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18 December 2009

One man’s dream continues in song

the Myall Park community music initiative by The Australian Voices and Clocked Out Duo

Participants of the Myall Park Open Day Image: Participants of the Myall Park Open Day  
© www.stephenleek.com

Jocelyn Wolfe, board member of both The Australian Voices and Clocked Out Duo, writes about the Myall Park community music initiative - a recent collaborative project between the two ensembles.

When Vanessa Tomlinson, co-director of Clocked Out Duo, says she has an idea, you can bet your bottom dollar that it is not going to be ordinary. Her decision to take on the Myall Park Botanic Garden Open Day celebrations as a community music project led to another success story for her and co-director Erik Griswold, who have set a high benchmark in Australia for innovative new music events.

Spurred on by the enthusiasm and support of Miles Arts Council and Murilla Shire Council representatives Ann and Ted Gibbons, Tomlinson and Griswold teamed up with members of the Myall Park Botanic Garden Board and celebrated vocal ensemble The Australian Voices, under the artistic direction of Stephen Leek, to put together the Garden's 2009 Open Day. How fitting it was to have the garden founder David Gordon's passion for Australian native flora celebrated through sumptuous textures of the Griswold sound palette and choral timbres of The Australian Voices.

According to Ann Gibbons, 'It all began by Vanessa mentioning The Australian Voices choir, and how good they were, and how they would love a trip into the bush. I was captivated straight away. We knew that we, in the bush, would love such an experience - but we felt they would be out of reach!'

This proved not to be the case. With the help of Q150 funding (Queensland celebrated 150 years of independence from New South Wales on 10 December 2009) and private donations, the Myall Park community music project, under the direction of Vanessa Tomlinson, came to fruition, and Ann got what she wanted for the Myall Park Open Day.

Myall Park was established by David Gordon AM (1899-2001), a passionate amateur botanist and lover of Australian plants. It began as his grazing property, and, in the early 1940s, he started to nurture his dream garden on the ridge behind his home.

The country here doesn't immediately lend itself to a gardenesque theme or dream. The gently undulating scrub lies six-and-a-half hours west of Brisbane, near a small but welcoming township (a pub, a post office and a public toilet) of Glen Morgan. On Open Day, a hot blustery northerly blew dust in our faces. Clad with hats and sunnies, we Brisbane visitors adjusted our gaze to take in the bush in the shimmering heat. Gradually, the garden emerged. No, not rows and rows of grevilleas and other bushes laden with flowers, but here and there around the 90 hectares, we spotted from the meandering paths spectacular bursts of yellows and reds of the grevilleas and their native cousins.

David Gordon created new plants by hybridising certain grevillea species. He named them after his daughters: Grevillea 'Robyn Gordon', Grevillea 'Sandra Gordon' and Grevillea 'Merinda Gordon'. His wife, Dorothy, was an excellent artist - her masterful watercolours capture those and other Australian flowers on the walls of the contemporary gallery, which now resides in the grounds of the garden. In 1988, David Gordon's enthusiasm for the garden resulted in the establishment of the non-profit company Myall Park Botanic Garden Ltd, with a dedicated committee of family and friends. It was meeting Ann and Ted Gibbons from Miles, and this dynamic group of people from the bush, including daughters, Sandra and Miranda, that inspired Vanessa Tomlinson to take action.

Community events, according to Tomlinson, only happen through the enthusiasm of individuals. In this case the individuals, Ann and Ted Gibbons, were known to her through the 'Sounding the Condamine' project. The two projects are distinctly different and attracted very different audiences, but the artistic and supportive drive of the Gibbonses is a very tangible link. Tomlinson recounts:

'During a research trip out west for the Condamine project, Ann Gibbons convinced me to take a drive out to Myall Park Botanic Gardens with the hope that I would fall under the spell of the place. In all honesty, I was disappointed when I first arrived. The lack of signposts and order - my expectation for a flowing experience of a botanical garden - surprised me, and it was hard to see the place as much more than a protected national park. However, when the stories started coming out - about David Gordon, his wife Dorothy, the children, the tragedies, the botanic drawings, the scale of the project, the seed bank etc. - I became a dreamer of possibilities.'

