Floods of Fire has been in development over the past 12 months, with details announced today to coincide with World Inclusion Day. Audiences will get a sneak peek at three of the resulting compositions during the ASO’s Festival of Orchestra later this year, before a full-scale performance planned for 2022.

The project received funding from Arts SA and was conceived with Europe-based theatre-maker Airan Berg ­– who specialises in large-scale participatory projects ­– with the orchestra stating that thematically it focusses on “our environment and the impacts of climate change, stemming from flood and fire stories associated with creation, destruction and re-creation”.

Collaboration kicked off with a workshop last year attended by more than 70 artists and community workers, including the six South Australian composers engaged by the ASO, musicians, and representatives of organisations including Nexus Arts, Tutti Arts, Brink Productions, Open Music Academy, Elder Conservatorium, the CFS and SES.

Brink artistic director Chris Drummond, who stepped in as a facilitator working alongside the ASO and its community projects manager Elizabeth McCall when Berg was unable to return to Adelaide due to the pandemic, says that first gathering was a “powerful and unifying” start to the project.

“Over three hours an extraordinary musical conversation unfurled between this community of artists representing many cultures and backgrounds, all exploring personal responses to their different encounters with floods or fire.”

The experiences of disasters shared by Floods of Fire participants are varied, ranging from ASO associate principal trumpet Martin Phillipson, who was among those forced to flee Mallacoota when the terrifying bushfires came through in January 2020, to Japanese musician Noriko Tadano, whose relatives had to evacuate their village after the huge tsunami that caused the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

At the first big workshop, Jared Thomas, of the SA Museum, spoke of First Nations dreaming stories, the cleansing nature of fire, and how it can be part of the growth cycle in the ecosystem.

“It was a chance for everyone to meet each other, to see how big this project is and to start making some music together,” Julian Ferraretto, jazz violinist and one of the lead composers for Floods of Fire, tells InReview of the gathering. “We took some of those ideas into our composition writing, which began a few months later in smaller groups.”

He and the other composers ­– Hilary Kleinig, Adam Page, Luke Harold, Grayson Rotumah, Jakub Jankowski, Zhao Liang and Belinda Gehlert ­– have each worked with different musicians and community groups.

Music is this incredible way of telling a story…  it communicates someone’s whole experience, often beyond words

One of Ferraretto’s pieces was created in collaboration with SA multi-arts organisation Tutti Arts (which supports the work of artists with a disability). For another, he worked with the Elder Conservatorium’s Open Music Academy and a group of students from Carlton School in Port Augusta, who drew on their memories of the 2016 floods that went through the town. The students came to Adelaide for the first rehearsal of their piece, which was performed with the Adelaide Connection jazz choir and string players from the Elder Conservatorium Orchestra.

“We want to be able to scale up that piece so we can have community groups involved – my ultimate vision for that one is to have 200 string players join the orchestra, to bring in community string groups and make it a really big piece. And then the choral side can be expanded as well,” Ferraretto says.

The diversity of those involved in the Floods of Fire project is highlighted by the group of composer-musicians he worked with for his third composition: Sufi singer Farhan Shah, Flamenco guitarist Alain Valodze, and Iranian musician Iran Sanadzadeh, who plays a unique instrument created with boards that trigger different sounds when stepped on.

“It’s quite magical,” Ferraretto says, when asked about the alchemy that results from bringing such diverse artists together. “Working with musicians who know their instrument backwards and have a really huge repertoire of cultural references and sounds and music, it’s amazing… we used a lot of improvising with that group but the music was quite distinctive.”

ASO commissioned South Australian film makers Randy Larcombe and Suzi Ting to document Floods of Fire creative workshops:

Airan Berg clearly envisaged something epic when he came up with the concept for Floods of Fire, Ferraretto says, and the various composers and groups have interpreted the theme in very different ways.

“With the Port Augusta group, we took a very literal memory of flood in that area,” he explains of his own collaborations.

“With Tutti Arts, because we worked with the creative writing group, we wrote a lot of poetry together and we talked about the idea of storytelling around a fire… so that piece is almost like lots of different vignettes or movements, depending on the poems that the music was based upon. When we did the first rehearsal, it was really beautiful because each of the participants came up and read their poem and then we played the music from their poem, and in between each movement I got the orchestra to play this technique where they crunch the bows against the strings and it sounds like fire crackling…

“With the Nexus Arts group it was a very different thing again. We talked about the idea of fire as renewal, so it starts quite furiously and then there is a quieter section which is kind of the post-fire lament and it finishes like this triumphant regrowth and new energy that comes out of the other side of it.”

Ferraretto is currently editing the piece co-written with the Open Music Academy and Carlton School students so it is suitable for performance on an outdoor stage during the ASO’s Festival of Orchestra at the Adelaide Showground later this year. It, and another Floods of Fire composition by Grayson Rotumah and Luke Harrald, will be performed at the festival’s Carmina Burana concert on November 27, while Singaporean-Chinese composer Zhao Liang, who worked with Belinda Gehlert to create a suite of works telling the story of the phoenix, will participate in a workshop as part of the festival’s family program on December 5.

Other soloist musicians involved in Floods of Fire include Barkindji song woman Nancy Bates, Cuban trumpeter Lazaro Numa, oud player and singer Zuhir Naji, santur player Maryam Rahmani, multi-instrumentalist Bortier Okoe, erhu player David Dai and yidaki player Robert Thomas.

The ASO’s Elizabeth McCall says that while the orchestra has worked with different communities previously, it had never contemplated a project on the scale of Floods of Fire.

“Music is this incredible way of telling a story; it’s more than just music, it communicates someone’s whole experience, often beyond words, so if we can get into people’s stories and help create that music we are truly connecting with them.

“It makes music contemporary; it brings it into the now. You can bring different musicians together from many different walks of life and have incredible music outcomes.”

Floods of Fire, conducted by Luke Dollman, will be performed in 2022. The ASO’s Festival of Orchestra, which will include the performance of several Floods of Fire works, will be at the Adelaide Showground from November 24 until December 4.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.