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Blog: Griffyn’s Swedish Experience

So what is making news this morning? Again, we wake up to discover our political leaders are obsessed with who arrives and doesn’t arrive in our island home. How does migration of contemporary music compare? Are our borders wide open, or do we fear a ‘slow drip invasion’ of new works from overseas?

OK – so it’s easy to exaggerate political rhetoric and comparisons! However, fostering cross-cultural learnings and exchanges were the exact motives behind the Griffyn Ensemble’s first festival – the Water Into Swïne Festival, a collaboration with Swedish group the Pearls Before Swïne Experience, which has just finished in Canberra – and we would like to share some of it with you.

But first – let’s look at some first principles:

Australia is a big place. To the untrained observer it can appear empty. Whether we like it or not, the outside eye often describes us as ‘exotic’: a country full of poisonous animals, mining billionaires, jumping kangaroos, and surf lifesavers. Are we an international country? We like to think so, even if we do seem to want to keep the Aussie reality as our little secret – and this seems to be OK by us all.

And at the ‘heart’ of Australia is our national capital, Canberra. And we Canberrans have our secrets too. We are quite happy for the rest of the country to think that all Canberra has is politics, porn, and fireworks, as this attitude has allowed a fertile underbelly of artistic freedom to develop. It has provided a cover for generations of independent artists – musicians, composers, playwrights, printmakers, and glass-artists to name a few – to escape the artistic trends and currents that inevitably flow through cities of a higher density with a higher national profile. Those in Canberra know that there is something incredibly special here, and we love it.

So, enter the Griffyn Ensemble, our band of six musicians: flute, clarinet, composer, harp, percussion, and soprano (cue self-promotion). Currently in our 8th year, we have performed over 50 Australian premieres from composers across the globe, over 15 world premieres, and dozens of new interpretations of old works. We regularly get 200+ Canberrans joining us in our adventures through contemporary music, including our 70 loyal subscribers to our annual season of carefully curated musical events (e.g. Cloudy With a Chance of Rain – part weather-forecast/part concert; Behind Bars – music from concentration camps; etc.). We will play anything from anywhere – whether it is new works by Australian composers, old works by Mexican avant-gardists, reinventions of Burt Bacharach, folk-oratorios by cultural hero Mikis Theodorakis, or new works by some of Estonia’s most innovative composers. And we’ll work with anyone – as astronomer Fred Watson and weatherman Rob Gell can attest! Basically, we love music, and we love sharing it in creative formats that illustrate its cultural context. So where to next?

To Sweden of course! The Swedes have their own secrets, and we are not talking about ABBA, and blonde/blue-eyed/long-legged tourists. Why not bring one of their secrets over to Canberra? So enter The Pearls Before Swïne Experience (a band of four piggies – flute, violin, cello, piano). The Swine as they like to be called (since the pieces are the Pearls) are Scandinavia’s top new music group, who have commissioned more than 120 works from 21 countries in their 18-year history. And they do cool things like play music in pubs and get the audience to complete maths puzzles while they play their pieces. So we thought we would bring them over to Canberra and have a festival – the Water Into Swïne Festival, eight events over ten days during Easter.

What eventuated was an experience that I, as a composer and musician, could have only dreamt of – a feeling shared by my colleagues and reported by our audience. Put two groups of creative people from different corners of the globe into a room, shake the room up a bit, leave them in there for a while (not quite to the point of cabin fever!), and it’s likely that something radical will happen. And it did – whilst having a lot of fun in the process! We heard new works by Swedish and Australian composers; we were pushed to play with electronics in ways that Griffyn hadn’t quite done before; and we experimented with different concert forms – an Easter Vigil, a Last Supper recreation, a film-music concert, an Easter Feast, and an April Fool’s concert where audiences had to answer questions about contemporary music for day-old Easter bunnies as prizes. And it all came together with an abundance of energy – only afterwards did we realise how significant the event(s) actually were. And the audience had a pretty damn good time as well!

As a band of musicians we learned an incredible amount from all this frantic exchange and performance (cue dot-points):

  • Repertoire: we love looking for music from all over the world at Griffyn, and we’ve looked at a lot of really cool Swedish works – but to be able to hear them performed by musicians who have worked closely with them was eye-opening and useful for future programming. Likewise, we introduced really cool Australian works to Swedish musicians.
  • Exchange: working in a cross-cultural environment is kind of a musician’s and composer’s lifeblood – to be able to develop partnerships with groups overseas creates an extremely fertile creative bond between the groups, which could give rise to anything in the future.
  • Boundaries: there are great musicians in Australia who inspire us. However, working closely with great musicians within an international context really sets your mind to push the boundaries of what is possible. It also makes you realise that what we are all doing actually matters to people all around the world.
  • Identity: through working so closely with a different group, Griffyn started to realise exactly ‘who’ we are – what our strengths are, and what our weaknesses.
  • Density: we successfully programmed an incredibly dense amount of events of contemporary music within 10 days in Canberra. And it worked – people came and were not afraid. As the wise pig once said ‘audiences can smell fear’. Do not be afraid!
  • Comparison: seeing how an overseas group rehearses contemporary music was incredibly different to how Australian groups rehearse – and we found this incredibly illuminating and useful. As a composer, it was fascinating to have the Swine interpret a piece I wrote for them differently than an Australian ensemble would. Different cultures, different ways. And we learn and steal/borrow.