Vanessa reveals that one of the inspirations to be involved in the project came from the desire to 'illuminate a part of the garden to others, to provide a signpost of sorts, to become an insider'. The main key to this is the new work that Erik Griswold undertook to compose, for The Australian Voices and Clocked Out Duo, that explored the flowers in bloom at the time of the performance. These can be seen as a series of odes to the particularity of each species, bringing to the musical canvas 'the breadth of the bush, the size of the ...idea of illuminating the garden through music to enable others to 'see' it provided the artistic direction for the project.branches, the reaching of the flowers, and the intricate winding of each flower, so special in grevilleas'.

It would be easy to plunder metaphors here, but I'll spare the reader the agony and let the composer Erik Griswold speak for himself:

'Using images of the various flowers in bloom at Myall Park, I responded to the distinctive morphology of all the varieties of grevillea flowers, as well as their colourful names, sometimes riffing off a rhythm suggested by the Latin tongue twisters, or else "anthropomorphising" them according to particular features. I imagined that these little songs could be sung to the grevilleas, and might make them grow better! Also I wanted to celebrate the uniqueness of the various species, some of which were cultivated right in Myall Park. The titles include the hypnotic and forlorn 'Chrithmifolia', the conflicted 'Paradoxa', the hillbilly blues 'Thelemanniana', 'Triloba', 'Sericea' bossa nova, and of course the triumphant, 'The Gordons'.

Vanessa Tomlinson's idea of illuminating the garden through music to enable others to 'see' it provided the artistic direction for the project. Alongside that, she was curious to find out how they would all sound in the bush:

'The Australian Voices are an extremely experienced choir when it comes to interpreting the Australian bush within the confines of a concert hall, but does it still work when placed in the actual bush - away from the support of a manufactured acoustical shell? The amazing thing was that it did work. Singing of the dirt, standing in the dirt, was a remarkable thing. Singing through dirt is not every singer's dream, but it is clearly part of the land's demand on music making, and many vocal traditions have survived in these conditions. If the scaffolding is taken away, what happens to the music? That is always important to me, and was tested thoroughly in the Myall Park process.'

Stephen Leek shares Tomlinson's views: 'We're always singing about that part of the world to the rest of the world, but very few of the singers have actually been there … in the red dust. Singing in the dirt was something truly memorable!'

Readers might be interested to know how it all did sound. What was the music like that Tomlinson conceived, that Griswold produced, that TAV sang, that the community was involved in?

Erik Griswold's set of six 'floral' compositions came across as striking choral pieces that have that 'Griswold touch' of something original - without pretention. Musical tributes to gardens haven't always inspired me personally (and I do hope that Erik's garden work doesn't end up best-known for selling frozen vegies, as one by Percy Grainger did) but these pieces are worthy of more attention. A dab hand at creating musical canvases of layered rhythms and charismatic melodies, Griswold makes an intelligent contribution to contemporary Australian choral music.

The Australian Voices rendered the songs with their usual flair, plus some. It was, in addition to the Open Day celebrations, the swansong of Stephen Leek as artistic director and conductor of TAV. How they performed with such energy and precision, I can only surmise, has something to do with the magnetism of Leek's conducting. Perspiration splattered the dirt but the applause of the gathered crowd assured that the performance and the songs themselves were much appreciated. In the words of Chair of Myall Park Botanic Garden, Dorinda Schwennesen, 'They [The Australian Voices and Clocked Out Duo] entertained and inspired and it was just magical, listening to the newest trends in choral singing. … We were honoured to have world class musicians perform for us'.

The whole experience was 'magical', tinged with surreal (because of the hot dusty daze that is now too familiar to many on the east coast of Australia). It was an inspired idea to deliver the songs, not just as a performance brought to the community from afar, but as an integral part of a program of workshops and activities with Open Day attendees, including bird walks and a radio play. Stephen Leek led a playful but intense workshop out in the bush, challenging participants with syncopated rhythms as the grevilleas were 'sounded' in dramatic episodes involving layers of vocal and percussive ostinati (and clouds of the aforementioned dust that rose around our stamping feet!).

