Arts / Resolving the ‘cultural string cringe’

Chris Stone, left, Holly Downes and Graham McLeod. Photo by Brian Rosenberg

WILD Strings is a daring winter camp being hosted by the Young Music Society of Canberra where young artists can learn everything from classics to Klezmer, folk to funk and jazz to junk.

Composer Stephen Leek, who manages the society, says that typically players will be aged between 10 and 21 and have been playing violin, viola, cello or double bass for more than three years with reasonable facility – it’s definitely not for beginners.

Chris Stone, the brains behind the project, is something of a wild child. Fed up with traditional music pedagogy and a fabulous fiddler, he’s the artistic director of the ensemble The String Contingent and a regular member of Canberra’s Griffyn Ensemble.

“When I was young, I went to the US to hear a famous vernacular fiddle player and was super inspired by his skills and the lack of genre boundaries,” he tells “CityNews”.

That fiddler was Scotsman Alasdair Fraser, but he also rubbed shoulders with string improvisers, trad/Celtic players, and old-time fiddlers, too.

Stone was just 16 and it blew his mind. Brought up on a diet of stultifying AMEB exams and stereotyped expectations that top, young string players should go to Germany for classical, the US for jazz and Ireland for Celtic, he was determined to stay and create a singular musical style in Australia so players could say: “Let’s go hang out in Australia”.

Adventurous, but no slouch, he completed a classical music degree at the ANU (“because that was the only quality technical training I could find in Australia”), formed his trio The String Contingent with bassist Holly Downes and Scottish guitar player Graham McLeod, played gigs at folk and classical events around the country and co-directed String Mania, a residential camp held in Warburton, Victoria, with – of all people – Alasdair Fraser.

Stone worried that in Australia “we struggle deeply with finding and accepting value in our people, music, and art etcetera.”

Together with his partner, Downes, who he says “shares the same ethos”, he vowed that his musicians would always compose original music to perform.

And so to Wild Strings. Stone successfully pitched the idea that: “To resolve this ‘cultural string cringe’, we need to dig deeper into the idea of identity as Australian string players, and the best way to do that is to provide a rich forum for young players to explore, to find their own voices as people and musicians.”

He is determined that his camp will be fun, social, creative, structured and at the same time flexible, and he has high hopes of “releasing the iron clamp of ‘discipline’ and leaving space for self-motivation through joy and excitement, inspired by the right teacher”.

That means engaging like-minded musicians and his line-up is formidable.

Rachel Johnston is the former cellist with the Australian String Quartet, capable of testing the mettle of young players. Downes, who studied classical bass playing, reinvented herself when she walked away to play her bass instrument in smaller ensembles. And Shenzo Gregorio is the self-styled crazy man from the Fourplay Quartet who once played his electric violin “like a rock guitar” suspended on a flywire in the Queen Victoria building in Sydney.

Freedom is at the core of this music camp. “I want to give each student an experience of themselves,” Stone says.

Wild Strings, Canberra Girls Grammar School Music Centre, July 3-7. Applications to or call 6251 8017.

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