It is a grey January morning and the musicians of Forest Collective have gathered together again at the Abbotsford Convent. We had been less a collective and more a constellation over the last 12 months of pandemic life, scattered across vast distances. But today we are together. The space in the Industrial School feels familiar, as the company has given countless performances here over the years. But 2020 was anything but ordinary and it has been a long time between gigs! After what feels like forever, the musicians arrive beaming and brimming with creative energy that has had little outlet over the past 12 months.
The challenge today is to find safe and artistic ways to perform and rehearse together that adhere to the regulations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. And these new ways of working must ultimately be engaging and exciting from an audience perspective. As an ensemble that has always embraced innovative and non-normative performance ideas, we are looking at this as an opportunity to do something new and different - to reimagine traditional notions of performance and concert experiences. And what is the best way to ensure a safe level of physical distancing? Why, pool noodles of course!
Forest’s trombonist Trea Hindley struck upon the idea when she realised that the standard Aussie pool noodle is exactly 151cm long. As safety regulations require performers to be 150cm apart, these cheerful and brightly coloured toys are exactly what is needed to stop the spread! So if we must undertake these measures, why not do it with joy and playfulness? Who ever said health and safety was dull?
Forest Collective is now preparing for our first gig in 12 months. As part of Midsumma Festival, Forest will collaborate with the amazing Diimpa on February 28. Diimpa is a weaver of soundscapes, a sonic wizard and an avant garde composer whose rich sound whorls draw from their lived experience as a queer, autistic Indigenous Gubbi Gubbi man. Their music will take you on a journey from darkness to light in the tree-filled surrounds of the Heide Museum of Modern Art, located on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.
“Every year Forest Collective tries to collaborate with a music maker who isn’t necessarily from a ‘classical’ music world,” says Forest’s artistic director Evan Lawson. “For this performance, Forest will be working with Diimpa on a series of pieces with the full ensemble.”
Bringing the added dimension of acoustic classical instruments to non-classical music is something Evan is passionate about: “I love working with artists who may have not had the opportunity to write for a full classical music ensemble and explore their ideas for these instruments.” For Evan, one of the most rewarding aspects of this kind of cross-genre collaboration is the fresh and exciting musical possibilities they spark. “By providing the lush and sumptuous sounds that Forest can supply, the musicians have an opportunity to explore different approaches and styles.”
However, running effective rehearsals of the full ensemble under COVID restrictions presents its own unique challenges. Evan describes the first socially-distanced rehearsal as “a challenge to be able to listen to and engage with each other.” But the emotional impact and energy the musicians get from rehearsing together is motivation enough to overcome these difficulties. “It was so moving and beautiful to be back in the room with the band,” said Evan, “and so exciting to make music together again!”
Despite all the safety measures and changing restrictions for live music in 2021, Forest Collective are determined to give music its voice. As a group, we understand that experiencing music’s vibrations, its resonances of exquisite beauty in all their painful and joyous partials, are a kind of safety measure too. A safety measure for the soul, you might say. A connection to something special and beyond the ordinary. And that is something that the hearts of Forest Collective, and the hearts of the people of Victoria, have been craving for a long time.
Daniel Szesiong Todd is Forest Collective's Writer in Residence.