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14 April 2008

E-FORUM: Aurora Festival 2008, Music of the Spirit Concerts - Forum one

Acoustic Music

E-FORUM: Aurora Festival 2008, Music of the Spirit Concerts - Forum one

Welcome to resonate magazine’s first e-forum, which is happening as part of the 2008 Aurora Festival’s Music of the Spirit event. This hour-long online discussion with panel members Diana Blom (moderator), Chinary Ung, Michael Atherton, Anne Boyd and Bruce Crossman kicks off a live panel discussion that will take place on 18 April at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith. Alongside the live discussion, festival-goers will hear the works of four composers, workshopped by one of Australia's most innovative chamber ensembles, Charisma. To start the discussion in resonate’s e-forum, Diana Blom gives an overview of ideas surrounding these four works.

An integrated duality of worlds collide to startle and fuse towards identity – ancient Asian stasis sonorities (North and South-East Asian) versus Western art music structural approach, to practice-driven performer exchange versus sonic delay and eclecticism towards Pacific sonic signatures. These merged sonic worlds, spiritually resonant with Buddhist temple gongs/crotale-communion bells and ecstatic and static spaces, push towards the transcendent moment and spiritual expression. Against the live panel discussion, will be a workshop backdrop of doctoral student acoustic compositions of dualities weaving birdsong and octatonicism with Asian-Christian transcendent space, complex versus naive performer traditions, jazz with technology and the collisions of eclecticism.

The works of the post graduate composers draw on a wider notion of the spiritual which always draws firmly back to the self. It can emerge from an interest in astronomy plus writing for elementary performers, an artwork by an Aboriginal Darug painter, chords or a melody from a Bach chorale, birdsong, and the borrowing of the aesthetic notion of proportions (such as the Golden Mean) from art and architecture. These then link intimately to different senses of self – feminist women’s spirituality; another work with different media (electronic) being written at the same time; the personal understanding that complex issues can, through reflection and meditation, be understood by people at all levels; a belief in composing music that moves the human spirit; and a sense of the self and Christian transcendence.


Based largely around Western Sydney, the Aurora Festival showcases a wide range of national and international composers in concerts given by Australia's best musicians. Brand-new music is a strong feature: there are 19 world premieres given by a wide and varied range of ensembles. The majority of compositions will not have previously been heard by Australian audiences.


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Anne Chimes In

These concepts are really interesting - especially backed up with new compositions by composers trained in the Western tradition. Chinary Ung's 'Aura', performed on Saturday night in the Aurora Festival was a brilliant example of what can be achieved as 'spirituality' in music by a major composer self-actualising from his ancient Cambodian musical traditions in the context of what is essentially a medium born from the Western tradition - i.e NOTATED COMPOSITION. His music was really beautiful and had a tremendous presence felt by us all in the audience. I felt an unlocking of ancient vistas reflecting the common human condition through the musical gestures used. This seemed really authentic. It did make me wonder if a Westerner (like myself) could ever really access these same traditions (as I have tried to do in the past in works such as 'As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams' - Japan)?


Hello is anyone out there?

I've just come back on-line. Are there any other discussants out there?


The question of who notates and who does not

Nice reflection Anne. But I wish to challenge any potentially hegemonic reinforcing of the West as the originator or leader of notated music. The Hurrian musicians of ancient Mesopotamia have left us stone tablets with notation and scales, including what looks and sounds like an Ionian mode.

I believe the dichotomy of east-west is well beyond its use-by date. Indeed why not northern-southern hemisphere? Surely, we overemphasie notation at the expense of all the vernacular music of the West, that is still resonating through bodily memory and genes?

Michael Atherton

Moderator comment db

Thanks for starting the discussion Anne.

Why shouldn't the composer born and bred in the Western tradition, but attracted to, and in your case, having lived within, other countries and cultures, bring together as rich a musical synergy - but from a different perspective.

Moderator comment db

Michael, would you like to comment on your use of notation (in relation to the issues you raised) in Songs of Stone and Silence, the piece we heard on Saturday night?