In recounting this scene in the bush and Griswold's grevillea-inspired songs, I cannot help but be reminded of the Vincent Plush story of Olivier Messiaen's visit to Australia to gift music for our Bicentenary ('Grand Composer Who Created on the Cheep' - The Australian, 19 August 2008). The most important mission for Messiaen was to find a lyrebird. Plush describes the scene:

' For five successive mornings, the Messiaens crept through Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenongs, outside Melbourne. Messiaen clutched his dog-eared notebooks, Yvonne Loriod fumbled with her battered Nagra portable tape recorder, the rest of us froze in the dawn mist. In this cathedral of nature, no human sound was permitted. Finally, on the fifth expedition, there was a sighting. Messiaen was transfixed. The spell was soon broken when one of our party stepped on a twig, sending the frightened bird scurrying into the sassafras ferns.'

Now here is a nice bit of synergy: Messiaen also had a bird-watching expedition in South East Queensland, led by Sid Curtis. Ian Venables, expedition leader at Myall Park, was on that trip and was able to recount his own version much to the amusement of the participants of the Open Day.

In all, what does an event like this contribute to the dialogue on community music projects? For sure, we have all taken something away from the event that has already become part of our lives - visitors, volunteers, participants, organisers, thinkers and doers alike. Ann Gibbons exclaims: 'We expected something awesome and that's what we got! The community is still talking about it!'

From my perspective, as visitor on the day and supporter of community music projects, I see the success of the project in terms of quality: quality of people and quality of the artistic process. Vanessa Tomlinson affirms that people qualities were crucial to her becoming involved:

'There are people on the land who are considerate about music and art, people who can distinguish detail in birdsong, observe nuance in plant species, people who have all the sensitivities that musicians need. To be able to bring some really well-prepared and

If I can do justice to all involved in summing this up, I will say that it takes people like Vanessa Tomlinson who can be 'a dreamer of possibilities' and willing to be 'an insider', to bring about the best results. It takes a community with an open door policy, with people like Ann and Ted Gibbons, and dedicated volunteers, who not only have a common community goal That trust, in this case, allowed those steering to let go the reins enough to allow creative and artistic processes to grow themselves, without imposing the debilitating 'genre' ball and chain.but wish to share the goal with others in a way that allows 'others' to become part of it - to let 'outsiders' in. This is not easy; we humans have that animal quality that makes us suspicious of strangers: it's easy to feel aloof going to a small rural community from 'the big smoke' and it's easy for rural communities to be impenetrable because of their unique circumstances. Success in this community collaboration story really does come down to that quality that resounds in the community music-making discussion: the quality of relationships built in the artistic process. Of course, relationships are built on trust. That trust, in this case, allowed those steering to let go the reins enough to allow creative and artistic processes to grow themselves, without imposing the debilitating 'genre' ball and chain.

The Griswold suite for grevilleas, and its performance, was something refreshing, original, edgy, well crafted and well executed. And the process did everything that community music projects are about: it crossed boundaries and reflected cultures (music, art, nature, botany, conservation, history), time and place.

This brings to my mind something of a paradox in the broader investigation into community music-making. Understandably, a lot of effort has been made to find models and factors that characterise successful community music ventures. Of no less importance though, is the very uniqueness of each community or region that almost defies a model - the artistic originality that can result from this uniqueness in the collaborative process, and the remarkable insights gained from each unique circumstance. Music grown in a particular place, of a particular place. This is what defined 'Australian' music in the early years of European settlement in Australia, and so the original music that comes out of community 'encounters' (to borrow from Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre) such as these can continue to celebrate the unique qualities in Australian music.

Further links

'It can't get any better than this: Stephen Leek and a new culture of choral music' - a Journal article by Helen Lancaster
Clocked Out (www.clockedout.org/)
The Australian Voices (www.theaustralianvoices.com/)

Jocelyn Wolfe is a music studies tutor and PhD student at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, and also works as a freelance editor. She is an advocate for new Australian music and community engagement in the Arts and is on the Board of two dynamic ensembles: Clocked Out Duo and The Australian Voices.


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