Interweaving new Australian choral music with contemporary dance is taking composer Andrew Howes and choreographer Jacob Williams into new territory at Moorambilla residential camps in 2015.
“Narran Lakes was what I call an ‘ice bath’ to my system,” says Andrew. “I jumped off the plane straight from the intensity of London and drove on the same day to the utter stillness of the lakes. It was exactly what I needed – and I didn’t know that until I got there! The stillness was the best thing. It was so dense and yet also clear.”
Andrew has just graduated in composition at the Royal College of Music in London with first class honours. He got on a plane to meet Artistic Director Michelle Leonard and fellow artists at Narran Lakes.
“At the end of the Narran Lakes journey, I hadn’t settled on any ideas but my mind was full of thoughts and fragments – mental thoughts and notes – that’s how composition works for me,” says Andrew.
“Michelle invites us to play inside our brains. To come up with ways to generate ideas – connecting story and landscape, and how those stories connect to each other.”
“I like more of a formal structure,” says Jacob. “I want a framework at the beginning and I’m eager for the composers to commence writing and committing to ideas so I can start drawing inspiration from their work.”
“At Moorambilla the children in our rehearsals create movements through choreographic activities that I devise and then the composers draw from the movements to create music. We create the movement and music simultaneously, frequently checking in with each other and watching each other’s rehearsals so that we create a holistic piece.”
Moorambilla composers work under the pressure of time – they have the children for only 3-4 days which generally means writing music overnight. “How do I feel about that?,” says Andrew. “Well I don’t believe in writers block!” he laughs.
“No seriously, I tend to think that you can make music out of anything if you can see possibilities – and Michelle thinks the same way which is why I really love working with her. There are thousands of possible ways to turn a bad idea around. We find the first good idea and improvise on that. It helps that all of the other Moorambilla artists are incredibly skilled music interpreters and fast sight readers!”
“I needed to know the level of expertise in the choir, so I sent a vocal exercise to Michelle to work out the level of the MAXed OUT choir. I am pleased to say they were at the highest level of my expectation,” says Andrew.
To create the choral piece, called Go To the Bend in the River, Andrew talked with Rhonda Ashby, Lightning Ridge Language Nest Language Consultant. “Rhonda said something that really struck me,” says Andrew. “When she told me the creation story, she said that Baime went to the bend in the river, to the black dirt, to cut off the waterway deep underground. This is the Narran River with all its billabongs, and he knew he could stop the crocodiles there.
“I didn’t necessarily want to depict that actual story but I wanted to find something within it that I connected with. So I wrote a piece using that imagery. The piece is really about about searching and finding lost things.
“I used the Gamilaroi language that Rhonda Ashby gave me – and focused on two words in particular –yanaaya (go) and baanaga-y (run). “
The resulting piece, ‘Go to the Bend on the River’ is written for the MAXed OUT choir, with its own chamber choir, Song Company, piano and drums. Andrew will also orchestrate a string quartet, sax and shakuhachi between the August residency and the rehearsals for the September performance.
When it became time to work with Jacob Williams to create a dance piece, Jacob was already looking at floor work.
“I wanted more work on the floor this year to showcase the developing sophistication of the teenagers,” says Jacob. “Michelle liked the floor work in rehearsals so that became significant component of the dance, and then I worked with Andrew to create movement based on migratory birds.”
“We identified a smaller group of talented students to create their own choreographic response to the themes of bones, water, sand and birds as well as Frank Wright’s artwork. This movement was then taught to the larger group.”
“Then I manipulated this phrase, altering the movement qualities to reflect an internal rhythm – which meant it was not set to counts. As Andrew composed music for this section, I continued to play with movement, consulting with Michelle, and altering its rhythm until we were all very happy. This was exciting as neither of us had worked so closely with someone else before like this.”
“I call it supported risk taking,” says Andrew. “It’s hard to fail at that.”
“Because we were experimenting together we didn’t feel at risk – we just decided that we would keep working on it until we got it! And we did!” says Jacob.
“I cannot wait to show our audiences what we have created this year. What a remarkable 10th birthday gift!”, says Michelle.
Text and photography: Lliane Clarke