Archive for the ‘fire’ Tag

City Beats – kids making music in the city

Yesterday and today were the last days of the 2012 City Beats program, and all the children from the four disadvantaged schools we’ve worked with this year returned to ArtPlay to compose a final work with me and three Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians. In this year’s program we’ve been using the four classical elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air) to inspire our percussion and vocal compositions.

In each project, I’ve introduced the children to a particular technique for developing original material, and particular instruments that suit the character of the element we are focusing on. We started with Earth in Term 1, and worked with very grounded grooves and riffs, using djembes and xylophones. In Term 2, we shifted the focus to Water, and the children explored very resonant instruments, such as orchestral chimes and tam-tams. We also experimented with water as a percussion instrument, pouring, slapping, splashing, and striking metal instruments like bells before submerging them slowly into water and hearing the pitch change.

For Air, we introduced the children to harmonic whirlies, and wrote songs inspired by their stories of experiencing the air around them. Here is a clip of one such song – this song is a real ear-worm! But don’t let that put you off – press ‘play’ and listen as you read the rest of this article! The melody was created by listening for any fragments of tone patterns that emerged when several children played whirlies at the same time. You can also hear their 8-beat vocal patterns in the introduction.

(Go here to hear other songs created using this process).

In this week’s Fire workshop, we created short stories about ‘fire’ and decided collaboratively what should happen in the beginning, the middle and the end of the narrative. The children then divided into 3 groups, and created a short riff, basing it on a sentence or phrase that summarised their part of the story. They then arranged these riffs into short pieces. We performed these compositions to each other, and then finished the 2-hour workshop with a spontaneous jam, bring back material from the 3 previous workshops.

The beauty of the City Beats program is that the children come back every term, and we get to develop very solid relationships with them. We observe some beautiful learning journeys through the year – such as one girl, who in the first workshop was so self-conscious and resistant that she wouldn’t even say her own name during the warm-up activities. In today’s workshop she was a different person, completely relaxed, enthusiastic, contributing ideas, playing a range of instruments, and just having a great time. All the groups display a wonderful ease with creating their own music now, and are far more aware of the others in the group, many of them locking into grooves and harmonies with little assistance.

City Beats is a program for disadvantaged and under-served schools where the children are unlikely to be able to access any extra-curricular music opportunities. We hope that it serves as a starting point or a pathway for those children who want to do more music – bringing them into the city (for many this is a rarity in itself), introducing them to ArtPlay, to me, and to the MSO, and giving them confidence in their musical skills. We tell them about other workshop opportunities or scholarships that are coming up, and hope that the City Beats experience encourages them to take the next step.


After the fires

On Sunday I went to visit my dear friend Pip, who lives in one of the areas devastated by firestorm 4 weeks ago, on what is now known as Black Saturday. She was lucky – her house survived, quite miraculously. Most other houses in the area were destroyed. The devastation was awful – it rendered us speechless. It was also surprising – as we drove up the mountain there seemed little evidence of what had happened there, but then all of a sudden, there were crashed, burnt out  cars at the side of the road, and remains of houses – just rubble, really. And black trees, black ground.

after fire 1

This bushland is on Pip’s block. There used to be thick undergrowth.

pip's house

Here you can see the miracle of Pip’s house – the fire surrounded it. You can see from the scars the way it burned around and around… but the house didn’t catch fire. Pip had already evacuated.


log pile

This is what’s left of the log pile. The scattered cinders on the ground were logs for the wood stove. The five charred stumps are the logs that were too hard and dense to be split by the guy who split all the other firewood.


This isn’t a great photo… if you look carefully though, you’ll see a kangaroo behind the trees on the left hand side. This was the first ‘roo we saw on Sunday. He was on his own. Pip said the kangaroos had slowly been returning. Later that day I saw a gang of about six, all hopping through the bush. They stopped when they saw me and went back the other way. So much wildlife was killed too. That some are around, and now returning, is good.

There are other signs of the land recovering. We ate tomatoes that had grown in Pip’s vegetable garden since the fires. The rose bushes, black and charred, have small green shots emerging from their bases. Baby steps. But all of this is exceptional. So much has been lost and destroyed. For every miracle, there is much to mourn.