Personal Resonance

Hi Anne, I agree with you—Chinary’s Aura was stunning example of how music can connect on a spiritual level with humanity using notation but also interacting with the performer in detailed discussion prior to its performance. I have heard comments after the performance that non-musicians who had not attended new music concerts were stunned by the work. Also, friends of the composer who had travelled to the concert from a far commented to me that the Cambodian resonance in the work spoke deeply to them. Even though I am not of Cambodian background, I can feel a deep empathy for my friends that helps me relate to this music, but also, as a human being I can feel the lift in the music and the tragic undertones in it.

I believe the rich cultures of this region form a resonant context for Pacific creativity that cannot be ignored. These resonances become part of our personal experience and therefore are a part of our creativity. So yes I do think a composer can reverberate musically with the cultures of the Pacific because it is part of their experience—experience drawn from personal friendships and from the sounds/sights/presence of the Pacific which are embedded in us from our existence in this part of the world. However I would think that my comparative experience would be refracted with a European background that would give a flavour to that resonance which differed on an individual level from someone brought up with other cultural references within their home environment. But, our humanity and friendship and sense of the divine at work in the earth can draw us close as people through musical transcendence.

A life of deep listening

14 Apr 08, 5:47pm

Hello Diana,

For me, it's not where you are born but how, when, why and where you listen? As I gravitate towards a biomusicological position about the origins of music, I am reminded that the ears are the first organ to develop in the human foetus. We are in a sense what we listen to and hear, following the we are what we eat maxim. Practising composers perhaps listen and respond more acutely than others and spend their life's journey communicating with themselves and others. To be born in one place/culture/time/culture and want to speak with/ through/conjoin with the listening patterns of another is inevitable and desirable.


Moderator getting anxious db

Would anyone like to comment on how some of the post-graduates draw on ideas from their own Western culture - Baroque chorale, Golden Mean - and some from outside their own culture - Aboriginal artwork, birdsong?

I'm unsure of how astronomy is drawn into one PG composer's work.

The sounding body

Diana, in response, my song cycle heard on Saturday is largely a through-composed work. I spent a long time listening to the singers and tried to imagine the embodiment of their voices and the link between the poetry and kthe rock engravings. The spoken text of David Campbell's poetry was scored on single line staves with instructions that were used as a dialogue for discussion in rehearsal. Specific stage movements are specified in the score but space did not permit us to include this. The bass clarinet and cello have some outlining here and there inthe parts, which we workshopped. I wanted to capture the individual bodily responses of the musicians in the soundworld of the piece, also having poetry to be felt as moving between speech and song.


The avian explorer


Hollis Taylor work's on the pied butcher bird is an example of an imagination at work that Messiaen would be proud to meet. Hollis has listened to, recorded and engaged with birds across the continent. It is leading to a rich compositional output and is also shaping as a remarkable scientific achievement.


Scores and Essences

Hi Michael - Yes I know that there are examples of music captured in a form of notation in earlier civilisations but the Western modern development of notation (since Guido especially) and accelerated by the use of the printing press and now amazingly with computers, I've started to think of as rather like film as a medium for capturing musical images and ideas. However the experiences of the composer and their skill in capturing such sounds is vital. We are searching I think to authenticate ourselves but as composers that is a three-way process involving performers and listeners and their sets of experiences as well. Yet music has this transcendent power to cross over cultural boundaries (like Chinary's music does). That seems very mysterious and perhaps related to the idea that the FIRST language was MUSIC and MUSIC was the first language - reaching way back into the evolutionary spiral. What do you reckon? (Much enjoyed your new work too Michael -beautiful use of the voices - but to be honest would have preferred NOT to have the visual backdrop which I found disturbed rather than enhanced my listening).

Blessings and thanks,


tuning systems

Hi discussants,

I can just offer a brief, rather more technical/methodological comment (before I go for a rehearsal!). Thinking about Asian music relatively naively and broadly before composing music for the festival (which we will play on Friday lunchtime), I decided to focus on tuning systems, since we are familiar with the challenging nature of many widely used scales in Asia and the Pacific, when approached with the ears of an 'equal tempered' Australian or European. As I elaborate in the article I've written with David Brennan and Freya Bailes for the book, I came to the view that I could challenge the hierarchy of octaves, and repeating intervals, which are intrinsic to just about every system, by spreading pitches related to the prime number series (2,3,5,7, etc numbers only divisible by itself). So I use a system up to the 81st prime, where each pitch is (prime number*10)Hz, which quite nicely covers the range of the piano. David pointed out, as Bill Sethares (music perception person), and Wendy Carlos (composer) have, that the instruments used to play such scales may need to have their timbral nature (frequency spectrum) adapted to the scale (i.e. also avoid say 2:1 ratios of frequencies in the dominant partials). I've gone part way towards that by having 5:3 as the dominant pair of partials, where 3 corresponds to the fundamental.

