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Floods of Fire: An Evolving Artist-Led Community Building Project
Hilary Kleinig, multi-disciplinary musician based in Adelaide, Australia
What is the role and purpose of the orchestra in the 21st century? As society, culture, and funding models change, how audiences engage with live music also continues to shift, which has led to an “industry-wide existential soul-searching.” Some argue that the traditional orchestral model is risk-averse and outdated, and that orchestras could better address some of these issues by “creating a new canon” and “better connecting with the world.”
With orchestras around the world seeking new ways to work, engage, and connect with communities, I’d like to share with you a project that I’m involved in, where an orchestra and its community are collaborating in deep and meaningful ways to tell their unique stories. We are still in the middle of the project, so I won’t be able to cite definite outcomes—but I can share the excitement and inspiration of this remarkable creative venture’s development stage.
Floods of Fire is a major, multi-year community engagement project initiated by the South Australian-based Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) in collaboration with Brink Productions (a theatre company), Nexus Arts (an organization celebrating and promoting culturally diverse music and art), Tutti Arts (an arts company whose artists have diverse abilities), and South Australian independent musicians and composers.
With an overall project framework guided by European participatory festival director Airan Berg, Floods of Fire is an inclusive participatory project drawing on the intangible cultural heritage (storytelling, music, theatre) of a wide spectrum of communities living in South Australia. It follows an artist-led community-building approach, driven by a team of professional artists dictating the content and form of the work, and it focuses thematically on our environment and the impacts of climate change, using creation myths of flood, fire, destruction, and re-creation as its foundation.
Rather than be driven by public outcome, the project follows an organic process, with overall dramaturgical shape emerging from its creative development. It is hoped that this will allow for a high degree of involvement and investment from all parties in the final public outcome, whatever that may be. In the words of the project creators, ASO’s Floods of Fire project seeks “not only to contribute to artistic and sector development, but also to shift the understanding of what a 21st-century orchestra may be. The co-creation practices developed through the project will also influence the way the ASO develops beyond COVID-19, with company musicians adapting to two-way processes and significant learnings arising from working with communities.”
In April 2020, as COVID began to spread its way across the world, I was invited to join the Floods of Fire team, along with fellow composers Julian Ferraretto and Adam Page, to lead collaborative composition workshops with artists from Tutti and Nexus, facilitate community compositions, and shape these ideas into pieces for the orchestra.
As a starting point, ASO hosted an open space forum in September 2020, where members of the community—independent artists, artists from Tutti and Nexus, Indigenous community leaders, volunteers with the Country Fire Service—were invited to talk about themes of floods and fire and to share musical ideas. Starting from an Indigenous cultural perspective, and coming shortly after one of the worst bushfire seasons in Australian history, that forum involved many moving and magical moments, including a song written by Japanese musician Noriko Tadano about the 2011 Japanese tsunami and its effects on her life, and a whole group-improvised dawn chorus led by choral conductor Christie Anderson.
The community groups I worked with included a group of recently arrived immigrants to Australia, from Nexus Arts—Maryam, a santoor player from Iraq; Zuhir, an oud player from Syria; and Bortier, a djembe player from Ghana—and the Thank God It’s Friday choir from Tutti Arts. I led the groups though a series of creative development workshops across a couple of months, in which we discussed themes, told stories, improvised, and created the musical themes, text, and structural ideas for our pieces. I then worked these ideas into pieces for the ASO that were workshopped by the artists and the orchestra in May 2021.
In conversations with Tutti’s Thank God It’s Friday, reflecting on the theme of floods and fire, we were led to explore the ideas of rebirth, regeneration, and hope. Inspired by the idea that after the devastation of a fire, new growth and new birth appear from seemingly dead, blackened ground, we found it fascinating that in Australia, fire is essential for many native plants to germinate and re-grow.
Our collaborative composition, Lullaby for the Earth, emerges from this blackened ground, awakened by rain, in small, incremental movements—roots crawl, shoots sprout, and trees grow. New life is born.
In one of our improvisations, a choir member sang, “Sleep, my baby, don’t you cry,” leading us to reflect that our piece might embody Mother Nature singing a nurturing lullaby to the earth—reminding us that even in our darkest moment, hope remains, and that everything will be okay:
A new day is dawning
Brighter days are coming
Have faith in what you cannot see
Miracles born out of tragedy
Indeed, these are humbling words for us all to meditate upon, living in these unprecedented and challenging times!
Collaborative creation has been a hallmark of my artistic endeavor. What excites me most about this way of working is the intra-active changes that occur: all collaborators grow and change together in often surprising and wonderful ways, and when the process is undertaken in a sensitive and respectful manner, the outcomes often surpass expectations of what was initially thought possible artistically, socially, and culturally.
Although the public outcome of Floods of Fire is yet unknown, it is clear that this project has created meaningful ripples of connection within our local community and will continue to do so as the project progresses. Perhaps projects such as this pave the way for 21st-century orchestras to better connect to, reflect upon, and challenge the communities in which they exist, and for the music presented onstage to more holistically represent and speak to people in their communities.
Floods of Fire is supported by Arts South Australia, the Government of South Australia through a COVID-Recovery Grant.