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27 April 2013

Griffyn’s Swedish Experience

Michael Sollis Image: Michael Sollis  
© Lindi Heap

So what is making news this morning? Again, we wake up to discover our political leaders are obsessed with who arrives and doesn't arrive in our island home. How does migration of contemporary music compare? Are our borders wide open, or do we fear a 'slow drip invasion' of new works from overseas?

OK - so it's easy to exaggerate political rhetoric and comparisons! However, fostering cross-cultural learnings and exchanges were the exact motives behind the Griffyn Ensemble's first festival - the Water Into Swïne Festival, a collaboration with Swedish group the Pearls Before Swïne Experience, which has just finished in Canberra - and we would like to share some of it with you.

But first - let's look at some first principles:

Australia is a big place. To the untrained observer it can appear empty. Whether we like it or not, the outside eye often describes us as 'exotic': a country full of poisonous animals, mining billionaires, jumping kangaroos, and surf lifesavers. Are we an international country? We like to think so, even if we do seem to want to keep the Aussie reality as our little secret - and this seems to be OK by us all.

And at the 'heart' of Australia is our national capital, Canberra. And we Canberrans have our secrets too. We are quite happy for the rest of the country to think that all Canberra has is politics, porn, and fireworks, as this attitude has allowed a fertile underbelly of artistic freedom to develop. It has provided a cover for generations of independent artists - musicians, composers, playwrights, printmakers, and glass-artists to name a few - to escape the artistic trends and currents that inevitably flow through cities of a higher density with a higher national profile. Those in Canberra know that there is something incredibly special here, and we love it.

So, enter the Griffyn Ensemble, our band of six musicians: flute, clarinet, composer, harp, percussion, and soprano (cue self-promotion). Currently in our 8th year, we have performed over 50 Australian premieres from composers across the globe, over 15 world premieres, and dozens of new interpretations of old works. We regularly get 200+ Canberrans joining us in our adventures through contemporary music, including our 70 loyal subscribers to our annual season of carefully curated musical events (e.g. Cloudy With a Chance of Rain - part weather-forecast/part concert; Behind Bars - music from concentration camps; etc.). We will play anything from anywhere - whether it is new works by Australian composers, old works by Mexican avant-gardists, reinventions of Burt Bacharach, folk-oratorios by cultural hero Mikis Theodorakis, or new works by some of Estonia's most innovative composers. And we'll work with anyone - as astronomer Fred Watson and weatherman Rob Gell can attest! Basically, we love music, and we love sharing it in creative formats that illustrate its cultural context. So where to next?

To Sweden of course! The Swedes have their own secrets, and we are not talking about ABBA, and blonde/blue-eyed/long-legged tourists. Why not bring one of their secrets over to Canberra? So enter The Pearls Before Swïne Experience (a band of four piggies - flute, violin, cello, piano). The Swine as they like to be called (since the pieces are the Pearls) are Scandinavia's top new music group, who have commissioned more than 120 works from 21 countries in their 18-year history. And they do cool things like play music in pubs and get the audience to complete maths puzzles while they play their pieces. So we thought we would bring them over to Canberra and have a festival - the Water Into Swïne Festival, eight events over ten days during Easter.

What eventuated was an experience that I, as a composer and musician, could have only dreamt of - a feeling shared by my colleagues and reported by our audience. Put two groups of creative people from different corners of the globe into a room, shake the room up a bit, leave them in there for a while (not quite to the point of cabin fever!), and it's likely that something radical will happen. And it did - whilst having a lot of fun in the process! We heard new works by Swedish and Australian composers; we were pushed to play with electronics in ways that Griffyn hadn't quite done before; and we experimented with different concert forms - an Easter Vigil, a Last Supper recreation, a film-music concert, an Easter Feast, and an April Fool's concert where audiences had to answer questions about contemporary music for day-old Easter bunnies as prizes. And it all came together with an abundance of energy - only afterwards did we realise how significant the event(s) actually were. And the audience had a pretty damn good time as well!

As a band of musicians we learned an incredible amount from all this frantic exchange and performance (cue dot-points):

  • Repertoire: we love looking for music from all over the world at Griffyn, and we've looked at a lot of really cool Swedish works - but to be able to hear them performed by musicians who have worked closely with them was eye-opening and useful for future programming. Likewise, we introduced really cool Australian works to Swedish musicians.
  • Exchange: working in a cross-cultural environment is kind of a musician's and composer's lifeblood - to be able to develop partnerships with groups overseas creates an extremely fertile creative bond between the groups, which could give rise to anything in the future.
  • Boundaries: there are great musicians in Australia who inspire us. However, working closely with great musicians within an international context really sets your mind to push the boundaries of what is possible. It also makes you realise that what we are all doing actually matters to people all around the world.
  • Identity: through working so closely with a different group, Griffyn started to realise exactly 'who' we are - what our strengths are, and what our weaknesses.
  • Density: we successfully programmed an incredibly dense amount of events of contemporary music within 10 days in Canberra. And it worked - people came and were not afraid. As the wise pig once said 'audiences can smell fear'. Do not be afraid!
  • Comparison: seeing how an overseas group rehearses contemporary music was incredibly different to how Australian groups rehearse - and we found this incredibly illuminating and useful. As a composer, it was fascinating to have the Swine interpret a piece I wrote for them differently than an Australian ensemble would. Different cultures, different ways. And we learn and steal/borrow.

The future? The wishlist right now is a little too large - but that's a good thing (and Sweden's not too far away). What is sure is that Griffyn will continue this musical migration program, both as an exporter and importer. And why not? Just because Australia sits at the bottom of the Earth doesn't mean we can't aspire to be a musical gateway to the world. And what better place to do this than our nation's capital (wink wink - or as the Swine would say, oink oink).

And some belated Easter Eggs from the Festival to finish with! Hear Griffyn and the Swine get in the ABC Studio for a political cover of Prince(!). See the Swine perform the world premiere of Australian composer Michael Sollis's Water Into Swïne (YouTube). See Swedish composer Marcus Fjellstrom's film-music project Odboy and Erodog performed by the Swine (YouTube).:

AMC resources

Michael Sollis - AMC profile

Michael Sollis is artistic director and composer of the Griffyn Ensemble, Canberra's premier chamber ensemble.


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