This afternoon, Buz Bryant-Greene gives the première performance of my solo piano piece #llamadrama. That’s right, I’m so social media my composition is a hashtag.
Buz first played my music in May 2009, specifically the Sonatina for clarinet and piano with Anna McGregor. Before long, he followed it with Seven Banana Songs for soprano & piano, Maeve for piano & tape, and a silly little microscore called Drying Music.
However, still by then I had written no substantial solo piano piece for anybody, so Buz applied to Creative New Zealand in August 2010 for funds to commission me for a 10-12 minuter. Six weeks later we were granted success. I even got paid up-front!
This was momentous for me: it was my first fully-funded CNZ commission (link is a .doc). I was suddenly a “real” composer! Some years previously I had made a resolution that I would stop attending the Nelson Composers Workshop as a participant once I received my first professional commission. The day had arrived.
I got feverishly down to work… if I recall, this was when the cast of Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen was supposed to go to Sydney to perform at World’s Funniest Island, before that festival was cancelled nine days before opening. That would have been my first getting-flown-overseas-to-do-a-show moment… ah well. Just the one major career milestone per month then.
Progress stalled when my girlfriend and I broke up the following month – we’d been living together, it was a less than straightforward separation, it sent me pretty down. I well and truly lost compositional momentum – in fact, it took me a further eight months to finish the work in fits and starts, writing the last note on 18 July 2011.
But nothing’s ever simple. By the time I finished #llamadrama, Buz had developed some pretty serious musicianly injuries in his shoulders and back. He wasn’t going to be doing any much playing for a while, especially the 12-13 minutes of physically demanding piano pounding and fine motoric gestures that I’d composed for him. We thought there’d be the première in April this year, in fact, I even arranged a whole trip from Dunedin to Wellington around it, but Buz wasn’t yet up to it.
However, the time is now. Nearly two and a half years after Buz applied for the commission funding, he’s giving the première. He’s the accompanist for The Glamaphones, the choir of Wellington’s GLBTQ community, so it’s part of their end-of-year concert at St Andrew’s on The Terrace at 4pm today. He’ll be giving subsequent performances in Nelson, Auckland, and many other places, I hope.
It’s a programmatic piece, and the narrative is… uhh… long. It’s below!
On the afternoon of 27 August 2010, an escaped llama made its way onto the Western Ring Road in Melbourne, one of that city’s busiest freeways. The story became a minor sensation on Twitter with this tweet from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s @abcnews feed:
Drama: Police are trying to capture a llama on Melbourne’s western ring road
12:54:07 Aug 27th 2010 (UTC +10) via Tweetdeck
Retweeted by 100+ people
Within two minutes, this message had been re-tweeted 15 times, spreading the news quickly throughout Melbourne and to the wider world. The news story generated a flash of amused responses and commentary, often under the hashtag #llamadrama. I’ve identified some factors which contributed to its sudden popularity: the simple linguistic device of rhyme; the involvement of an animal; the potential for Benny Hill-like chase scenes between police and said animal; the heightened attention to Twitter for breaking political news following the inconclusive result of the Australian federal election six days earlier; the inherent funniness of the word ‘llama’; and the fact that bored office-workers will tweet and/or retweet nearly anything for shits’n’giggles on a Friday afternoon.
Humorous comments came thick and fast. One was a tweet by @silencewedge parodying a 1961 Barry Mann pop song:
Who put the drama in the drama llama ring road?
Guitarist and music journalist Peter Hodgson, a.k.a. @iheartguitar, provided another rhyme for consideration:
Llama drama or Alpaca Fracas?
However, my favourite remark of the whole affair was a pun from market researcher and consultant Stephen Downes, a.k.a. @downesy on Twitter:
A loose llama on the Western Ring Road? It must have been trying to get to the Tu-llama-rine Freeway #llamadrama
13:25:17 Aug 27th 2010 (UTC +10) via Tweetdeck
Retweeted by 21 people
Some 80 minutes after the affair started on Twitter, @abcnews reported:
Breaking news: Police have captured the llama that was on the loose in Melbourne #llamadrama
14:16:40 Aug 27th 2010 (UTC +10) via web
Retweeted by 100+ people
From there, instances of the hashtag #llamadrama tailed off. For half an afternoon it had captured the imagination of a localised section of the “Twitterverse”, and as the story died a natural death it was quickly forgotten. (The sheer volume of traffic on Twitter with the lack of an effective archive search function means events more or less disappear after a week or so.)
Even in this world where cameras in mobile phones are ubiquitous, nobody took photos or video of the escaped animal – or at least no such images made it to the internet, despite appeals from news media. After the event, the websites of ABC News and The Age newspaper carried brief text stories, light on details and specifics and probably based entirely on police communications (i.e. second-hand information). While there is no apparent reason to doubt the basics of the event or to call it a hoax, I felt a bemused unreality (or surreality) in following reports as they developed, best summed up by @cfsmtb:
Pics or it didn’t happen
This piece of news was arguably perfect for Twitter. The limited concrete information available was only slightly more than what can be contained in a tweet of 140 characters, and its bemusing nature and temporary news value meant the “Twitterverse”, including me as a composer, could imagine the zany and the fantastical. After all, who cares if it’s true or not, as long as it’s funny?
Starting in a field close to the Western Ring Road, a llama lives a placid and slightly bored existence. Absent-mindedly picking at a chain-link fence, a gap appears: the animal can fit itself through and escape its confines. After a few cautious steps, it lurches forward and runs in sudden jerks. Making its way down a grassy hillside, it reaches the freeway crash barrier. Occupants of moving vehicles begin to notice the animal: “there’s a llama!” After a few tries, it successfully vaults the crash barrier and makes it onto the road itself. Vehicles whizz by and drivers honk their horns, but the llama is enjoying its freedom too much to be affected by them. Reports begin to reach news services: we hear a radio news theme and the growing noise of the Twitterverse.
The din of chatter around Melbourne becomes overwhelming and little more than indistinguishable noise, so the llama retreats into its head and to its elated thoughts: “I’m free! I’m my own animal! This is my dream, I’m no longer bound by a chain-link fence! It’s a whole new world! There’s a smile on my face for the whole…”
SQUEAL!! Its reverie is interrupted by an SUV with an absent-minded yet aggressive driver: the vehicle has to brake extremely suddenly to avoid hitting the llama, and misses it only by inches. Police have arrived on the scene and have begun to divert traffic. The llama becomes outnumbered to a greater and greater degree: there’s one last chance for escape, one tricky path to freedom, one last high-stakes roll of the “OOH TASTY TASTY LLAMA TREAT ON THE GRASSY BANK!! I LIKE TASTY LL… oh damn.”
Thirty minutes later, in the same field close to the Western Ring Road, the llama is once again bored. Picking at the chain-link fence, there’s no chance of escape. The fence has been repaired, the gap closed, the llama’s life restored to its former boredom.
Written 15 October 2010 to 18 July 2011 in Auckland and Wellington.
Commissioned by Buz Bryant-Greene with funding from Creative New Zealand.
Duration: 12-13 minutes.
Pronunciation note: The title should be said “hash-tag llama drama”.
First performed by Buz Bryant-Greene, 9 December 2012, St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington.