Tony Hicks on Crossing Roper Bar: What do I do when nothing I know works?

Tony Hicks CRB

As Crossing Roper Bar prepares for a European tour later this year and a concert series with workshops at Monash University this week, we spoke to Tony Hicks about the transformational experience of his involvement with the music of the project and working with the Young Wägilak Group.

Hicks was involved in the project right form the start, finding himself in Ngukurr (pronounced a little like ‘nookar’) in Arnhem Land in Northern Australia with the Art Orchestra when the germ of Crossing Roper Bar first began to take hold, before the collaboration in its current form had become a reality. Crossing Roper Bar brings members of the Australian Art Orchestra together with the Young Wägilak Group, from Ngukurr. The Art Orchestra is an unashamedly improvising large ensemble, with roots in the jazz tradition and a willingness to depart from those roots on new adventures at the drop of a hat.

Hicks is classically trained, has been playing and honing his jazz skills for decades and has played in classical, jazz, improvising and commercial contexts. He says the journey to a new way of thinking really began for him in 2008 when the Art Orchestra returned to the top end for a tour that crossed from Darwin to Perth with concerts in places like Katherine, Kununurra and Broome.

‘It’s a little bit of a cliché’, he says, ‘but the sound of the didgeridu is the soul of this land… I hadn’t really connected with it before but in 2005, after four days at Ngukurr with songman Benjamin Wilfred trying to teach us the didgeridu and then us trying to copy and the Young Wägilak Group playing with us… from then on whenever I go into that environment, I can hear the sound, this continuous kind of drone, throbbing sound evoking the timbral quality of the outback.

During the 2008 tour, Hicks says he made a point of trying to really just be in that environment. ‘I spent a lot of time with the [Ngukkur] guys, driving with them, hearing them talk, living with them, going for walks by myself in the bush and playing music with them every day’. He says he’d learned to circular breathe years before but had never found a use for it. ‘All of a sudden, circular breathing became a part of the way I played; I wasn’t trying to emulate or copy the didgeridu sounds, but to create that kind of repetitive building kind of ostinatos effect’.

The trip also triggered a whole lot of questions for him about the relevance of being a jazz musician in this country. ‘Playing the jazz language in the context of the Crossing Roper Bar project doesn’t work. Playing a western music doesn’t work because the fundamental musical elements are not confined to western concepts such as tonality and constant rhythmic pulse.’

For Hicks, the music at the core of Crossing Roper Bar goes beyond some kind of multicultural statement; beyond a fusion of two cultures. What’s created is instead something more unified, that requires the white Art Orchestra musicians to ask themselves ‘How do I do something other than what I can do?’ This question is one that Hicks says he asks himself each time the Crossing Roper Bar musicians come together, which happens perhaps twice a year.

‘Every time we get together the product is different’, he says. In the intervening times, he believes that some transformation is taking place in the way he thinks about music. He maintains that that kind of transformation is only possible in a free improvisation context where there are no preset parameters. It’s why he questions the ‘jazz musician’ label now. ‘As soon as you open up the field like that, the jazz language or the classical language or whatever becomes a little bit trite.’

Hicks has been exploring these questions outside Crossing Roper Bar. He spent 18 months working with improviser David Tolley, who observed that at some point during their collaboration Hicks broke away from a ‘drive for technical proficiency in jazz consciousness’ and moved more into seeing ‘playing in terms of sound’.1

During their work together over the 18 month period, Hicks said his first question was always, ‘What do I play?’ Nothing he knew felt right to play in the abstract electronic context Tolley was creating.

He says that over a period of getting together every two to three weeks, gradually both of their languages evolved,  influenced by each other to a point where they now have something unique, which they didn’t have before and which doesn’t work in other contexts.

Yet the ideas were transferrable. ‘Now I have a language that I have developed with David that I can bring to Crossing Roper Bar, which happens to function in some way.’

This personal musical transformation extends to other white members of the Art Orchestra, although Hicks says, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and discussed these questions’. Improvising guitarist Steve Magnusson and Hicks have spoken about the experience informally. ‘He was on the 2008 tour as well,’ says Hicks, ‘and we both had similar transformational experiences where we realised that we had to do something that was beyond what we knew how to do.’

Ultimately, the questions, the searching and the transformation that results is connected to the Art Orchestra’s aim not just to reconstruct something… it’s to find a new way of making music with the Young Wägilak Group.

Crossing Rope Bar is presenting a series of workshops and concerts at Monash University this week, prior to their European tour. Robert Burke, Head of School at Monash University School of Music believes it’s going to be an important experience for students to hear this music and participate in the workshops. ‘We listen to music from Europe and the Americas,’ he says, ‘but it’s important for students to have a holistic approach to their studies. As Australians we need to be open-minded about our influences and to develop our voice. It’s important for the forward direction of music in this country.’

The ensemble will be presenting concerts in London and Paris later this year. Check the Australian Art Orchestra website for details:

Video: Filmed at Alan Eaton Studio, St Kilda in 2009. From the CD Crossing Roper Bar available at Paul Grabowsky, piano, Tony Hicks reeds, Erkki Veltheim viola, Philip Rex double bass, Niko Schauble drums. And the Young Wagilak Group: Benjamin vocals and bilma, Natilma (Roy) Wilfred lead vocals and bilma and David Wilfred yidakki.

Crossing Roper Bar is:
Musical Directors – Paul Grabowsky and Benjamin Wilfred

Australian Art Orchestra  
Paul Grabowsky – Piano
Tony Hicks – Reeds
Ren Walters – Guitar
Phil Rex – Double Bass
Niko Schäuble – Drums

Young Wägilak Group
Benjamin Wilfred – Vocals, Bilma (Clapsticks)
Daniel Wilfred – Yidaki (Didjeridu), Vocals
David Wilfred – Yidaki (Didjeridu)


Keep up with information about AAO concerts and tours on their website

1 From Nina Sofo’s interview with David Tolley as part of her honours research, Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne 2011