Archive for the ‘environment’ Tag

Finding yourself (and the bathrooms) in a new environment

Everyone navigates a new space, adults and children alike. The navigation includes getting to know the physical environment, and negotiating your place within the social setting, working out who you are going to be in this group.

Workshop in Iwaki Auditorium (Gillian Howell)

I remember a group of children coming to ArtPlay for a workshop, in one of the first ever City Beats workshops. We called a five minute break in the middle of the workshop, and some of the children went off to the toilet. Then some more went. And some more. The adults among us were bemused. What’s with all the toilet-visiting? After the break it continued. The Director of ArtPlay got it though – “They’re just checking out the toilets. They are in a new place. Everyone likes to check out the toilets when they are in a new place.”

It’s true! Adults do it too – when a group of friends goes to a new restaurant or bar, it’s not unusual for people to head to the bathrooms in pairs, and part of the interest is in the experience of checking out the space (friends and I used to note which bars or restaurants we visited that had particularly nice bathrooms!). It’s part of getting familiar with the environment, and yourself within it.

We convened the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble last week, spending one day working in the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC Studios, and a second day working at ArtPlay. As they arrived, the children settled into the Green Room. They didn’t know each other yet, and sat quietly. Some read. Some got out their instruments, but if they began to play, it was quietly, unobtrusively.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent the first 90 minutes engaged in warm-up activities. I wanted to get the group talking, interacting, relaxed and alert in their bodies, and with spontaneous and playful reactions, so that their natural creative faculties would come to the fore early in the process.

As we progressed through the warm-up, I watched the children jostle, and joke, take on leadership roles, show initiative, or fall into a required role within the team. With some this happened easily. For others, it was a more puzzling process, as they worked out who they were going to be in this group.

One boy, for example, started the warm-up standing next to another boy with a similar cheeky, ‘joker’ energy as his own. They exaggerated every part of the warm-up together, and when we started a movement task, they continued their exaggerations, egging each other on, and not really engaging in the activity itself. At one point, when the group was split up, working across the whole room, I walked over to them, and suggested, smiling but also firm, that they do this one on their own, not with a friend.

When we broke into small instrument groups for composing, I put them in two different groups, hoping to give them a chance to continue these negotiations of ‘self in society’ on their own. One of the two settled, but the other seemed to continue his navigations and negotiations. He is a very bright, imaginative young player – he stood out a mile in the Open Workshop selection process. He has impressive technical skills on his instrument too. But he needed to work out who he was in this group. Was he a bright bubbly leader, right-hand man to the MSO musician leading the group, happy to cooperate, and filled with ideas? Was he going to be more in the background? Was he going to be the joker, the ‘silly boy’ who fools around a lot and is a bit disruptive (this type of character doesn’t always find the necessary allies in the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble – most of the kids in the program really love to play music and be part of the ensemble)?

No-one could help him figure this out, and I was intrigued by my observations of him. He will find his place, I am sure. He seemed to enjoy himself, and that is the key thing at this point.

 

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The first Nests experience

With Nests, my collaborators Ken and Rebecca and I have been given the creative space (and funding) to develop the work in three stages. We knew that there were some aspects to the concept that needed trialling, in order to fine-tune the details of the installation experience. The three stages allow us to try our ideas and observe the children responding to the space and the instruments, enabling us to create by the third stage the richest possible experience of exploration and interaction for our chosen age group (3-5 year olds).

Putting the Nests together, 8 Feb 2013 (G.Howell)Stage 1 of Nests took place at the start of February, with two sessions open to the public. We spent a day bumping in the show the day before, constructing the three Nests under Ken’s instructions, setting the lights and placing the instruments in the respective eggs and nests. Each nest is made of individual leaves (crafted from the light-weight foam that is used for camping mats and yoga mats), water-cut to their specific shapes by a specialised cutter, and hand-painted by Ken. The detail is beautiful.

Detail of leaf by Ken Evans

I’d organised the instruments into groups, matched according to pitch and tone-colour so that each of the three nests would have its own particular musical ‘flavour’. Each instrument had a large-scale egg to live in; the eggs had big zippers in them, so that the children’s first task in the installation would be to open an egg and find the instrument inside. I’d chosen instruments for their physical beauty and exotic qualities as well as for their sound. We had things like bass tone bars (a rich, deep, caramel sound), an extremely resonant, energy chime, a 2-row thumb piano, juju shakers, some strange sprung clackers that I bought when I was travelling in Vietnam a few years ago, a log drum from Africa, hewn from a length of tree trunk, and some small castanets. We also had 2 sets of wah-wah tubes.