Our politicians so often disappoint us. I found this article by Leunig, from last weekend’s Age, stirring, and to the point. With friends that evening we discussed it, and read passages aloud. It resonated very strongly with us, and that is not always typical of Leunig – he can polarise views. This one is worth reading.

Also from Saturday’s Age, Chloe Hooper wrote this very moving article about the injured wildlife and the healing efforts that are part of the recovery.

Black Saturday – white ashes

For the last three days in inner-city Melbourne we have awoken to the smell of ash in the air. The morning sun burns an intense orange hole in the pale sky. It is chilling.

The bush fires are still burning. Some towns have been on alert for over a week now, and exhausted people have nights of half-sleep as they keep one ear cocked to the radio, listening for warnings.

Two whole townships have been lost. And the photos in the paper yesterday show the destruction and devastation of landscapes that, were they depicting another place, could be covered in snow, so white and thick is the layer of ash that covers everything.


(This link takes you to a photo gallery where you can see this stark and grim image by Craig Abrahams, and other photographers from The Age).

Last Saturday – now referred to as Black Saturday by our media commentators – was the hottest day I can remember in Melbourne. I had to go to work, leading workshops at Artplay. Before I went into the city I cycled to the market to do my weekly shop. It was about 9am but already the temperature was soaring and the vegetables were wilting. I wasn’t inclined to linger.

The workshop venue isn’t air-conditioned – I’m surprised the workshops weren’t cancelled, given the dire weather warnings we had had all week. We didn’t hear any news all day, we didn’t know to ask about it. Our lunchtime conversation focused on my own personal drama.

That evening I drove to a friend’s house for a BBQ and on the way there the 7 o’clock news came on the radio. It was not just stories about the fires, it was up-to-date warnings for the residents of different areas, telling them where to gather, what the current fire movement in their area was. I was shocked – it was the first I’d heard. My dear friend Ms P lives in one of those areas. I tried to call her. I got throught to voicemail. I left a message then sent a text.

About 10.30pm she sent me back a message: “I don’t know anything yet. I’ll know more tomorrow.” Which meant that she was safe, but she wasn’t with her house. I prayed for her and visualised a kid of protective shield around her home, trying to see the fire passing over it without touching it. At that stage I still had little real sense of the enormity of what was taking place.  I knew my friend was what they call ‘fire-ready’. There have been bushfires before. Victorians are experienced and knowledgeable with fighting fire and protecting people and property. Everything would be okay.

The next morning we heard that Marysville had been completely burned. It’s hard to imagine a whole town, gone. Just like that.

Then the stories started to come through. How fast the fire had moved. How people who’d stayed to defend their properties  in many cases simply had no chance of survival. (The current fire wisdom given to residents in fire-prone areas is “Leave early, or stay and defend”. Probably makes sense if ‘defending’ means attending to spot fires and falling embers as they occur. But there has been much debate and outcry this week that this advice was incorrect for the fires that burned on Saturday).

Late Sunday I got another text from Ms P: ” I’m okay. House is saved. Miracle! Bobby has died.”

Bobby was her aging, loyal horse. Pretty tough. Vale Bobby. Later I learned how Ms P only just escaped, driving away from her house with the flames of the firestorm just behind her. If she’d delayed even another 30 seconds she doesn’t think she’d have made it. We have read about the danger on the roads at that time too. It was impossible to see anything because of the smoke. There were many accidents. Many were incinerated in their cars when they ran off the road and crashed, unable to see.

The smell of fire in the air on a weekend is one that brings back vivid memories for people of my generation (aged in our mid-30s and above). There was the (now-discredited) household chore of  the Weekend Burn-off, in the incinerator in the backyard. Everyone I mention this to knows exactly what I’m talking about, especially if they grew up in the suburbs. We would gather up the rubbish from the week, take it to the incinerator, and set it alight. By Sunday evening there would be traces of smoke wafting in the air throughout the neighbourhood.

But we are older now, and when you wake up in the inner city to the small of smoke in the air, it is not nostalgia for the past that you feel, but a heavy aching sadness and empathy for the people and animals that have lost their homes, and the craziness of  a world climate that is changing, that our leaders won’t take seriously.

On Sunday last week, the sky was a colour I’d never seen before – a kind of Rothko white-grey, that gave an impression that it were overcast, but with whiter clouds on top of that background. It had an eery, apocalyptic feel, a friend suggested. Ashes upon ashes, reflected in the sky.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal