BY MIRANDA ILCHEF, LEAD WRITER
While the pandemic has been a turbulent and uncertain time for our performing arts community, one clear benefit has emerged: artists have discovered new ways to collaborate across seemingly insurmountable barriers.
The musicians and composers of the Phonetic Orchestra will take this to the extreme their upcoming concert Tower Lake Temple. On August 15 at Melbourne Recital Centre, these artists will perform together in real time – despite being located across two continents, Germany and Australia. It’s a daring activity that Phonetic Orchestra double bassist and composer Jonathan Heilbron has described as building “remote intimacy”: it encourages us to think more deeply about the ways we define presence, space, and connection in contemporary music making. (You can read more about that right here.)
The Phonetic Orchestra was formed in 2012 as a contemporary experimental collective of bright-eyed, mostly 20-something-year-olds. Its original founding members include Callum G’Froerer, Jon Heilbron, and Reuben Lewis (pictured above). Ten years on and they’ve become known for their eight-hour (and even recently 24-hour) marathon experimental concerts.
The group has a history of collaborative composition, with large-group improvisation playing an important role in the creation of its performances. With a diverse instrumentation – including but not limited to double bass, piano, flute, trumpet, guitar, percussion, and electronics – the Phonetic Orchestra’s sonic possibilities prove to be wide and varied.
All of the ensemble members come from different musical backgrounds, which only adds to their capacity to think outside the box. Reuben Lewis (trumpet and electronics) – who says he has “seen and been a part of every iteration of the orchestra” – originally studied jazz improvisation in Canberra. After leaving Australia, and while living in Berlin for a year, Reuben met classically trained double bassist Jon Heilbron, who would become a fellow founding member of the Phonetic Orchestra.
Returning to Australia, Reuben has found Melbourne the perfect place to tap into a range of experimental and improvisation music scenes; he also works in solo ambient music, experimental jazz rock, and for the Australian Art Orchestra in addition to his role at the Phonetic Orchestra.
“The Phonetic Orchestra is a very diverse group: our members come from improv, classical, composition and noise backgrounds,” Reuben tells us.
“In the early stages, we were trying to find connections between those disciplines and concepts, and now there’s a more overarching way in which we work together that absorbs all those backgrounds.”
As the individual members have matured and developed in their artistic practices, the look and sound of the ensemble has changed. Reuben notes that their instrumentation particularly has evolved a lot since the early days of Phonetic.
“We’ve started to work in more electronics. Originally, we were very acoustic – very soft and a very ‘incidental-sound’ kind of ensemble. These days, we are quite different, which reflects the individual practices of the ensemble members,” Reuben shares.
“I work a lot with electronics while Callum does a lot of work with double bell trumpet and other new music practices, so these things have worked their way in. It’s an orchestration of characters rather than just instruments.”
Reuben has found that the Phonetic Orchestra’s “telematic” forays have proved to be “a way to reconnect and reinvent ourselves as an ensemble”.
“We’ve been around a long time, and one of the challenges we face as a group now is that we are based in three different locations. It’s either got to be an incredibly ambitious, incredibly well-funded project that gets us together – or it’s something telematic,” he says.
“When the pandemic hit, we were interested in finding a way to do a work together.”
Rather than viewing the unforeseen conditions staring in 2020 as a hinderance or limitation, Reuben and his group found a way for new and creatively fulfilling possibilities to emerge. In fact, Reuben has come to realise that some of the ways Phonetic Orchestra now makes music, using new digital mediums, would have been impossible in a classic concert format.
The Phonetic Orchestra’s Tower Lake Temple comes after its ground-breaking work Silent Towns, a 24-hour online concert that spanned three time zones and took home an APRA Art Music award.
Silent Towns was live-streamed in August of 2020, during the peak of lockdown and pandemic-related uncertainty. Watching now as a more seasoned pandemic veteran, I am sent back to that rather frenetic time of precariousness and inescapably fast-paced media, and Silent Towns feels like a warm respite. The collaborative and trusting atmosphere of the group is palpable, even from behind a screen.
“It was incredibly exciting for us because we realised that the way we make music, and the way we work as an ensemble, translated really well to this kind of context,” Reuben says.
“There was a time where people engaged with this medium partially out of desperation: there was no other way to make music together and connect. As time rolls on, we are starting to find interesting and intricate ways of working with the medium as a deliberate choice. It’s given us a brand-new way to think about how we create.”
Even if you’re growing familiar with the way concert experiences have changed in the past couple of years, Tower Lake Temple is likely to leave you surprised.
“We are really interested in redefining the listening experience for the audience – they way they make connections between sounds and instruments, but also how they sit in space and experience a work.”
As Reuben puts it, Tower Lake Temple is the perfect concert for a listener wanting to “redefine their ears”. The performance will feature a range of compositional techniques, from free improvisation to through-composed notation. Accompanying visuals produced by Gregory Oke will show a mixture of footage of the ensemble performing in Berlin, visual art, and live graphic manipulation.
With Tower Lake Temple, Phonetic Orchestra continues to expand upon the possibilities of telematic music-making in a defiant celebration of togetherness and connection.
“This is very much a collective process, right from the conceptual idea to the writing of the music to the concert itself. Composing this music is very much a group process – it’s a concept that is grown organically.”