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24 August 2014

5 x 5 x 5 - background music to listen to

Andrew Aronowicz Image: Andrew Aronowicz  

Music can be written for all kinds of spaces - concert halls, salons and large outdoor spaces representing some of the more traditional venues. A significant part of our listening experience relies on what kind of room or space we're in at the time. It's more than just the acoustics: colour, shape and the play of light on different surfaces affects us as we listen. Certain concert halls can add a radiant glow to a performance, modern concrete venues might supply austerity or a cool vibe, and more humble venues might lend charm. Even if we close our eyes, we can still feel the tingling in the atmosphere, as if the space were reverberating around us.

Composing for space is at the heart of the Arts Centre Melbourne's 5x5x5 project, though they're not the sorts of spaces you'd expect.

Foyers, waiting rooms, car parks and galleries: spaces not specifically designed for enjoying sound, but which definitely present the opportunity. These unlikely spaces were to inspire myself and the other participants in this year's 5x5x5 project. The brief was simple: five early-career composers were commissioned to write five pieces of music (each five minutes in duration) for one of five spaces around the Arts Centre complex. The complete pieces can now be downloaded to your favourite listening device, and listened to in situ around the Arts Centre complex.

At the start of the project, myself and the four other Melbourne-based composers, Susan Hull, Alistair McLean, Luke Paulding and Nigel Tan, were taken on a tour of the main theatres building and shown the various spaces that might inspire and 'house' our music. Each space offered its own opportunities for creative inspiration, and the project's mentors, Marshall McGuire and Mark Pollard, advised us early on to consider the various angles we could take in writing our works.

There was the architectural nature of each space: dimensions, proportions, etc. Then there was decor and lighting, the ambience, and, even in some spaces, artwork. There was also function, history and acoustic qualities to consider. In choosing my own space, I wanted to choose an iconic feature of the complex, which also possessed a unique physical beauty.

Compared with what I mentioned earlier, the space I ultimately chose was even more unconventional: the Arts Centre spire. To me, the spire has a strong, civic presence, as well as it being an evocative structural and visual statement. And you can't get much more iconic than a 300ft tower with a skirt (apparently the original inspiration for the tower's billowing base was a tutu).

Melburnians would all know the Arts Centre spire, even if they don't necessarily know what it does or what it's there for (I muse that the non-theatregoing public think it an ill-rendered imitation of Paris's iconic tour, which it sort of is, in a way). To me, the spire is a pretty bold statement, architecturally speaking, and I love its sculptural beauty: the way the metal twists and writhes at the bottom, before shooting up to cut through the sky with its feverish knitting together of latticed steel beams.

When it came to choosing the instrumentation, it had been a while since I'd written a piece for percussion, and there was something about the materiality (and audacity) of giant drums and metal instruments that seemed well-suited to portraying the bold drama of the spire's form. And as for performers, we were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work with musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). I'd wanted to work with their percussion department for some time, and this was the perfect occasion. It's not everyday you get to work with such hardworking, talented and enthusiastic musicians.

Now, my space was the least 'inhabitable' of the lot, so the musical exploration was necessarily theoretical. But hopefully I got the point across. I decided to go for the transliteration approach: using music to evoke and translate the shape and structure of the spire. The base's undulating form seemed perfectly suited to rolling drums, so I decided on a battery of timpani and bass drums to represent the rolling of the spire's skirt (the ten drums pack quite a punch - particularly when recording live).

This transitions into a section built of more complex rhythmic cells, played on smaller tom tom drums, joined later by cowbells, gongs, and vibraphone, as the music metaphorically 'ascends' up the spire. I wanted the feeling of balancing on a high wire at the top, so a series of bowed and struck crotales matched with vibraphone and glockenspiel form the final part of the piece. I thought the high-pitched frequencies of these instruments would nicely convey the dizzyingly high peak of the spire.

A recording session and some quick mixing, and the piece was ready to roll. Sadly, issues of feasibility and OH&S regulations prevent anyone from actually hearing my piece in its corresponding space (though I'm not opposed to dangling 300 feet in the air above Melbourne wearing headphones, are you?). At the very least, listeners can hear the music as they navigate the Arts Centre, knowing this impressive feature is towering above them. I suppose I'm asking listeners to imagine what it's like up there in the clouds, looking out over all of Melbourne, with the trams and general hustle and bustle humming below.

And who knows? Maybe aerial concert halls could be a new frontier in the public performance experience. I reckon it would be a pretty cool listening to music in the air. That is, as long as you're not afraid of heights.

At least you can listen to my piece without the risk of vertigo.

Further links

Listen to the works and find out more on 5x5x5 website (Arts Centre Melbourne)

Andrew Aronowicz is a Melbourne-based composer, teacher and writer. He completed his MMus in composition in 2013, and was in Sydney early in 2014 as the Australian Youth Orchestra Music Presentation Fellow, working at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Limelight Magazine and ABC Radio National (The Music Show).


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