Bloom 2019: A botanical soundscape

Composition lecturer Thomas Voyce writes about NZSM's Bloom 2019 installation at Begonia House for the 150th anniversary of the Wellington Botanic Garden.

Images left to right/top to bottom: 
1) A sunflower is rendered as a fractal animation by MDT student Conner Allen, and appears in (b)loom, another film by MFA(CP) Film students.
2) Thomas and his Composition students work together on their Bloom 2019 pieces.
3) This fractal animation was created by MDT Carldrifter Zou for the film 'Lux Aeterna.'
4) A waterfall in the Botanic Garden’s Peace Garden provided inspiration for Amnis, one of the MFA(CP) Film students’ works.
Images left to right/top to bottom: 1) A sunflower is rendered as a fractal animation by MDT student Conner Allen, and appears in (b)loom, another film by MFA(CP) Film students. 2) Thomas and his Composition students work together on their Bloom 2019 pieces. 3) This fractal animation was created by MDT Carldrifter Zou for the film 'Lux Aeterna.' 4) A waterfall in the Botanic Garden’s Peace Garden provided inspiration for Amnis, one of the MFA(CP) Film students’ works.
This year, the Wellington Botanic Garden celebrates 150 years. When Victoria University of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī (NZSM) was asked if we would like to collaborate on a project for the Garden’s upcoming Spring Festival, I immediately put my hand up to be involved.

I teach a paper on electroacoustic composition with a focus on surround sound techniques, and the Garden has long been a go-to destination for students looking to record interesting ambiences to turn into weird and wonderful music in our Lilburn Studios. I’m also involved with NZSM’s Master of Fine Arts (Creative Practice) (MFA(CP)) degree in Music/Sound, which is taught at the University’s Miramar Creative Centre. I wondered if there might be room to collaborate further with the MFA(CP) Film students and the Master of Design Technology (MDT) students who are also based at the Centre.

The result was Bloom 2019, a multimedia concert held at Begonia House on the evenings of 28 and 29 September.

Collaboration across different schools within universities can be tricky: incorporating these kinds of projects into coursework at short notice is a challenge, and also securing buy-in from students who will not be assessed for their work can be elusive. Bloom 2019 had some luck here. As part of their assessment, students from the School of Design’s MDT degree were asked to create fractal animations around a botanical theme in trimester one this year. Students from the MFA(CP) Film programme graciously shot interesting footage at the Garden, and edited the animations and footage together into ten four-minute films, including poignant homages to the Garden, quirky mashups, and outrageous quick-cut spectacles. My third-year Composition students composed multichannel electroacoustic works to accompany these images. Their only restriction: all source materials had to be recorded at the Botanic Garden.

With help from the Adam Art Gallery, we set up the concert in the middle of Begonia House, with a large projector screen, and as many as 18 loudspeakers in two rings, around the audience and above. My Composition students had been experimenting with ambisonic technology, which includes the spherical capture of sound environments with ambisonic microphones and the manipulation of source materials through multichannel speaker arrays. This technology results in immersive and spatially acute audio environments, much like those provided by modern Dolby Atmos systems installed in high-end movie theatres (including Wellington’s own Embassy Theatre). However, unlike blockbuster films shown at the Embassy, these works were unusual, experimental, and perhaps a little challenging. In addition to these concerts, Begonia House was draped with small sound sculptures (produced by other NZSM Sonic Arts and Music Technology students) from Friday 27 until Sunday 29 September.

Bloom 2019 has added a new element to NZSM’s public programme, a programme that increasingly promotes sound art practices. In 2016, we established the jointly hosted Toi Pōneke Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music Sound Art Residency. We are currently reading submissions for our fourth residency for 2019/2020. Successful applicants include public events and installations as part of their residency. NZSM also produces the Aotearoa Audio Arts Festival, a biannual festival that focusses on sound art installations and live electronic performances. Last year’s event was an enormous success, and this year we are producing a smaller event at Wellington Museum called ‘Quadraphonics: presented by AAA’. This will include local and international artists taking over Wellington Museum for one night on 8 November. Next year, we hope to be back with a full-bodied AAA event. Bloom promises to become another annual event that invites the public to experience sound art, this time with a particular focus on student work.

It seems very fitting to me that Victoria University of Wellington and the Wellington Botanic Garden should collaborate together for their Spring Festival, especially given our proximity to each other, and the number of students who litter the Garden hillsides when the sun comes out, and the clouds roll by a little slower.