The future? The wishlist right now is a little too large – but that’s a good thing (and Sweden’s not too far away). What is sure is that Griffyn will continue this musical migration program, both as an exporter and importer. And why not? Just because Australia sits at the bottom of the Earth doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to be a musical gateway to the world. And what better place to do this than our nation’s capital (wink wink – or as the Swine would say, oink oink).

And some belated Easter Eggs from the Festival to finish with! Hear Griffyn and the Swine get in the ABC Studio for a political cover of Prince(!). See the Swine perform the world premiere of Australian composer Michael Sollis’s Water Into Swïne (YouTube). See Swedish composer Marcus Fjellstrom’s film-music project Odboy and Erodog performed by the Swine (YouTube).:

Blog: It’s a small Galaxy After All

Later this month I’m directing the Australian premiere of a performance with astronomical proportions (quite literally) – a musical exploration of the Southern Sky from The Griffyn Ensemble and astronomer Fred Watson, under the stars at the ruins of Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra before performing in Melbourne and Bendigo. It’s fitting that a piece of music of such ambition has reminded me of how small a world we actually live in – from Estonia to Australia – through the bizarre series of coincidences which allowed the work to ‘come home’:

Last September whilst in Tallinn, Estonia, I contacted a few composers of works who I had performed or had programmed with Griffyn (that Estonia has produced the wealth of composers, conductors, and musicians which have been exported across the globe is in itself remarkable). One of the composers was the maverick Urmas Sisask – a legend in Estonia known throughout the world for his choral works. Only a few weeks before that meeting, Griffyn had performed the Aussie premiere of his Zodiac suite, and his music was intriguing – relentlessly original, connected to astronomy, and beautiful and bizarre at the same time – the kind of material that the Griffyn Ensemble laps up.

After a series of confused emails (Urmas does not speak English and I do not speak Eesti) we arranged to meet in the Hotel café, and I seconded a friend of mine, the lovely Kristel Pedak to translate. We discussed his theories of music and astronomy, the musical observatory that he built in rural Tallinn, and towards the end, my home town of Canberra. To this, he excitedly exclaimed ‘oh yes, that is where the big telescope was’ (a messy translation – it took a while to work out exactly what each other were saying!). As it turned out, Urmas had been to Australia about 15 years earlier under the commission of Estonian House to visit observatories and Aboriginal rituals around Australia and write the second of his Starry Sky Piano Cycles – ‘Southern Sky’. He was particularly inspired by his time at Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra, before it burnt down during the infamous bush fires of 2003.

The intrigue of Southern Sky continued: although it was inspired by Urmas’ time in Australia, based on Australian rituals and astronomy, and frequently performed around the world, it had never been performed in Australia. The piece had a lot of allegory to Aboriginal mythology concerning bushfires, and Urmas performed the piece in Estonia a week before the Bush Fires ravaged Mt Stromlo in 2003. With an uncanny coincidence, he dedicated that work to the people of Canberra (the irony was not missed by Estonian Newspapers who reported the Canberra bushfires in the following week).
My interest at this point was sky high (excuse the pun). Upon returning to Australia I purchased the music and found it to be a work of indescribable quality – like much of Estonia and it’s music, and naturally falling into Griffyn’s unique instrumentation.

But fate still had a role to play in bringing Southern Sky to Australia – I contacted astronomer Fred Watson to see if he wanted to collaborate in the Australian premiere of the work in the burnt-out ruins of Mt Stromlo Observatory – a fitting tribute to the composer, and the observatory which inspired him. I had never met Fred before, but had frequently heard him on ABC Radio, and always found him incredibly engaging and fascinating to listen to. I also knew he had a musical interest, having worked with Australian composer Ross Edwards (which incidentally, was the only Australian composer Urmas was familiar with when we met last year). Fred then informed me that he was about to embark on a tour of Northern Europe in search of the Northern Lights – and he had already hoped to meet Urmas during this trip, being familiar with his interest in Astronomy and Music – of course a meeting was arranged, and the rest will become history!

The Griffyn Ensemble perform Southern SkySo, we are now a few weeks out from the premiere of Southern Skies, and it’s exciting to be able to bring this work back to Australia for the first time, performing it under the stars at Mt Stromlo Observatory, and then making our Griffyn debut to Melbourne and Bendigo. This is music – Estonia and Australia sharing new art through the medium of the constellations – a living tradition, a shared language, and a connection between people and places. The stars really have seemed to align.

The Griffyn Ensemble: Southern Sky
Canberra: Mt Stromlo Observatory, Fri 30th March 7:30pm – Purchase here!
Melbourne: Gasworks Studio Theatre, Sat 31st March 8pm - Purchase here!
Bendigo: Discovery Science & Technology Centre, Sun 1st April 5pm - Purchase here!
More details about the concerts here