Ukulele, Mandolin, Cello and party hats. Music and performance braided and upgraded. An instant soundtrack. That figures. And what even is a nyckelharpa?
After Ukulele Mekulele, a complicated show with language in it, I wanted to experiment with something much more simple and elegant. Rather than revealing content through metaphor, text and subtext, I wanted the next thing to be just ‘what it was’
I wanted to move away from the theatrical and more towards the performative. I was interested in the link between music and the visual arts in the writings of Paul Klee, as well as performance art strand of fluxus. Having played a lot of ukulele I wanted to see what else it could do, and maybe build on the legacy of Simon Jeffe’s Penguin Café Orchestra.
The idea was to create a musical ensemble whose performance was the performance. Thus we’d open musicality to children, playing with how we were playing. The music, its makers and the relationship between them and the audience were to be of equal importance. There was to be no ‘acting’. It would be closer to ritual than theatre, without the seriousness that ritual entails.
The “under this rope” idea was that we’d mostly use small instruments, and unlike amusement park rides which exclude kids that aren’t tall enough [“you must be taller than this rope to ride”], all the instruments would have to fit ‘under this rope’. The height checking could be incorporated into the performance. I knew we’d be using a cello that wouldn’t fit and thought that might be fun.
Anyway, that was the puddle of ideas I was splashing about in, and I approached potential players. I wanted musician/performers, put together the band, applied for funding, and to my surprise, got it. It was only a small amount – enough to get together and come up with some music and a thrown-together, first-blush performance. It was a start. Once it was clear the project was going to happen, I sent them a simple briefing to give them a sense of where we were headed:
- Small songs on small instruments for small people.
- Melodic, spirited, stand~alone soundtracks that are simple stories
- Deceptively simple. Fun, moody. Eclectic.
- Partly improvised – ensemble based.
- There are no limitations on what we play in terms of genre or style.
- The music is not ‘kiddie music’ > forget whatever preconceptions you might have about this.” [UTRMC briefing 2003]
Having spent a lot of time making music by shifting coloured bars around on a computer screen, I also wondered if you could turn a band of musicians into a kind of ‘instrument’ and allow children to play the whole band, shifting layers and altering intensity through some device. I figured that if digital music is created and controlled by moving images around on a screen, then why couldn’t five acoustic musicians be controlled by a child playing with four rubber ducks?
We’d compose the music by improvising. I asked everyone to bring a riff or a solo with a strong mood, and a toy that was special to them. This is what we sounded like:
At the first rehearsal, we worked in the Thomas Dixon Centre, a lovely old building built as a shoe factory in 1908 and now inhabited by a ballet company and used as temporary rehearsal space by La Boite Theatre, who were administering the grant for me. We worked in a big wooden room, in a circle of chairs.
We started playing. We just started playing. The first riff used was one of mine. Simple. Ukulele. Brett Collery joined in with a three-note pattern on the mandolin. We were building a new piece of music with no preparation. The strings sang in the big wooden room. Ross tapped on the hi-hats with brushes. Madelaine on cello. An ascending hum. Sallie comes in over the top with a keening line. Soon the tune is climbing out of us, and I’m suspended between wanting to keep playing or grin and jump for joy. The tune came to a close and we knew we were on to something good.
We played it again, feeling for its shape. The minidisk was rolling.
The working title was Tentative Beginnings. We added a simple bridge section, and that was it. It took as long to compose as it did to play. an amazing piece of music. Working with musicians who are comfortable in their abilities, yet unafraid to experiment, is a joy. We continued to work like this for three more rehearsals.
We made fun, but abortive attempts to play on toy instruments. Later we experimented with rule-based music. Beginning with the instruction “You can only play two notes” one of these improvisations (captured on tape during a rehearsal on Brett’s verandah) we called Whole Lotta Minimalism. Generally we’d end up breaking these rules, and let the tune wander off where it wanted to go.
More tunes emerged from riffs each member had brought along, and this was the core of our material. I wrote a brief scenario for a performance, with simply performed actions framing our tunes. We ran through it twice, then performed it in the stores building of the Brisbane Powerhouse for the Angry Mime. James Lees sat in on drums.
We did a foyer gig for the 2003 Out of The Box Festival Symposium on children’s arts. It went down well, though I’m not sure if the audience knew it was unfinished. A work in progress. We could have kept working on turning the music we’d made into something more than a rough performance, but I didn’t want everyone to work for free. I got us a gig in the Concert Hall for the 2004 festival. We sharpened things up a little, but it was still the same idea. There was no designer. No director. I performed these roles, such as they were. The party hats and streamers were to indicate that we’d moved into a space where we could shed expectations and ‘do our own thing’. And a gesture that dismissed the ‘happy clappy’ cliches that suffocate music for children.
In search of a cheap look, we’d plumped for the black, white and bow-ties of classical musicians. Wandering around backstage, draped with streamers and cheap party hats, we made a quirky contrast to the real orchestra, who were in the building at the same time. We passed each other in the backstage corridors with nods and smiles. We did four or five of these shows, and then I looked for more opportunities to develop the work and perform professionally. I put together this video that captures the concept, but not really the live charm of the group.
As rich as the idea was creatively (and there was a lot of interesting directions it could have headed in) by 2006 it was clear that if we wanted to get paid for our work, the venture was going to stall .
The group’s music exists only in rehearsal recordings. Seeking music for a short film I made with Luke Monsour in 2005 called The Figures, I laid Tentative Beginnings under the vision and found it sat perfectly. It could have been written for the film. The spirit of the UTRMC though, lives on in my work… that music doesn’t need to be ‘turned into’ a performance if you set it up so it already is one.