Sydney percussionist Claire Edwardes is fresh from a reconnaissance trip to Sydney’s Goat Island, or Me-Mel, the Gadigal word for eye, where she will play with US harpist Emily Granger.

In a three-hour journey upon an historic Rosman ferry, Sydney Festival audiences will hop from one port to another around the harbour for the first mainland outing of the Acoustic Life of Boatsheds, a new twist on a Big hART program that has engaged Tasmanian audiences since 2015 with composers, musicians and visual and audio artists playing in and responding to some unusual spaces.

Claire Edwardes

Claire Edwardes. Photo © Nat Cartney

On her “reccy”, Edwardes changed the setting for her 20-minute set with Granger, however. “We were first given a particular shed where the bar for the show Water Rats was based,” she says, “but I was a little worried that it was both on the small side, and also going to get really hot. So we walked around the island and settled on a bigger shed that’s quite open, so it’s got nice airflow. Amazingly, it had an old piano in it, which is so dusty and does work, mostly, it’s very out of tune.”

“So with Tristan Coelho, who’s going to be creating some of the soundscapes for us, we sampled that piano, and also there’s a boat building area just below the shed, and they were making a lot of noise, so we sampled a lot of those sounds, and hopefully they will be integrated into the live experience.”

Edwardes adores playing in atypical venues: during the Acoustic Life of Sheds’ 2017 season she played to an audience on a farm in Burnie on Tasmania’s north-west coast. With collaborator Peter Knight, Edwardes created a set that reflected the farming family’s story.

“It was really special,” she recalls, “it was pre-COVID, and we got a shed of a farmer whose surname was Snare, which was quite funny because I’m a percussionist. He really gave us open slather to this hay storage shed.”

Edwardes recalls the Tasmanian audiences were “open to anything”, gaining a broad cross-section of music across their travels.

“If you know much about what I do and what Ensemble Offspring does [Edwardes is its Artistic Director], it’s pretty normal for us: our show in Sydney Festival last year was called Musical Microparks and that was using little parks, and people went on a walking tour,” she says.

“In a way, it’s a little bit similar to the Acoustic Life of Boatsheds, in terms of people management. Especially for the music I specialise in and the music that Ensemble Offspring specialises in, it just feels like when you’re programming music, it’s really important to think about: Where will this music resonate? It’s not always in the Utzon room [in the Opera House], for example.”

“So it’s really good to take that into account as much as you can, as well as the fact there are limitations around what is practically possible, and how expensive the more traditional venues like Sydney Recital Hall are to present in. Sometimes it can be a really practical, cheaper option as well.”

Acoustic Life of Boatsheds. Photo © Remi Chauvin

Sheds producer Andrew Viney tells Limelight from Melbourne the concerts will include two different performances on Goat Island, another in the archways at Lavender Bay and another in the heritage fleet workshop fleet at Rozelle.

Artists include composer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Cutlan teamed with accordionist and composer Gary Daley, also on Goat Island; and electric guitar, synthesiser player and vocalist Jess Green aka Pheno combined with drummer and composer Bree van Reyk at Rozelle.

Sound designer Jim Atkins and organist Nathan Cox will play together at Lavender Bay; and troubadour Michael Simic aka Mikelangelo is teamed up with Trent Arkley-Smith for folk, swing and “Balkan flavours”, to play together on board the ferry.

There is a conscious effort by the musicians to interact with their environment as well as with audiences. “It is about musically voicing the shed that they’re in, otherwise it would be [just] a concert in an unusual place. Rather, it is the acoustic life: they go there, they listen. We’re very blessed with artists who are interested in interacting.”

“They’re kind of amplifying the history and the future and the voice of the location. It’s got to be ‘How will I tell the story?’, rather than, ‘How will I sound good in this space?’.”

The logistics of Sydney boat sheds have proven more challenging than Tasmanian farm sheds, however, because the Sydney locations are public spaces, and people in Sydney are in more of a hurry than they are on the Apple Isle. Privately held farms gave the company and musicians time to spend with farmers.

“Obviously on Goat Island, its national parks, so we were there yesterday with Claire visiting, we met with rangers that live on the island. [But] they love having events on the island.”

The shows are scheduled to run for three hours, with some leeway for sets running over time and audiences interacting with musicians. “We don’t have to be right on time, because there’s two journeys in the morning – two audiences travelling on different ferries in the morning, following each other – and two in the afternoon, and we’ve got an hour between start times.”

Do audiences need to think about how they dress? “It’s an outside event,” Viney nods, “you’ll be travelling from docks to locations, and Lavender Bay is more outside, it’s really a promenade.”

“The same at Goat Island, you have to walk between two spaces. You’ve got to be prepared for an adventure: we can’t control everything, and we don’t want to, and I think the artists understand that.”

Acoustic Life of Boatsheds

Acoustic Life of Boatsheds. Photo © Nicky Akehurst

Viney was surprised that Claire Edwardes opted for a space right next to a shipyard. “We said: ‘We can’t ask the shipyard to be quiet during your performance’, and she’s said, ‘It is what it is. You integrate it’.”

What materials is Edwardes’ chosen shed on Goat Island made from? “It’s reasonably flimsy,” says the percussionist. “It’s just iron and wood and it’s quite simple.”

“We’re actually playing opposite the ‘shed’, which is not really a shed, where Paul Cutlan and his collaborator Gary Daley, are playing in, which is the gun powder storage building, a really old sandstone building. It feels much colder when you walk in there, like you’re transported to somewhere totally different to the outside, and it’s very different to our shed, which is very open. I think in that sense, people will experience a whole range of ‘sheds’.” She is confident the musicians have protection from the elements.

Clearly an outdoor event like this is particularly appealing while Omicron is so prevalent. Post-lockdown, is Edwardes expecting a hunger for this live music presented in this way?

“I’d say there is. Right now, because everything was cancelled, and all the presenters scheduling everything now and early next year, there is quite a sense that audiences are going to get over-saturated with all these different things on offer.”

But Edwardes believes audiences will “definitely want to come to this gig, because it’s different, it’s a day trip, it’s fun, it’s not just another concert. It will be a real experience people will definitely not forget.”

Big hART’s Acoustic Life of Boatsheds runs 20– 23 January as part of Sydney Festival.

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