Composing miniatures, places, festivals

Keith Gallasch: interview with David Young, Artistic Director Next Wave Festival

David Young

David Young

David Young

Artists are fast becoming the most interesting arts festival directors in the country. Robyn Archer, Barrie Kosky and Lyndon Terracini have created unique and challenging events responsive to Australian artists, local contexts and encouraging the growing demand for public dialogue about the arts.

David Young is a talented composer. Until recently he has been Artistic Director of the Melbourne-based music ensemble Aphids, a company dedicated to new music, including Young’s own, not as collections of concert pieces but as installation and performance works with sound design as an integral part of production. Aphids have toured the performance installation Ricefields in Australia and overseas, and the recent international collaboration, Maps, with leading artists from Denmark, director Louise Beck and composer Julia Hodkinson, premiered in Melbourne in 2000 and will tour to Denmark in 2002. Aphids’ commitment to engaging with communities has also been notable.

Young has resigned his position at Aphids to become Artistic Director of Next Wave, the long-standing and innovative Melbourne festival for and about young people. RealTime discusses with David why Next Wave appeals to him. We also explore his most recent work, Overheard at Inveresk, which he created for Robyn Archer’s 10 Days on the Island festival in Tasmania earlier this year.

Catching the next wave

Next Wave, being a multi-artform festival, is in many ways a natural progression from the work I’ve done with Aphids. Aphids is alive and well and going to Copenhagen with Maps next year but for me that might be the close parenthesis. Aphids is calling for expressions of interest from aspiring directors to take over as the new AD.

I have often been more interested in other people’s work than my own. That’s why I’ve always wanted to do collaborative work and involve other people not just in the production but in the whole process. Next Wave is not mutually exclusive and the beauty of it being a biennial festival is that there’s time to concentrate on my own work when it’s not festival time. Being able to explore those ideas, not just in music or even music theatre, but across text, visual and new media arts and dance, is something I’ve always wanted to do.

One of the problems for young artists is the lack of infrastructure—not just festivals but at all levels. The responsibility that Next Wave has is, as much as possible, to provide a nurturing environment, helping people to step into a context where some of the other things are taken care of, the administration, the marketing. The support is there so that people can concentrate on their work and have time to develop their ideas, get guidance, and have doors opened for them.

Shaping the wave

In our Kickstart program there are 2 music and 5 theatre projects which have money to develop to a work-in-progress showing stage. We’ve been encouraging people not to spend their money on production and do a big show but to develop ideas. I think a lot of them will find their way into the festival. As well, we have secondments and all of these have designated mentors. We have had 5 young choreographer/ directors working on Chunky Move’s Arcade. The feedback we’ve got from people about just being there, getting to meet and observe other artists, being incorporated into the process gradually, says that this is invaluable. The beauty of Arcade was that there were 5 quite different choreographers and we’ve been able to tailor-make the relationships.

We have a Kickstart community development secondee which is a new 6 month placement. Gillian Howell is a composer who’s worked mainly in music theatre and community development and she will be putting together a series of projects. Some will be part of the festival, others will perhaps be running in parallel or leading up to the festival to consolidate the community and cultural development aspect of the program.

There’s also a Kickstart public art program supported by the City of Melbourne and, again, there’ll be a number of mentors working with young visual artists and people who’ve done public art before—or maybe haven’t. There’ll be a showing of models or digitally rendered works. Some will go on to be realised as part of the program. There’s also Kickstart digital media as part of the Info Grammes Diegesis Media Arts Festival.

There’s a lot of development work. The important thing about Next Wave is that it’s not a shopping trolley festival. We don’t have the resources to buy things. We have to grow our own.


Among the artists for the Kickstart theatre showings are Angus Cerini who’s doing a new street theatre work and presenting part of his new piece, Dumb. He’s a young playwright, a very physical, intense theatre performer who works a lot with soundscape with a monologue quality to it. I expect that he’ll take his ideas into ensemble work. Kate Sulan is a young director who works with people with disabilities in a theatre context and I guess that’s one of the most volatile projects because a lot of support is needed. It’s a new group who have worked a little together but this is one of their biggest opportunities and I really see them as having the chance to go down the Back to Back path. I think there’s enormous potential especially given support from the City of Port Phillip and Theatreworks in St Kilda.

