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20 November 2014

Finding My Way With the Labyrinth

Walking the labyrinth Image: Walking the labyrinth  

Corrina Bonshek recently composed music for listening to via a smartphone while walking the path of the newly-opened Labyrinth at Centennial Park in Sydney. She describes how this project came about.

When I first heard that Emily Simpson was fundraising to build a labyrinth for walking meditation in Centennial Park, I thought, 'my music is perfect for this'. I'm a meditator whose music is deeply inspired by nature and birdsong. The labyrinth is a single winding path designed for contemplation and reflection. Sydney's Centennial Park is the biggest green space near to the CBD and has abundant birdlife. It was a three-way match: meditation, nature and music! So I put my producer hat on and decided to get involved.

My first meeting with Emily was at the site of the labyrinth. Despite preparing thoroughly, I was nervous, and glad of the calm park setting. I brought a swag of things: a two-minute musical sketch for Emily to listen to; a CD of past compositions for her to take home; and an elevator pitch that went something along the lines of 'my music would give an extra sensory dimension to labyrinth walk and aid contemplation and reflection'.

I also thought through the logistics carefully. The labyrinth is in the middle of a field, so there is no power for loudspeakers. Generators are typically noisy and expensive. Plus any sound equipment would need to be either secured or watched. Wanting to avoid all of this, I had the idea that people could listen to the labyrinth music via their mobile phone. I knew that there would be a sign at the labyrinth, so I thought if there was a link to my music on the sign then people could stream it via their smartphones. Listening via headphones would enhance the inward experience of walking the labyrinth. It also meant that the music was optional, ensuring the site was just as accessible to quiet walkers or kids having fun.

The pitch was a success - Emily loved the idea. I secured approvals from the Centennial Park Team on the proviso that I was responsible for the delivery of the music (via my website or third party provider). This meant I would be composing the music, recording it and delivering it to a walking audience.

Before I'd heard of the labyrinth, I had a vision of a piece that was tremendously simple yet profound - a chorale for strings that floated against a backdrop of rainforest bird sounds. I was visiting the Daintree rainforest at the time and was fascinated by bird sounds around me. I remember the deep sense of peace I felt.

I decided that birdcall recordings were essential for the piece. So I approached Marc Anderson of Wild Ambience for permission to use two of his stunning recordings: Yellow Orioles recorded at dawn at Fogg Dam NT; and birdcalls recorded at Kings Plains National Park NSW. The Yellow Oriole has a melodious, rhythmic call that is very peaceful and relaxing to listen to. I'd heard these birds in the Daintree and they felt like the right match for the chorale.

At times, I found it hard to stay true to my vision of a simple chorale. It's a musical truism that slow music needs fast music to complement it (and vice versa). I did succumb to the temptation to write an exciting melody or two. But on listening to my drafts while walking the labyrinth, I realised my error. Lively melodies detracted from the meditative experience. So I abandoned them.

I shifted focus to the idea of inner melodies emerging from within the chorale. This idea came from listening to the opening of Ross Edwards's Veni Creator Spiritus. I played with consonance/dissonance in the harmony to fuel the sense of inner transformation and momentum. This approach allowed for a more complementary musical-meditative experience on the labyrinth.

Centennial Park Labyrinth officially opened on September 15, 2014 and, to date, 1860 people have downloaded my music (with many more streaming it). Some have not yet visited the labyrinth, while others use the music as the soundtrack for their labyrinth walk.

One of the wonderful things that has come from this project is the emails I've received from people saying how much they like my music. As an early-career composer, these words of encouragement are a blessing.

I'm also thrilled that my music will remain available there for years to come. As long as the sign remains in place near the labyrinth, new people will discover my music. That's a big thing for a composer who is still finding her way.

Further links

Listen to Journey to the Centre - Music for Centennial Park Labyrinth on Corrina Bonshek's website (free download)
View the location of Centennial Park Labyrinth so you can walk it yourself
Listen to an interview with Corrina Bonshek about her labyrinth music on ABC Radio National's The Rhythm Divine (broadcast at 6am on Sunday 23 November)
Visit the home of Sydney's Labyrinth online - tips on walking the labyrinth and historical context

Corrina Bonshek left the bright lights of Sydney for the bush and birdlife of South-East Queensland in 2013. She has a PhD in music, and her compositions are just as likely to be heard in a park or heritage building as the concert hall.


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