Friday 11 February 2011

Gillian Howell: Music Work, a love song

Gillian Howell's blog is at

She is, in her own words,
a musician, composer, and creative director of composition and collaborative projects. I’m based in Melbourne, Australia. A lot of my work takes place in schools, but I’m not actually a qualified teacher – rather, I’m a very experienced educator and facilitator. I’m a clarinettist who makes occasional forays into saxophone and flute.

Her most recent project has been in Timor Leste. Right, I didn’t know where it was either, it’s next to Indonesia.

Here are the World Health Organisation statistics for the country:
Total population
Gross national income per capita (PPP international $)
Life expectancy at birth m/f (years)
Healthy life expectancy at birth m/f (years, 2003)
Probability of dying under five (per 1 000 live births)
Probability of dying between 15 and 60 years m/f (per 1 000 population)
Total expenditure on health per capita (Intl $, 2006)
Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (2006)
Figures are for 2006 unless indicated. Source: World Health Statistics 2008

46,360$ is the Gross national income per capita for USA, just so you can compare.

Don’t expect Gillian Howell to be intimidated by this prospect: earlier work has taken her to Bosnia. In her posts Gillian writes beautifully and over the months she has composed a travel guide, a whodunnit, a confessional, a music teacher’s manual, and a love song.
As this post is intended to whet your appetite and send you to the source, you will find just snippets to give you an idea of what awaits you at the Music Work blog:

Travel guide
Here are some excerpts which set the scene so graphically:
In Lospalos, it is not unusual to be awoken around 5.45am (before the electricity goes off for the day – we only have electricity overnight here) by someone playing music very, very loudly…... Once we got into Christmas season, the music of choice was things like revved-up Jingle Bells, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas in 4/4. Brahms Lullaby is also apparently a Christmas song in Timor….
We did another excursion on Thursday, this time to the coastal town of Lore. We’d been told it would take 3 hours to get there, but it turned out to be a journey of about 1 hour and a quartet only. The dirt road was slow-going but there were no big pot-holes or drops away at the edges, so I would call it a pretty reasonable road for Timor!
The beach at Lore was rocky, and had some of the biggest waves I’ve seen on this island so far. It’s a wide, long spread of beach, with horses grazing down on the rocks at the water’s edge, and palm trees lining the edge of the furthest-back sand dunes.
At a cultural festival:
The crafts on display were also fascinating. There was a man carving ornamental birds from buffalo horn. There were two men working together to make wooden bowls from lumps of wood. There were women with weaving looms and tais (traditional woven fabrics) for sale. There were women weaving baskets, and selling these in all shapes, sizes and colours. There was a goldsmith, creating tiny pieces of jewellery with his traditional tools (my friend ordered two gold rings from him, one for each of her daughters. He engraved their initials on the rings, and they looked superb when we collected them the next day). There were men from Oecussi, the East Timorese enclave that is marooned in the middle of Indonesian West Timor (you either travel there overland, or get there by ferry, once a week), who were making small metal bells in a fireplace, which then were strung onto strands separated by narrow macaroni-seized pieces of bamboo, and then wound around the ankles as a percussive accompaniment to dance. These are called kini-kini…,

We have discovered that our next door neighbour is a culture man, someone with knowledge about traditional instruments and how to make them. Timorese instruments are intricately connected with both the local environment and local rituals. For example, the kakalos we made on the weekend (following his design) were used by children in the fields, with the job of scaring away birds that might try and eat the crops.

An awful event occurs: the betrayal of trust and of hospitality when a saxophone is stolen in the middle of the night. As the weeks go by it is never clearly established who did it, but suspicion hangs on to the very end. The instrument was recovered soon after being stolen.

Music teacher’s manual:
Day after day I was struck at how comfortable and familiar these music exercises sounded and felt, thousands of kilometres away. There’s a trail going back to Professor John Paynter and his seminal work on creative music making and you can see the influences here in Gillian Howell’s work. No matter that John Paynter developed his work with poor children in Liverpool, England in the 60’s and that this work takes place in the Pacific in the 2010: the relevance is the same, the music touches human hearts.   When I studied with him at York University in the 70’s, his uncompromising desire to share genuine musical experiences was similar in every way to Gillian Howell’s inspiration.

We started with a name song which goes around the circle with each person singing their name, and it being repeated in unison by the rest of the group.
Then, as a rhythmic warm-up, we created word-strings, and clapped these. First I asked each person in the circle to volunteer one English word that they liked. Then as a group we invented three strings of four or more words each. We said these out loud, exaggerating the rhythm of the syllables, and then clapping the rhythms in unison, and then in three separate groups. I conducted groups in and out of the texture to create some variations in the layers, and then cued a tight stop.
Now that we were warmed-up (we taught them the word ‘warm-up), we discussed ideas for a song. Each group discussed their preferences, then we shared these and looked for common threads between the three groups. There were several themes that emerged:
·         A sad song, expressing sad feelings
·         A happy song, thinking about things that make you happy
·         A love song

From here we did some call-and-response rhythms. I clapped and tapped rhythms on different parts of my body for them to echo. I tried to  use a big variety of sounds – they particularly enjoyed the hollowed-cheek taps.
From here, I established two separate rhythms and divided the circle into two groups. I did this without any words at first, but in the end needed to clarify my intentions briefly in Tetun! Two rhythms, one clapped and syncopated, the other stomped and grounded on the beat. We repeated a few times, then switched parts.
Next I introduced a whole-ensemble stop. I showed them the countdown signal I do with my fingers – “1, 2, 3, 4, STOP!” – and we started to do this. This led to a counted-in start cue as well and before long they were creating some very slick starts and stops.
Now it was time to bring out the instruments. We started with drums, sticks and shakers, keeping to the same rhythms, and passing the instruments around the group so that everyone got to play something.

