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19 November 2015

Resonating Spaces: Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Resonating Spaces: Rarotonga, Cook Islands
© Anthony Lyons

I recently returned from an innovative project in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, which involved 20 Interactive Composition students and two documentary film makers from the University of Melbourne, working alongside local community, exploring issues of sustainability, climate change, site, history and community in response to locations and people of the Cook Islands. This culminated in the creation of 20 new sound and audiovisual compositions presented as a series of installations at the Punanga Nui Market - the largest event on the island, held each Saturday.

Mark Pollard, composer and Head of Interactive Composition, was the enthusiastic driver and visionary behind this project, and our group became a signature project to be supported by the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan - an initiative to nurture knowledge and cultural exchange between the Indo-Pacific region with Australia. I was thrilled to be involved as a fellow Interactive Composition academic staff member and participating composer.

The Cook Islands are an archipelago nation in the South Pacific, the largest of its 15 islands being Rarotonga, just over 30km in circumference, with a dense and elevated jungle interior, aqua blue lagoon and striking coral reef. With the exception of some recent arrivals (like the karaoke bar we discovered), Rarotonga retains a fairly strong connection to its historical, cultural and natural roots, particularly evident in the active singing, dancing and drumming traditions. Interestingly, Percy Grainger had been intrigued by Rarotonga over 100 years ago, often citing the influence of Rarotongan part singing on his compositional outlook.

Island allures, such as the excellent snorkelling, were overshadowed by a full schedule of daily activities with the generous Cook Islanders, including dance, singing and drumming workshops. We gave our own songwriting session at Tereora College, and the Interactive Composition cohort worked with small groups to write songs that were then performed. This was a moving experience for all, and we hope to make the songwriting workshop with Tereora an ongoing event. We also spent time in highland villages and were invited into family homes to share stories, histories, songs, and discussions over home-cooked recipes.

Early missionary influences run deep in Rarotonga, from the coral-white churches to the musical impact of Western hymn singing. Our attendance at local church services offered a first-hand experience of the Rarotongan singing approach, with members of one congregation treating us to an improvised performance. Along with the frequent use of sixths were vestiges perhaps of what had interested Grainger - a somewhat democratised polyphony based on the free entries and exits of individual parts, fused with a genuine sense of joy in the sound.

Our energy during this time was focused towards engagement and creative process ahead of the compositional deadlines of the Nui Market performance. We set firm compositional restrictions - not only did pieces need to be conceived, made and publicly realised over the ten days of the project, but only sound recorded from various locations on the island could be used as material. To this end, participants used handheld recorders, laptops, Bluetooth-enabled phones and Bluetooth speakers to record, create and sound the works on.

My own work, titled Anticlockwise, started with island sounds - the tinkling of coral pieces, log drumming, different rates of water flow, recorded and then transformed into sampled instruments. The relaxed notion of 'island time' and the strong sense of community began to inform the piece, in particular the transport system, essentially a couple of 1980s buses that circle the island, 'Clockwise' and 'Anticlockwise'. Riding these buses became a way to let go of time, for the conversations of locals and visitors to wash over you. The singing bus drivers, laughter, squeaking bus doors and all manner of rattles as they hurtled along at the top speed of 50km/h offered a sense of community and active interaction that seems so different to the transport experience of modern cities. The resulting work offered cyclic elements based on samples collected on the buses fused with manipulated log drum patterns and sampled instrument ambiences.

The final Nui Market installation/performance consisted of suspending speakers and screens throughout the market. The creative responses were very well received, sparking many conversations with locals. Unique as stand-alone works, when presented collectively they became a larger metawork, building up a fascinating sonic and visual mapping interaction with time and place.

I left Rarotonga affirmed by the importance of a shared engagement with places and cultures different to our own, and, in particular, sound - this magical glue between our senses, so crucial in broadening our perspective, connectivity and understanding. Arguably this kind of experience is becoming rarer in our increasingly globalised, city-based cultures. We are grateful to have had the opportunity and wish to acknowledge and sincerely thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne.

AMC resources

Mark Pollard - AMC profile
Anthony Lyons - AMC profile

Further links

Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne: Interactive Composition


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