Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO

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

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.

I’m very proud to introduce our first solo recording made by exceptional clarinettist, Aviva Endean, who is also the Australian Art Orchestra’s inaugural Associate Artist appointed as part of our Pathfinders Music Leadership program. Over the coming months I’m also very much looking forward to watching and listening to the recordings that follow by outstanding artists including Sunny Kim (voice), Martin Ng (turntables) and Mindy Meng Wang (guzheng). It’s going to be an amazing 25th anniversary year for the Australian Art Orchestra.

Peter Knight, Artistic Director

Sunny Kim

Sunny Kim - voice and electronics (watch video here)

- - -

Ethereal yet utterly visceral, Sunny Kim begins with three notes, repeated and picked up by her sampling device.

The darkness around her seems to breathe.

Her voice travels in bright shards - pellucid even through the tiny speakers of a pair of ear buds. It carries life force, culture, and reaches for connection.

I first met Sunny in 2009 in Seoul. We played a bunch of little gigs in the city with Australian bassist Chris Hale. The three of us recorded long improvisations in hotel rooms, ate lots of noodles, and drank soju. Chris and I were transfixed by Sunny’s voice. It seemed to come out of nowhere: one moment she would be laughing and talking, then she would close her eyes and change everything in the room with a single note of almost shocking purity.

More than five years after first hanging out with Sunny in Seoul, Chris and I found ourselves in the position of being able to invite her to come to Australia to be part of the teaching faculty for the Australian Art Orchestra’s Creative Music Intensive residency in Tasmania. There, in the cool Central Highlands, she drew everyone into that rare space she summons with her voice. Three years on from this first visit and Sunny has made Melbourne her home with a position at University of Melbourne. She has also cemented her role in the Australian Art Orchestra as one of our key collaborators.

Sunny and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time now but I have never asked her what happens when she closes her eyes before singing. The release of this solo recording seemed like the perfect opportunity. She tells me that she moves into a deep inner space, a space of listening: “I go inside to fully engage with my senses, to feel and hear the space where music resides.” This doesn’t really surprise me at all but what I still find startling is how the air around her seems to quiet as she focuses inwards.

This quality of deep listening is, I think, what gives really great music its power. Sunny propels her voice towards our ears along with the suggestion of a way to listen to and experience the world. It reaches across the usual impenetrability of the human condition and lets us know we are not alone on this rushing planet.

Solo Series #2
Performance: Sunny Kim
Audio and video producer: Leo Dale
Photography: Sarah Walker
Text: Peter Knight, Artistic Director