Archive for the ‘installation’ Tag

The Dripolator

This is a beautiful installation (or is it an instrument?) that I think more people should see! The Dripolator was created by Graeme Leak, one of the most innovative creative musicians/composers/inventors you could ever hope to meet. It’s visually and aurally stunning, and so, so clever, as this video attests. When the Dripolator was installed at the Melbourne Recital Centre, people raved about it. They still rave about it, actually. So if you are someone who programs a festival, or an arts space, or a community space, anywhere in the world, you should consider getting The Dripolator and Graeme in residence.

 

Four minutes of Nests

I made a short promotional video for the Nests music installation project on Sunday. What do you think?

 

One of the great design challenges of Nests was ensuring it remained a portable installation, with a set that could be pulled down and packed up small to fit in the back of a standard stationwagon/estate car. Ken did a masterful job realising this challenge! Our hope now is for the work to travel further afield, to other performing arts centres, theatres, and festivals wanting to offer unique interactive arts experiences for young children. If you are someone working in one of these contexts and like the look of Nests, please get in touch to talk about how we could bring this beautiful installation to your venue!

Children navigating and exploring independently

Nests at ArtPlay (Howell/Russell/Evans)

Yesterday we presented the second stage of Nests, a theatrical music installation that I am developing over three stages at ArtPlay with collaborators Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. As an installation experience rather than a workshop, Nests is largely un-facilitated, and the children are free to explore the environment in whatever order, and whatever way, they choose. There are all sorts of things – musical instruments, lighting effects, and physical obstacles –  for them to discover, navigate and explore independently or with the help of their adult. More than just exploration though, we’ve created the whole physical and aural environment in a way that (we hope) encourages the children to engage in musical interactions with each other, and with the musicians roaming the space.

However, children aged 3-5  have an unerring and delightful tendency to not do what you are hoping they will do, and yesterday’s Nests visits were filled with examples of this! Children enter the space holding long, slender lanterns. These help illuminate their path as they enter the darkened space, but as the lighting lifts, there are places for them to leave these lanterns so that their hands are free to play the musical instruments (as you can see in the image above, where the lanterns are hovering over one of the nests). Well, some children simply loved their lanterns and wanted to hold onto them throughout. Even if they put them down momentarily when entering a nest, they made sure to pick them up again as they moved across to the next nest. The space was constantly awash with little children carrying their long, swaying lanterns.

Other children were constantly drawn to the giant ‘sun/moon’ circular screen that acts as a backdrop to the space and is lit theatrically throughout to suggest different times of day. The lighting makes it possible to create dramatic shadow play with hands and bodies, and some children returned again and again to this screen with their parents, creating all sorts of images that clearly delighted them. These interactions have prompted us to think about how we might incorporate some shadow-play into the installation for stage 3.

Observing children’s interactions with the instruments was also interesting. In one session, we seemed to have lots of children who took great pleasure in returning instruments to their eggs, and zipping the eggs up tight again, after they had had a play. It was very neat of them, but not something we’d seen in the first sessions of Nests back in February. It meant that the children got to ‘discover’ the instruments several times over, however, and perhaps this was part of the motivation.

Nests 'conversations' (G. Howell)We had three adult musician-facilitators in the space, engaging and interacting musically with children – one person who was working with the instruments in the installation (a range of exotic percussion instruments from around the world and made from all sorts of beautiful materials), and two people playing wind instruments (me and one other). We imitated sounds that the children played, copying rhythms and pitches, and encouraged musical ‘conversations’. We also modeled interactions and imitation with each other. Children reacted to these interactions in different ways. I found that for some, it was too intrusive or perhaps made them feel self-conscious, and as soon as they noticed I was making a connection with their playing, they would stop. Sometimes, they would start again; other times, they would leave that nest and move to another part of the installation.

For example, we have a very rhythmic section in the soundscape that encourages everyone in the room to groove along on a unison rhythm. One little girl was very responsive to this rhythm and began to do a little dance, stamping her feet in time with with the rhythm. I began to copy her, and her mother noticed and pointed it out to her daughter. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to share this idea with me. She watched me dance for a moment, then moved a bit further into the nest so that she was behind her mother, and continued her dance from there.

Some children were intrigued by the idea of the musical conversations. There were some absolutely gorgeous moments where a child realised that the musician beside them was copying what they were playing! One little boy’s father was beside him, and described what was happening. “She’s copying you, isn’t she? Play it again and see what happens… play it faster! And faster again!” And so, that interaction was three-way, with the boy and his father playing a game with each other as well as with me.

