Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO

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. In September, we feature renowned Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker with liner notes by AAO Artistic Director Peter Knight.

Simon Barker

Solo Series #9 - Simon Barker (watch video here) - drums

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Simon Barker’s solo begins with a series of repeated staccato phrases that could be messages. Insistent, urgent, intense. It builds for 12 minutes of sustained musical development that turns these opening phrases over and over, extending them and reworking them in a series of variations that feels like it could go on endlessly.

As we listen, we become aware that there is a grammar underpinning the musical shapes Simon creates. They are charged with a meaning we can discern but not decipher. This is philosophy rendered as kinetic energy and sound. This is music as a way of knowing.

Simon is a drummer and a barefoot runner. His music and running are symbiotically linked and this piece is the result of a period of intense research carried out through drumming and through running. For Simon, running is also a way of knowing.

Simon’s own words provide a fascinating insight into his practice:

“In mid-2018, I had an idea to create a malleable drumming language from scratch that somehow connected physical experiences associated with barefoot running with drumming areas I'd been working on for a while. At the time, I had a collection of rhythmic phrases that featured an effect I called ‘coiling’, the coiling being dense, entangled rhythms that are produced by crushing together different rhythm lines, and played using certain sticking techniques that I had been developing for a couple of years. Whilst I loved the feeling of playing this big pool of phrases featuring rhythmic coils, I was unsure how to proceed to turn it all into a malleable language that could be used for improvisation (you can hear these phrases on the recording Drum Chants for Kiribati and the Marshall Islands)

In order to move ahead with the idea, I went on an intensive period of barefoot running in the mountains around Mino and Kameoka, Japan (10 x 40-45 km, 5 x 20-30km). During daily runs through this incredible landscape I became deeply focused on sensations from the soles of my feet that came with each step, which may be described as unique collections of (highly pleasurable) pressure sensations determined by the unique characteristics of the ground underfoot. I was also fascinated with the feeling of spring-like tendon recoil, and felt that I was gaining a deeper awareness of how each step produces a unique layered collection of underfoot sensations, coupled with densities associated with lots of muscles and tendons moving. Whilst running, I started to imagine that the rhythmic coils could be organised like dense individual bundles of information (like different handfuls of sand), just as each step features a unique collection of muscle movements and ground-to-foot sensations.

These intense physical experiences and new focus areas led to a clear aesthetic pathway for splitting apart and managing the rhythmic materials I had in place, as well as a clear way of notating, organising, making rhythmic gaps, and embodying individual coils.”

Watch Simon Barker's Solo Series video here.

Solo Series #9
Performance: Simon Barker
Photo: Sarah Walker
Text: Peter Knight
Video producer: Leo Dale
Sound engineer: Jem Savage, Leo Dale
Sound mix: Jem Savage

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