Archive for the ‘art’ Tag

“Pretend I’m not here…”: Observing (re)actions in research

By being present in an environment, you become part of the context and things will subtly shift and adapt in response. Ethnographic and social science researchers need to be aware of this. By asking questions and showing interest in people and events, you are in effect asking people to direct their thoughts and focus in particular ways, and this can in turn affect their actions. These are the rules of interaction in action. It makes the research process fascinatingly messy and multi-layered.

I’ve now completed two fieldwork trips to post-conflict countries for my PhD research into music education and participation initiatives in conflict-affected settings, and these unintended consequences of my presence and participation are interesting to document and ponder.

Last year, when I was preparing to do fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I reviewed relevant websites and information available online. The focus of my research was the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] and I visited their website. It was only written in Bosnian. The PMC was originally started by UK-based NGO, but today it is wholly-owned by the local government of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I assumed that having a monolingual website was a kind of assertion of the PMC’s place as a Bosnian/Mostarian institution now.

Around that time I also got in touch with the Director of the PMC, introducing myself and informing him of my research.

When I got to Mostar I spoke with the Centre Administrator, a woman that I’d worked with there in 1998, about obtaining copies of the current ‘mission and vision’ statements. She told me, “Well, of course they are on our website.” I confessed that my Bosnian language skills were too rusty to give me a complete understanding of what was on the site.

“No, it’s in English as well,” she told me. I was taken aback, as I thought I had read the website extremely thoroughly. Had I somehow missed a little Union Jack in the upper left hand corner, indicating I could read the text in English? Later that day, I revisited the website, and sure enough, there was an English language version.

Of course it is possible that Union Jack was there all along and I missed it. But it is also possible that, as I began to make contact with staff at the PMC and let them know of my interest, they began to think about the external image of the PMC that was available to people around the world. It’s possible that the site was updated with an English language version sometime between the first time I read it, my emails to the Director, and my arrival in Mostar.

It is inconsequential, of course – who cares when the website was updated? – but I use this story to illustrate the way that outsider interest can influence levels of self-consciousness/self-awareness. This in turn can generate changes of behaviour or new actions in response to the perceived scrutiny.

I have three case study countries I am investigating for my PhD research; Bosnia is one case study country, and Timor-Leste is another. I have just returned from a month of fieldwork in Timor-Leste, based mostly in the capital city Dili.

In Timor-Leste, plans have been in development in recent years to establish an Academy of Arts and Creative Industries. Staff from Griffith University in Australia consulted on the initial idea, and a Timorese implementation team is in place. However, while the government has agreed that the Academy should go ahead, things have slowed somewhat, according to some of the people I interviewed – artists, senior government staff, arts organisers – for my research.

How well known is this Academy of Arts and Creative Industries project? At various times over the last few years, there have been events – concerts, conferences, forums – that have drawn media attention to the plans for the Academy. However, you couldn’t say that the project occupies any kind of prominence in the minds of the general population of Timor-Leste. It is a possible topic of conversation among the small number of people currently engaged in areas of contemporary arts practice in Timor-Leste.

Therefore, I was extremely interested to see this piece of graffiti on the wall of the building that is the home of the Secretary of State for Art and Culture, the government department that has been driving the Academy plans. It appeared ten days after I began my fieldwork in Timor-Leste.

Graffiti, Dili, 1 June 2014 (G. Howell)

“Art and Culture is sick. The Arts Academy is dead.”

There are different ways of interpreting the graffiti artist’s statement. The word ‘Akademi’ could in fact be more general, and refer to the Art and Culture building, suggesting it is a “dead house of art and culture’. The words ‘Arte Kultura’ could refer to art and culture in Timor-Leste, or could refer specifically to the government secretariat.

Who might have done this graffiti? And more to the point, why do it now? There were no other events taking place, or media attention (as far as I’m aware) that might have shifted people’s attention to the Academy of Arts project at that time. Was it because I was there, asking questions, and directing people’s attention towards a project that had fallen frustratingly silent at that time? Or were there other influencing factors? Was graffiti like this a regular occurrence? While street art and graffiti are not uncommon in Dili, the reactions of many of my research participants to my photograph of the graffiti suggested that the content and its placement on the wall of a government building were noteworthy, and particularly provocative.

The graffiti remained on the wall for less than a week. I first saw it on a Sunday morning. It was gone by the following Saturday. Whether coincidental, serendipitous, or an unintended consequence of me asking questions and being interested, I am certainly not complaining! It’s a powerful image that alludes to some of the key issues impacting contemporary cultural life in Timor-Leste. Sickness. Death. Government efforts. Artists wishing for more. Hopes, expectations, and disappointment. Lots of layers to peel back and unravel here.

