Sea change … the Australian Chamber Orchestra went outback for inspiration for its next tour. Photo: John Frank
When the Australian Chamber Orchestra spent two weeks in May on the West Australian coast, surfing and writing music for a tour called The Reef, it brought with it a tall, unassuming man called Tos Mahoney.
Mahoney's role at first seemed hard to define: he wasn't part of the orchestra and he wasn't a surfer. Nor was he one of the film crew documenting the process for the ABC. Yet his participation was integral to the success of the residency and indeed, of the tour, of which, it turned out, he was a co-producer.
"Tos is the go-to guy when it comes to regional touring," the ACO's general manager, Tim Calnin, says, "not only in terms of his network of contacts but because of his imagination, his heroic approach to robust programming and openness to expansive ideas."
Australian Chamber Orchestra
"The Reef", Australian Chamber Orchestra road trip. Photo: John Frank
Mahoney is the chief executive of Tura New Music, a Perth not-for-profit organisation that this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. Founded in inner-city Perth, it has become the premier body for new music in Western Australia and beyond, the primary platform and incubator for outre aural experiences, from sound art to contemporary orchestral and electronica.
"Our charter is to advocate, support and present new music, with an emphasis on a really broad spectrum of sound, because that is what gives us the resiliency, " he explains.
As well as supporting the careers of composers and performers, Tura presents a year-round program of events, including Club Zho, the Scale Variable New Chamber Music Series and the Totally Huge New Music Festival. But it is Tura's award-winning regional residencies and tours that have generated some of the most interesting outcomes.
The tours often play from Darwin through the Territory, to the Kimberley, Pilbara and onto Perth; last year's tour saw virtuoso didgeridoo player William Barton perform with vocal ensemble The Song Company in out-there locations such as Kununurra, Exmouth and One Arm Point on the Dampier Peninsula.
"It's an embedded process," Mahoney says. "We've been doing the tours for nine years now, which is important.
''It's by showing you have the commitment to go back and back to these regional centres you get to know who's who and build up those essential relationships."
The tours provide locals with experiences they wouldn't normally have access to. But as Mahoney is keen to point out, the exchange is mutually beneficial.
"I'm a big fan of context: when a musical performance happens with the community at a mango farm in Kununurra, for instance, it changes the nature of the work - the artist gets a lot of out it too.
''So it's not this patronising notion of: 'Hey, here are the city folk bringing you some culture!' It all feeds off one another."
Mahoney, 54, became involved in new music as a musician, playing flute with a small collective of avant garde instrumentalists called Slices of Albert, with the saxophonist Mark Cain and the pianist Ross Bolleter, in Perth in the early 1980s.
"I started organising our gigs and events, basically because if we didn't organise them then nobody else would," he says.
Despite appearances, Mahoney has monk-like mellowness, organising was clearly one of his strengths: in the mid-1980s he began putting together improvised music festivals, and in 1987 he formed Evos, a new music organisation that in the mid-1990s morphed into Tura.
''It's been extremely hard," Mahoney says. "But at the same time bringing off projects like The Reef and the Totally Huge New Music Festival is incredible.
"What keeps me going is not just pushing boundaries for the sake of it," he says.
"It's the chance to exert the intellectual possibilities, to find new ways of perceiving the world through music and sound."
The Reef plays at Sydney Opera House on July 23. The writer travelled to Gnaraloo Station as a guest of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Tura New Music.