In Focus: CubaSonic (2019)
It’s always fantastic when your music develops a life of it’s own. I have been very lucky that this has happened to several of my pieces, but how it happened with CubaSonic (2019) is unlike any other. Often you think a piece is given life through multiple performances - CubaSonic only had (and probably will only ever have) one. What defined this project was that it was totally contextualised by the state of the world at the time. Premiered at the end of March 2021, much of the world was still in lockdown with live performances feeling like they were a thing from the pre-Covid era. At the time it was just unimaginable that hundreds of musicians could perform a work spanning three blocks in massive city-wide festival. I think that the result of such a mass performance in the then-current circumstances created a really powerful and unexpected feeling of togetherness. People came to me afterwards highly emotionalised, talking about how moved they were, and the sense of joy they felt in being a part of such a massed experience. CubaDupa usually provides the city with an injection of positive energy and after being cancelled in 2020, its return in 2021 was extra special, symbolising a return to normality or at least a step in that direction.
Although CubaSonic was totally contextualised by the lockdowns and the Covid situation, this was never the original intention. The piece was composed throughout 2018 and set to premiere in 2019, long before anyone had heard of coronaviruses. The original idea came from a visit to CubaDupa back in 2015. Attending the event had become one of my annual treats and I usually stroll down Brooklyn Hill without having looked at the programme. As you make you way through the festival, which spans one of Wellington’s longest inner-city streets, you get to go on a journey of sonic-discovery. The programme is incredibly diverse and showcases artists from practically every musical discipline and background. The festival site is both sprawling and condensed with very localised areas of activity that overlap - particularly in the early years where it was just confined to Cuba Street itself. It seemed like such an interesting way to present and experience music. It reminded me of the firework display from the 2008 Beijing Olympics which saw a procession of footprints make their way across the city blocks. No matter where you were in the city, you would have a totally unique experience of a larger event. How we experience and interpret music is incredibly personal and CubaSonic’s form of presentation highlights this through space.
Exploring the Piece
Festivals allow you to explore really ambitious ideas. With great artistic directors you can give audience members an experience that exceeds their expectations; in the case of CubaDupa expectations which are enhanced by the massed-connection. Central to the piece is the way in which space is incorporated. CubaDupa had grown to the point where it was taking over the side streets creating little nooks of activity, so it was no longer a purely linear site to work with. The street was also divided into three blocks - Upper, Central, and Lower - providing another way to approach the site. Although Cuba Street provides just under 1km of empty canvas, the geography and festival layout provide a natural structure. The conditions also determine which forces or instruments can used. The outdoor setting meant that only certain instrument families, such as percussion, brass, wind, and amplified instruments would translate over the vast distances effectively. Writing detailed, soft and delicate passages would be lost in this environment, and the choice was made to make it bold, epic and immersive.
Musical ideas would essentially cycle through the city blocks. It’s kind of like a parade but instead of the musicians moving through the space, the musical material would, with the ensembles and speakers remaining static. The material would crossfade up the street with drum loops and motifs being passed between ensembles. There would always be an overlap to this and you would get to experience the stereophonic effect naturally. At any one time you would be focussed on what was happening directly in your vicinity but also aware of what was happening elsewhere on the street, making you totally immersed in a sonic environment. Space could also be highlighted by juxtaposing the extreme distances between ensembles using call and response. The opening 30 seconds of the work is a great example of this, with the call made by the performers on video, being responded by musicians at the other end of the street.
This is the stage where I’d normally include a sample of the score, but I’ve realised that one doesn’t actually exist. The delays and cancellations saw the make up of each ensemble change across the 3 years resulting in countless rewrites, and no single representative score.
List of Participating Ensembles
- New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
- Orchestra Wellington
- Royal New Zealand Air Force Band
- Wellington Brass Band
- Hutt City Brass Band
- Capital City Big Band
- New Zealand School of Music
- The Nudge
- Leonardo Coghini (synthesiser)
- Chime Red (Tesla Coil)
- Wellington Batucada
- Samba ao Vento - Manawatu
- Unidos de Aotearoa
- Bay Batucada
IMAGES BY OLIVER CRAWFORD