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Selfless Orchestra is a self-described post-rock orchestra made up of Perth musicians from Perth Symphony Orchestra and contemporary acts including Injured Ninja, Last Quokka, Karnivool, Mile End, Usurper of Modern Medicine, The Weapon is Sound and more. They are collaborating with video artists and documentary film-makers from around Australia to perform Great Barrier, a live music and immersive video performance at the Fremantle Arts Centre on Saturday, March 23. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to the curator of the event, Steven Aaron Hughes, to find out how he, along with bandmates, their extended friends and activist organisations, brought this vision to life.

This a pretty unique way to do a show, where did the idea come from?

There were some casual conversations between a few of the members of Selfless about making music like this, but it all came together from a heated conversation about the state of the Great Barrier Reef and our seeming inability to act consciously and constructively about these large scale environmental issues, especially in the current media landscape we all act in. So the manifesto was made “make uncompromisingly beautiful music that investigates both hope and despair with the goal of educating and positively influencing change”, with the intention of laying out the facts about an issue poetically as opposed to aggressively and politically.

Did you have in mind the musicians you thought would be up to the task for something like this, or did you have to go looking for them?

When the idea began to form, the list of musicians that we wanted to approach was pretty obvious from the various acts we have all played in, the friendships we had and the people we have met along the way. The core band formed very quickly and it didn’t take long for the others to naturally come into the fold, since then members have come and gone but there’s an abundance of talented players who support this idea and wanted to be involved.

And how about the video collaborators, was there a particular style or approach that was important in being part of the project?

I worked on an environmental documentary called Frackman about Coal Seam Gas mining in Queensland. It was through these filmmakers that I was connected to other video collaborators in that region, some especially focusing on the Great Barrier Reef. Dave Hannan and Plankton Productions came on board really quickly and had an insane amount of footage to give to us! So much of his underwater footage is used in the show. From there we just put the word out to other social and environmental groups and many were happy to help. Greenpeace gave us a huge stack of footage also. Everyone we approached was very willing to contribute as soon as we told them the idea.

What kind of experience can people look forward to, is there anything you can liken it to for those that might not be familiar with something like this?

If you’ve ever seen films like Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka that’s a good place to start. That style of music and vision weaved together, except this is live, and with a lot more ferocity than those soundtracks as we blend a lot more contemporary instruments into the sound. Our sound is post-rock like Godspeed You Black Emperor or Mogwai – a lot more teeth than the usual movie soundtrack.

What was it that made you want to base this around the Great Barrier Reef, in a stylistic and aesthetic sense?

It’s an issue that is of this time. It’s happening right now and it’s up to us to become aware and invested in protecting it, it was never so much a choice for aesthetics but a choice of its relevance and immediacy. Of course it’s a brilliant bonus that the Great Barrier Reef is visually astounding and beautiful to behold. The ocean and the life within it are so complex and striking to see on the big screen, so it lends itself very well to this style of multimedia performance.

And how about the cause that it ultimately represents, who are the proceeds going to?

The proceeds are going to the Reef Restoration Foundation – an independent group that is making huge breakthroughs in coral nursery – bringing back real coral reefs from bleaching and extinction, their work is really important and they need all the financial support they can get. We also give funds to Frontline Action on Coal (FLAC) – another independent group that focuses on the communities that are directly affected by companies that may not have the environment’s best interests at heart. FLAC focuses on keeping those communities empowered, educated and safe from harm when protesting and resistance becomes a reality.

There’s also a vinyl version of the album coming out with a the first taste of it available to buy on the night. How is the recorded album different from the performance and when can we expect it?

In 2018 we did a recording session where we set the band up live in a studio and did the Great Barrier performance, just as we do at the show, no overdubs, all live with everyone playing together in the same room. We worked with some supremely talented engineers and I feel we managed to capture our live sound – so in essence, there isn’t much different from the recorded album, it will be just as raw, present and live as the show itself – except it will be mixed to sound as rich as possible. We’ve mixed one of the first songs, Eden is Lost and the rest of the record will come out later in 2019. As we want the focus to be more on the live show and not the record, we’re going to focus on playing shows and touring the piece before we release the recorded version. It was an interesting experiment recording such a big band this way, accepting the microphone spill, the mistakes, the timing shifts – and to be honest I think the record sounds amazing, because it sounds like it was really played and not pieced together using technology and over-editing.

What’s coming up next for Selfless Orchestra? Are there any more projects like this in the works or are you looking to perform Great Barrier again?

We are an artistic armada that can make a creative response to any issue we see fit to shed light upon. Now that Great Barrier is recorded and the music is committed to our hearts we are already beginning to tune into the next performance piece and story we wish to tell. Guitars are being strung and keys are being tickled lightly with quiet anticipation of what we may focus on next. Our hearts feel our next composition is one much closer to home; in the desert of Western Australia there is a story that needs to be told of our first peoples of the Wagkatja country and an ongoing struggle with international invaders that have penetrated our “terra nullius” in the name of the power, profit and pain that can be derived from a metal resource that serves absolutely no living being on this planet. The media has chosen to ignore this very serious plight, and so we will step in to tell the story through our music.

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