Tony, the other wind player, described a funny moment he had with one of the parents. He noticed a dad pick up one of the castanets and begin playing a rhythm. Tony picked up another of the castanets and began jamming with him. But then the man’s partner noticed what was going on and took the instrument from the man’s hands and put it back down on the ground! Perhaps she felt that such interactions were only supposed to involve the children, which was not one of our rules at all!

In our discussions at the end of the day, Rebecca, Ken, Tony and I considered the role of the parents in the installation. A challenge with the ‘un-facilitated’ environment or lack of explicit instructions is that the adults might not be sure what is expected of them and their children. Nor do they know what is coming up next (all the cues throughout the installation are given in the recorded soundscape). In the third session of the day, Rebecca made a point of saying to the parents before entering the space that “everything here is fine for the children to explore and touch and interact with”. This statement helped the parents relax and allow the children to create their own experience.

Another of our discussions has been about audience, and the importance of creating the work with both children and adults in mind. Early on in Nests, Rebecca approaches each of the adults one by one and gives them a wah-wah tube. “This is for you,” she tells them, and many parents seem delighted to be given their own instrument to play. We have also observed parents having their own moments of musical exploration, particularly with things like the little Meinl thumb piano, with its plaintive and nostalgic A-minor tuning. Many parents describe their Nests experience at the end as being “beautiful” and “peaceful”, and it seems to me that this is as much a description of their experience as that of their children.

With some groups, the three of us found it challenging to make any connection with children at all, as they were so engaged with sharing the experience with their adults. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem – if Nests is a beautiful experience that parents and children can share together, then that is a wonderful outcome.

Nests is developing further each time we present it; for this second stage, we had made some adjustments to the soundscape and the timings of the different ‘events’ or stimuli that take place within the installation experience for the children. We added a ‘good-bye’ song at the end, slowing down the energy as a way of containing and ‘holding’ the children in the experience and allowing them the space to process it. I also added a slow ‘bell toll’ in the middle of the soundscape designed for the parents to hear and join in with their wah-wah tubes. However, this didn’t really work – the parents didn’t notice it! I think I might take it out of the soundscape for stage 3. I also added a bass guitar line to the Jam & Groove section, which made it rock along a bit more, and invited a big whole-ensemble energy surge for children and adults to share at a key moment in the installation. These musical cues help guide the children’s attention towards different parts of the installation and give them different musical experiences beyond their own self-directed explorations.

Stage 3 will be a weekend’s worth of Nests, on 11 and 12 May. Bookings open this coming Wednesday 20 March.

Completing the first stage of Nests

Nests 8 February 2013 (G.Howell)I was really satisfied with the outcome of our first Nests workshops. (Hmmm… Nests is a theatrical music installation with minimal facilitation or instruction. Are they workshops? Experiences? Sessions?) We offered 2 x 30 minute Nests experiences, both of which were booked out. Nine children per session attended with their parent (sometimes with a younger sibling in tow as well) and explored the space we had created for them. Some were shy, some were boisterous, but they all took their explorations quite seriously, grasping their long bendy-pole-torches in their hands, making patterns on the floor as they made their way into the darkened space, and choosing what to spend their time doing.

Some children were content to sit with one instrument and play it for a long time, sharing the experience with their parent. Others were keen to try lots of different instruments. I moved through the space with my clarinet, squatting down to sit alongside children and imitate the sounds they were making, encouraging interactions, patterns and musical conversations. Some realised this was what I was doing and played along, offering up ‘tests’ to see what I would do (such as playing faster, or stopping suddenly).

Rebecca was also moving through the space, handing out wah-wah tubes to each of the parents and showing them how to play them. Some parents later told how pleased they were to have their own instrument to play, especially one like this that was completely new to them! As the children and the parents explored, Rebecca and I responded to their playing with our own musical sounds. Nests has a musical aim of encouraging children towards interactive play with their instruments (rather than only independent play, more typical of children of this age group in an installation environment), where they would be listening and responding to other people’s sounds, as well as initiating their own, and the musical responses offered by Rebecca and I modeled how this could work to the children.

Gradually the birds and crickets of the forest soundscape that had greeted the children when they entered the installation changed into more dramatic sounds of nature. A huge storm began to build on the recorded soundscape, inciting more vigorous and frenzied playing from the children. And emerging out of the intensity of the storm, some rhythmic unisons on the recorded soundscape encouraged all the children and their parents to play together and enjoy the experience of a shared groove.

