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30 June 2017

Argo: Journeying to the Sky

Argo: FLOW on 6 May 2017 Image: Argo: FLOW on 6 May 2017  
© Keegan Nichols Photography

Connor D'Netto writes about his Argo concert series, and particularly about two events taking place in Brisbane as part of the Queensland Music Festival in July. 'To the Earth', on 8 July, takes its audience undergound to the Spring Hill Reservoir, while 'To the Sky', on 9 July, embraces the Universe through its venue, the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium.

It's a journey
Long, brooding
Though the dark, underground in cavernous spaces
Distant echoes
Unsettled, urgent
Energy building, nervous energy, driving you to the edges of your seat
Burning, barely contained
Explosive, propulsive, outpouring
Onward, upward, into open spaces
The open sky, the open air
Briefly bright
Distant lights
Through the darkness, hovering far above the earth
Softly spinning
Shimmering, stillness
Floating away

Just over a year ago, Argo headed underground deep into the depths of Spring Hill Reservoir to present our fourth concert of 2016, FLOW. It's a strange, somewhat eerie, but completely beautiful space, right in the middle of Brisbane's CBD. The heritage-listed space looks like the water drained away yesterday - a grid of fifteen chambers separated by huge stone columns and arches, concrete floors and walls, and just a scaffold staircase down into this strange subterranean world. So much of Argo is all about creating music tailed to unusual spaces, so the reservoir was a perfect fit - for that concert we had two guitarists (classical and electric), violin, cello, and electronics, spread around the space, appearing suddenly from different sides of the maze-like chambers, audience roaming, and projections bathing the walls to visually re-fill the space with water.

After the concert, the venue manager from the Brisbane City Council said to me that he's been trying to get musicians into another venue he manages - the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, located in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mt Coo-tha, home to the Cosmic Sky Dome.

My mind went wild with ideas.

Imagine having live musicians in a planetarium! The visuals! The unusual in-the-round space! There's so much you could do, but also so much to think of. How can you work in such a space? How can you do it justice?

The very first thing that I knew I wanted to do was to work with a string orchestra - imagine an orchestra spread around the room in a complete circle surrounding the audience - sound surrounding you just as the visuals completely fill your field of vision across the dome of the planetarium.

The more I thought about it, it was clear to me that this wasn't and couldn't just be a concert in a planetarium. This is a complete experience, one where the musical and visual journeys are fused together, equal parts of the whole - a surreal, completely immersive experience, melting away the world around the audience and taking them on a journey somewhere else. To create something like this, I couldn't do it alone: collaboration is the key.

Red moon rising at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium.

Collaboration is something that has always been at the heart of Argo. Argo started as a collaboration, two composers creating concerts with their music blended seamlessly. Each successive concert is a collaboration, some active and some passive, between the music and the space, creating concerts tailored to the venues. Composers and performers working closely together to realise the music: collaboration also.

To realise this concert, it's become Argo's largest and most complex collaboration yet. I decided to bring on two other local composers to write the music with me: Thomas Green and Joshua Rivory. As for the orchestra, I approached Brendan Joyce and the Camerata about the project - for a project like this, it's amazing to have such a fantastic ensemble to work with!

First steps were to see what the Planetarium's visuals could do, so we all went along to a session of their popular Saturday Night Live show, a guided tour through that night's sky. In their system lies the universe, a complete model of our solar system, our galaxy, and out to the very edges of what is known. For the show, the curators from the Planetarium have created a custom journey through the universe, starting on earth looking out at that night's sky (yes the actual position of everything on the night of the concert) and ending as far away as we can get, which we (the composers) collaborated on to get it just right to suit music - the spacing, the timing, the speed of it all.

Collaborating with other composers is a strange thing. As composers, we're used to sitting in a room by ourselves, immersed in our own thoughts, our own music. We have complete control (almost). We collaborate with others to realise our work, but not often to actually create it. The key is planning and working to each other's strengths. But, most important is to actually get the right composers: firstly, it's always best to collaborate with people you enjoy working with, you are going to be spending some time with them after all; secondly, to have composers whose musical style (and maybe even artistic opinions!) are compatible. You need to have composers whose language is not at odds with each other, but yet with enough difference to provide variation, variety, and to push each other's music into new territories - collaboration is the greatest way to learn, grow, discover new ideas and work in ways that you mightn't have by yourself. I'm extremely happy to have had Thomas and Joshua agree to work with me on this project, as they and their music does just that. Plus, they are both amazing producers, performers, and electronic musicians, bringing another dimension to the project.

In the spirit of collaboration, here are some words by Thomas:

'The Planetarium is indeed one of my favourite places in Brisbane. Before Connor approached me about Argo's To The Sky concert, I'd often wondered what it might be like to do a concert in that space. I'm a science fiction fan and I have a working astronomical knowledge. For a composer, this was a no-brainer, as they say. Our music here works inside specific constrictions. The performers must be able to read their parts in very low light, and they're not able to see each other (the room is almost pitch black at times). And the music itself is not so much the feature as a facet of an overall experience - a meditative journey outwards from earth, through the solar system and beyond - the music and visuals are bound together as one. If you've not visited the Planetarium before, you'll be stunned by its impressiveness, an apparent three-dimensional voyage where the viewer may only witness the celestial splendour; everything else is blackness. So we have tried to aid this immersion with our sounds - both electronic and string instruments literally surrounding the audience - to pass on a sense of wonder; of breaking away from the everyday; indeed everything you know, as if you have passed, temporarily, into another realm - an unequalled, transfixing journey.'

And Joshua, well, he wrote a poem:

Our home. In the vast area of the known universe, we have one home.
Orbiting around from outside the atmosphere, humbles us.
See the Aurora. Living evidence of a force invisible to the human eye.
Marvel at the size of the ocean.
Notice how calm the ravaging waves can seem.
Getting closer.
A vehicle of unnatural proportions. The first evidence of our celestial migration.
Orbit once more.
Closer now.
Notice the imperfections. The scars from empyrean wars of asteroids.
Feeling homesick now, we move to the brother.
Our brother. The moon.
The peace and tranquility of pre-civilization.
Let us bask in our extended home before delving into the wider unknown.

This all started underground, a year ago, back in the Reservoirs. It's only fitting that this concert experience starts there too. And so, on the first night, we journey TO THE EARTH - a quartet of players from the Camerata, in the Reservoirs, a newly commissioned work by Chris Perren, an Australian premiere by John Luther Adams, some Philip Glass, and one of my quartets. And, on the second night, we journey TO THE SKY. Come join us on the journey.

Argo is a contemporary classical music concert series and collective from Brisbane, Australia, founded in 2015. Argo draws upon a background in classical music and contemporary influences to create new works, performances and experiences which bend the boundaries of genre and art form, and to challenge the norms of musical performance and staging with immersive art music events. Our focus is on creating experiential and concept driven events that fuse classical instruments and ensembles with contemporary influences and new modes of musical expression. In 2017, Argo presents a five-concert season, commissioning six new works by young Australian composers and four video/film artworks. Find out more on our website.

Further links

Connor D'Netto - AMC profile

Argo: To the Earth, 8 July - event details in the AMC Calendar. Music by John Luther Adams, Chris Perren, Philip Glass and Connor D'Netto

Argo: To the Sky, 9 July - event details in the AMC Calendar. Music by Thomas Green, Connor D'Netto and Joshua Rivory.

Connor D'Netto (b. 1994) is a Brisbane-based composer of contemporary classical music. Throughout his works, Connor balances the quasi-neoclassical with post-minimal influences, combining them with contemporary performance practices, unique one-off performances, and the delicate incorporation of electronic music elements. Connor’s music has been commissioned by ensembles such the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Queensland's Camerata and new music specialists PLEXUS, and performed by artists such as Katie Noonan, Karin Schaupp and Claire Edwardes. In 2017, Connor is a fellow of Bang On A Can. More



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