Anyway, the purpose was to challenge listeners to establish their own concept of the melodic, (xen)harmonic, and other pitch features of the piece, and hopefully to engage a novel kind of listening and response. I'm quite pleased with the result, and the piece also has a stimulating text which is heard, written by Hazel Smith, my partner. It's called Ubasuteyama, and is about a Japanese tradition in which an ancient 'grandma' is carried up the mountain by her son, and left to die. You may have seen Imamura's powerful film on the tradition.

So generalising, I think there is an infinite array of possible approaches to responding to and being influenced by the music of other cultures. Like Michael, I'm very interested in the evolutionary and perceptual backgrounds, but confident that a composer can choose almost any approach to using their experience of other musics to stimulate their composition.



P.S. If there are responses to this, I will have to reply after the appointed time for this session...

Song images

I was intrigued, Michael, by your use of the visual images during the performance of the song cycle. At times I found the images distracting and found myself closing my eyes to concentrate on the music, but the images were so beautifully linked to the text, you found yourself drawn to them. Maybe if the room were bigger, it would have been easier to view them, but it was a brilliant concept. There's been a few performances I've been to lately with visuals, but none for voice. I really loved it.



Hi Anne,

To my view, I agree and appreciate your angle regarding the issue. Every individual regardless of any culture does have an infinite capacity to open a sense of spirituality in music. Music alone does not have the power to articulate (spirituality) as such, but music has the nuts and bolts and muscle, or a medium for spirituality. Spirituality is already a state of the individuality. Composing to me is a partial trance state; without inducing this type of trance state, one only experiences one dimension. So in a way, I am claiming a partial trance state. This does not mean you have to lose your consciousness, you still know what a major triad is! This state is a heightened alerted-ness of the consciousness—a state of mind—which of course, that means you are really awakening, bringing forth the sub-conscious mind. The sub-conscious and conscious are on the same level—meaning Oneness.

What happens when one is able to do this, to experience this? In speaking for myself, when I am fortunate to experience that state, I prefer to follow hints instead of trying to control a composition itself. That is—no control. This is not all, from here after I am becoming an observer on my own art, of my own sketch, I am only rooming—keeping—those emerging hints for a few days, and if those hints signal to me that things are almost right—it IS right in my art.

Why? Personally I believe that evaluation involves our daily, our rational mind evaluating the deepest sub-conscious dimension. Therefore the rational mind does not possess a mechanism that is actually capable of doing the evaluation of any art-form. It doesn’t go deep enough. So….listen to hints.

The Muse Within

Yes, I agree Chinary. I feel very similarly when composing. I loose all sense of myself - of time passing and also feel the presence of 'the other person' in the room and as though one is merely medium for the transmission of musical ideas. I often say that my best music is my best listening - when it suffers 'noise' is when I get in the way of the communicative process as a kind of interference and the music is less good as a consequence. Another way of saying that perhaps is that Music comes directly from God - a gift of the Holy Spirit. Marin Luther and JS Bach both believed that. But YOU are the first person I've known able to articulate these things so clearly. THANK YOU! Your listening evidenced in 'Aura' is SUPERB and deeply moving.


Moderator comment

Thanks to Anne, Michael, Roger, Cathy and Chinary for thoughtful discussion on this E-Forum - Music of the Spirit Concerts.

continuing the discussion + thankyou

Thank you to Diana for moderating our very first e-forum!

And thanks to Bruce, Anne, Michael, Roger, Cathy and Chinary for their interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

This e-forum initiated a discussion to be continued live at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre at Penrith, NSW this Friday 18th April as part of the Aurora Festival's Music of the Spirit Concerts.

More info about the Music of the Spirit Concerts can be found at the festival's website.

Feel free to continue this online discussion by adding your thoughts and ideas!

And don't forget to check out tonight's forum. Panel member's include Garth Paine, Andrian Pertout, Michael Atherton, Houston Dunleavy, Roger Dean and Chinary Ung.

Tonight's online forum takes place here.