The Art of Improvisation Extra: MONA FOMA, Part 3 of 4

Sunday, January 17 

Today is all about the duo. I was scheduled to play twice today, at 3pm with trumpeter Scott Tinkler, and at 5:15 possibly with another artist from the fest. But as things went, on Saturday, I ran into Taiko drummer Yyan Ng in the green room. He was excited to meet and we had a great time chatting. He was scheduled to play a short performance Sunday morning and asked if I'd be interested in playing with him. Of course I said, “Yes.” So a call was put out to Shelley to see if we could do it. It was heartily approved and we both went off to our Saturday performances excited about the duo performance tomorrow.

Sunday's schedule showing the amazing variety of performances going on. Not shown 
are some of the pop up performances and changes, like the Taiko/Gong duo.

Yyan and I talked a little, but not really about what we would do. We talked more about who we were and what our backgrounds were. We had both started out as drum set players, before expanding into our specialties, so we had a common ground. Sunday's performance was moved into the large Nolan Gallery. This worked out well for me, as all 3 performances were now in there, so I wouldn't have to move any gear. Besides, the Nolan Gallery was a great place to perform in. At 501 square meters, and 3 stories high, it's the largest open space inside the museum. Having heard other concerts in there, I knew the sound would be amazing.

The massive Nolan Gallery

While the Nolan Gallery is massive, the sound is rather controlled. So instead of sounding like a sports arena, it has a nice ambiance to it. The irregular shaped concrete ceiling and the open balcony contribute to keeping reflections down. It sounds big and airy, not big and boomy. So even with massed percussion playing in there, it's not cacaphony. 

Yyan and I started with a small Gong duet and then moved on to larger drums and Gongs. In listening to Yyan, I understood what he was doing and found it easy to flow with him. We were able to lock in rhythmically and it was a fantastic performance. At times I looked for contrast, like playing hand held Chinese cymbals with a swirling motion while he pounded out rhythms on his giant Odaiko drum. Then, for the finale, I joined in playing my horizontal bass drum as we worked through a rhythmic tug-of-war, pushing and prodding each other. It was exhilarating to say the least and left me exhausted at the finish.

Heavy rhythms (photo from

After our intense performance I was fortunate to have a few hours to relax, find some food, check out some other music, and be ready for round 2.

At 3pm I did it all over again, this time with the fantastic Melbourne trumpeter, Scott Tinkler. We had met at the hotel and around the festival a few times, but didn't plan anything out. My thought was, “Let's see what happens.” I had watched some of his YouTube videos, so I had an idea of where he was at. But I must admit, live was another thing than the videos. Scott pushed things in a completely different direction than Yyan. I've never played with a more powerful trumpet player. Just the sheer amount of sound he could produce blew me away. And he kept going. I often felt like I was in a marathon, trying to keep up to him. 

Because he played such beautiful and melodic notes, I used 2 approaches: 1 was to play against him with short, percussive rhythms. I played on the floor Gongs and the bass drum, looking to push and cajole what he was playing. The 2nd way was to use the big Gongs as a sort of lush soundscape behind him. The idea was to provide a backdrop for him to hang his notes on. And all the while he kept on playing with such a big, beautiful sound. It was fantastic!

(Photo from ABC Hobart)

(photo from

This was my 7th performance in 3 days. Afterwards I could feel it. I was tired. It takes a lot of both physical and mental energy to improvise that much, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. The whole fest had been a non-stop 4 days already for me. I wasn't sure what to expect next.

Since my last performance was near the end of the day and the fest, many of the other artists were already gone or leaving. I thought I would be playing solo. But as luck would have it, I ran into Brian Ritchie out on the grounds again. He said, “How would you like to play with the best sax player in Tasmainia? He's back in town. Let me call him.” How could I say, “No”? So 10 minutes before the last concert began, I met Danny Healy. Dan came in with a few cases. We shook hands, said “Hello,” and that was it. When he was ready, we started to play. Now Dan was another completely different experience. 

Me with Dan Healy in the shadows (taken from video I shot)

The great thing about Dan was that he played very relaxed, very mellow, and very melodic. I needed something that wasn't as high energy as the previous 2 sessions. He had a big, lush sound on his tenor sax. I tried to be melodic in my thinking and play along with him. I really tried to be supportive and create a nice background for him to play over. Part of this was just from being completely spent. I enjoyed the different pace. Afterwards, a woman came up to us and asked, “How long have you 2 been working together?” She was completely surprised when we said that we had just met. I knew it had been a great performance then.

So I had 3 concerts, each one completely different, and each one calling for a different approach and a different energy. And each was was a totally improvised, with no forethought or planning between the musicians. I know some people look at a performance like this and think that it must be easy, because you just go up and play whatever you want. But it's not at all like that. There's a lot of thought, all based on years of experience, put into every note that is played. I never just play. I worked hard at sculpting sound into a usable force, especially one that will hopefully communicate with the listener.

So there you have it. 8 performances in 3 days. Each one different from the other (even the 2 Barrel Room sessions were different, because the audiences brought different energy). A lot of energy was spent. A lot of music was made. And judging by the responses from people I talked to throughout the fest, and even after, the music was well received.

This was the 9th report on MONA FOMA 2016. I'll do one more to wrap things up, with specifics on my playing/ideas and what runs through my head while I'm performing. Thanks for reading!

~ MB


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