In perfect harmony: The Co-operative Orchestra

Creating world class music

Interview by Lauren Moxey

The Co-operative Orchestra is a young, emerging, musician-owned, musician-run performing arts co-operative dedicated to creating world-class music.

We caught up with Alia Timmins, saxophonist and CEO of The Co-operative Orchestra, at the BCCM Summit to discover more about the co-op and its vision for the future.

The vision for the Co-operative Orchestra came from current Chair and experienced co-operator, Andrew Quah, who "saw how arts organisations didn't have representation in co-operatives", explained Alia, and he realised that the community-mindedness of an orchestra was strongly aligned with the seven cooperative principles.

Having been involved in collaborative infrastructure processes, Alia was keen to be part of an organisation that would bring a new approach to solving existing problems. By forming a co-operative, Andrew, Alia and the rest of the team aimed to create a space where each musician's voice could be heard, valued and integrated into the creative process.

Although a full symphony orchestra is some time away given the enormity of the requisite human and musical resources, the Co-operative Orchestra is already making music. Part of their vision is to have a variety of ensembles across a range of genres. Alia notes that it's important to have "experimental and improvised musicians or electronic musicians in the same co-operative as traditional symphonic, highly classically trained musicians". This cross-pollination of musical ideas will build capacity in musicians and result in new musical sounds.

The orchestra will also support the creation of new works through member-directed grants and commissions. This will mean additional support for Australian music – a welcome resource in the wake of the Covid-related disruptions that are still wreaking havoc in the music sector. Alia notes the unique capacity of co-operatives to help address some of the current issues facing musicians. What's more, the co-operative model will allow musicians to support one another to build up performance and composition portfolios, complete recording projects and promote new work and concerts in what can be a lonely industry.

A career in music is often characterised by precarity and instability, and the wellbeing of musicians can suffer as a result. The Co-operative Orchestra seeks to counter the impacts of this by providing a genuine community where musicians of all backgrounds are welcome. In fact, Alia is completing a degree in medicinal chemistry and plans to pursue science alongside music in the future. In recognition of the need for artists to engage in slash careers (careers involving two or more simultaneous pathways in very different roles or industries), membership is not restricted to full-time performers but is open to all suitably proficient musicians.

However, there are no compromises regarding quality; the Co-operative Orchestra's current work reflects its commitment to artistic excellence and inclusive collaboration. What sets them apart is their democratic decision-making process, where every member has an equal say in the direction of the orchestra as a whole. The first Saturday of each month sees the Co-operative Orchestra bring its Weekend Experimentations performance to Hopsters Co-op Brewery in Sydney's Enmore. It's a great partnership that harnesses the power of co-operation among co-operatives.

Although a popular model in international arts sectors – for example, the London Philharmonic Orchestra is a co-operative – the co-operative model remains underrepresented in Australian arts organisations. Co-operatives can perform a vital role in the arts by championing values of inclusivity, diversity, collaboration and democratic decision-making. In an industry often plagued by hierarchy and exclusivity, co-operatives provide an alternative model that emphasises the collective wellbeing and empowerment of its members. By involving all members in decision-making processes, the orchestra ensures that diverse opinions are considered, fostering a vibrant and inclusive artistic vision. This enriches performances, cultivates innovation, and encourages the exploration of unconventional musical avenues.

The BCCM awarded Alia, as a representative of an emerging co-operative, with a scholarship to attend the 2022 BCCM Leaders' Summit in Melbourne.

Attendence of the BCCM Leaders' Summit was highly beneficial for Alia: "I've learnt a lot, in particular about how self-sustaining co-operatives are". She also observed that as new co-operatives become self-sustaining, they can support other co-operatives around them to develop and grow. