (Gillian Howell, Tura New Music 2013)

Have a listen! One of the short melodies was inspired by Macklemore’s Thrift shop. See if you can spot the connection.

 

Drawing a bit of space into music workshops

Music workshops can be very leader-focused, even when the creative content is child-generated, and the process is child-centred. There is a practical reason for this – music-making is noisy, and to facilitate group music-making you need the group to be working together for much of the time. It would be lovely to be able to give everyone time to do their own free explorations – as can happen in a visual arts workshop or lesson – but realistically, this requires lots of separate work spaces, or distance between each of the individuals. Otherwise, everyone would soon find themselves exhausted by the effort of blocking out other people’s sounds in order to focus on their own. And that kind of exhaustion makes people cranky. Or wired. Or both.

Quiet time to explore (One Arm Point, G. Howell)

We all know that taking a bit of quiet, self-focused time is a beautiful way to retreat from the demands of the world and recharge energy. When I worked as a music workshop artist at the English Language School I saw how the children were often at their most contented and peaceful during drawing and construction activities. Being able to focus on their own creative efforts meant they could retreat into their own thoughts – in their own language! Keeping up with a whole day of lessons in English could be very exhausting for the students, especially the most recently-arrived children, and the refugee children who had had limited prior schooling. Teachers also reported that art activities were the times that some students  would quietly disclose troubling thoughts or worries. Children felt safe and acknowledged during the art activities, and responded to the opportunity to process their thoughts while giving their outward attention to the tactile, personal experience of creating marks and visual gestures.

Therefore, I often used drawing tasks as a way of starting creative projects at the Language School. Children would draw as a way of exploring a particular topic and sharing their knowledge and experiences in a non-verbal way. Drawing seemed like a meditation for many of the children.

In my recent composition workshops at the remote community schools on Dampier Peninsula we began by inviting the children to draw ‘maps of the heart’. These maps showed the things in the children’s lives that were most important to them. They also established some other principles – the importance of each person’s contributions, the importance of having time to develop your thoughts, and the importance sharing only what you want to share. We did this drawing activity towards the end of the first workshop day, having spent the morning drumming, singing, and working with rhythms and counting. It served two functions – providing possible content for the development of musical content, and giving the individuals a bit of ‘time out’ from the noise and intense group focus of music-making.

At One Arm Point Community School, we also turned to drawing at the end of the second-last workshop day. We’d been working hard and everyone was ready for a break. And we wanted to spread the word about our concert the next day among people in the town who might not hear about it through the school. So we gathered up some paper and textas and made some posters.

People sat with their friends. Two of the older girls sang quietly away to themselves while they drew. Other children gathered around Tony and me, checking spelling and getting our input on things to include on their posters (some included sponsor messages!), or ways of drawing particular instruments. One or two were less engaged by the drawing task, and they wandered around the room, playing instruments occasionally, but also organising things (putting things away, tidying the space), and enjoying the quiet time.

Sometimes in a creative music workshop, we can feel so time-poor that we give all the available time over to the music. This is important, but I urge people never to overlook the importance of a little bit of space for individuals to retreat into their own heads for a while. Drawing is a way of doing this, while still developing project content and maintaining a sense of group ownership over the work.

Poster in the Community Shop, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

A month of workshops

What a month it’s been! I’ve just finished what will probably be my most densely and diversely-packed 4-week stretch for the year, with about 34 workshop calls, 5 media calls and a grant application completed, all up. It’s been exhilarating – one of those times when all the projects you’ve been nurturing start to come to fruition. It can feel a bit crazy, but it’s wonderful too and the best thing to do is to stay focused, keep planning, and just enjoy all those incredibly opportunities to play music with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Firstly, of course, there was my residency with Tura New Music in the north-west of Australia. Lucky me, I was invited to go there as the lead artist for short residencies in three different schools. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite magical, and quite remote. I loved the workshops, and communities and children we met there. I also loved being in a part of my own country that felt like a different world. North-west Australia is famed for its consistently jaw-droppingly, staggeringly beautiful sunsets, and we were also there at the time of the Super Full Moon a couple of weeks ago. Here are some of my efforts to capture these:

And a couple of sunrises:

Getting ready for Gillian Howell's Jam, Fed Square, June 2013Once back in Melbourne, I went straight into a Jam with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (you can see the pre-jam set-up on the left here). These jams link to the MSO’s repertoire, so I planned this one around Copland’s Appalachian Spring. We explored some of his rhythmic ideas, created a square dance inspired by the ‘hoe-down’ section of the piece, and finished with a rendition of the Shaker melody and song ‘Simple Gifts’. It all came together well, with some lovely singing (including a solo by a young girl named Elizabeth, who had a very sweet, true voice, and sang into the microphone with great confidence), and some inspired improvising from different participants.

I spent any spare time on the weekend putting the finishing touches on my application to the Australia Endeavour Awards, to support my PhD research. No need to say too much about that – it is like any application. You put in as much work as you can, taking care, shaping and sculpting it and trying to bring the word count down… and then you submit it. Lots of work. Fingers crossed.

Monday and Tuesday were spent with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. I love this little group – every school holidays we get together to make a new piece of music over two intensive days, and every time I am blown away by how hard everyone is prepared to work, how focused they are, and how much ownership they feel over the music. This is our second project for the year and we are working towards a performance outcome in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Russian Festival’ in August, so we get a bit more time to refine our composition further when we come together for that event.

On Thursday I presented a new children’s workshop at the Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival in the City of Stonnington in Melbourne. I called the workshop Wet Watery Soundworld. It builds on two of my workshops from last year – the ‘Water’ workshop that I led for City Beats, and the Music Construction Site workshops that I led at ArtPlay. In the Wet Watery Soundworld, children were invited to explore a big range of musical sounds created in some way by water, as well as sounds that have long resonance and sustained tones (I call these ‘wet’ sounds as opposed to dry, less long-ringing sounds). I had some very captivating instruments for the children to try in this very splashy workshop. They loved the cups and the wooden bowls in particular. One of my musicians (a professional percussionist) said to me later, “That workshop reminded of just how much I love percussion!”

Also on Thursday I led a Family Jam at the Roola Boola Festival with a fabulous new children’s band called Lah-Lah’s Big Live Band. I chose one of their songs to use as the jam focus, a song with a laid-back, bluesy feel that was a great vehicle for improvised vocal lines, scat singing, percussion beats and some xylophone licks using the D minor blues scale. Lots of fun, with about 30+ kids and their parents taking part.

Nests June 2013 G. HowellToday, Friday, saw a remount of Nests, the theatrical music installation that I’ve created this year with visual theatre and design specialists Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. Tony Hicks and I are the musicians on the show, and now that we are into our tenth or more installation-performances of this work, things are really starting to settle and flourish. The music that we play throughout – freely improvised in response to, and in dialogue with, the children as well as each other – provides a very strong musical foundation and framework for the children’s experience. It has taken time for this to develop, as we become used to the shapes and events that occur in each show – even though each version is unique, as it is created anew each time by the children and the choices they make with the instruments.

Today’s Nests episodes were our first for the 6-8 year old age group. We wondered if they would be expecting a more directed experience, so we took a moment to ‘prime’ them before they entered the space, suggesting that they listen and look for opportunities to engage in ‘musical conversations’ with each other and with us.

We found that this age group were eminently suited to the ambiguity and open-ended nature of musical conversations! They initiated conversations, and responded to those initiated by others. They hardly talked in the space at all, even though many of them had come in a group and knew each other.

I felt that Nests experiences at Roola Boola confirmed that we really have made something quite special here. It is incredibly free for the children – they wander and play whatever they like – yet at the same time it is a very musically and visually engaging experience, filled with interactions. The soundscape directs the action, but only implicitly. The children engage and follow the suggestions of the soundscape because they have responded to the invitation to enter into this environment fully, with their minds and imaginations ready to accept and invent. It’s a joy to be part of, each time we do it!

Nests, June 2013, Gillian Howell

Nests brought my month of workshops to a close. From here I return my focus to my PhD. Things will be ramping up a notch with that work in this half of the year, as I move towards completing an early draft of my literature review and methodology (which I need for confirmation, planned for November), an application to the Human Research Ethics board of the university, several conferences, and hopefully some fieldwork in Bosnia. The funding for the latter was confirmed just this week. I am still pinching myself, and can’t quite believe I will be travelling to that part of the world again. Which is why I use the word “hopefully”.

Navigating cross-cultural worlds in songwriting

Working creatively within a different cultural environment to your own can be many things – intriguing, inspiring, surprising, and provoking are just a few words that come to mind. As a project leader, you can’t predict all the responses, or the challenges that might arise. I think that’s why I am attracted to these kinds of projects. I like the creative immediacy of thinking on your feet, and being surprised by unexpected turns. This story is about a song that provoked such turns.

In the community school of One Arm Point, the  ‘maps of the heart’ drawn by students on the first day suggested that culture and cultural learning were important parts of the children’s lives. Their maps included particular skills (such as spearing fish, or knowing the local language of the Bardi Jaawi), as well as the lore and laws of the traditional society, which, they explained, were often taught through stories.

Songwriting moments, One Arm Point school (G. Howell)

We loved the song we wrote! It was dramatic, it had flair and punch, and it described a situation that the children spoke about with great eagerness. It felt like it had strong currency for them and therefore for the community. We completed it the day before our concert, and sang through it several times to start committing the lyrics to memory.

When we arrived at the school the next morning, the day of the concert, several concerned faces greeted us. “I sang the song to my mum yesterday, and she said it wasn’t appropriate,” said one of the girls.

“We’re not allowed to sing that song,” others confirmed, looking anxious. “I don’t want to sing it,” another stated emphatically. I got the sense that their song had caused quite a bit of discussion in their homes. “Maybe we can change some of the words,” I suggested, looking at the lyrics on the whiteboard. But the children still looked uncomfortable, so I went to seek further advice.

In remote community schools, there are Aboriginal Teaching Assistants employed as well as teachers. Some of the teachers are also Aboriginal. I asked the principal if there was a community elder among the staff who could advise us on the best thing to do. He directed me towards two women on the teaching staff who came to the music room to see the lyrics of the song. I watched as they read the words, exchanging glances with each other but not saying anything until they had read everything and had time to think.

“Yes… I can see why there are concerns,” said one of the teachers.

“It’s a good song,” said the other. “But it wouldn’t be okay for the children to sing it.”

“Is it possible just to change some words?” I asked.

“No, it would be better to find a new story,” the teacher replied. “Maybe you could use one of the stories from the ‘Our World’ book, because they are already published, so have approval.”
Our World‘Our World’ is a beautiful book, created by the children and Cultural Program teaching staff at One Arm Point. It describes community life at One Arm Point – called Ardiyooloon in the local language – and all the traditional cultural skills and knowledge that the children develop in the Culture Program. Fortunately, I’d bought myself a copy of this book in the local shop the day before. Even more fortunately, it was in the car! I ran to get it, and the teacher-elders looked through it, and suggested one of the stories that we could use as an alternative.

I decided not to get started on writing a new song straight away. This was our concert day, and we’d started it with a very unsettling problem to solve that had distracted the children and disrupted the positive, excited momentum that is an important part of working towards a performance in a short project like this. We began our workshop with one of our familiar warm-up games, aiming to shift the slightly gloomy, deflated cloud that was hanging over lots of people’s heads, then we rehearsed one of our other performance pieces and recorded it.

The elders then returned, with the one of the community’s most senior decision-makers and elders. He too read the song lyrics, then without making comment, looked at the ‘Our World’ book. He turned some pages, discussed with the two teachers, and they then turned to me and said, “This is a good story to base the song on.”

The story they suggested was a different one again, about Kangaroo and Hermit Crab having a race, which Kangaroo is confident he will win. It is very like the Aesop Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, but with a small twist, because Hermit Crab plays a trick on Kangaroo in order to win the race.

This was clearly a safe option! We thanked the elders for their help in solving this challenge, and set about creating the new song. We split into two groups. One group went off with Tony to play guitar (writing lyrics can be a slow and painstaking process and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), and a small group stayed with me to figure out how to retell this new story in the structure and melody of the original song.

Here’s what we came up with (red words are verse 1, black/blue words are verse 2, and the audio of the song is on the Soundcloud player below):

New song lyrics, conert day, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

I am not going to share the lyrics of the original song. It is not my story to share. This is something that became very clear in our discussions with the children, the elders, and others in the community later on. Stories may be heard, but hearing a story does not mean you are the right person to re-tell that story. The story in our original song was one that the children knew a lot about, but it wasn’t a story for children. It wasn’t appropriate that they should sing about this story, nor was it acceptable for them to sing it in a public concert. Moreover, children are given stories. The stories are passed on to them according to traditions or decisions or community/adult choices that are underpinned by thinking that we, as outsiders to the community, are not party to, and should not make assumptions about.

We performed our new song at the concert that afternoon. It was received extremely well. The children listening recognised the story (and I introduced it as coming from the ‘Our World’ book). We taught the audience our two-part chorus and invited them to sing with us.

Walking back to school after the concert with the music group, I asked one of them if she was happy with the concert. “Yes,” she said. “I liked all of it. And I liked the new song. I think it’s better than the first one we wrote.”

That’s an ideal outcome. I think all the children felt safer with the new lyrics. No-one had seemed uncomfortable with the original song the previous day when we’d composed it. But they were happier to sing the new song. For Tony and I, it was the opposite – we liked the original song better!

We were fortunate to have people in the school who were able to help us solve the problem quickly. It was also significant that we – Tony and I – are attuned to the challenges of working in cross-cultural situations. Like the experience of the burglary in East Timor, we instinctively handed the problem over to the community leaders to solve for us. We knew that we needed their advice and endorsement, and that they had the knowledge and authority to solve this quickly and calmly. There was no anger towards us – people knew we had not tried to provoke discussion about controversial things or inappropriate topics, that these had simply emerged through the openness and trust we had engendered in the workshops. Rather, it was approached as something that needed to be solved, and people stopped what they were doing that morning in order to help us solve it.

Culture is so much more than artefacts or tangible products. It is also about the way things are done. Our original song strayed into the wrong territory, and the community leaders were the right people to guide it back and ensure a positive, welcome outcome for everyone. Had it gone the other way, had we stood our ground and cajoled the children into singing the song that we thought was musically stronger, it would have undermined all sorts of trusts and authority. Firstly, we would have been putting the children in an uncomfortable, even untenable position. They had told us with their voices and their faces that the original song was no longer okay for them. We needed to respect this. And had we gone ahead with a performance of the original song, we would have been undermining, and positioning ourselves beyond or above, the authority of the community and its elders. This could have had far bigger repercussions for ourselves and Tura New Music who run these Remote Residencies each year. We might never have been allowed back!

Intangible culture, like the ways to solve problems, or the knowledge of where a boundary has been crossed, is part of the glue that keeps communities strong. Interestingly, this was a line that came up in our original song! When the structures that support the way that things are done get weakened, many other parts of that culture will also be weakened.

So the most imperative advice for an artist working in these kinds of settings is always “Ask. Don’t assume. And accept the advice and decisions of the elders”.

Maps of the heart

Yesterday was our first day at One Arm Point Remote Community School. We met 7 of the children who are going to be our main music composers for the Tura New Music Remote Residency project here. Everyone arrived at 8am. It’s natural for people to feel a bit shy coming into a workshop for the first time, wondering if they will like it, who else will be there, and what they will be asked to do, so we started with names and ice-breaker games, getting everyone relaxed, spontaneous and playful.

Early on, we learned that everyone was keen to play djembes, so we walked over to the storeroom in another building to collect one each and bring them back to our workshop space. We played rhythms around the circle, noting the inventive approaches that students demonstrated, such as incorporating hand-claps into their patterns.

It’s important to get some of the foundations of rhythm established early on, so we spent a bit of time working with regular cycles of beats, using numbers and subdivisions to focus everyone’s attention and to build unison patterns. This generated a cool rhythm that ended with the word “No!” on the 4th beat of each cycle.

Next we introduced some of the instruments we’d brought with us to share – chime bars (adding to two sets they already have in the school), and wah-wah tubes. People took turns to play these, and we built up another rhythmic pattern, this one anchored with a simple melody on the chime bars and accompanied by guitars. I am pretty sure that this music will end up being in our final concert – it all came together very quickly and smoothly.

Our main task was to decide what kind of themes we wanted to explore in our group compositions. To do this, I asked everyone to create a “map of the heart”. This is a drawing task in which each person draws a detailed ‘map’ (it can be in a heart-shape, or any shape they choose) that depicts all of the things that are most important to them in their life. The most important things take up the most space in the heart-map.

It’s a task that requires gentle facilitation and patience, because often, people aren’t sure how to start drawing their map. But with Tony and I offering questions and suggestions as prompts (“What do you love to do most?”; “Who do you like spending time with?”; “Is there anyone you miss, or think about a lot?”), the maps started to emerge.

I never make anyone share their map with others, or talk about the detail they have included if they don’t want to. Maps of the heart are personal, I reassure the students, and you can choose who you want to share them with. I want them to feel safe to include whatever they want in their maps. I encourage them to draw and use symbols, as well as words. Metaphor can be a powerful way to express something that is important to you that you don’t want to put into words.

As the maps reached completion, common themes across the group were revealed. I wrote some of the main themes on the whiteboard. We then voted for our favourite ideas. People could vote more than once – why not? The aim was to find the main points of resonance for the group, and then build our compositions on these.

What this process revealed was two broad themes – Future Dreams, and Culture, Language, & Country – into which all of the main Map Themes could be incorporated. If you look at the red and green arrows in the image below, you can see how this started to happen.

Theme brainstorm, One Arm Point

Our morning workshop included one further creative task. The tubs of instruments brought over to the workshop space by the teacher in charge included several recorders – a treble and 4 descants. We also had a set of 4 guitars. In the last part of the workshop, we divided into 2 groups – a guitar-learning group and a recorder-learning group. Tony took the guitarists outside to learn a couple of good ‘beginner’ chords (we like E minor), while I stayed inside to give a beginner recorder lesson. The students chose which instrument they wanted to play.

We spent about 40 minutes developing some initial skills and knowledge in the group, then got together to see what we had. And what do you know? The descant recorder notes fitted well with the first of the guitar chords, and the treble recorder notes (a fifth below, using the same fingerings) worked beautifully with the second of the guitar chords. So we jammed together awhile, getting used to the pattern of playing four repetitions, then stopping for four while the other group played, then playing again for four, then stopping for four. And so on.

Again, we have the foundations of a group composition here already.

It was a very productive and organically-flowing morning workshop. We talked to the students about the goal of presenting our music in a community concert on Wednesday afternoon. “But Gillian, what will happen if we’re not ready by Wednesday?” asked one of the younger girls as she left. “We’ll be ready,” I reassured her. “It seems a lot – and it is – but we’ll be ready. Don’t worry about that!”

The 2013 Tura New Music Remote Residency program will be at One Arm Point Remote Community School until Wednesday 26 June, thanks to sponsorship from Healthway SmokeFree WA, and Horizon Power.

Musicians in the community

We have been made very welcome here in Djarindjin-Lombadina, a small and remote Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite remote as it is only connected to Broome by 200km of unsealed, sandy road. There are two little shops, selling a small range of groceries and fishing gear. There is lots of green grass and many handsome trees.

On Saturday evening we took part in a community jam in the school hall with a couple of musicians from the Aboriginal community, three of the teachers (a pianist, a percussionist, and a singer-guitarist), and a crowd of kids. We jammed on various popular hits (Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson – those universal classics). We also played around with a 12-bar blues, inventing lyrics, getting the kids to sing, taking turns with the microphone.

The jam group

Saturday night Jam, Djarindjin-Lombadina (Gillian Howell)

It was a magic evening. I gave my camera to the children and they took photo after photo of themselves, doing hip poses and pulling silly faces. Lots of photos!

Posing for the camera, Djarindjin-LombadinaLittle boy Djarindjin-Lombadina

Where's the drummer gone?I asked one little girl to take a photo of the drummer for me. She came back with this photo, showing it to me on the screen at the back of the camera. “But where’s Willie?” I asked, showing her the photo. And she looked at it again and started giggling. I think Willie must have decided to duck down when she took the photo. She would have been standing in front of him for a while, taking care to set up her photo. Such a teaser! Yep. It was a fun night.

Apparently, this is the first time that this kind of music-making has taken place between the teacher community and the indigenous community, and the teachers were so, so pleased. I don’t know that we can take credit for it happening, due to our presence or influence – I have the impression that the local elders were already planning to have a bit of a jam around now, because they have a gig coming up next week. I think we were just very lucky that it happened on our first weekend. It was a wonderful way to get to know some of the children and just hang out. Music provides the meeting ground. We build rapport and some shared experiences, and hopefully we’ll be able to extend these when our project starts in earnest next week.

In any case, being musicians in a community isn’t just about working with the kids. It’s about contributing wherever we can or wherever it is wanted. We went along to Mass this morning (the school is a Catholic school, and the mission is an old Catholic mission, so those traditions are still maintained in the community) and played music for the start of the service. Neither of us are regular mass-goers, but it is an authentic and appreciated way for us to contribute to community life. It’s a very beautiful church, by the way. It has a roof thatch made from paperbark – one of the only remaining examples of this style – and it is 100 years old.

Lombadina paperbark church (Gillian Howell)

We have also talked with the teachers about their musical interests, and there are ways that we may be able to support the music projects that are part of their non-teaching lives here in Lombadina. At this stage, it is looking like the 12-bar blues could feature strongly in our end-of-residency concert, with solos for each teacher and a song created by the kids.

St Mary’s College, Broome

St Mary's College BroomeAt St Mary’s College we asked the participants (all members of the primary school choir) what they’d like to write a song about. I wrote all their suggestions on the board and put it to a vote. During the voting process we realised that themes like “Broome’s multicultural mob”, “Broome culture”, “the Common Gate” [a part of Broome’s history from the time when the Aboriginal people were restricted from entering the town centre], and “Pearling industry” could all be incorporated into a song about community and history. We organised the different broad ideas into verses, chorus, and bridge, and assigned smaller groups the task of writing lyrics for one of these.

The choir divided into four lyric-writing groups – 2 groups for verses, one for the chorus, and one for the bridge. Tony and I moved from group to group, asking questions and helping them develop sentences. I asked them to start with sentences first (rather than trying to fashion their ideas into full-realised verses, and risk getting blocked or stuck too early on),and then we sculpted the sentences into verses, adding words or removing them to make each phrase scan and fit with the melodies that were evolving as we went.

Here’s what they wrote:

The Europeans came to Australia and messed with the Aboriginal law

They started big wars, families were divided

It was a very bad and awful time…

We go to the beach to see the prints

Of the dinosaurs from long ago

The landscape that it used to be is now Chinatown – busy and free!

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Japanese worked their breath away

Lifting pearl shells everyday

People came from all over the world

And now we’re stronger in every way

Broome’s become a place for people to stay.

We celebrate, we live the life

We stand as one, side by side

We look at the ocean, we see the light

We gaze at the sun with everyone.

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

I’m Aboriginal – Spanish, Greek

I’m Aboriginal – German, Italian

I’m Aboriginal – Malaysian, Chinese,

I’m Aboriginal.

(Repeat chorus and fade out)

Lyric-writing groupsThe theme of Broome’s multicultural community arose because of the many different cultures represented in the choir population. There were several that didn’t get included in the song – Filipino, Indian, Maori, Japanese.

An interesting discussion emerged when the different lyric-writing groups came together to share what they’d written and set it to music. One or two people raised concerns about the accuracy of what had been written in the first verse, with regard to the idea of “laws”.

“You see, when the Europeans came to Australia, the Aboriginal people were just living in the bush,” explained one girl. “They didn’t have any laws.”

“Oh, they did have laws,” responded Tony. “It was a different system of laws, but they definitely had laws.”

“Laws don’t have to be rule-books,” I added. “Laws are really just about how a society organises itself so that it can live in harmony and everyone knows what’s expected of them. The Aboriginal people lived here in harmony for thousands and thousands of years. They must have had laws!”

At this point one of Aboriginal students in the group took up the argument, and spoke very emphatically. Firstly she stated, “It doesn’t matter if things are written down or not. They are still laws. You can just tell people the laws. They are still laws.” She went on to talk about the ways that the Aboriginal population suffered under the European systems and beliefs. “They judged everyone on the colours, the colours of the skin. And people whose skin was lighter were taken away. They were stolen, and they didn’t know their families or country after this.”

After this there was no more discussion about the first verse of the song. Later, the teachers expressed their interest in the conversation, and in the lyrics that were written. They said wryly that there would certainly be people in the Broome community who would take issue with the line, “it was a very bad and awful time”. Here in Australia, that is what is often called a “black arm band version of history” (ie. a version that focuses on negatives, rather than seeing the colonial era as a time of prosperity and important growth) – particularly by the previous Liberal-National Coalition government. I don’t hold with this view at all – colonial eras may have been prosperous times for some, but for the colonised, they were times of frequent brutality, force, coercion and extreme differences in power, when traditional ways of life were destroyed or hugely compromised and traditional knowledge and skills were undermined.

By the end of the day our song was ready to be recorded. In the recording we made on the portable Zoom H4n, you can hear the school bell ringing in the second-last chorus – we took it right up to the wire on this project!

Djarindjin-Lombadina remote community

Gillian and Tony on air at Goolarri Radio, BroomeThursday morning we did another media call, then checked out of the hotel and hit the supermarket, stocking up on supplies that we wouldn’t be able to buy in the remote community shops. Then we hit the road.

To get to the Dampier Peninsula drive to the outskirts of Broome, then turn left on Cape Leveque Road. This road is unsealed for most of the way, and was closed all of last week due to heavy rains (unseasonal rains – this is supposed to be the Dry Season). The road runs long and straight for kilometres at a time. Low scrub covers either side of the road.

Cape Leveque Road, out of Broome

We passed a few vehicles – this is not as remote as many other communities, and the road is quite well-trafficked. Still, I wouldn’t want to drive it every day. Thick soft red sand is the surface in some parts, and there were some sudden pot-hole surprises where the road surface had washed away. It’s not an easy drive and you can imagine it wouldn’t take much to roll your car if you weren’t familiar with the conditions, or taking things carefully.

Gum and paperbark church, LombadinaDjarindjin-Lombadina is a very pretty community. Lots of green grass and graceful, majestic white gum trees. The roads throughout the community are unsealed, and curve their way around the different dwellings. This was an old church mission, and the local church is made of paper-bark – one of the last remaining examples of its kind. It celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year.

We led a workshop on Friday morning with the senior class in the community school – students from years 7-10. It was a small group on Friday, around 8 kids, and after doing some rhythmic warm-up tasks we moved quickly onto the instruments for a jam. I’d brought a set of alto chime bars with me, and two members of the group used these to create some melodic material that acted as an ‘anchor’ for the improvisation.

School on Friday ends with a whole-school assembly, so this was the perfect chance for Tony and I to be introduced to everyone in the school. We played a short improvised duet on the clarinet and saxophone, demonstrating our instruments and the sorts of sounds they can make, as well as the idea of improvisation and creating our own music (which is the primary intention of these residencies). Then I taught a song to everyone, a spiritual that I learned quite recently. It has three parts – we learned the melody today, but I have plans to get the whole school singing in three parts by the end of our residency.

In the evening, some of the teachers from the school invited us to join them at the beach to watch the sunset. It’s a drive there over the dunes (if you look up Darindjin-Lombadina on Google maps you will see a whole lot of white stuff – that’s all the sand dunes that you have to cross to get to the beach). Sunsets are legendary in this part of the world. Every night it is an extraordinary display of colours, offset by shimmering ocean, so we joined the teachers in what appears to be a regular ritual of Friday night fishing (none of us caught anything, but it was a great way to watch the sunset) and star-gazing.