The frog bog (G. Howell - Nests)As the session drew to a close, I went to sit beside the frog bog, beckoning to the children and parents to join me. As the sounds of dusk entered into the soundscape, accompanied by the crk-crk-crk of the frog guiros, a peaceful stillness settled over the group. It was time to say good-bye to the instruments, and to the forest. Children returned to the nests to put the instruments back in their nests, picked up their torches and returned to the outside world, where they lingered awhile, keen to soak up the experience I think. One little girl said to me emphatically, “Do you know what I liked doing the very best?? When we all played this -” and demonstrated the rhythm we’d played in the groove after the storm. “That was my favourite thing!”

I’m going to end this post with a photograph taken by Rebecca. She emailed it to me, saying, “This is my favourite photo. Zoom in and look very carefully at the back. Can you see a wonderful moment one little boy thought no-one saw? I wonder if there will be one in every session?”

Boy with egg on his head

Can you see him? Look at the slightly eery glowing light in the background of this image. Most of us are sitting around the frog bog, playing the frog-guiros. But the strange glowing light is a little boy with an egg on his head, enjoying his own private exploration of the space.

Nests has been funded by ArtPlay and the City of Melbourne, through ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab process. The New Ideas Lab invites artists to pitch a concept or a vision for a children’s arts experience, and supports a selected number of these to be developed and realised at ArtPlay the following year. The second stage of Nests is on March 16th and is already booked out, but the third stage will be held on Saturday 11 May and is not yet on sale. If you are in Melbourne and would like to bring your 3-5 year old along, be sure to to ‘like’ ArtPlay on Facebook and to sign up for their mailing list so that you will receive updates about when the next workshop season goes on sale.

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

Collaborating by distance

The three-way collaborative creation of ‘Nests’ was for the most part a long-distance relationship (Ken and Rebecca in country Victoria, me in Melbourne).  Our first intensive in-person period of discussions and exploration, when we ran an informal workshop with a group of 3-5 year-olds at the Creswick Playscape, concluded with an agreed idea of what we each saw in mind’s eye when we pictured the installation. We each had differing mental images of the nests, for example, so needed to describe and discuss and establish a shared set of intentions. We looked at pictures of actual nests, and discussed the practicalities of rendering each in a human-size form that could still be packed down to fit in to the back of a car. By the end of the December development period, we each had clear tasks ahead of us, to work on in our respective homes.

Ken's leaf coloursKen set to work designing the nests for the installation, figuring out solutions to the materials needed, the construction process and the visual effect. He explored the idea of woven leaves, taking inspiration (shapes, colours) from the local landscape.

Rebecca and I turned our minds to the soundscape. We discussed an overall ‘narrative’ structure for the 30 minute installation experience that allowed time for children’s discovery and exploration of the instruments, leading to a massed ensemble experience in which everyone would be playing the same thing at the same time. The magical focus and mood that we had witnessed at the Creswick Playscape when we brought the wooden frog guiros out at the end of the session suggested to us that a ‘frog bog’ might be a nice way to draw the experience to a quiet, peaceful close.

We wanted the soundscape to create a sense of the bush or a forest. The installation space was to be theatrically lit, and the soundscape would enhance the children’s sense of entering ‘another world’. We also wanted it to encourage musical interactions between the children, where they might start to engage in patterns, sequences, and conversations. Therefore, it needed to include sounds from the natural world and sounds from the instruments the children would be playing in the nests.

Rebecca set to work recording natural environment sounds.

Ready to record... (Rebecca Russell)These included footsteps in crunchy leaves, all sorts of bird calls, early morning crickets and early evening frogs.

My recording tasks were to source some great storm sounds (I found these at freesound.org, an amazingly comprehensive resource thanks to a dedicated and committed community of sharers), and to record samples of all the instruments we intended to use.

I did this one sunny afternoon in the bathroom and wardrobe of my apartment – these were the quietest, deadest spaces. Here are the instruments all lined up, ready to play:

Recording 'Nests' sounds (G. Howell)

These were our January tasks. We had regular Skype meetings but because we live quite far apart (and because I was away for much of January), we needed to work separately on the assigned tasks, then share outcomes as they were ready.

Making ‘Nests’

I am working on a very beautiful collaborative project at the moment. Called ‘Nests’, it’s a theatrical music installation that invites children aged 3-5 years of age to discover and explore a big range of very unusual, exotic percussion instruments from around the world, and draws them into musical interactions with each other and the adults around them. These explorations take place in gigantic nests that the children can enter and sit in.

Image for NESTS by Ken Evans, GIllian Howell, Rebecca RussellNests is special to me for a number of reasons. One is because it is the first time I am getting to work with two artists I’ve admired for a long time, theatre designer Ken Evans and visual theatre director Rebecca Russell. We’ve been friends for a long time, and have always had many wonderful and inspiring conversations about making work with and for children, but this is the first time we have developed a project together.

Another reason it is special is because the idea has grown quite slowly and organically for me over a period of time. I first put musical instruments in nests in the  jam for 0-5 year olds that I created for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival in 2011 (I didn’t blog about that project at the time, sadly – had too many projects going on!). The idea of getting to sit in a nest really seemed to resonate with children and parents alike, and I kept it in the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to take it further. I knew Rebecca and Ken were the perfect artists to develop it with, and we developed the concept for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab pitching process back in July 2012 and were invited to develop and present Nests as an installation in 2013.

We gave ourselves two specific challenges to explore with the project. One was that it be an installation, rather than a facilitated or led workshop experience. I love seeing children in this age group choosing their own ‘pathways’ through new experiences and learning through their own creative play, but this doesn’t often happen in music workshops, because children of this age often explore things quite independently and with instruments in hand this leads to very chaotic, noisy environments! Music experiences are therefore usually facilitated or led, and everyone is usually engaged in doing the same thing at the same time. For Nests, we wanted to create an environment (aural and physical) that would foster and draw on the children’s natural love of self-guided exploration, but that would also encourage them to listen and respond to each other’s musical sounds.

The other challenge was to create an installation that could be packed up and used again. We’ve designed Nests to be portable, because we want to be able to tour it to other settings in Australia and beyond. So right from the start, Ken had the complex design challenge of working out how to build something that looked like a nest, was robust and sturdy enough to be climbed on and sat in by children, and that could be put together and packed up relatively quickly, and easily transported in the back of a standard car, and light-weight enough to take on a plane.

Music in the Playscape cubby (Gillian Howell)We’re developing Nests in stages. The first stage was a 3-day creative development in December 2012. We spent a lot of time talking in the studio, but also ran an informal music exploration session at the Playscape in Creswick (in regional Victoria, Rebecca and Ken’s neck of the woods). This session with local children gave us the opportunity to see how they responded to the different instruments I’d started to gather, to see what most appealed to them, what didn’t hold their interest, and whether 3-5 year old fingers would be dextrous enough for some of the instruments I’d chosen.

We learned that the more resonant instruments, such as the energy chime, thumb piano and gas bottle instrument you can see in the image above, really held the children’s attention. They played together for quite extended periods of time on these instruments and were very absorbed. And I was very happy to see that all of them could play the wah-wah tubes (which involves moving the thumb on and off a small hole in the metal tube) without difficulty. Instruments like the caxixi or the ‘waterfall’ (a bundle of tiny wooden bells that make a sweet, gurgling – but quite piercing for young ears – rattling sound) held very little interest. Short clacking sounds like the set of sprung castanet-like clackers that I bought in Vietnam were attractive but often put down quite quickly in order to play something else.

'Frog Bog' at Creswick Playscape (Gillian Howell & Rebecca Russell)At the end of the session we drew everyone together to sit in a circle and I brought out my collection of frog guiros. (I have 11 of them – I bought them in Thailand, one each day. I couldn’t resist them. Tony would say, “Gillian, I think you have enough frogs now” whenever the roving salesmen would approach us in the restaurant or on the beach, but I am very glad now that I ignored his comments and bought the frogs). We created a magical, almost meditative ‘frog bog’, listening to each of the frogs in turn and having frog conversations with each other. (They are all different sizes. I call the biggest frog ‘Big Nana’ because I didn’t want the biggest frog to be male, but I wanted it to be the frog that all the other frogs listened to. Nanas often have an important, loving authority in little people’s lives, and the children love expressing this authority with the Big Nana frog).

We took the learning from that early exploration session into the next Nests phase, deciding on the sets of instruments to place in each nest, designing the environment and building a kind of narrative structure for the 30 minute installation experiences at ArtPlay. More on that in the next post.