unlike anything…

“That was the most amazing music I’ve ever heard.”

“I am in tears.”

Two of many beautiful comments and reactions I heard in Tunnel Number Five, including statements that “this is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.” They were not merely referring to the warm and “soggy” environs, or the adventure of bringing their chair deep under a hill into a rusty, dusty tunnel, they were reacting to the sonic sensation of being within a giant instrument with a collection of musicians combining phrases and sound colours from diverse cultures and genres; perhaps for some, suddenly glimpsing the inner world of those of us who dwell in a universe of vibrations.

Let me share what it was like for me, a shakuhachi (bamboo flute) player who had the privilege of playing with such a creative mob of musos within an enormous flute. Let me attempt to convey how it felt to suggest to three string players, who had never performed together before this event, to play with the tunnel, and then sit and to listen to the beautiful result; to witness a classically trained and diversely experienced trio of violist, cellist and violinist trusting each other to play serendipitous phrases and chords punctuated by resonant silences; who paused, giving the tunnel time to express it’s magic and whisper along it’s iron-clad walls what should come next.

To sit on a seat in a row with 100 expectant listeners who, like me, were there to hear something unfold, and like them, be delighted as waves of sounds and unexpected harmonies washed over me. To listen for two or three minutes before quietly standing and stepping across two narrow channels of water with beautiful floating origami candles to the other side of the tunnel. To wait, with shakuhachi in hand, to catch the right curling wave of string sounds on which to surf the length of the tunnel.

To slowly wander 100 meters, sometimes standing still to complete a phrase that took my full energy to navigate its intricacies in response to the music washing around me from 30 metres behind. To not have to worry about how soft my notes were within this long amplifier. To know that those who sat only two metres to my right would have an intimate mix of delicately bending flute on a bed of delicious reverberant string harmonies, and that the tunnel would carry my sound to those 130 metres behind me, who would experience just a hint of shakuhachi flute embedded within an increasingly polyphonically adventurous string ensemble. Both mixes would be magic. To know that every seat is a unique listening portal…

To feel the attention, the held breath, the excited energy of people strung out on a motley collection of seats, leaning forward as I passed, sometimes audibly gasping at combinations of sounds from the strings and myself, giving me the courage to explore ideas and throw in a new note, a new modal gesture, a new phrase to my distant colleagues, and then respond to their offerings. And that was just one piece I am describing.

I also experienced the thrill of playing a gentle and spacious duo with Netanela on viola on the final night. Throwing microtonal gestures back over my shoulder as we walked away from one another, wondering what she would make of that… and then smiling as her next phrase delighted me and listeners alike, and spurred me on to add a new unpremeditated response.

Listening with eyes closed to the amazing unaccompanied voices of Jason Gurruwiwi and Sebastian Burarrwanga calling to one another on the Thursday night gig… this too will also stay with me as a most magical experience. There were many magical moments this week, and let me tell you, like comments from the audience, these concerts were like nothing I have ever experienced before. Of course, every concert is unique – the performers, venue, repertoire, audience… no two concerts are ever the same, (what a boring world that would be.) This week in Tunnel Number Five will stay with me forever.

Thank you Darwin for sharing this experience. Thank you Robert Marchant for opening up Tunnel Number Five to us; and Anisha Stitfold for jumping on board and making a crazy idea a reality; and thank you to the beautiful musicians from Darwin and Arnhem Land and from interstate who came together and worked so enthusiastically and sensitively; and Michael Anthony of Ramada Zen for accommodating we out-of-towners; and to the Australia Council for the Arts for recognising the potential of this project and backing it; and to many folk who volunteered time and talent and resources to help us; and to David Matthews for being brave enough to record in awkward circumstances. We look forward to hearing your archives, warts and all. A resonant tunnel filled with people is a dangerous thing to record… and when the performers are continually moving around and changing their direction of sound… well… it is all fun.

Mostly, I am walking away with a deeper understanding and respect for the role music plays in our lives. Thank you Jason Gurruwiwi, Sebastian Burarrwanga, Anya Tait, Netanela Mizrahi, Ernie Gruner, Henk Rumbewas and Sarah Hopkins.

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