Blogging from a teachers perspective and from a students perspective.

I am working closely with a number of teachers on blogging in the classroom and how they might embrace this communication technology. There has naturally been some who have embraced the platform while others have initially shown some resistance as they have struggled with both the mechanics of building in a digital space, but more so their uncomfortableness with communicating in this space. Many teachers still feel nervous about being “on show”. There is also the prevailing view from our generation of the “large consequences” of voicing things in the online space. I’m not sure how true that view is.

I have also been working on a term long unit of work with my friend and fellow educator Dan Donahoo. We were working with a group of 30 children aged 11 and the contrasting opinions and use of the digital world has been quite enlightening. The focus of our unit is on game making and it is an exciting and totally engaging unit for these kids.

At the start of the project I quickly built the students a blog to help us communicate with them. As we are only with this class for one hour a week I was looking for a space where they could potentially become involved with the project outside of the classroom and beyond our physical contact hours. Dan and I gave them no instruction on how to use a blog or what we expected of them in this space. Rather we simply gave them the URL and said it was available to them if they wanted to use it.

The subsequent 6 weeks and the way the blog was used by the students was incredibly informative on this generations ability to communicate in the online space.  But beyond that it was quite interesting to note the reasons for their communication how it relates to learning how it is quite different to some of our more traditional practices.

Allow me to give a few examples.

The first night there were 19 comments – this is a class of 25 and shows the ease of which they use this medium. There was little to no evidence of fear of leaving a comment an opinion or asking a question. There was no feeling of “permanency” of their digital imprints leading to a fear of learning from the environment. Something I think we need to consider in our current approaches to “cyber safety”. Maybe its time to stop condemning the young for permanent records of their youth and inexperience. Maybe it is time to embrace a different perspective.

You can note in the picture below that opinion of our class is given (thankfully positive) and information about the subject is freely offered up helping us as educators to get t know our students better.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.35.51 PM

Secondly, Dan and I decided to upload a vague plan of where we were heading in the unit – a unit outline. A number of students had read all of the planned work and jumped ahead and started to work at the place they were ready and excited to work at. They were rejecting our linear strategies and rather learning at the point of there own readiness. This really best represents how learning works – it is never linear. Perhaps some of the students had already covered our initial work in other classes or other parts of their life and didn’t require that from our plan. Excellent. Our idea of putting up the whole course content was also to encourage immersion into the work.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.37.43 PM

Potentially there would be kids who would so take to this subject that they would like to do it in their own time, to be limited to our system of learning which only involved the one class a week at 2.30 on a Monday afternoon. Thankfully this did prove to be the case and it allowed for us as educators to stretch out and notice how it is important for our planning to be very flexible and dynamic. Kids were moving in directions beyond our planning and we needed to allow for that rather than constrict them to or initial limitations.

Finally the blog was a great place for the children to extend each other and provide each other feedback beyond the ability of Dan and myself to do that. They would upload the games they were making and respond with critique both positive and negative to each others work, they would ask for immediate help and get quick responses rather than waiting for Dan or myself to be the sole assisters in their learning. Below Charlie expresses something he has learnt from his own investigations with the group allowing response from Dan and suggestions on how to move forward.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.40.16 PMThe following clip shows evidence of students uploading incomplete work, not afraid of public condemnation of poor work, rather they are uploading it to generate learning – they are looking for advice and subsequently got it from other students, myself and Dan.Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.49.58 PM

One final thing of note, that will hopefully encourage many nervous teachers to jump in. While being one of the main educators involved in a game-making unit I have never created a game in any of the platforms the students chose to create in. I have used many others but not these ones. As a teacher you don’t need to be an expert in software – you need to be able to set up learning environments that allow for a degree of student empowerment allowing you to manage the environment and push the students to go deeper in their inquiries.

Digital literacy, gaming and contemporary narrative writing

What constitutes digital literacies is an interesting topic in contemporary learning environments. When I was teaching in a school I spent much energy trying to convince the “literacy team” that they needed to alter their definition and subsequent approach of literacy to incorporate digital literacies, in this way I was hoping to introduce a more inclusive use of ICT by a method of subterfuge.

At that stage digital literacies was a term that was merely talking about film and early stages of web literacies.

Doug Belshaw an educator who works for Mozilla when trying to answer the question of what constitutes digital literacies recently wrote ;

“My short answer to such a question would be that it is a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. By this I mean that it is a term used ambiguously (both consciously and unconsciously) by people with multitude of different backgrounds and intentions. However, given that it is a term that has entered common parlance, I would hope that this thesis clarifies at least three things. First of all, I have argued that speaking of a plurality of ‘digital literacies’ makes more sense than endless attempts to define ‘one literacy to rule them all’. Secondly, I have suggested the essential elements that should make up any contextualised and emergent definition of digital literacies. Finally, I have attempted to argue that the process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’ is at least as important as the outcome of that process.”

I agree with many of the points Doug raises. The term is now almost undefinable and therefore of so much more importance from an educationalist perspective – particularly to my old literacy team.

If we just talk about films: Peter Greenaway the highly respected British film director recently said that he believed the traditional movie was a dead art form. peter1

It is one based on the narrative structure of the 19th century novel – and this template gets repeated over and over and over again. There has been little to no progression in the format since its beginnings. In this it strongly parallels opera as a story telling devise and a medium of entertainment – it is now viewed as a quant entertainment with sentimental values but of no real importance in regards to its artistic and cultural value.

One of the reasons for this is its inability to adapt rapidly in much the same way as the rest of technology-based art forms have.

For example film is extremely narrative based, generally linear and highly dictatorial in approach – by that I mean it is one way. Everything is imposed upon the audience, from on high. The audience is being told the story, they are told what to think, what to feel, when to cry when to laugh etc. Everything in the movie making process is aimed it this. The music written supports the emotion the director is looking for and further attempts to manipulate the audience into feeling that emotion. The same applies with the lighting, editing, camera angels and so on.

There is no room in for the audience to actively participate in any way rather than just sit and passively go along with what they are being told to do. Now this can be very enjoyable for many people but I would argue that most people have progressed from this form of entertainment/learning and are now looking at the ability to have a say themselves, or be involved in the process.

This is the space that digital games become very, very interesting – especially from a learning perspective.

There are many games that fall into the same category as the traditional movie. The narrative is entirely predetermined and the gamer must merely do as there told, but there are also many games that have moved well away from this.  assasins creed

Games such as L.A Noir or Assassin’s Creed do follow a narrative. The difference is instead of passively watching it unfold; the gamer can become part of it. They adopt a character within the narrative and play out the role, often times being forced to make choices that will influence how the original story plays out – much like a choose your own adventure book but a lot more immersive. Another game that does this and is great for younger kids is Little Big Planet. These narratives or stories are generally very complex and nested within other existing narratives and .can take months to unfold. However there is still a fair amount of control within these games – the settings, places, etc. are all predetermined as they are all set within a particular storyline.

little big planetWhen interviewing a 14 year old boy on why he liked games he said “because I get to choose what I want to do, unlike school where we are constantly told do this or that in games that I play I don’t just have to go a kill everyone to move to the next level, I can decide which way to go, how to deal with it. It’s a lot more fun having a bit of control.” This is also referred to as free roaming within a game. Batman Arkham City is one game that plays in this way – you can do the missions or “simply go in wonder around and play your own thing, play your own story.”

This notion of perceived control is also an interesting one from a teaching perspective. Recently when interviewing a fantastic teacher, Roland Gesthuizen he stated that “ you need to give choice to students but not too much choice…If you give to much choice people inevitably make no choice or the worst one “

To me games using this model are the natural evolution from movies – they have narrative, they have cut scenes using traditional visual techniques but moving on they allow for reediting of the narrative in a controlled fashion.

Beyond that and also of great interest to education is the game that is fully immersive and has almost no predetermined narrative structure. This includes games like Minecraft and Gary’s Mod and to a certain extent Disney’s Infinity..

These games are providing a framework for the player to enter and then leaving it up to the individual’s creativity to do whatever they want.

When recently watching a collection of students playing Gary’s Mod they were collectively interacting and communicating with each other, they were building there own characters, they were inventing there own games within the game and moreso they were inventing their own narrative within the games they were playing – that is narrative within narrative. Look at all the potential literacies learning that could be leveraged off this space.

This is an example of the game makers understanding this generation and providing them with autonomy, the ability to be self-directed and beyond that providing them the ability to be highly web connected. These three concepts are what our education system needs to understand and embrace.

To quote Australian educator –  Richard Olsen  –  How are our education systems to respond to students as autonomous,  self-directed web connected learners?

Solo In Red

A very big thanks to all those who came to Collider’s show at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. We performed my work Solo In Red and I personally think it was one of thesolo in red dressing room strongest performances we have done of that show. The visuals and the music all synced in the right lace to help create the exact atmosphere the piece requires.

For those of you who are interested, the album of that work is now available on iTunes.


I have also uploaded a link to an interview I did on Radio National  talking about the work

Photo taken by Roger Mitchell

Photo taken by Roger Mitchell


All School Blogging

The following article was originally posted on DEECDs website. And talks about some of the work I was involved with when I was working at North Fitzroy Primary School

Blogs –Creating Worlds of Learning (Global2)

An ICTEV study group of 20 teachers arrived at the school gates to find out how blogging and games-based learning enriches learning for both students and teachers of Fitzroy North Primary School. The school in old in years (built in 1875) but young and contemporary in its use of ICT to empower learning and pedagogy. The approach and ideology has at its centre social learning theory.

