Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO

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To mark the Australian Art Orchestra’s 25th anniversary, we're presenting the Solo Series: a monthly video release that puts the spotlight on one of the twelve selected members from our pool of incredible AAO collaborators. Artistic Director Peter Knight speaks about the occasion and the project.

Daniel Wilfred

Solo Series #5 - Daniel Wilfred (watch video here) - vocals

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“This is the song Bambula. Walking song. Walking and dancing. Yolngu man walking and hunting the flies away from his face with stringybark leaf… and he finds that country. Lärra. Stone spear country. This song comes from there. And that’s where we make that spear, gara, and the spear holder, galpu. I was giving that song for the spear and the spear holder.” 

Daniel tells me about the song as we sit and listen to the audio mix and watch the video cut with Leo Dale in his darkened studio. 

The idea of layering his voice came from a workshop he gave when the Australian Art Orchestra was doing its annual residency in Tarraleah Tasmania. Daniel wanted us to learn how the different parts of the song intersect so he overdubbed them on the fly and then talked about each one. 

Everyone in the room during that workshop was stunned by the complexity and beauty of the relationships between the three voices. I tell Daniel that the balanda (white fella) word for a number of different voices singing at the same time but in different directions is polyphony. He tells me it’s called dup-birrk manikay in the Wägilak language from his country near Roper River in North East Arnhem Land. “It means family singing, or friends singing.”

“The first voice is my voice. I’m walking in the bush and I’m singing ‘where is my son Isaiah?’ Then the second voice is my son, Isaiah, and he’s walking and singing, ‘where is my dad?’ Then the third voice is the old man’s voice, the ancestor, and he’s walking in the bush and he’s singing ‘where’s my brothers and the Wägilak tribes?’”

The voices are set in a soundscape made mostly with electronic sounds. Daniel has always been very interested in electronic music and in natural sounds manipulated using electronics but this is radically different from anything we’ve done before and we didn’t prepare at all. Before the recording he told me he wanted to layer the voices again for his solo and play with the electronics and no didge. This is also quite unfamiliar as manikay is always performed with the didge. 

Daniel likes to make things new. I’m reminded of a quote of his that I read a little while back: “Sometimes we do new songs, but it still comes up with our language. New songs, it never stops.” (1) His brother, David Wilfred who plays the didge with Daniel, is with us on the day we record and he nods his approval for Daniel’s ideas as we sit drinking cups of tea in the cool September sunshine on Leo’s deck.

We slide into the air-conditioned darkness of the studio. Daniel sits under the light. I have a laptop and my sampler. Daniel signals to me to start and I know he wants the wata sound, but beyond that I have no idea where we are going. He begins to sing and suddenly I’m there with him. We are walking together. Tape samples and sine tones manipulated in a maze of electronic circuitry become birds, samples of static become the stringybark leaf. The new and the old are layered along with the voices; together as they are always meant to be. I am learning. 

1. Daniel Wilfred, cited in Samuel Curkpatrick, Singing Bones: Ancestral Collaboration and Creativity (Sydney University Press, 2019), forthcoming.

Solo Series #5
Performance: Daniel Wilfred
Photo: Sarah Walker
Text: Peter Knight
Video producer: Leo Dale
Sound engineer: Jem Savage, Leo Dale
Sound mix: Jem Savage

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AAO’s 25th Anniversary

This year the Australian Art Orchestra celebrates its 25th anniversary. I remember when the group was formed and the impact it had on me as an aspiring jazz musician - the first show I heard at The Continental in Prahran in Melbourne, with 20 of the most talented musicians on the scene. Bristling energy, barely tamed. It was exciting, and it reconfigured the idea I had for what a jazz musician could aspire to. There followed collaborations with musicians from Indonesia, Arnhem Land, and India, and performances of music written by the most challenging contemporary western composers. It was a long way from what I had experienced as a music student, and opened in my mind a world of possibility that was expansive and exciting and that was directly connected to the here and now.

The Australian Art Orchestra changed things for me, and I think it changed things for a lot of musicians and listeners. The vision of its founding artistic director, Paul Grabowsky, recognised that we live in a place of abundance and as ‘jazz’ musicians and artists that we need to respond to what’s around us rather than look primarily to America and Europe for inspiration. A quarter of a century on, I believe that vision is perhaps more relevant than ever.

In 2013 I was appointed the Orchestra’s second artistic director and have since tried to carry on this vision in my own way. The group certainly sounds very different now, and there are new faces, but I believe there is a thread we have woven through each of our projects that traces back to those first performances of Ringing the Bell Backwards in Melbourne in 1994.

This history is important. Understanding where we have come from as a group is crucial to building a vibrant future. As we celebrate 25 years we want to look forward while at the same time reaffirming our commitment to a set of core values that are centred on deep music practice and community building, and that also give space for the kind of individual creativity that made the first performance of the Orchestra I heard at The Continental in 1994 so exciting.

This individuality and anarchic spirit is somewhat at odds with a more traditional idea of an Orchestra, which is generally associated with blend and seamless integration. But this is a contradiction that the Australian Art Orchestra has always embraced, and it’s one of the things that sets this strange and wonderful organism apart from other musical groups. It’s also the defining aspect that I have focussed on to celebrate this 25th anniversary.

Each of the musicians we work with is an improviser, but more than that each has a highly refined, idiosyncratic, and personal language on their instrument. When we come together as a group, these voices are the starting point for our sound. The composers we commission listen to recordings made by our musicians to inform their compositional processes, and when we rehearse we spend time improvising together and workshopping ideas towards the creation of a collective language.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of this ‘orchestra of individuals’ we have chosen 12 musicians from our large pool of players to record solo improvisations that will form a portrait of the Australian Art Orchestra in 2019. Each of these recordings will also be captured on in high resolution video by innovative Melbourne company, Digital Pill. These videos will be released monthly with an accompanying photographic portrait by Sarah Walker, and a written response to the music.

Peter Knight, Artistic Director