My music-making history is dotted with divergent experimentation across a range of styles and performance platforms from pub rock to jazz bars and concert halls to makeshift performances with Mother Nature as the backdrop. The different styles and performance scenarios often required a different mindset, approach, technique, method or instrumentation. It wasn’t always easy moving around like this—there has been some existential anxiety from time to time—partly because I took on board what people and society said—I respected, and still respect, the opinions of great teachers and musicians. Too often, however, formal music pedagogs point in one direction while practicing musicians point in the other. When you study music formally you are generally encouraged to make a stylistic choice. What would happen if this changed—if you were encouraged to embrace the ‘All and Everything of Music’ to borrow from the great jazz musician George Russell’s ‘All and Everything of Tonality’, who borrowed from George Gurdgieff’s ‘All and Everything’ spiritual philosophy? I’m not entirely sure, but it feels right to explore the possibilities. Sounds Across Oceans is an evolving music education program that embraces the cultural background, stylistic tastes and enthusiasms of all participants by building ideas together through collaboration, improvisation and stylistic experimentation. Through this I believe we can establish a framework for exploring the boundless nature of music and have a lot of fun in the process. This doesn’t dilute the power of stylistic choice or specialisation. On the contrary, it nurtures, perhaps even liberates us so we can go deeper into that which we love.
The Mexican Experience
I first began to sense the potential for a universal approach to music-making during my time in Mexico while working at La Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan between 1999-2003. During my time there I became immersed in Mexican culture through folk music, language and the arts—experiencing a flowing, integrated and integral musical culture that was situated at the core of daily life: music was everywhere and for everyone. Upon my return to Australia I began to compose music inspired by the Mexican experience and examine how I might encapsulate and integrate some of the Mexican chispa (spark) in my teaching. The first iteration of this was the guitar workshop series One World One Music—a synthesis of folk, jazz and classical techniques, compositions and improvisation frameworks designed to give students a broad overview of the diverse and interlocking methods and approaches that can be explored on the guitar. This concept was further developed during my time as guitar tutor at Camp Creative in Bellingen between 2008-2014. During this week-long arts summer school people from all walks of life—from all ages and stages—came together to celebrate creativity in a free and fun way. My job was difficult. I had to find a way to teach students of extremely different skill levels and stylistic backgrounds how to make music together. Gradually, I began to build the skills and confidence to account for and balance distinct skill-sets and tastes and to develop the practical and philosophical music-making mentality that underpins the Sounds Across Oceans approach today.
An Infusion of Formal Research
After completing my masters degree in music, the year I arrived in Mexico, I vowed never to allow the institutional mindset to disrupt or limit my musical explorations again. The Mexican cultural experience had undoubtedly been a much-needed contrast and led to a new surge of creative activity compositionally and philosophically. Fortunately, the evolution of new performative research methods in recent years has laid the foundation for a more practical research methodology—one that can embrace the acquisition of embodied knowledge through playful experimentation and reflexive practice: something more suited to my personality and my art-form than more traditional research approaches. My PhD, awarded in 2015, involved an extensive practical examination of the improvisation process and yielded a range of ideas and perspectives relating to the philosophy, psychology and spirituality of music and music education more broadly. The core themes emerging from the literature on music education relate to the development of education programs that are culturally relevant, foster innovation through experimentation and nurture self-directed and life-long learning. With these themes in mind I began to conceive of a new approach to teaching music—one that explored the integration process with and open heart and mind.
Sounds Across Oceans Thailand was the first project where I employed the music-making approach developed through my PhD research in a multi-instrumental intercultural education context. See video for more info: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wNQSu6S9MI The two week long music-making workshop conducted at Khon Kaen University in Thailand in 2013 involved third year music students from the Thai folk and classical streams as well as students from the Western music stream. Once again I used improvisation as a tool for building and communicating ideas, this time however, it was done collaboratively with the students. From our improvisations a series of compositional frameworks were developed that would, in time, evolve into a repertoire of new music entirely constructed from the students ideas. While many of those ideas emerged from existing materials i.e. chord sequences, scale patterns and adapted excerpts from the student’s personal repertoire the way it all came together ensured the final work reflected a quality of freshness and originality that continues to inspire and inform my research in this field.
The Thai experience has strongly impacted the recent pedagogical experiments being undertaking as part of my Arts Queensland residency at Kedron State High School in Brisbane. At Kedron Sounds Across Oceans has been developed as an educational pilot project for senior music students. The format follows the same approach to musical discovery employed at Khon Kaen leading to the development of an evolving repertoire of original compositions and improvisation frameworks reflective of the student’s cultural sensibilities and tastes. Our recent performance at the Gala concert was received with rapturous applause—a fitting prelude to our upcoming recording sessions.
Sounds Across Oceans BEMAC – Summer Music Education Program
I have had a longstanding and fruitful relationship with BEMAC over the last ten years in my capacity as a performer and collaborator, working with indigenous musicians and artists from diverse ethnic and stylistic backgrounds. These collaborations and the work BEMAC does in general remind me how incredibly rich and colourful Australian culture is today—yet this is not broadly reflected in most music curriculums. In my discussions with BEMAC’s Jo Pratt, Vera Ding and Deb Suckling I sensed a passion, enthusiasm and like-mindedness with regard to the potential of programs like Sounds Across Oceans to add something new to the music education landscape. From these initial discussions the idea emerged to offer Sounds Across Oceans as a summer school music program for the whole community.
In evolving the program we have devised a platform that offers opportunities for uniquely skilled young musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds to come together in open collaboration with leading specialists across a range of instrument groupings. In building a team of mentors for this program we connected with musicians who had broad experience both in world, classical and contemporary spheres as well as a track record of excellence in project development, innovative collaboration, cross-cultural sensitivity and a passion for musical exploration. As many of the musicians involved in this program are people with which I have previously collaborated I knew first hand that we were developing a program that would offer something very special to young Brisbane musicians—something that would generate new ideas, new perspectives and new sounds. I am privileged to be sharing the Sounds Across Oceans journey with Dr Ian O’Brien (winds), Katherine Philp (strings), Dheeraj Shrestha (percussion), Getano Bann (song writing) and Ruth Ghee (voice) and sincerely hope to see you there, either with an instrument or in the audience for our final performance celebrations. For more information on this program go to: http://bemac.org.au/events/sounds-across-oceans-music-holiday-program/
Brisbane, November, 2015.