As Forrest Gump  found out, not everything works out the way we planned it. Sickness, complications with local bureaucracy … don’t have to go to Timor Leste to find that problem there’s plenty of that here in Europe, confusion and momentary dips in motivation… they’re all here.This section  includes one of my favourite posts: Motivation. Gillian Howell’s motivation, even in the face of so much difficulty, is so much stronger than many persons I meet who belong to the 3G generation with their attitude to work: Get there, Get through, Get out.

The last few days have passed by in a bit of a blur, partly because of the workshop whirl one gets into in the middle of a project, and partly because by Sunday I was struck down by a mosquito-borne tropical illness known as Chikungunya. I think it started on Saturday with an ache in my knee that I assumed was due to over-exerting myself in the warm-up games that morning, but in hindsight I now suspect otherwise.
Chikungunya Virus is one of the more exotic diseases I’ve ever had (and I’ve been hospitalised for quinsy, which I’ve always considered exotic for its Victorian quaintness even though it is a horrible thing to be sick with…). But it’s no fun

I feel a bit worried that we are incredibly behind the eight-ball in putting together a project like this. We don’t really have any support from local authorities. We don’t have a proper workshop space to create these pieces in (and I know that the workshop environment plays an incredibly important role in helping groups to develop original work).

I realised today – with a slight sense of dismay, I must admit – that the majority of my energy and thinking these last 7 weeks has gone into ‘managing’ my relationships with people here and trying to make sense of them all. It’s a constant daily task because Timor is not an easy place! But I am learning. I noticed, when my visitors first arrived, how many assumptions they made. .....You learn to assume you actually haven’t got all the information you need!
Getting stonewalled so resolutely by my local cultural contact last Monday had quite an impact on me. I’ve always thought of myself as a very intrinsically-motivated person. There is not much money, and there is an awful lot of work, in the kind of work I do. In fact though, lots of the work I do evolves through the working environment I have cultivated over time for myself. It is through the networks that I develop, and part of the motivation to do a good job is about building a reputation that will see more offers for work come my way. In other words, there is an extrinsic motivation at play too.
Here, almost no-one in any position within an organisation seems to be showing much interest in working with me.

Love story
These are the most moving parts of this incredible story. Passion, concern and humanity shine through.....
Yesterday we focused on the idea that from the moment a person is born they have the same human rights as every other person. We made a piece of music that started from the idea of the first breath. Today, the plan was to complete that piece of music with the children, and then move onto another right – the Right to Education (our focus topics were chosen in response to our initial discussions with the children about what they knew about human rights).
I’ve written quite a lot about the ‘Motolori boys’ who were our main participants in Lospalos. In this post I want to try and assemble what it is that I know about them, and the kinds of impressions they made on me. Together, we went on quite a learning journey.
That evening they had a visiting family member, a young woman who’d only recently returned to Lospalos from working in England. She was pregnant, and as she and I chatted, I asked her about her plans. She explained that after the baby had reached six months her plan was to leave it with her family and that she would go back to England. Such is the scarcity of work in Lospalos and Timor, and the significance of what she could contribute to her family by continuing to work in England. My heart ached for her when I thought how difficult it would be to return to England without her baby, her first-born.
But I also remember the delight that we all felt just about being in Kakavei, and sharing our music and our workshop with these people whose lives are really quite isolated. …Visitors like us are the kind of thing that people may talk about for ages afterwards.
A dilemma that comes at the end of many projects in developing countries is what to do with the materials you have been using, or that have been donated, once your project ends. It’s a dilemma about realities and likely scenarios, about ownership and power, access and equity.
As we began to move toward the car to go, one of the elderly women who’d been watching the workshop came up to me. In fact, this woman had been a participant in the workshop, playing a chime bar for much of the time. ...She leaned forward so that her face was close to mine, and I did too. Then she dipped her face slightly and rubbed her nose firmly against mine. The crowd roared their approval.
At the end of the workshop, I asked Lina, Rachel and Tony to play together. They played a solo each, and then improvised together, the crowd of young and old people gathered around them. The most musically magic moment for me was when they improvised – lightly, sweetly – on the kindergarten song I’d learned from young Dona in Lospalos, Ikan hotu nani iha bee.

I have never met Gillian Howell, and she would not recognize me if she sat next to me on the train here in Madrid, Spain, reading one of her blog posts.
One of Paul McCartney’s Wings songs, I think it’s on Band on the Run, says, Some people say the world has had enough of silly love songs.
 I think the world can never get enough of the kind of love song which is Gillian Howell’s work, her life and her passion. The world can never have enough persons like her, persons who make the world a better place by touching people’s lives, one by one, note by note.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Timothy, thank you so much for all these words that leave me with such a warm glow. How pleasurable it is to read my own words coming back to me from someone else's page! (complete with spelling mistakes - a journey of "an hour and a quartet", indeed!) And, after four such intense and tightly-packed months, it is great to read a summary of the journey, from another person's point of view. I'm very happy to have had you along as a reader and commenter on this experience. Thank you for sharing it and for writing this appreciation.