Corrina Bonshek sings to the earth

The music of Gold Coast composer Corrina Bonshek has been described as “deeply spiritual”, and once you’ve listened to it, you can understand why. Inspired by the sounds and patterns within nature and her own meditation practice, Corrina’s works transport listeners into her space, and ask them to sit and contemplate a while. Her work made her the perfect choice to compose an original orchestral piece for musical installation Song to Earth, which debuted at Bleach* Festival 2018 and Commonwealth Games Festival 2018.  Song to the Earth is now going global, having recently been picked up by Rainforest Fringe Festival in Malaysia, so we decided to chat to Corrina about this exciting development, and what else she might have in the works.

We haven’t spoken with you since before Song to Earth premiered at Bleach* 2018. How was that experience for you, and was there anything about it that surprised you?

Song to the Earth was a real milestone for me. It is by far the largest work I have created as a composer and an artistic director, and it was developed in the context of rapid learning on how to pitch, create and fund a large-scale site-specific work for a festival as part of the Generate Program (a City of Gold Coast Initiative through RADF and Queensland Government’s Office of the Commonwealth Games), and was co-commissioned and produced by Bleach*.

Looking back, I was crazy ambitious. I composed 90minutes of music that was performed by 60 musicians led by DeepBlue and Dr Michael Askill. It was presented as 3 x 30minute performances for a walking audience, who strolled or sat amongst a forest of musicians under the night sky, inside a circular performing space bordered by beautiful music-responsive light sculptures.

What has stayed with me is the synergy and momentum from working with a great team. You can do the seemingly impossible with the right people. I found new energy reserves, navigated some thorny problems, and collectively we made a really beautiful work!

Please tell us how you came to collaborate with Malaysian artists for the new Sarawak incarnation of the show?

I didn’t want Song to the Earth to sit on the shelf and not get another performance, as happens so often with large new musical works. So, before the premiere, I went to the Australian Performing Arts Market to building new networks. I met Malaysia festival director Mr Joe Sidek, who is committed to first nations programming and cross-cultural dialogue. As I regularly collaborate with musicians from Asia who perform non-western classical or folk music traditions, we discovered a common interest. We met again at Borak Arts Series, a forum for performing artists working in South East Asia, and talked some more. I ended up hanging out with the Malaysia crew including the dynamic Juvita Tatan Wan, co-founder of The Tuyang Initiative, a social enterprise that develops and promotes the artistry and cultural heritage of the Dayak communities (of Sarawak, Malaysia’s Borneo). When I heard the voice of Adrian Jo Milang, a Kayan artist who Juvita represents, I felt there was a strong musical connection. Adrian is currently the youngest practitioner of Kayan Parap, a form of impromptu poetic song sung by Tukang Habe or leader and chorus of Habe. The music has a timeless quality, and flows in waves of call & response.

Joe approached me a few months later to pitch an idea for Rainforest Fringe Festival, and I immediately thought of Juvita and Adrian. We teamed up and were fortunate to receive funding to premiere in Sarawak Malaysia from the Australia Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Regional Arts Development Fund, a partnership between the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast Council.

In what ways did you have to re-jig Song To The Earth in order to make it work in its new setting?

The third part of Song to the Earth features gongs and Persian violin of Shah Kaman, and is incredibly spacious and expansive. It works on the principle of simultaneous independent time-cycles. This allows different music to co-exist: Greta Kelly’s Esfahan mode melody performed on Shah Kaman (Persian violin); Adrian Jo Milang’s powerful Kayan Parap or sung epic poems of the Kayan people; and the music played on Michael Askill’s incredible collection of gongs. I used digital processing as a bridge between these elements, creating ghost-like versions of Adrian’s voice that floated around the edge of the performance space and sounded, at different times, like a gong/voice hybrid, or an eerie, slowed Shah Kaman.

For this performance, Adrian chose two epic poems to sing – Long Linge and Lirong Linge Ningan – both of which work really well with the surrounding music and have not been regularly sung since the 1960s or 1970s. They are more sorrowful in sound and tend not to be chosen to be sung at the festival-like participatory performances at Kayan community events. Adrian actually revived these songs for our performance. The audience was mesmerised, not only because of his compelling singing, but many were hearing these songs for the first time. A special treat was hearing Adrian perform with his mum, grand-uncle and grand-aunt. It is not often that you get to hear three generations of musicians performing together!

We understand you are doing a residency at HOTA later in the year with your work Laniakea. How did the residency come about?

Laniakea is a project I’ve been slowly cooking for around 12months with the team of Jasmine Chen (Taiwan) on Pipa or Chinese Lute, Michael Askill on gongs, Anna Whitaker on spatialisation and effects, and, from New Zealand, Daniel Belton and Good Company Arts who are creating digital film that places the performers in a cosmic setting. I’m quite in love with this work as it really dives into an expanded sense of space and time.

Laniakea is an Hawaiian word for “immeasurable heavens”, and has been used to name the supercluster of galaxies in which we reside. Our cosmic address proper is Earth, Milky Way, Laniakea!

Our team is spending 6 days at HOTA as part of the inaugural HOTA Creative Development, which is a partnership between HOTA Home of the Arts and the City of Gold Coast. We’ll be experimenting with the spatialisation of the music (using 4-10 speakers), staging and image-sound combinations. On September 25, we will be having an industry showing so that we can get valuable feedback ahead of pitching this work for festivals in 2020.There were over 250 applications for HOTA’s Creative Development program, so we were really lucky to secure one of the spots. Our application was definitely strengthened by our already having completed a research & development phase thanks to Creative New Zealand and the Regional Arts Development Fund, which is a partnership between the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland.

Are you able to give us any hints about what Laniakea might entail?

Laniakea is a synaesthetic experience that plays with shifting perception of time and space and celebrates the connection between humans and the stars, and the intimate and the infinite. You’ll see human figures journeying in space amongst active threads of light that suggest molecular, cellular and cosmic space in momentum. With the music, you can hear subtly different simultaneous versions of Pipa and percussion music expanding outward like stars or galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.

Visit bonmusic.com.au for more news and works from Corrina.

IMAGE (c) Lamp Photography

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