A forest made from recycled materials is part of an immersive musical experience for children at the Sydney Opera House.

A small forest has taken root in the Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House. Bird song fills the twilit air along with the croaking of frogs. Later the sound of rain and thunder sweeps in.

Music of the Forest. Photograph courtesy of the Sydney Opera House

Young children follow the path around the installation of tree trunks, ferns, shrubs and creeping flowers, with a carpet of fallen leaves. Initially the youngsters excitedly point out mushrooms, rocks and tiny pools of water. Then they start looking closer to find out what it’s all made of – for nothing in this forest is quite what it seems.

One tree trunk is made of pot plants with odd socks pulled over them. Another tree is made of old umbrellas and lace curtains. The leaves are made of paper and real estate signs, some with writing on them. The mushrooms are constructed from bottle tops and stockings dipped into remnant house paint. Everything, in fact, has been made from materials that were destined for the rubbish dump.

The forest installation – known as The Frugal Forest – is part of an event at the Sydney Opera House for young children billed as “an intimate and immersive introduction to classical music”. After the children have spent time discovering all the delights of the forest, they are invited to sit on a carpet and listen to a string quartet play music by composers including Vivaldi, Holst, Beethoven and Handel.

Music of the Forest. Photograph courtesy of the Sydney Opera House

The mastermind behind The Frugal Forest is Bryony Anderson, a puppet-maker, designer and visual artist based on the mid-north coast of NSW, who uses recovered household and industrial waste as a resource and invites community members to join with her in creating artworks with an environmental message. More than 1000 people, young and old, were involved in making The Frugal Forest.

“We began working on it at the end of 2013 so it’s been a long time,” Anderson tells Limelight.

“Most of it was about the actual process of building it, so it took us the better part of three years to run workshops with schools and dementia groups and markets and festivals. Each time we would teach people how to make a fungus or a leaf and then whatever they made would become part of the forest.”

To get ideas for what materials to use, Anderson and her team walked through rain forests and looked at what was there and what it reminded them of. Then they went through piles of rubbish and explored the potential of the materials.

“We tried to identify materials that are problematic so they generally can’t be recycled and they end up in landfill – so that basically means plastics. Even the fabrics these days have a synthetic component and that means they can’t break down to soil like cotton or silk would,” she says.

Music of the Forest. Photograph courtesy of Sydney Opera House

Along with the plant pots, socks, bottle top and real estate signs, they used electrical wire and agricultural waste – things like silage mesh and wrap. “We also used things you would find in the back of a shop that people don’t realise are part of the waste stream created by buying something. You buy your muesli but you don’t see the pallet wrapping that it arrives in or the box and the strapping. There is a huge pyramid of waste behind every retail product,” says Anderson.

After experimenting with the materials, Anderson involved the community in making the forest. Just about every fungus, for example, was made by a Year 2 or 3 school student.

“I worked with a dementia group in Port Macquarie and went back every two months over two years and came up with processes that didn’t require a lot of memory,” says Anderson.

“Or you could look at the person next to you if you’d forgotten and pick it up again. The carers were saying that they had never seen as much recollection – and they attributed that to the fact that basically people were needed. We said: ‘can you help us make this forest?’ and they were given a task. So often their days are spent just filling in time.”

Children attending the installation are allowed to touch the things they find in the forest, as long as they stay on the path.

“The kids really love the fact that they are allowed to touch. We’ve been saying ‘one finger touch’ but there’s information that your fingers can give you when your eyes are being deceived,” says Anderson.

The soundscape was also created using found objects and rubbish – in fact more materials were used in the soundscape than the forest itself.

Music of the Forest. Photograph courtesy of Sydney Opera House

Anderson involved Australian composer Raw Howell very early in the process. “I basically cold called Rae Howell, who is an incredible composer. I saw a concert of hers and I thought the way she performed, she listened with her whole body and I thought we needed somebody who could listen like that. She turned out to be the most wonderful person for the task. She brought a level of rigour to it that I hadn’t expected,” says Anderson.

“She went out into the forest at dawn with an ornithologist who identified individual species and then she matched those bird calls pitch by pitch from the junk that we presented. Then she individually recorded those sounds and layered them into a 20-minute day in the forest.”

Ben Robinson worked closely with Howell. His grandparents heard about the project and told Anderson they felt sure their grandson, then in year 10, would be keen to be involved so she rang him.

“We were very lucky to have trips into the forest but also to have a huge database of recordings from ornithologists so we could really listen in incredible detail to the different types of sounds and try and imitate them using the materials we had in front of us from the dump,” says Robinson.

“We were basically given a pile of things and starting sifting through it and picking the ones that had the best sounds. There are many different ways you can play the one piece of rubbish – we might originally try to play a piece of rubbish one way and then discover that it makes a better sound played a different way that we weren’t expecting.”

“A cotton reel twisted makes a brilliant chattering of birds. Similarly, a door hinge, if you play it the right way, quite fast, you can create birds chattering. It was also fun trying to manipulate a broken umbrella so that it sounded like a bird flapping its wings. Sometimes we had to cut and paste sounds. A whipbird has quite a unique sound, so we ended up running a finger around the rim of a wine glass for the first part of the call. The second part was me hitting my leg with rubber tubing, then we put the two sounds together.”

Other sound effects include a piece of string pulled through a coffee cup to create another bird sound and plastic bags being crinkled to sound like rain, while the sound of thunder was a wheelie bin being rolled down the driveway.

The addition of a string quartet was the Sydney Opera House’s idea. Playing music by composers including Handel, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Holst and Wagner, some of the children were restless initially at the performance I attended. However, when the quartet played some of the bird sounds from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Spring they were captivated and the extracts from the other seasons kept their attention, illustrating how a composer might take inspiration from nature and translate that into music.

The SOH is the seventh venue that the forest has been shown in. “All the others have been free exhibitions in regional galleries around NSW,” says Anderson. “After the Opera House, it’s coming home to roost in Port Macquarie where it will be exhibited in a rain forest centre, with 40 workshops over five months for schools and adults around the idea of a circular economy and feeding resources back into the system.”

Music of the Forest is in the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House until August 6