An ongoing area of discussion in Nests (and probably in most installations) has been about how the young audience will enter the space, and the pathways they will choose as they move about the installation. We wanted it to be a magical ‘other world’ would encourage the children to explore with care and attention, so we were a little thrown when we trialled the instruments at the Creswick Playscape in December and the children began running around, boisterously bouncing from place to place, nothing really holding their attention (apart from the sand in the sandpit). Of course, the environment you create determines many things about how people will interact with the space and each other, and an outdoor space, familiar to the children as a place for energetic play, was quite different to the theatrical installation we were imagining. Nonetheless, Rebecca, a visual theatre and reverse pedagogy specialist, gave a lot of thought to the question of how the children would enter the space, and her genius solution came about through watching her son at play.

At some stage, while walking in the bush near their home, her 4-year-old picked up a bendy stick and began to carry it with him. Rebecca noticed how carrying the stick changed the way he moved about. His feet moved more slowly, and he carried his little body differently, with a kind of alertness. Building on this observation, and her boy’s obvious delight in the bendy stick, Rebecca and Ken devised light-poles for each of the children to carry when they entered the installation. The light-poles were made of thin, flexible dowel and had a small LED torch [flashlight] fixed to the end. The children could carry these in front of them or behind.

At the end of the bump-in day we had our first visitor. Rebecca and Ken’s son entered the space. Rebecca told me later that, “He walked in and then just stopped, and said, ‘Ooohhh!’. He walked around slowly, taking his time. And he only spoke in whispers.”

Later, he told Rebecca and Ken, “I really like what you guys have done with this space!” Here he is, unzipping his first egg.

Opening an egg in a nest

(Not) making plans

Timor is, I suspect, a place where projects automatically have an emergent design, because there are so many unknown variables that can disrupt the best-laid plans. It seems wise to keep things somewhat fluid and be ready to recognise and respond to opportunities for interesting exchanges as and when they arise.

Despite knowing this and being perfectly comfortable with it (I am an improviser, after all), I can’t help but imagine possible projects that I’d like to develop. Everytime I talk with someone about the residency, or I read another chapter in one of the many books that have been lent to me by old Timor hands, or I imagine the residency based on the things people have told me about the country, I start to imagine projects – big, small, new music, traditional music…

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Improvising, composing and jamming

It’s end of term, so time for a bit of a wrap-up of where this term’s projects got to at the Language School.

I started the term with an interest in developing some improvisation skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students, and developing music on Identity, that would respond in part to music the students would teach to the class from their own countries and cultures.

Lower Primary on the other hand were so crazy and unsettled that the focus was to get them to be able to play together, to follow some simple conducting signals so that they might experience the pleasure of playing in an ensemble. I’ll write about them in a separate post.

Improvising

This proved tricky to introduce in some ways, and some of this was to do with language, some of it was cultural, and some of it was to do with the way that student learning develops in Language School (ie. the systems that support the students to learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we were doing began to settle, musically.

In the end, what improvisation do we have? In the Upper Primary piece, we have a drum part (played by seven drummers, so pretty loud! They are sh0wing considerable restraint, I have to say) which came from the young Sudanese girl at the start of November. I am guessing that this was a rhythm she knew from somewhere else. She has left the school now, by the way.

We have 3 xylophone parts, and here the origins of the parts are more varied. One part came from me – I taught it, and the student plays it exactly the way I showed her, and she seems to love it. Her friend, playing next to her, is envious, and has tried through various sneaky means to swap parts (to no avail). The friend, May, has an improvised part to play. I originally asked her to invent her own melodies, always ending on either C or G. The first week, she did this well. She was reluctant, but with a lot of encouragement, she gave it a go, and executed the task well. The following week however, she mutineed. She wouldn’t say a word (not in English, not in Chinese), and I wondered if perhaps she needed to withdraw from the piece altogether, so pained she seemed. This week, I spontaneously came up with a new strategy.

“May,” I said, “I think that today we should choose music for you to play, that you can remember. We will all help you make this. I think that will be easier for you than always making something up.”

May looked a little unconvinced at first (something of her usual facial expression in music, it has to be said), but a couple of other students surprised me by saying, “Yes, it is easier, I think. It is better.” So May agreed.

I asked her to play me (improvise – though I didn’t use that word) one of her melodies. “Start on G,” I suggested. She played a string of notes, I asked if she liked them, I sang them back to her, she thought they sounded okay, and I wrote them down on the blackboard. We did the same with a second melody. Of course, she referred back to ideas she had already worked with in the previous weeks when she was improvising. And her third melody was her most ambitious, with jumps and triads and a definite ‘hook’.It seemed like she was gaining confidence in the process, and her own contributions.

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