Leading the group tour was Connie Watson (Principal), Kynan Robinson (Leading Teacher ICT/Creativity) and Kristen Swenson (3-6 ICT Coordinator).

Thanks to strong and innovative leadership, and the commitment of the ICT coordinators, in recent years blogging has become part of the learning and pedagogical fabric of daily life at North Fitzroy Primary. Kynan and Kristen have been active in the Global 2 blogging space for over 4 years. Kynan told the group that, “Global 2 allows kids to connect to the wider world. You can allow them to have an authentic voice and authentic audience.”

“We take seriously Hattie’s notion that feedback is one of the most potent factors in a child’s learning – blogging, where feedback is available from multiple sources is really important. They are not just posting their work for viewing by others, but posting genuine stages of their work and asking for feedback from others in an interactive process, which is much more powerful than simply learning in isolation and then posting your best work at the end of it”, Connie Watson (Principal)

With Hattie’s Visible Learning research in mind, Connie Watson decided that every teacher, every child from Years 3 -6 and every class should have a blog. All teachers were supported to develop their skills and confidence to create content, post, publish, upload images and movies, and moderate blogs. They now share and compare their blogs and their ideas with their students, parents, industry, and peers internal and external to the school.

Blogs are used to extend and assess all areas of literacy, Italian LOTE, and interdisciplinary streams of learning and skills and personal development. Kynan believes that blogging is a great, ‘platform to skill up and build confidence across the entire school staff to use web 2.0 tools to create and publish content not just be a user of content. If they didn’t blog they would miss out with connecting with the wider world. The main benefit is the ability to connect and find connections all over the world.”

The whole school community is involved at home and at school with their blogs. Homework, parent engagement, Italian recipes, news, quizzes, competitions, provocations, reviews, and reflection – it is all done with blogging accessed from home, school, during the week or at the weekends. “All of our Grade 5/6 students have their own individual passion blogs. We made the shift last year from the show and tell blogs to more of an interactive blog. Since then the quality of the students’ writing has improved dramatically. Their passion for blogging is so much greater and they just love doing it. Every time they have a spare moment in class they want to blog and it has just given them their own voice which is fantastic”, said Kristen.

Students create passion blogs and discover networks to discuss new ideas and perspectives from like-minded students. We heard from students who have created blogs on superheros, star wars, comic books, the World of Minecraft, the Hunger Games, Harry Potter and other favourite books. The students are learning to target their blog and writing style for specific audiences to elicit discussion on an international scale. According to Kynan, “the kids love the Global2 cluster maps so they can see their potential audience from across the world’. “It’s exciting collaborative learning and it is authentic for the kids because they are working on things that they are passionate about, and on questions that are relevant to them, often that they have driven themselves”, explained Connie Watson.

Also central to the contemporary learning and teaching practice is cybersafety awareness and copyright. Cybersafety is built into lessons and classroom practice at every Year level all year long. Fitzroy North PS is an ICT savvy school. Each classroom that the 20 strong study group entered, they barely caught the eye of the students who were completely engaged and immersed in what they were doing. The technology was seamless, the content was all important and it was student owned content. As Kristen says, it is not about the devices it is how they enhance the learning and fit within the learning curriculum. According to Kynan, “the point of ICT is to drive your pedagogy, to assist your curriculum”.

Blogging at North Fitzroy Primary School from Kynan Robinson on Vimeo.

How the learning and teaching is changing

Pedagogy – the art and science of teaching, the method and practice of teaching, an understanding of how humans learn best. This is what educators are interested in.
What has ICT got to do with that.
For too long ICT has been sold to us as an essential with little linking to why. How does it make us learn better?  How does it relate to pedagogy?

When we talk about ICT we need to move beyond the tools. I get sick of hearing one presentation after the other espousing the latest greatest, shrunk down, sped up, oversized, undersized piece of plastic that supposedly will change education forever. It won’t.

Education has never been about what pencils you have in your pencil case it is about people – it is about understanding how we learn. I also get tired of hearing that ICT will make your lessons more engaging – it wont – I’m sure they are already engaging and teachers all know that shiny bells in the corner only maintain engagement for a short time – what are you going to do then?

So why talk about ICT at all? The reason is that the way we learn as humans has fundamentally changed because of the digital world and as educators we need to be aware of that.

Lets quickly look at some of the more exciting current thinking about learning.

