Directing festivals

An article for the Sounds Australian Journal* on Australian Festivals and the role that Australian music plays in them.

Thuringowa River Festival 2002**
Managed and directed by Michael Whiticker

River festivals are well known the world over and in 2002, Thuringowa, the twin city of Townsville, celebrated its fourth at Pioneer Park on the picturesque Ross River. With a population of less than 200,000, festival organisers in the “twin cities” don’t expect the audience numbers of the major Australian festivals, however with an attendance of 10,000 for the 9 hour, one-day festival, a huge degree of preparation, and a similar degree of expectation, is par for the course.

In 2002 I applied for the opportunity to run this festival, keen to continue my interest in running major events and to bring a new slant to a regional festival. Having lived in North Queensland for 5 years and having experienced the huge range of talent here, I wanted to recognise the twin cities’ impressive range of arts activities. Consequently I created 18 different performance sites for the festival - at any one time the audience could view up to a dozen different performances! There were in fact a hundred performances over the 9 hours, which allowed about 6 minutes per performance if visitors wanted to see them all. And then of course they needed to allow times for the displays and activities…and probably space to rest and recuperate during the day.

As a composer myself I was particularly conscious of the artist’s need for creative opportunities, so the commissioning of new work was a major focus of mine for the 2002 festival. A dance work was commissioned from Extensions Youth Dance with music by percussionist and composer Ian Brunskill. Local theatre company, TLC was commissioned to produce two new works for the festival. One juxtaposed water and fire to produce a spectacular finale. The other, The Adventures of Water Boy, I conceived for the company as an opportunity to promote the festival theme of “Water for Life” and to cement the festival’s relationship with major local sponsor NQ Water. It included new music written especially for it by outstanding ex-Brisbane jazz musician Michael Faragher.
Local artist Candace Miles was commisioned to direct River Reflections - a month of workshops with eight artists leading to the creation of new work inspired by the river and the surrounding parkland. These were installed at Pioneer Park for the festival.
Composer / music technologist Steven Campbell created a new interactive work for the festival, Flow, in which the movement of participants was picked up by sensors and, depending on things such as speed and density of movement and position, set off a series of varied music patterns.
The River Festival Composer-in-residence Claudio Pompili, hailing from Adelaide, created Riversound, a soundscape that accompanied a scenic walk of a couple of hundred meters along the river path leading into the Festival. This came out of a residency that enabled Claudio to spend a week in the city working in the main music studio at James Cook University sculpting found sound and other materials collected in the period immediately preceding his residency.
To expand the genres a film festival was created for the event! The innaugural WIN Television Short Film festival featured the films of local film-makers Michal Beroun, Russell Kelly, Donna Ives, John Robertson and Russell Milledge and screened winning works from the innaugural short film competition.
This amount of new work would not have been possible without the generous support of the sponsors NQ Water, The Australasian Performing Rights Association, The Regional Arts Development Fund of Arts Queensland, James Cook University, Qantas, The Good Guys, and of course Thuringowa Council which hosts the festival.

Unusual for a festival such as this was the inclusion of an outdoor piano event. Picture a beautiful grand piano sitting under a monstrous raintree presenting a virtuosic piano extravaganza from students and staff of Music at James Cook University. Included on the program was a shortened version of Erik Satie’s extraordinary Vexations – 2 days of music performed by a team of pianists. It might have been a first for North Queensland. Certainly a first was the amount of original music at the festival. Some of the outstanding acts performing original work included internationally acclaimed folk/comedians Never the Twain, Cairns-based jazz trio Acoustica, local world musicians Celtic Contact and folk/blues act the Lonesome Trio with Ben Mathews, 3 Degrees, Audesys, The Kitchen, 77 Anne Street House Band, Claire King and Jargon, Tim Griffiths and Carla Herrod, to name just a few.

Impressive documentation is essential today if an event is hoping to enlist the support of those holding the funding. As a first step in this direction we instigated a web site for the festival and commissioned film–maker Russell Milledge to create a 15 minute documentary of the event. It will be interesting to look back through this documentation some years down the track and see where the River Festival has headed since this forward-moving year. Will it build on the brave leap of commissioning new work, nurturing original artists and developing a unique identity? Or will it follow a more tried and true formula of popular entertainment for the masses?** If the Thuringowa River Festival wants to make its mark on the crowded Australian festival schedule, organisers need to accept the challenge of doing something all their own, or at least something unique to this region.
A festival that celebrates the creation of new work and nurtures original artists might just do that. With their clear thematic focus, local festivals such as the Eco Fiesta in June, the Cultural Festival in October, and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in July, are all developing names as major, alternative festival events in Australia. Let’s hope the River Festival in late July is held up not only as the signature event for the city of Thuringowa, but also as a major original, regional Australian festival.

Michael Whiticker

* The Sounds Australian Journal was the publication of the
Australian Music Centre at the time. It has since been replace by the Resonate magazine.
**Thuringowa River Festival was swallowed up with the amalgamation of the
Townsville and Thuringowa Councils in 2004, and became the Townsville River Festival. My understanding is that it has become largely a populist event, but has retained the film competition and taken it to greater heights.