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)

All the fish are swimming in the sea

Lospalos, Sunday, day 87

Another little project I’ve been rolling out this week is an art project. One of the first songs I learned here was a children’s song, taught to me at great volume by 4-year old Donna, who lives in the house behind me. There are three verses:

All the fish are swimming in the sea…

The goats are running in the countryside…

Birds are flying up high…

The book-making project we did back in December got me thinking about other ways of bringing children’s artwork into their spaces in a more ongoing way, and as a way to encourage them to read and connect with words and images. One idea was through posters of their artwork.

So, using the roll of paper that Simon and Victoria brought over for me, Tony’s daughters and I have prepared three backdrops – one of the sea, one of the countryside and mountains, and one of the sky, treetops, etc. When kids come over for the jams, or just to hang out, I’ve invited them to draw fish for me, or goats, or birds. Of course I am getting quite a large number of dolls, houses and monkeys on leashes (these are popular things for children to draw here) but no matter.

The children are also invited to add more colour and ideas to the backdrops. Once a backdrop is ready, we stick the relevant drawn animals on it. Once the collages are complete, I’ll type out the words to the song and stick them on the pages. Then we’ll try and get each one laminated and offer them as a gift to the kindergarten where Donna learned her song.

Music and art workshop

I enjoyed teaching the workshop on music and visual art this week. In this project, you ‘read’ a piece of abstract art as a graphic score, and make decisions about instruments, colour, rhythm, structure, etc. This was with a group of about 20 pre-service teaching students at Melbourne Uni, as part of a subject called Integrated Arts.

We started by working all together on this painting by Mondrian:

Mondrian-Broadway-boogie-woogieI asked the students the following questions:

  • What do you see? (State all the obvious things)
  • How does it make you feel? What response does it inspire? Is chaotic/peaceful/unstable/static/other?
  • Context – what do you know about the painter? About this particular work?

‘Stating the obvious’ is very important, as it encourages participants to volunteer all their observations, rather than editing out the things that they think are less impressive, or too revealing, or some other inhibitor.

The next step is to look at the artwork as a musical score, and start to decipher/interpret it, and make decisions about its elements and what they depict. I used the following list of questions to get the students to focus their observations and decisions:

  • How could you equate the different colours in this painting with different instruments?
  • Do any colours vary into related shades? Textures? How might you represent these nuances with sounds?
  • What kind of atmosphere is suggested by the rhythm/energy/lines/colours of the painting?
  • How close together/far apart are the sounds? How does this vary around the painting? The proximity of lines or marks on the image can be suggested of rhythm.
  • Are there any patterns or recurring marks/lines? How could these be depicted musically?

Our interpretation

We created a very atmostpheric, minimalist piece, with the students divided into groups of four. One of the four took on the Yellow role, playing metalaphone, another the Blue role, playing xylophone, another the red role, playing glockenspiel, and the fourth person was White, playing triangle.

We read the painting as having the yellow lines running continuous, with the other small squares of colour being imposed upon the yellow (as opposed the the yellow colour being broken or interrupted by other colours – we saw it as continuing, underneath). The small squares of colour represented single sounds on the relevant instruments. Each group chose a line to ‘read’, a direction to read it in, and a single pitch to work with. Yellow people played continuous running quavers, very lightly, on that pitch. The others played short tones, in the order and time spacing suggested by the painting, according to the line they had chosen. If we’d had time to take the project further, each group could have chosen multiple lines, and moved from one to the next. The effect of these different lines, each played ona different pitch, all being played at once, and stopping according to each group’s reading of the line, was very hypnotic and peaceful.

However, some people in the group thought that the Mondrian had quite a chaotic feel, like a bird’s eye view of a busy grid of traffic. We could have chosen different instruments and depicted this chaos, using the same group structures.

It worked well. The groups went on to choose different paintings (all by Russian abstract artists – these are my favourites, and the images I felt would work well, when I conceived this project) and create new pieces of their own.

Lessons about music, learned on my holiday

Last week I enjoyed seven days of real holiday down at Sandy Point, a fairly isolated part of the Victorian coast line (though not too many hours drive from Melbourne). No internet, no mobile coverage… just lots of books, and lots of instruments to play. Tiny (boyfriend – that’s his pseudonym for this blog) and I didn’t in fact get through all the many ‘projects’ we brought away with us. But we did spend a lot of time doing not-very-much, and in the process, I amused myself drawing the following parallels between our adventures and some important lessons in music learning and music making.

1. The significance of space, stretching out in front of us, and in front of our students


I read somewhere that standing looking out across an endless vista – towards the sea or mountains, or from a high point in nature – gives our souls room to expand. I love the way I feel my breathing slow and deepen when I stand and look out to sea, or along an endless coastline. I feel small and insignificant, and yet essential and connected, all at the same time.