Social Learning – For too long in western education there has been the over emphasis on the individual. We see children coming to us as empty vessels that need to be filled by us with whatever information (content) we think is important. This learning is done independent of others.
Rather knowing (or knowledge) is about who you are, what you are doing and it unfolds within a social environment – never independent from it. ICT allows for connections, communities of practice and social learning to occur like never before. How are schools prepared to deal with Social Networks (Facebook, Twitter etc) and utilise them for a new approach to learning? baby

Constructivisim / Experiential Learning – This is not a new theory, its been around for over 100 years, but still many schools regard it as radical. We learn best through experience. The worst way to teach is to stand at the front of the class pass on “content” in a lecture style. If you think you can hold more information than the internet well keep teaching this way – if not lets find new ways. This is not to say that explicit skills based teaching is not at times necessary. But the internet holds many repositories of content and millions of examples of good explicit teaching. For example see the Khan Academy, or just type your question into Google or ask Youtube and someone will have uploaded a video teaching you how to do it. If it is a simple explicit fact that needs to be “learnt” in order to achieve a greater purpose, point the student to a place where they can find it (or better still teach them the strategy to do it so you never have to point them again). This frees you up to provide far deeper experiences for your students to learn. Gaming is one great way to develop experiential learning. Digital games such as Sim City or Civilisation or a host of others can be used to give the students the experience previously unavailable to them. For example in SIM city they experience being a Mayor with all the responsibilities and consequences involved with decisions made. Use it to teach ai Civics and Government Unit. The axiom of experiential learning is “I can teach you about swimming or I can let you go for a swim.” Which one is is the most powerful learning experience. ICT now provides us with potential experiences previously unavailable.

Connectivism – this is a relatively new theory that is entirely relevant to the digital age and in particular, the Internet. It claims that all knowledge is now residing in the online networks. Moving on from experiential learning, Connectivism claims that the world is now moving so fast that we can no longer experience all the things we need to in order to keep up. I’m sure we can all relate to this feeling. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. “I store my knowledge in my friends” is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.

This theory is very relevant for the why and how we would use ICT. You can see evidence for it in Social Media, the use of Nings, Wikis, Blogs and many other devices that help students connect to whatever networks they need to to assist their learning. It is our job as educators to encourage participation in these networks. That includes publishing work, expressing opinions, asking the network questions, commenting, tagging information and sharing it to a networked group such as Diigo and so on. Active participation is the key.

This is what makes ICT so exciting, no longer are students locked in to the reductionist methods of closed classroom doors. Rather there is a whole diverse world to navigate, to collaborate with, to co-create with to learn how to communicate with. Use whatever tool you want but keep this deeper principles in mind.


Using Minecraft As a Tool in Education in a Meaningful, Innovative Way That Changes What You Think Is Possible: Part 1

Go way beyond just building simulations of already existing buildings, cities whatever you did at your school.

At NFPS we are a school very focused on gaming in education (using digital games to teach).

Some of the games we have used include  Civilisation and Sim City to teach term-long units on government etc. We have done entire term projects on game making (looking at programming skills plus narrative development etc) in the grade 3/4 area. We used programs such as Scratch, Atmospfir, Sploder, and Game Salad to do this.

We also use a lot of games on mobile devices in the Jnr levels to enhance the numeracy and literacy program.

This year we received a school’s specialization grant to investigate the use of gaming to teach and part of this has linked us into working with Deakin Uni and their researchers, investigating some of the things we are trying to achieve.

This term, in an attempt to teach a science-based unit looking at biospheres we are using the game Minecraft across all the grade 5/6 classes (140 students).

The premise is the world is coming to an end and all 140 of us have to move to a new planet. Decisions need to be made before leaving Earth and Arcs are getting designed in google sketch up and prototypes being built using a 3D printer.

Everything we need to establish our new planet is going to be taken with us so decided upon pre leaving. Then we all fly to our new planet.

The new planet, called Auroura 56 Z will be simulated in Minecraft.

I have built a Minecraft server for the school where all the work will be completed.

It is a very interesting project to observe. The way we set these things up is it is mostly student-driven with the teachers working as facilitators to the learning.

The kids have organised themselves into 5 districts (technology and industry, agriculture, discovery and education, recreation, city, and culture) and have started to build.

One thing of note observed so far in this project is the levels of bureaucracy the kids are bringing into the game – demanding the establishment of councils and committees. A lot of it has been driven by their existing knowledge of the game.

I regularly meet with a group of 10 kids who advise me on gameplay and how to adapt it to enable the efficient and smooth development of our planet. The project has raised a lot of questions regarding global warming – what causes it, how can we avoid it on our new planet – do we really need to mine everything, etc. Furthermore, the game based project has raised very interesting discussion about policing – people can obviously destroy other people’s work in the Minecraft environment – how do we control this amongst 140 players (these decisions are all controlled by the students)

All of the student’s work is being recorded in a wiki. This allows them to collaborate and plan across classrooms as well as reflect on their learning and cross-pollinate ideas. An example of a designed arc is below.

Digital Gaming In Education, Aiming to Transform Not Merely Enhance

I have attached an article I recently wrote for technology In Education Magazine talking about the extensive program of digital gaming I have incorporated at NFPS. Gaming is used extensively throughout our entire curriculum including games such as Minecraft, Little Big Planet, Civilisation and Sim City along with a host of IOS games. I also speak about gaming enabling a school to move from its use of technology from being a substitution for other formats or beyond that an augmentation of other formats through to something that  modifies or ultimately redefines the learning. This is where the technology become transformative.

Gaming In Education – Aiming To Transform, Not Simply Enhance 

Solo In Red – A Significant New Music and Video work from Kynan Robinson

Based on the Works of Cormac McCarthy, Commissioned by The Melbourne Writers Festival

Some very exciting news. In August of 2012 acclaimed Melbourne ensemble Collider will be performing a piece entitled Solo In Red, written by myself. The piece will be performed as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival program over 3 nights at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

“Kynan Robinson’s new piece Solo in Red is both astoundingly beautiful and original. Setting out to capture the atmospheres of a Cormac McCarthy novel it does all that and more.” – Vierre Magazine 2011

I prepared a statement for media discussing the work which reads as follows.

“With my new piece, Solo in Red, I feel as thoughI have found the creative and artistic expression/voice i have been searching for my entire career.The piece takes its inspiration from the writings of the hugely important American author Cormac McCarthy.My collision with McCarthy’s writing came at a time when I was formulating my ideas for this piece of music. In McCarthy’s work I found a literary parody for my musical concepts; the themes and atmospheres he creates, that so absorb you as a reader, were very similar to what i was interested in creating. Image

McCarthy’s writing and the atmosphere he creates has a sparseness, detachment and tension and is always touched with a dry wit. He presents both the absolute beauty and absolute ugliness of existence, often within the same sentence. To me his works sits somewhere in the place of the spirit world and if you enter it it will often bring forth both frightening and peaceful truths. In the composition of Solo In Red I am making a very personal statement on life and it’s deep sadness, only matched by its overwhelming beauty.
The many elements of this show, including performing with the incredible ensemble Collider  plus the breath taking multimedia component which includes lighting plus the most beautiful and lush video projections, (produced by Dotahn Caspi, Sean Kelly and Michelle Robinson) will all lend themselves to an experience that is both powerful and transporting for any audience member.
I am very excited to be presenting my new work at the Melbourne Recital Center and as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. The Recital Center has many great memories for me both as a performer and audience member. It is a building of such beautiful dynamics and delightful aesthetics that it is almost the perfect place to hear this work.”To book tickets to the show you can click on the following link Book Tickets

You can also read about the development of the multimedia and actually contribute towards the costs if you feel so philanthropic. You can either pledge support – (there are some great rewards – especially to those interested in attending the Melbourne Writers Festival Paperback and Hardback passes valued at $90 and $325 respectively) OR if you can’t contribute financially – no problems at all – but all we ask is that you spread the word!

Pledge support via our Pozibles site or simple share the link via email, fbook, twiiter or any other means :

It is a costly process to produce these large scale works and your contributions to the Arts are very very appreciated.

If you would like to  purchase a copy of the bands original album click here

Creativity In Education Part 6

This year I have been handed the task of instilling a more creative approach to learning and teaching at one of the schools I work at. This is a task I am excited about. It is a particular passion of mine evident in many of my previous blog posts.

The thinking behind this comes from my own personal belief that creativity The ability to generate new ideas is innate in everyone and needs to be one of the higher goals of education. The investigation also stems from the rapid changes that we see in the western world, changes in the job market which is crying out for innovative/creative thinkers, as well as changes driven by the digital revolution which has provided opportunities for people to create, collaborate and communicate like never before. Our education system has a responsibility to not only keep up with these changes but perhaps even lead some of them.

To achieve the task 2 think tanks have been established, one inside the school and one drawing from experts and networks beyond the schools immediate boundaries. These think tanks will provide ideas, investigate research, experiment with implementing ideas into the classroom, provide feedback and teach and support others.

My initial thinking was to set up an environment where people can share. Instead of the formal monthly meeting we would build a platform (perhaps a NING) where those involved from within the school could be contributing whenever they liked.

Within this platform we would,

1. Look at what the creative thought process actually is, investigate the research into it. this might include looking at notions of cognitive dissonance, divergent thinking, he ability to find connections where others cant see them, risk taking and freedom and dualism.

2. Investigate the environments that stimulate creative thought. This could be both the physical environments, mental environments and online environments. Much writing has already been done about the ideas of networked knowledge and web 2.0 being a modern day equivalent of the coffee shop experience of the Paris intellectuals that lead to so much new thinking in s many areas, including philosophy, literature the arts.

