It is May 2022 and we have just witnessed two years of unimaginable disruption through Covid-19. Our communities have suffered, many lost livelihoods, some…their lives or lives of dear ones. And now, as I sit here reflecting, my birth-country Ukraine is being torn apart, with millions of people seeking safety.  

In times of deep heartache, where do we turn? Where do we shelter? For me, as an artist and music lecturer – it is in art, music, poetry, and nature. In Glass Gardens, a digital sonic-visual work created during Sydney’s lockdowns, the students of UNSW’s New Music Collective (NMC) have done exactly that. The ensemble, whose vision is to inspire and provoke musicians and listeners to examine, broaden, and re-define the boundaries of music and the musical experience, have collected objects, sounds, words, poems, and images to weave a world, a refuge, a place to shelter – a glass garden. Delicate, fragile, and at times fearsome sounds loop and coalesce to create immersive and enchanting sound-worlds framed by poetic texts. Words by William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Isaac Newton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hazrat Inayat Khan, C.S Lewis and Wendell Berry are made musical through our found and improvised sounds reimagining shimmering insects and buzzing bugs, glistening dew and quivering leaves, lonesome birds and distant bells. It’s a world where mysterious critters dwell and botanicals whisper to you. 

Conceived as a choose-your-own-adventure experience, you are the architect of that world, we invite you to curate your own, unique, and singular garden. 

Restrictions inspire innovation 

It was September 2021, mid a four-month-long lockdown and back to learning and teaching in our kitchens, attics, bedrooms, and garden sheds – faced with another Term of creating music online in the digital creases of our existence. As the director of NMC, I was looking for an idea, an inspiration, something that would facilitate an artistically meaningful, experientially rich, and educationally potent experience for the students. It also had to yield a beautiful and engaging outcome for the audience to enjoy. Back in 2020, when first faced with a swift and unprecedented re-orientation towards online teaching, learning, musicking and collaboration, the NMC embarked on a fantastical project – Ten Thousand Birds by the Pulitzer-winning composer John Luther Adams. Ten Thousand Birds comprised a folio of fragments of bird-song transcriptions for various musical instruments and a kind of musical atlas spanning a 24-hour cycle which the musicians organise, structure and curate as they build the work and the performative experience. The process of imagining and making this work online and in physical isolation was that of trial and error, with exponentially steep learning curves, dead ends, new beginnings, elation, frustration, and, ultimately, a triumph of sheer will, dedication, and creativity from everyone involved. We launched the project with the help of the brilliant Esme Timbery Creative Practice Lab team – Mark Mitchell, Simon Trevaks and Paul Matthews – reaching hundreds of people and along the way developing a template for how collaborative creativity may express and realise itself online.  

For Term 3, 2021, I wanted to stay with the theme of our beautiful yet vulnerable ecosystem, to reflect on the myriad of ways in which nature inspires, at times offering profound nourishment and refuge, at others reminding us of the profound urgency of our role as its caretakers. I hoped to create something with my students that would offer delight and wonder, a kind of micro-universe in verse and sound. I wanted to help them, and the future audience of the work, appreciate the preciousness, beauty, and vulnerability of the natural world. Sometime before, a dear colleague, composer Alice Chance, mentioned a piece she had created for her website, Glass Insects. The conversation, in which we brainstormed ways this work could be explored by my NMC students, sparked the idea of an immersive sound-world, laced with text and visual imagery, that would conjure up the feeling of being inside a glass garden. 

One of the visuals animated in Glass Gardens, referencing seeds.

Bringing it together

So back to our kitchens, attics, bedrooms, and garden sheds. We became experts on new software (this time Soundtrap, which allows for synchronous collaboration: recording, listening, editing, reviewing, and refining in real time). We pulled out our grandmothers’ glass button collections from dusty cupboards and tapped and dinged anything in sight. With the help of Mark and Paul, who were instrumental to our garden growing and flourishing in more ways than I can say, we built the work layer by layer. It started with simple sounds made by glass objects – buttons, beads, glassware, everyday household objects – and built towards more musically elaborate and sophisticated layers of improvised sounds with instruments and our own voices. Throughout the process, as we developed the poetic structure and architectural framework, students generated and collated still images, poems, quotes, and anything else that could shape both the form and the aesthetic texture of the work. What evolved is an interactive website, a path for you to wander along and soak in the resonance of chance encounters. With over 260 million possible outcomes, your garden will (likely) be your very own.  

Making Glass Gardens was a dynamic, exciting, playful, and delightful way to co-imagine and co-create something from scratch, from a mere idea, and to launch something that would exist in the world beyond the one performance we often get as performing musicians. Glass Gardens is an homage to our times, our precious world, our power of collective imagination and I could not be prouder of the gifted, talented, courageous, and fiercely imaginative students that make UNSW such a unique, diverse and energising place to teach, research and build communities of practice that will shape the cultural landscape of our future. 

Dr. Sonya Lifschitz 
Lecturer in Music and Convenor of Music Performance and Creative Practice 

UNSW New Music Collective

Emma Korell
Jenni Murphy
Rebecca Mathews
Kit Spencer
Megan Amos
Blaize Cavalera Sivis
John Napier
Gabrielle Goodman
Sonya Lifschitz // Ensemble Director

With thanks to Alice Chance for the inspiration and impetus behind this work. Visit her website.

UNSW Creative Practice Lab​

Paul Matthews // Website Design & Build
Mark Mitchell // Technical Support

Create your own Glass Garden!

Visit the website, follow the path and grow your unique digital landscape.