By Associate Professor Vanessa Tomlinson
The second Australia Percussion Gathering, directed by Associate Professor Vanessa Tomlinson alongside advisors Tom O’Kelly, Dr. Louise Devenish and Francois Combemorel was held at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University in July 2016. Sitting somewhere between a music festival, a conference and a music camp, the six day event brought together industry professionals, international guests, and an impressive 96% of all students studying percussion in tertiary institutions in Australia.
Percussion first arrived in tertiary education in 1968 through a Bachelor of Music (percussion) at Elder Conservatorium (Devenish 2015). By definition, percussion is not a singular object or instrument, but an attitude to playing – encompassing everything you can “hit, shake or scrape”, and a whole lot more. There are percussive instruments in almost all musics of the world, each with their own variations that reflect local flora and fauna, climate, geology and imagination – from the djembe to the Peruvian box cajon, from Tibetan singing bowls to many kinds of clapsticks, drums, gongs, xylophones etc. It is an innately progressive field; experimental, current, and with infinite applications in all layers of educational settings inclusive of primary school education and community drum circles. This multi-perspectival reality is central to the uniqueness of percussion, and its place within academia. Elementally percussion is an investigation of sound, and that artistic approach is taken with the curation of the APG2016.
Setting up an event that is part educational, part artistic research, and part community impact and engagement, provides a rich and interactive site for participants to share knowledge in a variety of ways. The very title Gathering is a clue into the approach of this event. Undergraduate students, HDR students, academics, and artists were all immersed into 6 days of togetherness; an intensive teaching program mixed together with intensive professional development. The general public, who were welcomed in to specific events, added another layer of diversity to the presentations, and kept an outward looking community focus
The APG combined an open call for papers and performances with a series of invited international guests and ensemble events– an offer extended to every tertiary institution with a percussion program in Australia. Two all-star Australian percussion groups were formed – one consisting of students to work with Australia Percussion Hall of Fame inductee Dr. Michael Askill, and the other consisting of national and international professional percussionists under the direction of Vanessa Tomlinson performing in the finale concert, Drumming to the Stars. In addition two community based events were included – The Listening Museum, hosted by Brisbane-based arts company Clocked Out at Urban Art Projects, and The Environment Day at the Noosa Botanic Gardens. International guests presented lecture demonstrations, masterclasses and workshops, and pop-up concerts were offered to provide anyone with a place to perform anytime.
Percussion provides a number of sites for artistic research with interpretation, composition and improvisation being just 3 focus areas. In contemporary percussion performance (meaning post-1920), ever-transforming interpretations of classic notated compositions are revealed through changing performance techniques, performance environments and instruments themselves. Composers making new work are an essential site for experimentation and new knowledge, and the APG presented 25 world premiere performances, and 8 Australian premieres among performances of over 100 compositions. This contribution to new knowledge is immense, and the shared legacy of this will resonate through all event participants who will offer repeat performances of these new works.
Improvisation too is a site of exploration where new sonic approaches can be discovered, and there were plenty of opportunities for students and professionals to play together in an improvisational setting. This was particularly evident at the Environment Day where workshops concluded with a 60 minute group improvisation on the banks of Lake MacDonald, with floating canoes rowed by percussionists dipping gongs in and out of the water.
With such an extensive gathering of both current and future leaders in the artistic field of percussion, it is impossible to ignore the inter-dependence of academia and the arts community. It is clear that academics are not only training students in the craft of percussion performance but also in the way of being a percussionist in the world. Taking charge of responsibilities with regard to the creation of new work, collaboration, inter-disciplinary approaches, environmental concerns, international perspectives, inter-generational art making and community building were all elemental building blocks of the APG. These principles are not exclusively the domain of percussion, but the uniqueness of percussion as an exploratory activity with a keen focus on sound, gesture and the unknown, make it a perfect site to examine the immense contribution academia can play in the arts community, and vice-versa.
Devenish, L (2015) The Emergence of Contemporary Percussion in Australia: 1960-1975. Musicology Australia, Vol. 37. Issue 1
Vanessa Tomlinson is an academic, performing musician, and a contributor to the arts sector more broadly. As Associate Professor at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University she is Head of Percussion, Chair of Artistic Research and Deputy Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre. As a musician she is co-director of Clocked Out and Early Warning System, percussionist for the Australian Art Orchestra, and a freelance artist. And as a contributor she is Artistic Director of the Australian Percussion Gathering, has sat on the boards of the Australian Music Centre and New Music Network and is published in Leonardo, Resonate, and The Conversation among others.