3. Investigate existing  models that stimulate the creative thought process in an educational setting, these could include Project Based Learning, some of the online courses developed by PLP,  Steven Downs models of learning centred around Network Learning, Rich Tasks, The Agile Methodology, The CKC model developed by Ideas Lab, and The Inquiry model. From initial discussion there is already some debate whether the enquiry model is at all related to creativity or whether its basis being rooted in a western scientific model of investigation and reason actually limits its ability to encourage creative thought.

4. Find ways to encourage these learning environments to flow into the teaching of all curriculums including the core curriculums of numeracy and literacy. Is this done through the questioning process? Do the teachers need to ask bigger questions, what if we trusted the students to just ask their own questions? How much time in education needs to be devoted to skills based learning? Etc. Etc.

I would love to hear anything anyone else has to say on the matter. If you think there are things we should investigate please fell free to suggest, all ideas are welcome. If you would like to be involved in the community we hope to develop feel free to email me and I will notify you once we have built our NING. Or initially feel free to comment with any ideas readings, criticisms etc on this blog. Thanks needs to be given to Richard Olsen form Ideas Lab, Lou Bowe and Mark Dickson and Sheryl Nussbaum Beach for some of their initial work as well as the Creativity Team I worked with in 2011 during the PLP ConnectU project.

Here is a simple but worth while youtube video that gives a nice starting place

Cognitive dissonance: Kynan Robinson finds musical ideas in the works of Cormac McCarthy

This is a transcript of an interview I did for Extempore Magazine

At the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival in 2011, we heard Collider at 303, with compositions inspired by the works of Haruki Murakami. In those pieces Collider—led by Kynan Robinson and Adam Simmons—echoed aspects of Murakami’s work in the music. When we heard about the forthcoming concert of music that draws on Kynan’s reading of Cormac McCarthy, we wanted to find out more.

Miriam Zolin: When you talk about writing music in response to Cormac McCarthy’s writing, should people expect to hear some sort of narrative in the music that’s equivalent to what they might find in Cormac McCarthy’s books?

Kynan Robinson: No not really. It’s an interesting little place where I find myself. I did something similar when I was writing for The Escalators and looking at David Lynch. I didn’t do this deliberately. I’d started writing some music and I’d found that the music was heading in a particular direction. I re-watched Twin Peaks and found that the atmosphere that he was trying to create was similar to what I was trying to create.  So then I made a deliberate decision to look at theoretical concepts behind Lynch’s work. I looked at a lot of Lynch’s conceptual ideas and then I related that to The Escalators and created a whole body of work. It was not a deliberate decision to do this; I fell into that place.

At the moment in education there’s a call for creativity in all schools. But the call for creativity is coming more from a workplace angle which means it’s really a call for innovation. There’s not a good understanding of what creativity means.  I’ve done a lot of work on this, as an educator myself, trying to unpack it for other educators. The development of a creative thought is an extensive process for your brain to go through and it requires certain conditions. What your brain is actually doing is moving into a place of cognitive dissonance, a place of confusion. It is trying to leap from one level of understanding to the next. To do that it has to confuse itself and then it has to come out of that confusion into a place of equilibrium. [laughs] That’s a really dumbed down version of the idea! Ideas of cognitive dissonance and divergent thinking practices are things that I’m interested in.

If you apply that to what I did with his project, for about a year and a half or two years, I have had an idea in my head and I couldn’t kind of get what the idea was. I was reading Cormac McCarthy a lot, just reading, without a purpose, and I kept going back there and reading it again and again. I was also listening and re-listening to certain composers I hadn’t listened to for years. People like Messiaen and Morton Feldman, and others. What my brain was trying to do was reach out to find answers. Over the space of a year and a half, the answer was forming until ‘bang’ it popped up with an ‘idea’ — this series of works I’m writing. That’s the link into Cormac McCarthy’s work. My brain was sitting in a place of confusion; I was looking for some of those philosophical answers, those large life concepts and those sorts of ideas. The writings of Cormac McCarthy were hitting into the same place all the time and so my brain was just naturally pulled to it. I don’t know why I kept reading it. Actually this is what everybody does all the time. You don’t know why you keep going to these places but your brain is searching desperately for some sort of equilibrium; a release from the state of confusion it’s entered into.

MZ: And often what you’re looking for is something you can’t consciously articulate anyway…

KR: That is absolutely correct. You can’t articulate it because that’s what divergent thinking and cognitive dissonance are all about. You don’t know what you’re looking for. In terms of education – and I know I’m getting off track here – if you start pushing this into education systems, you need to encourage broad spaces where students are allowed to enter into places of confusion. You need to encourage confusion as a source of creativity.

MZ: And then you have to try and justify it by measuring the benefits of cognitive dissonance, which could be interesting!

KR: [laughs] Yes, it wouldn’t measure too well using standardised testing methods for literacy and numeracy which is what gets measured in our current system.

