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18 December 2009

Moorambilla Festival - this is what it’s all about!

MaxedOut participants at the 2009 Moorambilla festival. Image: MaxedOut participants at the 2009 Moorambilla festival.  

Composer Daniel Walker writes about his long-term involvement with the Moorambilla festival.

Australian choral music is thriving in the realm of the amateur ensemble. Primary and secondary schools, children's choir organisations, community choirs and festivals throughout the country are regularly commissioning new and often daring works. Established composers are recognising that it is very much a valid medium in which to work, providing its own set of challenges and rewards. As a result, a wealth of quality Australian vocal music is amassing rapidly, and an ever-growing number of budding young musicians are embracing our choral tradition.

As both a conductor and composer, I work with numerous ensembles involving children and young people in Sydney, and am enjoyably entrenched in the world of music for young musicians. It's without surprise, then, that, like any self-respecting Australian art music advocate, I find myself shamelessly promoting my own works, along with those of other choral composers, to choirs across the country. We are now seeing more music commissioned for amateur musicians than professionals, thanks to the growing number of conductors and music educators actively pursuing and supporting Australian music. One must wonder if this growing canon will be instrumental in shaping the future musical landscape of this country.

Moorambilla festival is the brainchild of its artistic director Michelle Leonard. It has been taking new Australian music to the streets of Coonamble, NSW, for the last four years. The festival draws together community choirs from Sydney as well as regional centres from across the state. Professional instrumental ensembles and choirs of children audition from the vast area that is North-Western NSW; from Walgett to White Cliffs, Brewarrina to Baradine, Coonabarabran and of course Coonamble.

Moorambilla 2009 has been its largest and most successful incarnation to date, and witnessed the commissioning of new large-scale works from eminent Australian composers, such as Elena Kats-Chernin and the 2009 Lowin Award-winner Andrew Schultz. This festival is by no means the first of its kind with a regional focus; the Gondwana Choirs organisation, with their artistic dynamo Lyn Williams, has been drawing together the finest young musicians Australia-wide for their National Choral School program for many years. Now, however, composers are finding their works commissioned, workshopped and performed exclusively to a country audience. In an area where the likes of Cold Chisel and Slim Dusty reign supreme (never more evidently than on a festival karaoke night), Australian art music is flooding the cultural desert.

For each of the four years the festival has been in existence, I too have written new 'As Moorambilla grows each year, so does the challenge of writing an effective work that showcases the ability and diversity of its participants.'works, custom-designed for whatever vocal and instrumental forces are available. As composer in residence, this process has provided me the opportunity to work with participating musicians from day one of initial workshop sessions right through to the evening gala performance - the highlight of the festival weekend.

As Moorambilla grows each year, so does the challenge of writing an effective work that showcases the ability and diversity of its participants. Of course the usual constraints apply: tight rehearsal schedule, limited bump-in/bump-out time, accessibility of the music for performers and audience members alike, and - perhaps most pertinently - dealing with a multitude of kids who are often more accustomed to dirt-biking around on the family property than pulling together a multi-movement festival piece under the aforementioned circumstances. These new works are a true collaboration between the young singers and myself; conceived and developed through composition workshops and creative writing sessions. Themes always draw on the experiences and traditions of the local communities, and, as a result, the kids attain a real sense of ownership and purpose in the performance of the works. The enthusiasm and excitement, shared by all festival-goers, young and old, is highly contagious and the entire project has become a highlight of my professional year.

The most recent addition to the Moorambilla bill is the MAXed Out program, catering to musicians of high-school age, and engaging them in a broader range of musical and multimedia activities. While covering the basics, such as simple vocal technique and musicianship (both essential to creating a polished choral performance), skills such as digital photography and post-production, sound sculpting using software such as Ableton Live, and instrumental improvisation are also developed and incorporated into the final product. At a time when adolescent voices can be a little unpredictable, the ability to assign a fabulous young 14-year-old musician (with the vocal range of a minor third), a midi controller, set of percussion mallets, or a mixing desk, is invaluable. Like all new collaborative processes, comfort zone boundaries are constantly being tested and exciting musical material is occasionally forged from some of the unlikeliest of sources. This is what it's all about, folks!

In 2009, MAXed Out group worked with ensemble in residence TaikOz, festival director Michelle Leonard and myself to create Yowie!, a 20-minute electroacoustic work based on the legends surrounding the infamous creature dwelling in the Pilliga Scrub. Now I must admit that I was a little hazy on my Yowie folklore, so I did some research. The Pilliga Scrub is a vast expanse of state forest, similar in size to greater Sydney. A lot of it remains relatively unexplored and, apart from being bisected by the Newell Highway, is devoid of people. Tales exist, though, of a creature living deep within the scrub. Its guises are as diverse as the stories that surround it: the local Gamiliroy people believed it to be a benevolent spirit, 'Yuri woman', protecting the forest. Truckies have been known to drive on a blown tyre for hundreds of kilometres for fear of stopping in the forest in the dead of night. Whatever version of the story you choose to believe, the Yowie is a major player in the region's history. All of this lent itself well to providing ample subject matter for a new composition.

In my years as a featured Moorambilla composer, one thing I am constantly impressed with is the willingness of these kids to always give new things a go. In a part of the world where tall poppy syndrome runs its most rampant, these musicians seem to be able to defy the social propensity to never express yourself artistically for fear of ridicule. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has been dubbed 'the shame factor', and it is one of the reasons why getting participants in through the door for that first rehearsal is often so difficult. We're lucky enough, now, that with the growth and success of the festival, word on the street is beginning to suggest that it may not be such an uncool thing to do after all. Numbers of singers increase, and familiar faces return year after year. This has a lot to do with the never-say-die, take-no-for-an-answer educational approach of Leonard, as it is she who travels the thousands of kilometres to audition children in schools, provides bursaries to the many participants unable to independently fund their own way into the program, and coordinates their travel to and from the event.

It's also due to the calibre of featured instrumentalists who work closely with the participants in MAXed Out. In 2009, the discipline and ritualism demonstrated by TaikOz provided a focus that went beyond learning the new, often quite complex drumming patterns required for Yowie!, ultimately affecting the participants' attitude and bringing a sense of cohesion to the group. There is an air of positivity and encouragement surrounding the entire festival, a welcome relief for many kids coming from one of the toughest social environments in the country.

The future of the Moorambilla Festival is a little uncertain. While it continues to move from strength to strength, securing the funding to this project and many others like it becomes more and more difficult. Only through the success of Moorambilla and the ongoing commitment of similar organisations such as the Gondwana Choirs will Australian composers continue to have a far-reaching voice and be given the opportunity to present newly commissioned works to an extraordinarily captivated audience.

Further links

Dan Walker - AMC profile
Moorambilla Festival (www.moorambilla.com/)

Dan Walker has been composer in residence at the 2006-08 Moorambilla festivals, held in Coonamble. He has had works commissioned and performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, The Song Company, Gondwana Voices, Queensland Youth Choir, the Murrumbidgee Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. He is the current Assistant Conductor for Sydney Children's Choir and Gondwana Voices


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