Arts organisations around the country have been forced to adapt to the changing landscape caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, turning to digital projects to sustain creativity while physical gathering has been restricted. The young musicians from Sydney Youth Orchestras have been working on their own project, The Fractured Orchestra, a collaborative composition project involving the combined 550-strong SYO ensembles.

The Fractured OrchestraA still from The Fractured Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Sydney Youth Orchestras

“With orchestras unable to get together during the pandemic lockdowns, SYO needed to think of another way to provide a stimulus and a service to our ‘client’ student musicians deprived of collective playing experience,” said SYO Artistic Director Christopher Lawrence, who initiative the project. “So we decided on a substitute collective creative experience; with Beethoven out of the picture for a while, the kids should try and make up their own original stuff, mixing it with their own reflections of life under COVID, through composition, journalism and prediction.”

The project brings together a creative team involving composer and media artist Damian Barbeler, film-maker Sophie Raymond (whose music documentary Recorder Queen premiered recently on ABC TV’s Compass) and multi-award-winning editor Lindi Harrison.

“Given that our overwhelmingly millennial players would likely be as conversant with their mobile as they were with their musical instrument, this wasn’t a big step for them,” Lawrence said. “It was a matter of finding the right mentors to elicit the music and images we needed. Damian and Sophie were the perfect choices.”

The musicians themselves rose to the challenge with gusto. “The SYO musicians where massively enthusiastic,” Barbeler said. “We launched the project asking for the players to make their own ‘Creative Mini Pieces’. Within a week they had flooded us with uploads to our classroom site. We ended up with over 800 submissions from the kids. The range of quirky, beautiful, thoughtful and inventive content they thought up was exciting. It was a rich and varied palette to choose from when editing the film.”

Barbeler explained that there were many elements of the project that people might find surprising. “For example, the level of independence of the kids to do the submissions during lockdown with little supervision and all sorts of technical complications. But I was not surprised in the slightest,” he said. “For me that was the whole point of the project. To show how grown up, strong and resourceful our youth are. What did surprise even me was just how strong our human sense of music is. When our professional creative team started working with the kids’ submissions, the musical pieces fell together like magnets. Our mind’s ability to connect sound and derive emotional meaning from it is so innate its breath taking.”

A still from The Fractured Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Sydney Youth Orchestras

The young musicians responding to each other’s work was a central part of the process. “Kids composed their own melodies, then recorded variations based on each other’s melodies,” Barbeler tells Limelight. “This was a beautiful metaphor for what we lost in the depths of lockdown: that personal connection that is so crucial for music making. It was also a very practical musical tool for helping us thread the music together in the film. Again the inventiveness of the musicians was wonderful. They really came up with unexpected but authentic responses.”

Creating the ‘Creative Mini Pieces’, composing tasks which Barbeler describes as “loose prompts” rather than prescriptive instructions, was tricky. “The challenge was to come up with musical and visual things the kids would be excited to do at home in lockdown with little direct supervision or support,” Barbeler explains. “Getting the balance right between giving clear instructions but making the tasks open-ended took a lot of careful design. In the end the most open-ended tasks were the ones which yielded the most engaging responses.”

“From the start of editing we kept to the idea of ‘honouring the kids’ submissions’,” Barbeler says. “I literally wrote that down in my notes. Sophie Raymond, Lindi Harrison and I wanted to avoid imposing our preconceived notions of what the kids might be thinking and feeling in this historic era. That was the right call. What turned up then was a nuanced range of emotions and perspectives.”

So where will the project go from here? “It would be fun to do more work in this line, that is, employing professional skills to highlight the vivid and spontaneous creativity of our youth,” Barbeler says. “It’s a compelling way to make art that gives you the best of both worlds: rich spontaneous creativity mixed with good crafting. And of course I can’t wait till we can get back into a room and make music together. Working on a film like this for months just makes you feel the pain of what we have lost more keenly.”

For Lawrence, it’s a matter of where this generation of players chooses to take it. “I always say to them that the times ask the questions; it’s up to them to propose the answers,” he says. “We’re already involved in a ’sequel’: composer Alice Chance is working with the players through October/November in an online rendition of her work Comfort Music. They’re getting the hang of this and feeling ever more confident about their creativity, so I’d like to see online projects like this develop and continue long after the ‘Fractured’ Orchestra has re-bonded – in fact, I reckon it’s inevitable.”

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