Back in September I was very fortunate to participate in the Australian Orchestra Creative Music Intensive, down in Tarraleah Tasmania.
I’m not really sure how to summarise the music intensive to people. It’s not really a ‘course’…maybe you could call it a music camp or a workshop? I guess it doesn’t really matter what you label it. Whatever it can be called it was an incredible experience and expansion of the musical and non-music self.
For me it was above all else a rare opportunity to wholly live and breath the world of contemporary improvised music for 12 unadulterated days. Moreover, it was the ability to connect and share with peers, both old and new, who’s taste, vision and inquiry eerily align with mine. Together we were challenged and informed by the focus cultures and guest artists, with constant guidance from elder musicians and mentors. It was both humbling and reaffirming of so many things…
For those unfamiliar with the name, The Australian Art Orchestra has been an ensemble I’ve looked up to so much in the past 5 years I get ghost neck pains just thinking about it. If you know what I dig it’s not hard to understand why. They sit atop the vanguard of Australian improvised music, masterminding dozens of cutting-edge contemporary projects and collaborations with a rotating pool of Australia’s greatest improvisers on call to participate.
Established by Melbourne piano master Paul Grabowsky in 1994, the AAO has evolved into a bit of a musical institution handling some pretty heavy projects. It’s admin and creative roots lay in Melbourne, but being a national ensemble their projects regularly feature Sydney heavy weights Simon Barker, Phil Slater and Sandy Evans (and friend Mary Rapp recently!) among others. Basically it’s all of Australia’s heaviest improvisers playing stylistic varied, originally composed, and commissioned ‘contemporary music’ from across Australia. What’s there not to dig??
A couple of years ago Paul let go of the wheel to the ship, passing on the captain’s hat to Melbourne trumpeter/composer/electro-acoustic wiz Peter Knight. A number of moons ago Pete attended Banff jazz workshop in Canada- the world’s most established jazz camp- and had the idea of conceiving something similar just a tad closer at home, which came to fruition three years ago. Oh boy I’m glad it did.
There were quite a few ex-Banff participants at this years CMI and it sounded like one of the most distinct differences between the two workshops was where Banff’s program is more open and directed by that year’s faculty during the camp, the AAO CMI predetermines a focus culture/s that informs the intensive’s program each year. 2014 was Indian Carnatic music. This year featured both traditional Korean and Indigenous Australian music which was incredible. It’s nice to see the AAO consider how they want to frame this learning experience, and I think they have found a format that reflects their great mantra…
To my mind, the centre-point of the Australian Art Orchestra’s mission is to foster a uniquely Australian approach and voice. A huge part of that is by interacting with the music closest to us geographical, whether it be our Pan-Pacific neighbours, the music of Australia’s indigenous people or own cutting-edge, homegrown improvisers across all disciplines.
And the AAO have lived up to their mission, having created dozens of fruitful collaborations across Asia and rural Australia- and continuing to do so. It’s also undoubtedly this mantra that has shaped the nature of the CMI.
This idea of ‘cross-cultural collaboration’ is already quite well known to many of us in the Australian improvising community. I’m uncertain whether it’s just a perspective thing but it seems these cultural mergings are disproportionally more present in the Australian improvising community than other scenes. A good number of our greatest improvisers are well noted for have forged bonds with cultures and music beyond our metropolitan borders. The best known examples include Simon Barker and his study of the Korean drumming tradition as well as his collaboration with traditional Korean musicians; Sandy Evans’ study and collaboration with Indian Carnatic music and also Paul Grabowsky travels to Arnham land, NT, among many other deep and collaborations and even more forays into the music of other cultures. You can speculate and say that our geographic displacement from the U.S.-jazz’s cultural homeland- translates to a weaker connection to the jazz tradition and a greater openness to search for meaning and content elsewhere. Really, there’s a multitude of legitimate theories to ponder but whatever the reason, in a sort of self-sustaining cycle, it’s the relationships that people like Simon, Sandy and Paul have forged with the music and musicians of other places that has enabled the AAO to pursue many of their collaborations and in turn bring a focus culture to the table each year’s CMI.
Each focus culture revolves around the teaching of a visiting leader. Traditional Korean P’ansori singer Bae Il Dong came from Seoul. The indigenous component was led by Daniel and David Wilfred who traveled for 6 from Ngukurr, in South-East Arnhem Land to be with us. Having these incredible musicians visit is only possible thanks to Simon Barker and Paul Grabowsky who forged connections with Ill Dong and the Wilfred brothers, respectively, many years ago and have been able to open up their relationship to a new generation of improvisers. A very sincere thank you to both of them.
I should add, although the intensive revolved around these two cultures, these visiting masters weren’t present to represent or convey their culture in any sort of reductionist terms. They were only there to discuss their own unique music making. Questions were only ever asked with the intent to uncover their processes and philosophy.
This opens a whole can of worms; you may have read my instagram post about it. I’ll try keep it a tad more concise than that. The term cross-cultural is a one that on paper imbues harmony and understanding but in reality is more of a bureaucratic buzz word that reduces artists to a mere token of their culture- which they are very much not. As artists and/or people who engage with the arts I believe it’s supremely important to be aware of this buzzword’s pitfalls. I doubt either Il Dong nor the the Wilfred Brothers feel their music is truly representative of anything more than their immediate circle. They never spoke of their music as reflecting anyone or place beyond themselves, or in the case of the Wildfred bros, their hometown of Ngukurr…Well, I guess Ill Dong was kind of talking about the whole world and universe…
Yes, there are obvious aesthetic comparisons between most traditional Korean music- be it language or the use of traditional instruments such as the traditional drum Janngu (urgh, even that is contentious) and quite possibly the greater portion of indigenous music holds a similar cultural and societal significance, but beyond these blindly obvious aesthetic facets and overtly broad statements, each region, musician, ensemble etc is uniquely their own. Promoting them as a physical manifestation of their culture is discrediting not only said culture but their artistry. The arts are all about what is below the surface; delving deeper into the inner workings and meaning of things; accessing feelings and places that words can not. This should be reflective in everything we come across, including how we analyse and categorise art.