From composer to curator

It’s a big change. Suddenly there’s infrastructure. It gives me a lot of energy because it’s opened up ways of looking ahead which I haven’t necessarily been able to think of myself. Certainly being a festival director is curatorial in the sense that it’s about being presented with ideas and not having to generate all of them yourself.

As a composer, the work I do is miniature. It’s always been pretty intimate, tiny. It hasn’t really leant itself to great commercial or audience success. And in many ways, that’s the way I like it. I don’t write operas or large scale orchestral or chorus works. I’m interested in small chamber works, individual experiences. So that fits very comfortably with a role like this because there’s space to do that work while I’m working on the festival. In fact, I’ve recently written a piece for The Song Company. It’s not a huge work. It’s a little David Young piece and there’s a way to do that that suits me. I don’t want to be creating work all the time every day. It’s not something that my work lends itself to.

Site specifics

(Robyn Archer selected the Inveresk Railway Yard, Launceston, as one of a number of locations across Tasmania for her first 10 Days on the Island festival and invited David Young to create a site work involving the local community.

In recent years, older models of community arts have been transformed by the likes of Big hART, Urban Theatre Projects, Alicia Talbot, successfully introducing multimedia, site work and contemporary performance to communities as rich and varied means of exploring their lives and the places they live.

Young’s description of his Overheard at Inveresk, which was both an installation and an opera, is a reminder of how significant non-musical sound and sound design are to the contemporary composer.)

At Inveresk there was basically everything you need to make a train—carpentry and paint workshop, blacksmith workshop, foundry. It operated for 125 years until 1993 when it was privatised and nationalised and then completely shut down. They sold some of the big machinery for scrap metal but eventually it was all donated to the museum. Now the whole site is being re-developed. There’s going to be the performing arts faculty of the university and 7500 square feet of new exhibition space for the gallery and museum. There’s a migration museum, railway exhibition, Indigenous exhibition and a new fine art gallery being developed. The centrepiece is the blacksmith shop which is completely intact.

I felt really honoured because we were the first people in there and it was the first time the public had really been allowed in. I went down last year and had a look. It was interesting coming back. The patina of rust and residue had been dustbusted and removed, all the heavy metals—it had quite a surreal quality.

The museum

Many people who used to work there came through the finished installation. There was one guy who hadn’t been there since 1977. He went to his old locker, opened it and there were his time sheets, his name scribbled on the side. This material is now part of the site as a museum. So he picked it up and thought, oh, this is not mine any more. It was really very moving because it had been quite a dramatic downsizing, a lot of people retrenched, a lot of resentment and many emotional scars that still exist. It’s a really important site in the recent social history of Launceston but also in terms of the industrial prowess of the city and its aesthetic.

It was late last year that I began the research—working very closely with the museum’s history department, interviews with people who used to work there and going through the archives, getting the different narratives, the different maps of the site—“That was the biggest drop hammer…that was the sort of court of the site and you had to take your hat off if you went in there…”

The installation

The site is actually quite big. It’s 3 big warehouses. We opened it from 10.30 till 4.00 over 10 days and organised a sound installation—a combination of CD loops and some randomised material incorporating oral histories. You’d walk past a locker and there’d be someone chatting in there or someone in a furnace. A lot of the machinery still works. It can’t be operated when the public’s there, but we were able to record it. There were aspects that were quite literal—this is what it would have sounded like. And we made the building shake. We had a fantastic diffusion system which Michael Hewes almost single-handedly loaded into his jeep and brought down on the boat from Melbourne.

We found fantastic chain links which hadn’t been welded together yet as part of the museum display. They became huge tuning forks and chimes. There were great saw blades which we suspended. All sorts of wonderful percussion material which I composed to.

Everything that we put into the sound installation was recorded in that space. So acoustically it married very naturally. We had one very long week to install everything and we set up a studio so we were able to keep the work alive and developing. Things changed. We interviewed people and fed that into the system as they experienced it.

