For several days in late March, Brisbane played host to the second World Science Festival.  A major coup for Queensland, Brisbane beat out several other major world cities, including Hong Kong and Paris, to host this event which had been launched in New York in 2008. Brisbane’s impressive program was engineered by Suzanne Miller, Director of the Queensland Museum Network and Queensland Chief Scientist.

Professor Miller’s second festival explored four themes:

Physics + Space: The story of matter and its motion through space.

Oceans: The health of our marine environment and the challenges facing water supply and sustainability.

Energy: Alternatives, supply and diversifications.

Robotics: Engineering, computers and artificial intelligence.

The connections between each of those themes and music/sound are immediately obvious and were vigorously and imaginatively explored over three days in late March at the Queensland Conservatorium in an event branded 100 WAYS TO LISTEN.

On the occasion of its 60th birthday, the Con took this opportunity to reflect on its own recent history, in particular the large-scale events devised by New York sound artists, the late William Duckworth and Nora Farrell a decade ago.  They first came to the Brisbane Powerhouse in late 2002 for the MiniMax Festival of post-Minimal music, then returned in 2007 to create the internet ritual iOrpheus along the banks of the Brisbane River. Ten years further on, the Con can point to a host of events: Sonic Babylon, the Crossbows and Encounters Festivals, and the like. And now to 100 WAYS TO LISTEN

For several days, the Conservatorium building on South Bank was transformed into a buzzing hive of science-related activity, much of it generated by the infectious appeal and good humour of the music of the Clocked Out duo, composer-keyboard wizard Erik Griswold and the inspirational percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson. Since 2004, this dynamic and influential pair have been at the epicenter of new music activity throughout this country, in North America (they are both doctoral graduates from the University of California, San Diego) and elsewhere.

Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson at 100 Ways to ListenClocked Out: Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson. Photos © Greg Harm

On the Friday evening, Clocked Out kicked off the Con’s events with a bristling performance of their classic exploration of perpetually moving structures, Time Crystals. Perpetually fresh and invigorating, it was in stark contrast to the screening the previous evening in QPAC’s Concert Hall of that Stanley Kubrick chestnut, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fifty years ago, Kubrick’s use of Ligeti, Johann and Richard Strauss seemed daring and innovative; even in the best of hands, with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and The Australian Voices conducted by Marc Taddei, the experience these days sounded merely lame and somewhat dated.

Back at the Conservatorium, almost every large space was occupied by presentations and panel discussions within the Science Festival itself, as well as the Con’s own musings on the Festival’s themes. Interactive installations and ‘sonic interventions’ threw up unexpected encounters with the Amazon rain forest, jaguars in the Peruvian jungles, hump-back whales along the Queensland coast and the cracking of glaciers in the Antarctic, much of it captured by the hydrophones of the genial curator of ‘Sonic Explorations,’ Leah Barclay.

Several extended multi-channel works by award-winning Sydney composer Daniel Blinkhorn drew on field recordings from various parts of the globe, from the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa to the Artic fjords.  These are truly gorgeous creations, elegant in conception, with a refined balance between sound and silence (rare in much computer music). Blinkhorn’s hour-long presentation survived the discomfort of hardback chairs in a classroom setting, begging the need for a truly appropriate, flexible space for the experience of this kind of immersive new music.

Throughout the weekend, hordes of children, students and young families interacted with installations throughout the building, and participated in forums and discussions, some mounted under the aegis of the Conservatorium’s Research Centre, widely regarded as the most sociologically vibrant and committed enterprise of its kind in this country. Sounds, ideas and possibilities were spinning around like atoms in a collider.

Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson

Without a doubt, the most intriguing event resulted from a simple idea: what would happen if all the pianos in the building played together? Griswold had the inspired answer in 84 Pianos, a thirty-minute tour de force for every keyboard in the building, from Disklavier to Kawai grands to humble uprights. The doors of every studio were open, listeners strolled along corridors and passageways, creating their own sonic experiences as they meandered aimlessly or remained stationary. The pianists played from a single score, artfully laid out to create fragmentary echoes and ricochets of ear-catching euphony.

84 Pianos was a joyous and brilliant success, its formula could easily be adapted for anywhere between 2 and 2,000 pianos, or, indeed, other instruments, say, 76 trombones blaring away amongst the crowds at the Science Fair along the riverside! There was only one complaint: it was not nearly long enough. The listener had barely enough time to negotiate the three floors of the building before the music stopped, applause abruptly interrupted by the public address system announcing another event in the main auditorium.

84 Pianos at 100 Ways to Listen

84 Pianos had its origins at Clocked Out events associated with the Piano Mill, just outside Stanthorpe in northern NSW on the property of Bruce and Jocelyn Wolfe, generous and long-standing supports of contemporary music in Queensland and elsewhere.

The public success and sheer enjoyment of the Queensland Conservatorium’s 100 WAYS TO LISTEN suggest this kind of activity might become an annual showcase for further stimulating explorations of science and sound/music. Such collaborative and ear-opening events in Brisbane, largely thanks to Clocked Out and associates, lay claim for Brisbane to be the leading contender for the title of ‘new music capital of Australia’.