Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO

Vanessa Tomlinson photo by Sarah Walker.jpg

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.

Vanessa Tomlinson

Solo Series #4 - Vanessa Tomlinson (watch video here) - percussion

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Vanessa Tomlinson Vanessa Tomlinson describes her approach to improvisation as “resultant based rather than intention based.”

She responds to what she finds in front of her. She’s interested in materiality and in the ‘information’ contained in materials. She investigates this information through sounding materials and she presents her findings ‘in sound’. I tell her I think she’s a phenomenologist: she upends our assumptions, makes us hear things differently, compels us to think about what we are listening to.

“For me a vibraphone is just another collection of objects. I try not to treat it with any more or less respect than any other set of objects. It is as if it’s a collection of pitches that just happens to be equally tempered, and that produces a particular set of associations for me.”

This ‘collection of objects’ is also the vessel for so much of the recent history of western music. Thirty seven bars of aluminium alloy that are fixed in pitch and tuned to the 12 identical intervals of the equal tempered scale, that offer limited timbral variation and a fairly limited dynamic range.

As Vanessa begins to play she allows resonances to gather before cutting them off with the pedal. She circles chromatically and the bars release their rich overtones. She’s hearing the way these overtones - the result of natural physics - rub against the ‘man made’ intervals of equal temperament. I’m hearing something that sounds really cool; I’m hearing oblique references to 20th century composition and jazz.

I guess it’s presumptuous of me to imagine what Vanessa might be hearing or thinking about as she plays, but perhaps my speculation makes sense in the context of the longer form of this work. The piece develops like a love letter to the vibraphone, a celebration of all that it can do that other instruments can’t. It is beautiful, sensual, and rooted in the language of 20th century music. It is somehow known, but also brings the frisson of the new - a sense of wonder and discovery.

As the piece develops, and without physically changing the vibraphone in any way, Vanessa gently starts to melt the world she has created by introducing elements that draw our ear to the tension I alluded to earlier between natural harmonics and equal temperament.

Suddenly the sound of a bowl unsettles our assumptions about the vibraphone, its sense of stability and ‘knownness’ opens up. We hear into the cracks, we start to hear it as something else. A collection of objects perhaps? We begin to hear it as Vanessa is hearing it.

This is phenomenology.

Please listen right to the end…

Solo Series #4
Performance: Vanessa Tomlinson
Audio and video producer: Leo Dale
Photography: Sarah Walker
Text: Peter Knight, Artistic Director

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