Layered over the sound was musical material generated mainly through workshops with Tom O’Kelly, a percussionist who’s based down in Hobart and teaching at the Conservatorium. It was a very satisfying collaboration. We had workshops with the musicians in the building quite early on. Maria Lurighi, the soprano, was involved in those as well. It ended up being about exploring different acoustic spaces. There was a wonderful boiler tank that Maria stuck her head into and sang.

Outside of concerts, my work has always been collaborative. But unlike a lot of the other projects where I’ve been working with visual artists or a film-maker devising a work and then performers coming in to realise it, this was really drawing on the performers’ reaction to the space as well. And Michael was absolutely involved and was very much a composer for the installation as well. In fact, in many ways it’s the most uncompromising work that I’ve done. I feel that despite the contingent problems of dealing with a difficult space, the agendas that the museum and the local government had—quite a political football, as you can imagine, when there’s a lot of money going into it—we ended up being able to create a work which spoke to people emotionally about their memories. It really evoked their personal connections to the space if they worked there or if they knew someone who had—an uncle or a brother. But also people who had lived across the river and had never known what had gone on in there suddenly recognised sounds as they walked through.

The opera

We also created a miniature opera which happened on 3 days, scheduled for 4pm—I wanted to do something during the working day. The mini-opera was a compacted tragedy which was to do with the fall of Icarus. I guess it’s about me wanting to create not just an historical, museological work, but also something new.

The impetus came when I first walked into the site and there was a sense of all the workers having just left for lunch but that they would be coming back soon. There was an imminence, a resonance of something just overheard, something going on in time. I was reminded of the Breughel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. A peasant in the foreground, everyday activity and the only indication of the dramatic event a little feather in the corner…and a splash.

And then it turns out that Icarus’ father Daedalus is credited with inventing the hammer. At the same time it seems many of the blacksmiths’ wives had never been into this space. This was their first chance to see where their husbands had worked for 20, 40 years. They had no connection. It was very much the place that he went.

A boy lit the forges at the beginning of the opera and then climbed an 18 foot ladder up onto a high rafter from which he observed the performance. At the end, he and the percussionist got on bicycles and rode off. Outside the building we had 20 cyclists ride along the boardwalk ringing their bells. When there were 2,000 people working at Inveresk, the road had to be closed to other traffic.

The community

When the drop hammer was going and Maria was launching into a Wagnerian moment, the local RSL brass band was walking along the boardwalk doing their standard repertoire. At a certain point it changed to a piece that I’d written for them and that resonated inside the building. Then they went back to their march. It had a wonderfully surreal quality.

I don’t know whether it was a hunger for something a little bit out of the ordinary or a connection to the space, but I was overwhelmed by the people’s enthusiasm and willingness to be involved. I also wrote music for the choir at the university, which we rehearsed and recorded as part of the installation and also as a chorus for moments in the opera. Launceston is relatively small and those community aspects had a significance beyond just being an effect in the performance.

Lance, the local pigeon fancier, helped us out too. We went round to his place one night and met his 200 pigeons. He told us he often fell asleep at the back of his house by the aviary listening to them. It’s a very beautiful sound with a slightly unnerving, fluttering quality. Each bird has its own call and the cooing sounded almost like water rippling. We recorded that. Of course, there are Icarian resonances—homing pigeons, feathers and so on. But the railways also made a lot of money from transporting and liberating pigeons. Homing pigeon races are a big thing in Launceston.

And at the end of the installation, we had our own homing pigeon liberation. We asked people throughout the season of the installation to write messages or reflections on their experiences. Lance borrowed pigeons from his friends all around Launceston and we had a cathartic and very beautiful moment, in the middle of the last day, after frantically attaching messages to pigeons and releasing them. They flew up in a wonderful spiral and disappeared over the horizon. It was the sort of project that required such an event because of the investment that so many people had made.

The museum was really interested in what happened because the space is being opened in November. There are enormous conservation issues about how they interpret it [the blacksmith’s shop], how they make it safe, make it accessible. And of course, sound is a wonderful thing because it doesn’t deteriorate or corrupt the materials, it doesn’t change anything and yet it can be very powerfully evocative and specific in the information it gives. So they’re planning a permanent sound installation as a result of our works.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 4-5

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1 August 2001