But back to the thing about Cormac McCarthy – I was looking for a whole bunch of answers, related to a lot of different things and not just about the music I was writing. I started to recognise the concepts he is talking about and to enter into the philosophies and the atmosphere his writing creates. His philosophy and the atmosphere he creates are also relevant to a lot of other things in my life. This music that I’m writing is deeply personal. I’m at a stage in my life with my career and compositions where I’m ready to compose music that makes significant personal statements. Up until this now, I would have had a bunch of musical ideas and whip them up quickly, composing really fast, banging out an album and moving onto the next project. I think that’s what you have to do as a younger person. But I’ve been doing this for a fair while now and it feels like I’m ready to deal with some of those larger life concepts. McCarthy’s writing is full of ideas about the fragility of life and the nonsense in the notion of the sanctity of life. He talks about the beauty and the ugliness in the same moment and also talks quite heavily on a supernatural and spiritual level. These are ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time but never been ready to deal with from an artistic sense myself.

MZ: Is this what you were referring on your blog, to when you talked about ideas you’d been grappling with for a decade and a half?

KR: Yeah, concepts of spirituality and those kinds of ideas. I was raised as a missionary child in Bangladesh. It’s an extreme environment and an extreme framework to place upon a child.  So once that’s happened you’re always dealing with those of ideas and you fight through them and those really strong – Christian I guess – overlays. As a young man you fight against them and get rid of some of them out of your life, or you try to, but they are always in there. Once a framework is established within a human being it’s very difficult to break. It’s taken me a long time to not fight it any more and to try to learn how to deal with it and be prepared to deal with it with my art.

MZ: A couple of times you’ve mentioned the word atmosphere in the same sentence as philosophy. When you’re undergoing this process of being open to the information that your brain seeks in its attempt to find equilibrium, how much of that is about the atmosphere and how much is about the words and the text that then just leaks into the music.

KR: If you’re talking about the rhythms of the language, not so much. When I talk to people about the fact that I’m doing this Cormac McCarthy thing and I use words like ‘sparseness’ to describe his writing, they’ll say ‘are you joking? His writing is so full, it’s packed!’ which is true, in terms of sentence structure. There is an incredible amount of detail that he writes in… but the overall feeling becomes sparser and sparser…

MZ: There is quite a bit of space in his work…

KR: Yes, space, and I guess the rhythms of the words in that way are really affecting me. You know, you probably got me on this one. Maybe I have done that.

McCarthy comes from a particular geographical location which is not what I am referencing either. He really places his writing in that space of ‘America’ which I guess also references artists like Morton Feldman who place their music in that vastness of America. For me it’s not about the geography. It’s more about the way he writes all that incredible detail about pretty much nothing – like how to saddle a horse up. It leaves you with a sense of sparseness.

MZ: [laughs] We’ll let you know how it goes, when we hear the music.

KR: Yes, please do! And interesting too, is that he really does have a heavy religious overtone to his writing and that’s something I’m trying to grapple with in my own life. And then it starts linking in to other things.  I also started to look at composers I hadn’t looked at for ages. Like Messiaen. Everything he wrote was about spirituality. I’m drawing on some of the techniques he uses, but more so his dedication to compose about areas of his life which were personally meaningful and things he was searching after.

As far as narrative goes, his writing is definitely linear, but it’s … it just is what it is. The Border Trilogy and those books – they do sort of follow a story. But Blood Meridian is just about that search… the bleakness of it all and also the madness of it all, but within the bleakness there is also this incredible beauty. Those concepts, like the sanctity of life, I really got from him. In our modern times we view life as the most precious thing. He writes in that mode of ‘life can be nothing’.

You can imagine about the times he was writing. Those ideas of humans being so important were not as prevalent. If someone annoyed you, you could just shoot his head off, and that wouldn’t have had the same huge consequences as it would today. Back then it was just another step in the path. It really shook me around and woke me up to this concept when I was reading him. We have this concept of the sanctity of life across the board and maybe it’s a nonsense. He’s an interesting one. He talks about the nothingness of life but at the same time talks about the intense beauty, so it’s all wrapped in together.

MZ: People say that he’s bleak, but perhaps he simply acknowledges the harshness of a reality which we cocoon ourselves from. Perhaps his writing simply goes right there and looks it in the face.

KR: That’s exactly what I got from it too, which is what I’m trying to deal with.  These are big concepts to deal with. I’m close to 40 now and as composer, I feel like I’m ready to deal with those conceptually larger  subject matters. If you’d asked me about 25 years ago to write about issues of spirituality I would have had a different outlook on it – probably a very immature outlook. Yet the seeds were sown by then and they’ve been …

MZ: …festering?

