TUNE IN featuring Maria Grenfell & Jessica Wells

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TUNE IN featuring Maria Grenfell & Jessica WellsBy Stephanie Eslake

The children hop over wave-flattened rocks at the edge of the beach, far beyond the long stretch of sand. With Grandma at their side, they peek into the water that forms little pools between the textures on the surface – a crab, once spotted, scurries from sight.

It paints an idyllic picture for those of us stuck in lockdown, with not much to look at each day except for the walls inside our homes. But what if you could escape into such a scene through music? And not only this: what if you could also understand how the music is composed to whisk you so far away to another place – how the harp undulates like the waves, and how the sweeping strings feel uplifting?

This is the beauty of TUNE IN, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s newest initiative. It provides calm, inspiration, and stimulation through a series of videos with Australian composers who discuss their original music – and TSO musicians who discuss the classics.

The scene described above is from Rock Hopping, a short work by Maria Grenfell. Upon browsing the TUNE IN pages on the TSO website, you will scroll to a red colour block that reveals the name of this work – it’s the first piece in the first set of music.

TUNE IN resources are designed to enlighten and educate visitors, who can freely explore recordings and accompanying activities. In her TUNE IN video, Maria talks about how the children on this beach are her own; their grandmother joining them in a picturesque childhood moment that moved her to compose it from the heart.

Rock Hopping was originally written for the Hush Foundation to help children relax in stressful settings, and was recorded by the players of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Now, new life is breathed into this Australian composition each time a listener visits TUNE IN to listen and learn.

“A great way to introduce classical music to children is through programmatic music – music that tells a story,” Maria tells me in a chat about TUNE IN.

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“It helps engage their imagination with what they are hearing – especially if the piece has a title they can relate to.”

Maria is one of eight Australian composers invited to feature in TUNE IN and share the stories behind the creation of their music. Their works are positioned alongside pieces penned by composers of centuries past, such as Grieg, Rossini, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. In this way, past and present composers are presented as equals.

For children, this means engaging in all styles of music throughout their earliest listening experiences – without discrimination between old and new; history and the present day.

Commenting on the TSO’s curation of TUNE IN pieces, Maria says: “It’s really important for Australians to know that there are composers living and working – in Australia and around the world – and they’re not just ‘dead’ people or that classical music is a ‘dying’ genre. It is so far from dying!”

“I think it’s critical that Australian ensembles support and play Australian music. Composers are telling the stories of their country and their environment – what’s important to Australians today. That has to make Australian music relevant.”

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Fellow TUNE IN composer Jessica Wells, whose work Zodiac Animalia was selected for this interactive online initiative, shares similar views. She tells me: “Every time I have been involved in a concert where living composers are included alongside classics of the orchestral repertoire, the result has always been positive and even exciting!”

“It is imperative that [children] understand that composers are alive and kicking – and can even take the shape of a middle-aged mum!

“Promoting the music of their own country is also very important, so that they get a sense that Australia’s musical culture is just as important as that of the rest of the world.”

Zodiac Animalia is a collection of 12 movements, each of which represents a character of the Chinese Zodiac – and each of which is as playful as Maria’s own composition.

“Children are some of the best audiences a modern composer can have. Their sense of imagination is incredible, and they react to music viscerally,” Jessica says.

In recent years, her composition has been performed live to hundreds of children, all excited to respond as they “hissed like snakes, bleated like sheep, and ‘oohed and aahed’ before the dragon began”.

At one concert in Oklahoma, children were invited to draw pictures of the Zodiac animals, which were then projected onto a screen as the music played.

“Having a connection to the music in some way that is not just musical – such as verbal, written, or visual art – can really enhance the experience,” Jessica notes.

“I intend the audience to react to each animal in their own way, imagining their own version of the story that could be occurring with each movement. Then, they can chat about it afterwards and pick their favourite animals.”

It’s a subtle precursor to TUNE IN: in a video, Jessica hints at the way animals and instruments are connected. Then, kids can listen to her music before undertaking activities together including a quiz and wordsearch on the website. Now they’re at home, they might spend time drawing the animals, too.

Regardless of how people choose to explore the resources, there are many available to those of all ages. For instance, providing a more detailed description of her music, Jessica tells me “each movement has a unique soundworld, which adults can enjoy analysing”.

“I’ve used a film-noir style in the Dragon movement, paying homage to Bernard Herrmann – the composer of Alfred Hitchcock movies. The Snake movement uses extensive canon techniques, which may not be picked up by children’s ears.

“These techniques can be gleaned with adult ears – and also with the full score available as a PDF on the TSO website, adults can have a look at the notation if they wish to delve deeper into the work!

“In any case, there’s so much colour and technique and interest in the piece that people of all ages can enjoy it.”

No matter what you’re doing at home, who you’re isolated with, or how old you are, TUNE IN undoubtedly provides an excuse to forget about the troubles of pandemic life – and gain new knowledge you can carry with you as a lifelong music lover.

“Having Australian content available to all during this isolation period is really wonderful,” Jessica says.

“Listening to music in new ways – and learning about it outside the actual concert hall – is a great initiative, and I can’t wait to see what the response is!”

Visit TUNE IN on the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra website to explore these works and more from Australian and classical composers.

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