I think a lot about ensuring there is space in front of my students, metaphorically. Particularly emotional space, in terms of what they feel ready to take part in, or try out, in our creative music lessons. Children come to our classes with so many diverse experiences already behind them. Working with new arrivals, especially refugees, I can’t possibly know what they feel ready to take part in. Rather than guessing, or pushing them, I can make sure there is ‘space’ in front of them, ready for them to step into, when they feel the time is right.

2. Some things work themselves out in their own time

We had a fireplace in the house we stayed in, and it was a temperamental, capricious beast (the fireplace, and the fire within it). Somedays the flames took hold quickly and resolvedly, and we could sit back and enjoy it. Other days, it really kept us guessing, trying to work out the best strategy to get it going. (I say ‘us’, but I should really say ‘Tiny’ – I was more of a supervisor, watching from the comfy sidelines of the couch, looking up from my novel to call out suggestions occasionally).

On our second morning, this was the case. Tiny tried all sorts of things (blowing, rearranging the wood and kindling, opening and closing the door to the fireplace, adding more newspaper). “Just leave it awhile,” I suggested eventually. The cup of tea I’d made was getting cold… and then, not five minutes later, we looked toward the fireplace, and the fire was roaring away merrily! So the lesson here is, sometimes things just need a bit more processing time than you expect. Allowing time is similar to creating space in front of students… we also need to do this for ourselves.

3. The art might already be there…

DSCF4070Are we sometimes so busy being ‘clever’ or ‘interesting’ or ‘original’ that we fail to notice that which is already there, and already compelling all on its own? I like the story of Michaelangelo’s approach to sculpture (that I first read in Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility), which tells of the great sculptor trusting – no, believing – that the artwork was already present and existing, just hidden within the block of marble. His job of sculptor was to simply reveal it, to gradually work away the layers, until it was there for all to see.

Sometimes we might feel the urge to add to it further, leave our own mark…


Which leads me to another fire-building story. Sometimes Tiny found that a roaring fire was just one twitch of a twig away. Adjust a single log, and suddenly the problem has gone. It can be like this when playing an instrument, or composing a piece, or writing a thesis. A single small idea (often not even new material, but a slight different perspective) can be a catalyst for big breakthroughs. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies work along similar principals. The original set of Oblique Strategies (as described in his book A Year – With Swollen Appendices) was a set of cards that one consulted as a way of gaining a new perspective on a problem under discussion, or creative endeavour, or similar.”Honour thy error as a hidden intention” is one of them. This website generates new ones with each click. Do check it out. You might want to start to make your own deck of your favourites.

Sometimes it is out of our hands anyway. Music is ephemeral. We can’t always control how long it exists for.


4. Slow dedication and consistency creates its own beauty… and motivation grows with understanding

On one of our long beach walks I decided to create an ephemeral sculpture. Every white cuttlefish shell I found, I stuck upright in the sand, exactly where I found it. The walk lasted 2 hours. Every time I looked back I could squint and see a tiny, haphazard ‘trail of breadcrumbs’, of these white dots zig-zagged along the beach, dotting in and out of the mounds of seaweed. I started to feel very proud – I thought it looked beautiful – and my motivation grew stronger and stronger. I didn’t want to miss a single cuttlefish. I took many steps to the left or right of our path to reach a cuttlefish I had spied and place it upright in the sand. Here is a photo of one section of the sculpture:


They are hard to see, I know. As I took the photo, the sun was glaring on the back of the camera. Tiny tells me that the two white dots to the right on this image are in fact seagulls, not cuttlefish shells. This is a bit disappointing for me (my eyesight is not very good for this kind of thing). Still, I hope you get the impression.

When I first began this endeavour, I perhaps wasn’t taking it very seriously. It was just a small bit of entertainment, something to look out for as we walked and talked. But as I continued, my intention grew stronger. I think that creative efforts sometimes work like this. At first, we may not always be able to see exactly where we are heading with an idea. It reveals itself as we stick at it. Perhaps this is an argument for making things fun for our students, because if they are having fun, they will be motivated to stay with something. Then, as the intention or shape or structure of the endeavour begins to reveal itself, our motivation shifts, as we have a stronger sense of our goal, and its possibility.

‘Note to Self’ – final workshops

We finished ‘Note To Self’ last night, to an audience of about 80 people. It went beautifully, I think. There were some truly stunning images for the musicians to respond to, and performed at night-time, with dramatic lighting, as well as small lights on some of the equipment, it was quite a magical affair.

Day 4 was interesting. The music and puppet groups came back together after working separately on Day 3. First we put together the scene with the large elastic stave, and the music-notation rod puppets. The musicians and I had been given a scenario to work with for the music, so we put our music with their scenario. A couple of tweaks needed to be made, but it came together pretty quickly overall.

