Corrina Bonshek brings new music to regional Australia

Uniting young musicians in the region

BY LEWIS INGHAM

We would like to welcome Lewis Ingham in his first interview as a CutCommon contributor.

 

Corrina Bonshek feels a responsibility to be an advocate for new music in regional Queensland.

With 39 musicians coming together from across the Tweed Caldera region to perform her new work Song to the Earth, Corrina’s intentions to connect with her surrounds are clear.

Song to the Earth allows audience members to experience the sonic elements of the composition while physically wandering around the musicians, who will perform the piece on the headlands overlooking Coolangatta Beach.

Among the musicians are 25 secondary school students, while innovative ensemble DeepBlue and Synergy Percussion Ensemble founder Michael Askill have collaborated with Corrina for this immersive composition.

Premiering at Bleach* Festival, Song to the Earth features as part of Meredith Elton’s Inherit the Wind project, a community generated performance about the weather that involves a team of 60 creative artists and Tweed Caldera community participants.

Corrina, a Gold Coast artist, chats with CutCommon about her new composition and shares her thoughts on composition in regional Australia.

 

Firstly Corrina, tell us a little about Song to the Earth and how the work ties in with Meredith Elton’s Inherit the Wind.

Song to the Earth is my love song to the planet. It’s scored for 39 musicians (36 string players and three percussionists) who are arranged in a mandala-like pattern. Musically, it pairs wave-like cicada choruses with birdcall-like percussion motives. The last part of the work is an ‘earth cry’, where the earth ‘talks’ back to the birds and cicadas.

I met Meredith Elton last year and there was an immediate synergy. We’ve both experienced a creative boost by living in the Caldera region that stretches from northern NSW to the northern end of the Gold Coast. Meredith invited me to join the creative team on Inherit the Wind as a composer and kindly offered to premiere Song to the Earth as part of this show.

Allowing the audience to wander amongst the performers is an integral part of the performance of this work. What influenced you to present Song to the Earth in this way?

Last year, I saw John Luther Adams’ Sila: Breath of the World staged at the Queensland conservatorium as part of Brisbane Festival. It was the first time I had been to a performance for a wandering audience who were able to get close to the instrumentalists. I had a light-bulb moment where several ideas I had been mulling over for some time came together — the image of flocking birds, an outdoor performance on the Gold Coast, a tremolo chorus of cicada-like string instruments. Seeing this performance spurred me into action.

The musicians will be arranged in a mandala-like pattern, presenting some challenges for the composition process and performance of this work. How does the score for Song to the Earth facilitate this specific arrangement of musicians?

The mandala idea grew very naturally out of the musical vision for the work. I’ve been interested in the motion of flocking birds for years and wanted to explore this kind of pattern in sound. Having the string players in concentric circles allowed for the music to move in specific directions – clockwise, anti-clockwise, or both directions at once. Because there is one circle within another, the sound can also spiral outwards from the inner circle to the outer circle and back again.

To score this, I used a combination of written instructions, graphic symbols for direction and simplified notation where bars denote seconds rather than beats. The score reading session I had with DeepBlue really helped crystallise this notational approach.

My first draft of the score was entirely traditionally notated, but we decided as a group that this would act as a barrier for young musicians who would end up focusing all of their energy on following their music. By comparison, the freer notated sections allow for more spontaneity and physical gesture in the passing of notes. This is very much in keeping with the ethos of DeepBlue as an ensemble. They have a very physical performance style that is especially suited to bringing out this quality of the work.

Twenty-five secondary school musicians from the Gold Coast are included in the 39 musicians performing the work. Why was community participation in Song to the Earth important to you?

I’m interested in building audiences for new art music in this region. Working with young performers is one way to do this. They get to learn new skills and gain a better understanding of new art music and how it can connect with their neighbourhood. Their parents also get to experience this when they come to hear the performance. This triples the amount of people who gain an appreciation and understanding of new art music in a single project.

Find out what people in the community are passionate about. Listen to them and notice whether you feel inspired by this, too.

How did DeepBlue and Michael Askill assist these students in preparing for the performance of this work?

DeepBlue and Michael Askill are both highly skilled at working with young performers. They guided them in interpreting the score, workshopping movements, teaching them new techniques, and they also perform alongside them in the show, which gives the young performers confidence. DeepBlue have been running an educational program called YoungBlue for more than eight years, which encourages young musicians to question and break many of the conventions surrounding classical music performance whilst still maintaining technique. We’ve used their model in our rehearsal process.

You moved from Sydney to the Gold Coast three years ago. Tell us about your experiences practising composition outside a major capital city, and some of the creative benefits you’ve enjoyed in coastal living.

I’ve written more music in the past three years than I did in the 10 years prior. I think there are several reasons for this.

Firstly, I am deeply inspired by my surroundings. I love the nature sounds that I hear outside my window and often find myself composing in dialogue with them. Secondly, my lifestyle has changed. I co-founded a health business with my husband and now work from home. This gives me a lot of flexibility with respect to working hours and scheduling. Thirdly, and perhaps somewhat bizarrely given my workload, I’m less stressed than I was when I lived in Sydney. Financially, there is less pressure living here and I find my green outlook deeply relaxing. I go to less concerts than I used to, but I get more composing done so that’s okay with me.

What are some of the issues you feel arise for regional composers?

The main thing I have noticed is if I want to have a performance in my area, I need to organise it. I do find it very rewarding to present my work locally, so it is worth the effort. But because of the time involved, I like to balance this with composing opportunities elsewhere in Australia and overseas. Thanks to the internet, we composers can now collaborate with performers anywhere in the world!

What advice can you offer to young composers who would like to connect with audiences and performers to showcase new music in regional or rural areas?

Find out what people in the community are passionate about. Listen to them and notice whether you feel inspired by this, too. If you do, chances are you will be able to craft a powerful work that the community genuinely responds to. If you can involve them in the performance of the work, that’s even better. The more invested they are, the more people will want to see the piece and the hungrier they will be for future performances. Working with local partners who are invested in the project is also essential.

Every regional area needs a new music advocate, someone who cares enough to be an ambassador for this artform.

Being from a rural area myself, I had little to no exposure to new music as I grew up. What do you think needs to be done to ensure regional communities have continual opportunities to experience and participate in new music?

I think every area has its own unique set of challenges and circumstances. The Gold Coast has a population of 550,000. But we don’t have any venues with good acoustics for chamber music, so very few chamber music groups tour here. This limits the opportunities for audiences to experience new music in this area.

Every regional area needs a new music advocate, someone who cares enough to be an ambassador for this artform. I actually don’t know any other composers who live on the Gold Coast, so right now I feel it’s my responsibility to be that person. For me, this entails explaining what composers do, finding ways to present my work here, thinking up projects that involve the local community, finding ways to invite performers here, and raising awareness of composition via friendship networks and the media.

On the positive, the coming 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Arts & Cultural Festival is creating stronger awareness of local creative voices and stories. This will naturally bring more opportunities for composers and new music.

Song to the Earth will premiere on April 2 as part of Inherit the Wind at the 2017 Bleach* Festival.

Song to the Earth is funded via the Generate Program, an initiative of the City of Gold Coast through Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF), a partnership between the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast. Generate is also supported through a partnerships between the City of the Gold Coast and Queensland Government’s Office of the Commonwealth Games.

 


Image supplied. Credit: Nick Morrissey.

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