I should note this idea was opened up to me thanks to drummer Holly Connor, who wrote her honours thesis on that very topic. It’s funny how your perspectives can shift so dramatically when fed the right little nugget of information…
One person who positively neutralised any of that reductionism was Sunny Kim, a korean-born, long time NYC based singer. She joined halfway through the intensive and brought a holistic, macro philosophy to the intensive. She led a philosophical enquiry into sound, music and intent, that admittedly at the time I wasn’t completely sold on but in retrospect see it’s importance and neutralising quality in that setting. She also focused on the transcendental qualities of music. She also led a singers group featuring both Ill Dong and Daniel Wilfred. I feel like she was trying to express the above things in a positive, musical way. Thanks Sunny!
What I thoroughly enjoyed about having these incredible visiting musicians was the dynamic range of interactions provided by the CMI. There was a formal study component where in a workshop format they would discuss their practise, perform their music and answer our questions. That time was often interspersed with practical segments, where we would imitate certain actions, or even partake in the Wilfred bro’s song and dance. To hear them all discuss their music was incredibly eye opening experiences, from their anecdotes to their philosophy to their processes to Il Dong’s metaphors. There was so much weighty information that to unpack and realise every bit would undoubtedly take a life time.
Introduced to all these concepts in the morning, we had the opportunity to mull them over and immediately address the parts most pertinent in a casual practical setting each afternoon. We would meet in one of three ensembles with the pretext of ‘playing free’ and choose to navigate and/or workshop a selection of the day’s concepts we had been introduced to. Sometimes we would stay true to the concept at hand, while other times it was more of a springboard to our own ideas. Intermittently Ill Dong and the Wilfred bros would come round and jam with an ensemble. It was beautiful because there was never the expectation to play a certain away around them. Every one was only trying to play themselves.
So many of the concepts discussed I wouldn’t know where to begin conveying them. It took three three hour sessions and a lot of mulling to even begin to realise their philosophies. One concept I can probably just get away with simplifying is a little nugget from Il Dong that Simon Barker translates as ‘Thought-Action’. For students of Simon this is nothing new but Ill Dong believes that all action has to be balanced by thought i.e. if you practise you must be doing so thoughtfully. If not the practise is a waste. Possibly more poisonous is thought without action- where you conjure up these concepts but they never are brought to fruition through action. Many people- myself included- are guilty of that.
I should add that part of the CMI’s incredible energy came from the remote location and natural surroundings of south-westTasmania. For the second year (and possibly here after) the intensive was set in the cutest little town called Tarraleah. A two and a half our drive North West of Hobart, or a stone-throws south-west from the dead centre of Tassie, Tarraleah is a born again hydro-electric town. A single street neighbourhood of colourful art deco cottages that previously housed the hydro-workers in the 30’s, the village is rounded out with your small town staples including a church, hall, single block school, a bar and a fancy lodge, and ah, yeah that’s about it hey.
Not only was Tarraleah quintessentially quaint, but beyond the row of cottages the street was encircled by nature, with forest on one side and paddock on the other. Just beyond our doorsteps were numerous short hikes; one working through light rainforest to a sizeable waterfall; another skirting through the paddock past some hooooge highlander bulls and onto a loop through dense dry forest. Man, it was beautiful. Couple that with being beyond the reach of reception (unless you were with Telstra) and it was two week of disconnecting from the modern world and reconnecting with the natural one. I’m not sure you can set a better scene for deep learning and enquiry. Most mornings there was a group doing a hike before our daily hohup (korean. I found myself warming up atop of the ridge looking down in the valley most days too. There was a veil of tranquility across the whole of Tarraleah that allowed us to shed the city-noise in your minds and give our full self to each moment and idea. I actually remember returning to Sydney and the city hussle rudely hitting me in the face. It was a true realisation that as a big-city boy I’ve never known any different, never known the serenity of the rural life. As city folks we should be aware we do live in fourth gear and to step back from that from time to time is healthy, if for no other reason to contextualise the speed of your life.
There is so much to be said of the AAO CMI. I could easily let me fingers do their things on this keyboard for another two thousand words. Luckily for everyone’s modern attention span, there were folks on ground at Tarraleah documenting it all and have released various recounts across different mediums that are far more informative than this. There is a beautifully edited round-up video commissioned by the AAO during the last two days of the intensive that sums up the powerful energy present throughout the program and offers some audio-visual explanations. There is also an hour long ABC produced podcast featuring some great interviews and musical excerpts. I’ve linked both below.
Thank you to the AAO, Peter, Simon, Chris, Sam, Renee, Shelley, Il Dong, David Wilfred, Daniel Wilfred, Sunny, Brian, all the participants and everyone else involved that I may have forgotten!
The AAO CMI is happening again next year, September 2017! Word is they will be revisiting the focus cultures of this year. Keep an eye out!
P.s. Il Dong snapped the whole intensive on his top notch camera. The photos look great. He shared them with us. All bare the cottage photo are his (the cottage shot being off my iphone 4). I thought I’d tack on a couple of choice snaps from his album at the end to paint an even better picture and flesh out the story that little bit more. Captions provided.
Waterfall walking crew feat. Sam on long tones