Archive for the ‘community’ Tag

Growing a musical community – Ten years on

Last weekend I worked with graduates of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble to create music for a special event – ArtPlay’s Tenth Birthday.

ArtPlay is Melbourne’s children’s arts centre. Actually, it is probably Australia’s only dedicated arts centre for children. The ArtPlay philosophy sees children and artists as co-creators – it is a space where children get to work and create alongside professional artists in a rich and diverse program of workshops, performances, installations, and exchanges. It’s my favourite place to work, because the staff are all so dedicated to optimum experiences for everyone who comes into the space. There is such impeccable attention to detail, and so much love, care and appreciation – mutually shared, I should add. I’m very proud to have such a long association with ArtPlay.

The colours of the crowd match the colours of the large-scale 'mosaic' sign at ArtPlay's 10th Birthday party

The colours of the crowd match the colours of the large-scale ‘mosaic’ sign at ArtPlay’s 10th Birthday party

The MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble is made up of children from past MSO ArtPlay Ensembles – we create a new Ensemble every year, and have graduates from the first iteration, in 2005, all the way through to 2013. In this particular Graduate Ensemble project many of the older graduates came back to be part of the project – that was pretty special. Some of them are now in university!

In our opening circle on Saturday, as I welcomed them all, I pointed out that every graduate of the Ensemble is part of a musical community, and that with every year that passes, their musical community grows. It includes people they meet from youth orchestra, from university, and it includes me and the MSO musicians they have worked with over the years. We are all part of the same community of Melbourne-based musicians.

Here in the Graduate Ensemble, everyone has shared an experience of working collaboratively as a group and the strategies you can use to get your creative faculties firing. This was immediately evident as we started the warm-up games. We passed a clap around the circle – straight away, it was whizzing its way round, speedy, focused, and committed. “These are my kids,” I thought proudly!

Next, we walked through the space, each person choosing their own path but committing to straight lines in a particular direction, and to focusing their eyes on their chosen destination. With inexperienced players, this task of walking autonomously doesn’t make a lot of sense. But with a group that understands and follows the instructions, it is magic. A focused group is able to ‘read’ each person’s intentions and make small adjustments accordingly. It looks impressive when it works – people walk their chosen path deliberately, and there are no collisions! Even more importantly, it is a very connecting task, which heightens the sense of ensemble. We upped the speed – still no collisions. Yep, I thought. We are all on familiar territory. What’s more, everyone is here because they want to be, because they like what happens in this territory.

We broke off into small groups. Some of the older graduates took on leadership roles in their group. We didn’t ask them to do this – they just did it. I imagine that this may have been in part because they work in Ensembles in other contexts, where older people lead the younger participants. But it was also about familiarity and confidence with the creative processes we use in the Ensemble, and that I use in projects with older kids, which some of them have taken part in as well. It was a cool thing to observe. Again, flushes of pride!

At ArtPlay on the Sunday, we had a beautiful stage to perform on. As always, figuring out the configuration of groups, instrument sections, power leads and sight-lines took a bit of time (it’s the part of these projects I like the least), but our rehearsal went well, and in the last five minutes (nay, three!) we also devised a rhythmic groove to play outside, in order to draw the audience into the ArtPlay building from the playground and performances outside.

It was a lovely event to be part of, a celebratory event for ArtPlay that was also a chance for the staff, the MSO musicians and myself, and all the parents that we have come to know over the years, to reflect on the creative musical community that we share. It will only grow more.

MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble (courtesy MSO/B.Lobb)

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”.

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.

Reflecting on the Pavarotti Music Centre

This week I have been reading about arts initiatives in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, and about the work of the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] more specifically. I have a personal connection with the PMC, as I worked there as a volunteer music leader for most of 1998. Reading about Bosnia-Herzegovina in that post-war era is bringing back lots of memories for me and I find I am frequently going off into very vivid recollections of different events from the time that I was there. These recollections have also infiltrated my dreams. It is a surprisingly intense process at the moment.


It’s interesting that much that is written about the PMC focuses on the music therapy program. This was the strand of work that had funding for the longest time, and perhaps that is the reason it is (more) well-documented; however, my primary interest is in the strands of work that I was part of – the outreach work in local schools and refugee camps, and the workshops and classes that took place in the centre and were open to all local people.

(Another reason for this difference in documentation and analysis may be because music therapy is well-established as a research field, whereas the practitioners in the outreach and community programs came from a far more varied range of disciplines and academic experiences. Furthermore, scholarly writing about community music is a comparatively nascent field. These programs were in operation in the late 1990s, a time when practitioner-led writing about community music work was only just cranking into gear, and was still very localised to the UK. Let’s face it, the vast majority of community music practitioners were at that time, and still are, freelance artists, dependent on generating paid work to make a living. The time to sit down and write reflectively for scholarly publications was a luxury that most did not have).

There is criticism of the PMC that is emerging fairly quickly in my investigations. The Pavarotti Music Centre was a bold and ambitious operation, with a huge budget and a lot of very high-profile support. In 2001, news broke of a corruption and bribery scandal which forced one of the founders of War Child (the NGO behind the PMC development and programming) and another consultant to step down from their positions, and a new Board of Directors to be appointed.   This quote from Haskell’s (2011) dissertation, “Aiding harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo” reflects the very damaging state of affairs:

Millions of euros were donated, through the organization War Child, and then lost or stolen. The [Pavarotti Music] center’s inability to function after such large-scale investment remains a stain on Bosnia’s donor history and tarnishes future foreign investment into the cultural realm.”

Haskell’s writing on post-war Sarajevo is hugely illuminating, and I am devouring it as fast as I can. The corruption and misappropriation of funds at the Pavarotti Music Centre is definitely an important part of the story (as are the power issues at play that enabled it to happen, and are such a dominant part of cultural regeneration in post-conflict settings), but I believe there was also a huge amount of good work that the PMC did, that made a difference to the lives of those young people taking part. There is much to examine and this is why the Pavarotti Music Centre is a definite case study for me.

Reference mentioned in this post:
Haskell, E. N. (2011). Aiding Harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo. Unpublished PhD thesis. Brown University.

A (musical) jam with hundreds and thousands

Gillian's jazz gig, Fed Square,  April 2010 065Last night I put the finishing touches on the score for this weekend’s ‘Gypsy Jam’ at the Myer Music Bowl with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] and graduates from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. This participatory music jam will take place before a free outdoor orchestral concert, one of a series of four free concerts that the MSO puts on every year as part of Melbourne summer festivities.

This year I’ve created a ‘Gypsy Jam’ in order to tie into the concert program which features Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. Bartok = Hungarian = Gypsy… purists will know the link is somewhat tenuous, but for our purposes, it’s going to work very well indeed! The jam acts like a pre-concert ‘aperitif’ (after all, people bring a picnic with them to the free Myer Bowl concerts so if the concert proper is the main course then the pre-concert jam could be an aperitif or amuse-bouche), and people can elect to come down to the stage to join in (we’ll have lots of percussion instruments available for them to play, or they can bring their own instrument with them), or join in from their picnic spot on the grass.

Thousands of people attend these free Myer Bowl concerts, so that means there might end up being thousands of people jamming. Everyone is welcome, so if you are in Melbourne, pack your picnic basket, grab your horn of choice and head down to the Myer Music Bowl, ready for a 6pm jam start. Gates open at 4pm. Here’s what it looked like last year, when our theme was Mexican (to tie in with the concert performance of Copland’s El Salon Mexico). Olé!



The dilemma of donations

A dilemma that comes at the end of many projects in developing countries is what to do with the materials you have been using, or that have been donated, once your project ends. It’s a dilemma about realities and likely scenarios, about ownership and power, access and equity.

Years ago, when I worked with War Child in Bosnia-Hercegovina, all the kindergartens in East Mostar had just been refurbished. A donor gave every kindergarten a collection of instruments, the idea being that when the War Child musicians came in to lead workshops, each kindergarten would have instruments for the children to play. But when the workshops started some weeks later, almost all the instruments had gone. Where, no-one seemed able to say. Stolen? Perhaps… but when people are poor, and suffering, and have so little, it is also likely that donations like this can end up in people’s houses, available only to their children and no-one else. Perhaps this is under the guise of safe-keeping. Another common occurrence with donations in developing countries can be how quickly things get broken or damaged. Perhaps this is because equipment of the kind we are used to in wealthy privileged Western countries is completely unfamiliar to the people receiving these donations, and they don’t know how to use them with care or awareness of their potential fragility. Perhaps it’s because there is no suitable place to store things when they are not in use, so they get shunted and knocked about. It might also be that the quality of the donated goods was not robust enough for the local environment. Many things can happen, some of which are within people’s control, and some that are not. Bear in mind too, that the energy required to take on responsibility for something new, can be enormous, especially when you are functioning on just one meagre bowl of rice a day.

So therefore, it is tempting to leave them in the care of an organisation or institution that has the capacity to store them and protect them. I’ve seen this before too. It can mean instruments that were designed for children to play with, explore and experience get kept locked in a cupboard, with no-one considered special or important enough to use them. It can mean that the custodians see them as a money-making opportunity, charging exorbitant fees to those who wish to use them, whether for educational purposes or otherwise. (I had direct experience of this kind of entrepreneurism in Baucau).

Basically, I think there are no great solutions about who to leave your things with, and certainly no hard-and-fast rules you can use to find your ideal solution. Ideal solutions would be – a safe place where instruments can be stored, where other people can access them freely, but where someone is assuming a custodial role, ensuring expectations for care and responsibility are met by those borrowing the instruments. In that way, donated things become a local resource, and can be used by the people they were intended for.

In this project, we had made a number of instruments from recycled materials (bells from bottles and drums from buckets), from local materials (the kakalos, using Maun M’s design and guidance), and from donations (the chime bars). We weren’t planning to take any of these with us, and the question of where to leave things was one that generated much discussion between Tony, Kim and I.

Tony was the person who had made the kakalos, and he pointed out that they were in fact easy to make. Surely the most significant thing here was that we knew the maker! If the instruments got broken or lost (or burned for firewood, or any other such event), they were easy enough to make again, as they only required bamboo (locally available), a saw (easily borrowed or purchased) and a machete (the number one can-do item in most Timorese households). We could just distribute the ones we have out into the community, he suggested.

But, I countered, there is value in having a set. It creates the possibility of an ensemble. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as a result of our time here, some of the local boys decided to continue playing, and created an ensemble? That would be much harder to do if the instruments got disbursed widely. Also, we know that new things in any household get shared by everyone, and the youngest children in the household are rarely in any position to lay claim to them, because of the way the family hierarchies work.

The kindergarten we had visited at Esperanca Lorosa’e had impressed all of us. The staff were clearly well-trained, motivated and incredibly professional. They wore uniforms to work, and led the classes as a team, all participating and encouraging. Their response to our music workshop had been one of excitement, tinged with disappointment that there wasn’t more opportunity to work with us again. They’d told Kim they were interested in using some of the instruments we’d demonstrated in that workshop in their classes – they hadn’t seen anything like my music workshops before and were excited. They’d loved the thunder-makers and the bottles in particular.

Therefore, we decided to give all the bottles, buckets and the four smallest kakalos to the kindergarten. I also gave them the sets of pastels I’d bought in Dili and some of my left-over drawing paper.

We decided to keep the chime bars together as a set of three complete sets. They were the hardest to find a home for, as it was easy to imagine how quickly the sets could get dismantled – individual bars could get lost, mallets misplaced or broken, bars divided up among a family so that everyone got one coloured bar each as a way of being fair, but without realising they’d be destroying the potency of the set by separating them…

In the end it was decided to ask the local education authority to store them, with the understanding that they were to be accessible by schools and groups in the area (including, I hope, visiting malae working with local children). Tony and I felt sad that we hadn’t been able to find a more community-based home for them. Would the Motolori children ever see them again? They loved playing them so much! And had developed such strong skills on them. We also remembered the way some of the teenage boys from the Plan International band recording program had dropped by the house one afternoon, and after watching the local youngsters playing the chime bars, been eager to play them and utilise them in their own songs.

Tony decided to give the kakalos to Maun M and his family. After all, he had been the inspiration for making them, he seemed to be the most engaged, music-minded adult we had met locally (the recorders Tony and given them were played constantly in that house, usually well past midnight), and his large family had been part of our jams from the very beginning.

I had some misgivings. We’d gathered, even from before the event of the burglary, that people seemed to distrust this family. And at the certificate presentation, I felt unsettled by the cockiness some of those boys seemed to be displaying to the others. When the other regular boys heard of the plan to house the kakalos with that household, they looked distinctly dismayed, even horrified.  Does everyone know who came into our house? I wondered to myself. Do they think that it was someone from this family Are we being gullible fools?

But we’d never know the answer to this. And in the end Tony had the right response.

“Just let the community sort it out. If we’ve made the wrong choice, then the community will put it right. We’re in no position to ever make a decision with all the facts to hand, because we’ll never know all the facts! And we can’t control what happens after we leave anyway.”

So that was how we dispersed all the musical materials. And despite my concerns about the fate of the kakalo collection and the opportunities the local boys might have to play them – or any other instruments – from now on, I couldn’t help but nurse some small hopes. Wouldn’t it be great, I mused to Tony and Kim, if, when we or Many Hands come back, there is a kakalo ensemble here in Motolori? Maybe they will organise themselves and continue to play. Maybe someone will take notice of them, and they’ll get to perform. Maybe in a year or two, the Lospalos kakalo players will be invited to Ramelau Festival, or the Dili Independence Day Cultural Festival!

That would be a great outcome indeed. We also gave Maun M’s name to the kindergarten teacher. “This is the man who can make more of these instruments”, we told her. Another wonderful outcome, therefore, might be about a change in status for this family and for Maun M in particular, recognised as cultural contributors, as the go-to guy for all bamboo instruments and musical ideas. This too, would be a great thing.

Legacies are hard to attribute or predict! In any case, this residency was more about cultural exchange and learning, than about me leaving some kind of legacy in Lospalos. But during the time that we were there, some things did seem to change. From the time that we started to play our instruments on the verandah, other wind instruments began to appear in the street – bits of pipe, a recorder, even an ancient old buffalo horn. These were heard everyday, at all times of the day. People also sang a lot. They do this anyway, but lots of the songs that we heard them singing were songs we’d taught or sung in our verandah sessions.

Also, children played games together in our garden who at the beginning, didn’t play together at all (such as the landlord’s children, who at the beginning always went back to their house as soon as the dirty, noisy, rough boys from over the road turned up to play). Maun M came with us to play live on Community Radio, after having a recorder for just a day, and his skills as an instrument-maker attracted the attention of all the ANAM students as well as us. (This may have resulted in resentment towards him from others in the street, which may be why he was fingered as the culprit in our burglary – this was one theory that was posited).

Who knows, all of these things may have happened anyway. Or they might be part of the natural cycle of life and activities that is always unfolding in Lospalos. But there we were, living amongst that community for one small part of that life. We instigated some new activities, and I do hope that those experiences and interactions with us have created some new senses of possibility and change for those we met and engaged with. I hope that all the people we worked with have been changed by the experience as much as we have.

Lost and found

Sunday, day 102

This has been a very full week, and an intense one. It’s my last week in Lospalos and we have done one or more workshops or jams every day this week.

However, in the middle of the week a series of events transpired in the space of about 14 hours, that shifted everything for us. That’s what this post is about. It’s a long story but a significant one in the context of my whole residency.

On Tuesday night (or early Wednesday morning), Tony and I woke up suddenly to find someone in our room. A burglar. Tony gave a yell, I started to scream, and the burglar neatly jumped out the window. Tony got himself out of the mosquito net and over to the window in time to see a small, light-footed young child running up the driveway to the road, turning right and continuing to run.

At first we thought we’d surprised him as soon as he’d arrived in the room, and that he hadn’t had time to steal anything. Then we remembered that earlier that day I’d taken the saxophone out of the cupboard and placed it in it gig bag on the floor at the base of the window. It was now gone.

Continue reading

More ESL composing

When I finished school today I got called off to a couple of meetings, and I forgot to go back to the music room to copy and notate from the white board all the composing we did today. So here is a quick summary:

Upper Primary finished another section of their Aranea music, for Refugee Week. Today we made a piece called The White Room, depicting the time when Aranea has escaped the brutality of the storm, only to find herself in a bright white room, with no dark corners in which to hide. She still feels scared and vulnerable, bu is also thankful that the storm is outside, and she is now inside.

Our music is very atmospheric and eerie. Not a tune or melody in earshot!

It starts with a high, thin harmonic on the violin, long and unrelenting. Next, the sound of a hand-held cymbal with a metal stick being dragged slowly around its rim. Then the triangle, held in such a way as to deaden the sound, and played with a stick jiggled tightly in one of the corners of the triangle (sorry for the word ‘jiggled’. What does one call this movement?) In any case, it is very effective, sounding like teeth chattering, or thin bones trembling. Then, 2 more cymbals, this time being brushed with a metal stick in a fast, outward ‘whisk’ movement, every 5 seconds or so.

The rest of the class are dancers and singers, with 2 further children on drums, and one on cabassa. They stand in two rows, in a frightened stance, with their shoulders hunched and a hand in a small fist near the mouth.

They walk their feet quietly in unison. 1, 2, 3, 4. They say the following words every four beats, continuing their stamps:

Scared. (2, 3, 4) Nervous. (2, 3, 4)

Lonely. (2, 3, 4) Outside. (2, 3, 4).

Her heart is running very fast! (The stamping stops on this phrase, and the instrumental group also stops playing. The rhythm of this phrase is then echoed on the two drums).

She can’t hide anywhere. Someone could come and kill her! (The rhythm phrase is echoed on the cabassa and violin, and all the cymbals and triangle, held so as to deaden the sound).

The sound then stops dead and everybody freezes. End of section.

We have one more section to compose. I think it will be a song, a quiet, tired song, when Aranea makes it to a more sheltered place and can finally collect herself.

We will then recap the opening song and music.

Middle Primary continued their musical time-capsule. They keep amazing me with their gifts for melody and part-singing. Today we looked at Journey words, and my aim was to gather a list of types of transportation the children in the class had used to get to Australia.

Some of the stories and memories were very poignant. Some of the phrases that emerged were immediately sing-able. It quickly became a song, made up of vocal ostinati, in two parts:

Car and plane and bus, then train. Car and plane and bus, then train. Car and plane and bus, then train. Car and plane and bus, then train.

From Afghanistan to Islamabad! From Afghanistan to Islamabad!

Car to grandma, car to plane. Leipzig to Frankfurt and Singapore.

We waited… 2 hours. We waited … 4 hours. We waited… 8 hours. We waited 16 hours!

So sleepy, my dad had to carry me. So sleepy, my dad had to carry me

It ends very quietly, with each of the children whispering the length of time their own journey took to get here: “It took 3 days…” “It took 24 hours…” “It took 8 hours…” The whispering continues but gradually gets quieter and quieter, until, on my cue, it stops.

You can listen to it here:

No more composing needed for Middle Primary. Now we need to rehearse and memorise our four sections of music.

Lower Primary today were a bit unsettled. No, in fact, very unsettled. My plan this week was to set their Name Rhythms to specific pitches (that they would choose), to build up three layers, or two call-and-response patterns. By the end of the lesson, we had kind of succeeded in working out the latter, but I have no idea how much of the whole task and process the children were comprehending. It was one of those days for them, I feel.

It’s only Monday….

…but my brain already feels a bit mushy. Today and tomorrow I am at the Orchestra. No projects to lead this week so time to be in the office and catch up on administrative tasks – designing content and structure for forthcoming projects.

K (the magnificent new Education Manager) and I feel a bit like we are capsizing in white water – strong swimmers both, doing our best to keep our heads above water, but struggling against the strength of the currents that are pulling us in all directions. What would the Taoists say? Go with the flow of the current, don’t fight it, let it take you where it will. I am not sure how this wisdom applies to our overworked environment just now…!

We certainly have some interesting work coming up. Soon we will start workshops for our residency project, at a primary school in the Western suburbs. This is a pilot project for the State Government’s arts funding body, and there is a focus on improved education and school outcomes, rather than just on making the arts happen in the school.

We had a meeting there today. I have identified five strands of work that aim to respond to the information we are getting about the school, its community, and its current priorities:

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Prisons, ethics, and conferences

It has been quite an up-and-down week. Started in the prison. I have written about those last two sessions. The prison project has been one of the most interesting of all my projects. Here are some of the aspects of it that make it so interesting:

  • It is the first project that other musicians in the orchestra have really engaged with. In fact, other musicians and other management staff members. I would have thought lots of our projects in the past could have warranted similar interest, but no. It is the prison project that they all ask about. There have been lots of questions. The three musicians presented a report on the project (after the first two sessions) at a Full Company Meeting a few weeks ago, and got great feedback and buzz.
  • The creative team. This has been a truly delightful team of creative minds, from the singing roadie, to the sound designer, to the three musicians from the Orchestra, to the music teacher who works in the prison. Also including the researcher, who has been present in every session and building her own relationship with the prisoners, and with the project material. I have felt more supported as a project director in this particular project, than I have in many other, less challenging projects.
  • Restrictions. We are constantly negotiating all sorts of restrictions, and have been, right from the start. It was the restrictions of the prison, and its transient population, that led to the complex structure of the project. Lately, it is one of censorship and what the final recorded product should sound like. We get very mixed messages from the prison authorities about what they want the final recorded product to sound like. On the one hand, they came close to pulling the project completely last year, due to concerns about being ‘soft’ on prisoners. This year, they are refusing to let us record any sounds of the prison world (keys, doors closing). the prisoners want us to include this stuff, but the prison management are adamant that the recording should not include any sounds, in any context that might allude to the “harshness of prison life”. Hmmm. Ultimately, we need to work with all of their restrictions, and still come up with a product that meets our own artistic expectations and demands. That’s our challenge.

Now that all the workshops are completed my attention as the Project Director turns to all that recorded material. D, sound designer, is going to put all the Pro-Tools sessions onto an external hard drive for me to listen through, at my leisure. We are talking hours of footage here! I will identify all the sections, and moments, that I think we will use, and log these in detail, including the characteristics about each that I think will link thematically. After this, we give a CD (or set of CDs) of all this raw material to the Prison staff, and they need to approve, or veto, each track.

Once that has happened, D and I can start working through whatever we are left with, processing sounds, layering, building up compositions and movements, and identifying where the gaps are that will be filled by the musicians in the studio. We go into the studio at the end of March. I plan to choose raw footage as judiciously as possible, in the hope that little, if any, will get vetoed. However, given the apparent changeability of concerns for the prison management, the preferred emphasis feels somewhat less than predictable.

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