Nicho Trash Orchestra 2018
In early 2018, over a period of 6 weeks, I set out with 175 students at Nicholson Street Public School to build an orchestra using recycled materials and record an album on original music in collaboration with two Australian contemporary musicians. The project moved through three stages and involved weekly workshops in groups of up to 40 students.
Experiencing the world as a landscape of sound, exploring ways of listening, making and communicating sound. Connecting to the four elements, earth, wind, fire and air.
Engaging with the design process, learning the language of teamwork and problem solving. Developing an appreciation for the value of multiple iterations.
Learning new rhythms and ways of communicating rhythm, experiencing the feeling of playing music with others. Meeting and learning from contemporary musicians.
Each week I documented the process in a project journal, which I left on display for parents, students and teachers to see. This document (below) serves as both an archive for the journey that was, and a tool to further develop the concepts and approaches that emerged along the way.
The first week was focused on listening to and experiencing place as a landscape of sounds. The students made sound maps, spatial representations of the sounds they found around the playground. Each sound was transformed into colour and shape and represented graphically on the map.
Sound maps represent the intersection of two concepts. First, in nature education, mapping is used as a pedagogical tool for connecting with place and story. Second, in contemporary composition, graphic scores often replace or compliment traditional musical notation
A potent example of the potential of graphic notation came when a student said he had drawn his body and a line on his map because he had heard the sound of his heart.
To differentiate the program for the younger students I simplified the elements they would be required to include on their maps. For example, they were not asked to add an orientation. But all groups were required to locate themselves on the maps, which I considered an important step, a symbolic way of saying ‘we are here, we belong, we exist.’
The maps varied in colour, approach, level of abstraction, range of sounds and accuracy of spatial awareness. Some of the maps turned into fantasy worlds with sounds superimposed onto sporting grounds or ice cream stores.
Week two was about listening with the whole body, extending listening into the domain of feeling.
Secret handshakes are like little dances that require both parties to keep time and pay attention to the other.
The secret handshake activity extended into the concept of the ‘magic feeling’, that is, the feeling you get when your body is moving to the rhythm without your mind having to think about it. So the students had to perform their handshakes in time with a beat, sometimes I played the beat and other times it was a circle of their peers. The latter turned into a kind of contemporary folk dance.
We are always listening to the sounds that surround us. Most of the time they seem like random noise, but a little beneath the surface we begin to hear rhythms and cycles in the passing of cars or the whirring of fans or the rustling of branches in the wind. The more we become aware of these ever-present, ever-changing rhythms the more attuned we become to the ways we feel and move.
Moving into the construction phase of the project it was necessary to provide some underlying motifs to guide the creative process. That’s where the concept of the elements came in. By way of a story, each of the four groups was assigned an element.
From there it was about configuring the construction process to include a balance of skill, open ended possibility and efficiency. The large groups were separated into smaller groups of 5 or 6 and were given a base apparatus, which they would use as a foundation for construction. Onto the apparatus the group could add any of the four kinds of materials (wood, plastic, metal, stone) using any of four connectors (tape, elastic, cable ties or string).
For many students working in a group is a challenge. In an effort to nurture good group dynamics I introduced a step-by-step language based problem-solving approach that encouraged individuals to solve problems in their groups before seeking the assistance of a teacher.
A few students followed their own interests or worked on projects with others that didn’t involve the use of the apparatus. One example was a Year 6 student who made a bass guitar. He would go on to perfect the instrument over the following weeks and record a solo on the final day.
To open week four I played each of the groups some songs from around the world, each with its own rhythmic style and sound. My intention was to broaden the kids’ library of familiarity and perhaps uncover something resonant. This happened in the case of one student from Year 6 who became completely calm during a heavy metal song by the band Cult of Luna. And when simple electronic dance music compelled the whole of Kindergarten to join in a game of musical statues. They literally couldn’t sit still with 120 beats per minute coming out of the speaker. Witnessing that I reflected on how being able to sit still is intimately related to the sounds we can hear and feel and how dissonant those sounds can be in dense cityscapes.
Some of the students from the Air nation were able to construct working flutes from some scrap metal.
Over the course of the construction phase I decreased the amount of new material available and encouraged students to make improvements rather than additions. In this way the students deepened their designs and invested themselves in an iterative rather than additive or consumptive process.
By the end of week four many of the instruments were finished and it was clear that the construction phase was coming to an end.
In week five the plan was to tie up any loose ends, secure any loose parts, and then to add decoration (‘bling’).
Sessions began with sound baths, which involve a circle of students ‘washing’ other students with sound.
It was a rainy week. All work took place inside, which was challenging, but also an opportunity to prepare for recording the following week.
For recording I invited two musicians, Joseph Franklin (composer) and Tina Stefanou (vocalist) to assist with the process. The three of us had worked together on similar projects before but never on this scale.
They implemented a method of conduction that used hand gestures and vocal cure cards to communicate the rhythms and changes. Each of the four groups would learn a rhythm that in some way related to their particular element.
We recorded samples of some of the more unique sounds and also some solos at the conclusion of each recording session. Then it was back to the studio, where Joseph and Tina set about producing the final album.
Finally the album was released digitally together with this project journal.