There is now a Free Play Facebook page at SOUNDPLAY
The name ‘Free Play’ was given to this VCA breadth subject (an elective for any student from any faculty at the University of Melbourne) pointing to the influential book by Stephen Nachmanovitch (visit www.freeplay.com). In 2013, I was given free reign to devise an approach as to how this elective might unfold over 12 sessions. To impart an idea of what kind of things happened in one of these classes, I provide the link below to a text written to the Free Play class of semester one in 2014, summarising what had transpired during the term.
I had been considering for some time that the Free Play class would be more suitably named ‘New Listening’, as in essence this is what I am asking of its participants; to come to a different way of listening to humans making sounds than what is commonly understood as ‘listening to music’. Perhaps ‘music’ describes a quality of ‘energetic flow’ with sound being the medium. We are sound makers, putting sounds together, whatever ‘music’ happens in the process of doing this, is the felt quality of our working with the sounds, the quality of our relationships within this activity. The quality of relationship I have; with myself, with the materials I am using to generate sound, with the immediate and broader environments and context within which this activity is taking place, and with co-performers and audience. These relational textures give life and bring dynamics to the sound of the experience. The consequently articulated life qualities voiced in the process of sounding make a musical experience accessible, a musical experience that may feel dark, cold, disconnected, may be invigorating, liberating, intoxicating or boring.
Ultimately, the students are asked to not play music they already know, but to make and put sounds together in ways that they have not attempted or even heard before, to forget what they think music is, what sounds are musical and what are not. There are numerous techniques employed to challenge and undermine any expertise, to reduce expectations of what making music may be, to prise open the mind and body to a different experience of making a sound, and making a sound with others. Most of the work done in this class is within a group (two or more performers). This is because I want the listening focus to be on the quality of relationship between players. During the course of this interaction, the relationship a performer has within themselves is naturally revealed as are preconceptions and habitual behaviours.
We are reconfiguring what it can mean to ‘play music’ together not as a replacement for conventional music making but as a way of invigorating it. Listening shares a primacy with sound making. Different ways of listening become clearer. Listening begins to be understood as a activity of value in its own right and a means by which we can access a transformative experience. In cultivating an attentiveness to the moment of listening, we are also asked to practice a ‘non-judgmental’ listening, where as we listen, we suspend the accompanying inner commentator’s opinions on what is being heard. Further to this, we are encouraged to divert our involvement with any extraneous thoughts that steal our ears away from the listening moment. This undoubtedly takes much practice.
What we begin to hear and feel as groups of students perform together, is the ongoing, shifting particularity of their unique encounter. What we are listening to/with is the performers sounded, relational quality. We are listening with them because our contribution of energetic vibrations feeds an active force into the performers environment and, our condition of attentiveness, of listening will designate our inner experience and thus the tone of our vibrational emanation.
Deep listening  indeed has many shades and its definition can be elusive, its extent limitless.
Right from the beginning, we are listening to people sounding out their ‘modes of being’ together. We are listening to qualities of relationship, of human beingness that requires no ‘expertise’ to make heard. Here is an actualising of the lived life inside our very ears. It is occurring in this very moment. There is no time lag or distance or veil to obscure or system to decode. The quality of being, of relation, of presence, is direct and unmitigated, and so potentialises participants with a means of sanity.
2016: Here’s my introduction to the semester one class;
“Welcome to an adventure toward a new way of listening and understanding of what music can be.
As an introduction, we will begin with simple sound making to investigate and cultivate each individual’s relationship with the making of a sound as a creative activity. We will then explore this activity together in small groups.
We’ll be aiming to clear the mind of too many preconceptions about what we are doing in order to have a simple direct experience. To this end, we will not be investigating the forms of music that most of you are familiar with, in fact we will actively seek to avoid common musical forms by subverting, reorganizing, deconstructing or dismissing those materials entirely, in order to cultivate a new experience through sound.
So, we are embarking on a process that will challenge every idea you have about what music is. You need to be patient and open-minded, ask many questions and be prepared to try things out no matter how childish the task may seem.
The reward is an enriched and refreshed, and for some, an entirely new practice of music-making, with expanded mental and emotional faculties and an understanding of what may constitute an artistic practice. And, if we’re lucky, an all round healthier state of being.”
As we come to the end of another semester of Free Play (May, 2016, now four classes!) it is with sadness that I say goodbye to the young people who made a commitment (of varying shapes and sizes) to venturing into the dark side of music, the thing that happens before music, the thing that even some of the most famous and accomplished musicians dare not investigate, or more still, do not even realise exists! Yes folks, it is the world of a sound.
However, getting to know a sound is just the beginning of an investigation that can lead anywhere. After completing 6 semesters I can say that without fail someone has had a profound experience that has changed the course of their lives. And often there are many who could say this. Of course some do not get “it” as well, to balance the ledger! But the experiences expressed to me directly in private, in written essay form or in cards sent to me form a body of anecdotal evidence that attest to the power of this process that is almost overwhelming, certainly deeply inspiring.
As an artist who functions at the margins, certainly in terms of an audience, it is strange to be involved in a practice that seems so effective in offering people an expressive pathway to creative satisfaction and engagement. Some of the classes I can say I look forward to as much or even more than a musical gig! Stories of deep personal insight, sudden breakthrough moments, unedited emotional outpourings, transformation of perception, quiet amazement at what is possible, have all been expressed in highly personal ways by these students whose intuition led them to this class and their curiosity and persistence enabled extraordinary experience to occur. What a gift – thank you all.