KR: Yes, festering. And that’s what the creative act is all about

MZ: You have a really busy life – how do you create a space where you are able to think deeply about these big issues?

KR: I think they just create their own spaces. I seem to apply this to almost everything I do. When you’re talking about the creative act, everything I do revolves around trying to find some kind of answer. It’s not like I have to sit down and start meditating.

MZ: So you don’t set aside a time each day or week… saying ‘on Saturday mornings between 9:00 and 11:00 I’ll think about these big issues’…?

KR: [laughs] No, for me it’s like a constant search, a constant attempt to be in that space to push my brain as fast and as hard as it can all the time in all sorts of different areas to find whatever the next thing is that I’m trying to create.

MZ: Are you changing as part of the process?

KR: Yes definitely, and I really don’t feel like I want to waste time doing projects I’m not interested in any more. And I guess my compositional style is changing too. It’s going back to a more ‘composer as dictator’ style!

MZ: What does that mean?

KR: Well, you know the composer in the olden days was a fascist dictator and whatever he wrote was what the musician had to do… basically the musicians bowed down to his compositions. And then I came through the free jazz thing about 15 – 20 years ago where you try to break down that political structure; where you’re taking the power away from the composer and handing it to the musicians. Improvising is all about that. But even in that context it’s a very difficult thing to do to break down those political structures because egos get involved on stage. As I’m getting older I’m seeking to take all of that power back as a composer. My music is going to be about my statements and even though I work with improvising musicians, there are still going to be a lot of controls put down on the actual improvising. Not allowing any sense that the musicians can just take it and run with it. This is not about that. Everything in this music has to be about the concept I’m trying to create; everything must bow down to the idea. I tell the musicians, ‘I can’t give you control so when you are improvising – and there is improvising in the music – it must be within these structures.’  I just find myself leaning back towards that model of composing.

MZ: How hard is it to find musicians who will work with you in that way?

KR: It’s very easy because improvising musicians like challenges. I did it a lot harder with The Escalators than I am doing it with this band.  With The Escalators, I set up rule structures and everything had to bow down to these rule structures; nobody was allowed to break the rules. It was an interesting process but improvising musicians are generally up for interesting processes. With this one it is not so strict but there is an understanding of what the music is trying to do. I’m not going to hand over to a crazy wild sax solo that potentially over a 10 minute solo will detract from what the whole of the piece is actually about.

MZ: So the idea is paramount?

KR: Yes, you’re serving the idea. You’re not just playing a bunch of songs. Jazz often operates in that way, where the song is just some sort of framework which will allow the musician to go wherever they want with it. That’s what I mean in terms of my personal style. If I’ve done all this work mentally to try and get to this place where I’m ready to write this music, then I need to have musicians who are supportive of that and who understand it.

MZ: Tell me about the band.

KR: The band is one of the best I’ve worked with. It’s a very interesting combination of instruments and personalities. It’s very rare that you get to play with saxophone, trombone, viola, violin, bass and drums. But also the musicians in this band come from a very dedicated approach to sound. We’re spending a lot of work on things like tuning, which hardly ever happens in the jazz format! It comes from Andrea who plays violin and Jason who plays viola – they play in the state orchestras and the MSO – it comes from their approach because they really want to get that stuff right. It is a lot of attention placed on small detail which is just fantastic. It’s a real pleasure to work in that environment. So concepts of time are really talked through; everybody’s different interpretation of what time is and finding a common time, everybody’s interpretation of tuning and finding a common tuning. Once you start working at that level of detail it’s really refreshing. It’s a really fantastic band.

We’ve just recorded a session at the ABC and that’s going to come out next year I hope. It’s always good with a band to go through a series of gigs and recordings. This band is a band of composers. Every time we do a concert and at least one of the band members writes for it.

MZ: Adam Simmons is writing for this one too, I think?

KR: Yes, Adam is writing for the first set of music and he’s basing his compositions around Dr Seuss. He’s going into it in an interesting way. It will be an interesting show for this concert, with two of us composing significant works, based around the literature idea, which just happened, out of nowhere. You saw the concert where I’d written some works based around the writing of Haruki Murakami and he had done some work on some Russian literature and we didn’t even talk about it. When we realised what we’d done – both responding to different literary works, we thought, ‘well that’s really weird!’

MZ: So it happened without you thinking about it?

KR: It happened really organically but now we’re actually going to focus on it. We thought, ‘well if it’s happening naturally, there must be a reason for it’.

Want to hear this music live?

Monday 12 December
Doors open at 7 for a 7.30 start
45 Flinders Lane Melbourne City

Ticket presales available : (03) 9662 9966

Collider is

Kynan Robinson – trombone
Adam Simmons – tenor saxophone
Ronnie Ferrella – drums
Anita Hustas – bass
Jason Bunn – viola
Andrea Keeble – violin