Then we looked at the scene called ‘Night’  that will be performed in darkness. The day before we had made some music for this. LL (director) had said she wanted lots of ‘noises… key taps, breathing, strange little sounds’, so we created a very improvised piece of random notes and small musical gestures, held together by a rules-based structure. However, at the time we made this piece, we hadn’t seen any of what LL was planning to do visually with the Imps.

We watched their work first. It was a series of quite beautiful, non-narrative images.  Small children walking in the space with clipboards, which are holding a concertina of printed music. They placed these on the floor, and created a kind of mini-forest of swaying ‘trees’ of music, which then were turned into creatures that nipped and swooped at each other. A fencer launched himself onto the stage, jabbing his foil, with a page of music on the end of it. Smaller Imps wearing cleverly-designed harnesses with a long bouncing ‘tail’ at the end, behind them, with music attached to the tail, moved gracefully in the space, trying in vain to get hold of the pages of music at the end of the tails.

I turned to TP and the musicians and said, “I don’t think the music we made will work for this. This is so beautiful – it needs something flowing and graceful.” Everyone agreed, and so we decided there and then that we needed to make some new music, and to make it quickly, on the floor, with the performers.

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Workshops, training, collaboration

It’s been a busy week. I think they are all busy now, pretty much until I get on the plane to fly to Paris at the end of November. Here is what I have been working on:

Australian Youth Orchestra

Today I led an improvisation workshop for young musicians from the Australian Youth Orchestra as part of their collaborative Style Workshop with The Cat Empire. It’s a collaborative project that takes the AYO musicians quite a way out from the traditional orchestral musician role, into the realms of improvisation, devising and composition. They started the project with me, doing a workshop on the ideal mindset for improvisation and creativity, building an awareness of factors that can inhibit creative responses, and trying their hands at a number of different creative tasks. They created what I felt were some truly original pieces. They have raised the bar pretty high now, for other students with whom I do the same tasks! Later today they will work with Tony Gould, one of Melbourne’s great improv gurus. From tomorrow they start working with The Cat Empire guys. Then on Thursday night all the music created through the collaboration will be performed in concert.

One of the violinists was also present at my ANAM talk, and it was nice to see her again and follow up some of the discussion points that were raised on that day – in particular the distinction she (and one or two others) made between music listening and music making. We chatted in the break about ways of listening to music, and the difference in the way we listen to music we know well and have played, to the way we listen to something new.

One of my tactics as a listener is to try to listen with ‘new ears’, to hear every sound as new and unexpected, and to try to put myself into the composer’s imagination.

I have another project coming up with AYO in November – this time with the Young Australian Concert Artists (YACA) program, during their Regional Residency in Albury. We’ll work together on two projects with primary school children. Probably inspired by music of Shostakovich.

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what a day…

Today’s rehearsal for Hunger was hard work. There were tears… though they were mine, which is better than them being someone else’s. At least I know I can take care of me!

Rehearsal time is tight. The music is set but still needing further rehearsal. Some of the cues are still being worked out. We have a lot of gear that we move from room to room. We need to be supportive of each other and work as a team, because everyone in this group is juggling a lot of projects and everyone is more fragile than they would like to be.

I know I am worn out. I finished the Language School projects just yesterday. I am neglecting my Masters studies, which worries me. I have a 2-day project next week that I still need to fully plan. And then the week-long puppet extravaganza the following week. A total of just 4 days off (including weekends) for the whole school holidays. (I am an idiot, it must be said, for letting myself get so over-committed).

I don’t mind the work time, – I am more stressed by the large number of projects and plans I need to have in my head. It means I need to find time to make a lot of plans, and because I have so many projects to realise, I need to make the plans really detailed, because there is not enough space in my brain to be beautifully, creatively responsive in the moment, or at least, to rely on that.

I struggle therefore with planning time, and with support time, in which to speak with collaborators, meet with my Orchestra colleagues to sort out various logistic details before the next rehearsal, and just a bit of time for me, to relax and refresh before the next project.

Don’t get me wrong about Hunger though. It is looking and feeling very strong. Every time the two companies come together in rehearsal to put the next scene on the floor, it feels very magical. And tickets are selling well – we are one of the Festival’s best sellers! That’s pretty exciting.

Collaborations are never easy. I feel like we are still discovering (and learning) the best ways for these two companies to work together, how much to set, how much to score, what can be improvised and intuited, where there is space, how best to integrate the unique skills of all the performers… It is an incredibly ambitious and courageous project in this regard, and not without risk. I love being part of the creative team as we try to nut out the solutions to these questions, through the creation of beautiful, memorable, cheeky, anarchic content. But we need everyone in the company now to trust and commit to the show, and what it is, and what it can be.