Archive for the ‘music installation’ Tag

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.

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Imagining the Manningham Community Jam

A project I will be working on over the next couple of months is the Manningham Community Jam, a large-scale music event to open the Manningham Community Square [MC2] community hub building on Doncaster Road in Melbourne. This brand new building is nearly finished and the Manningham Community Jam is part of the program of events to open it to the public. The building is light-filled, contemporary and purpose-built, it will house the public library and art gallery on the ground floor, with the top floor a dedicated community arts centre with dance studios, art studios, rehearsal spaces and a few offices. The building will also house a number of community organisations and support services.

The idea with the Manningham Community Jam is to bring together all the music groups that already exist in the area – several choirs, jazz bands, rock bands, a marimba group – and members of the public to play the building into being and warm the space with sounds. I’ll be composing the musical skeleton that the Jam will be based on, working with each of the groups to develop sections of this, and then leading a large-scale jam with members of the public and the groups. I’ll have a team of professional musicians working with me on the day. It’s going to be great!

On Friday I had a tour of the new building and heard about which groups had expressed interest in participating. Seeing the building and the possible spaces we could use always helps me begin to shape the musical ideas. Outside the front of the building is a small stage and the starting idea is for it to be an outdoor jam, with the participants facing towards the stage.

In the entrance of the building things are quite open-plan, with a stairway leading up and two further levels with balconies/bridges overlooking the foyer area.

Looking at this range of possible ‘stages’, the organisers and I couldn’t help but imagine how it could be if we had some of our groups positioned on each of these balconies, playing in turn. One of the desired outcomes of the community jam is for these local music groups to be featured in some way, so could we begin the jam with short but characteristic presentations from each of these groups, presented as a kind of music installation? We may have groups such as an Italian Women’s Choir, a senior citizen’s choir, a jazz ensemble, a brass ensemble… I like the idea of starting the jam with a short performance from a group on the highest balcony, followed by another by another group on the next balcony, and so on, cascading the sounds one by one down to the foyer where the marimba group could then perform, and have the rock band positioned outside the front of the building, as a way of drawing the general public out of the building and onto the forecourt for the big jam proper.

All the inside musicians would need to then come back downstairs (using the elevators probably) and out through the front doors in order to be featured in the jam as well.

However, moving people during an event is not ideal… It would be much more straightforward if we just kept everyone in the same place throughout. We don’t have any planned rehearsal time with the inside groups, to get them familiar with the space and where and when to move downstairs… perhaps we could schedule this in though? Maybe the day before?

I’m also not a great fan of the outdoor jam as managing sound and volume – so that everyone can hear each other, and most importantly hear me – can be a lot more problematic. No soundcheck on the day, apart from immediately before the event starts. However, the outdoor space is the largest space there is, and if all the groups that are expressing interest decide to participate, and if we get our anticipated take-up on the day, then there could easily be 600 or more people there.

The Community Jam is not a long event – we have 45 minutes in total, and following the Jam there will be a Time Capsule ceremony, which the organisers want all the general public to be part of. The Time Capsule ceremony will be the last event of the day.

I’ll continue to blog about this project over the coming weeks as it evolves and takes shape. It will culminate on Sunday 16 September.

Interestingly, opening a new building with community music making is a popular idea in current times – Melbourne’s main concert hall the Hamer Hall is opening this weekend after a major 2-year refurbishment. There are several months of activities coming up to mark the re-opening and one of them is an event called Raising the Roof, involving community ensembles from all across the state, which is going to be fabulous, I think. But that’s not until September 30th – we at Manningham will be setting the trend! And it is wonderful to think that bringing amateur musicians and music-making novices into prominent public spaces is a feature of the contemporary zeitgeist.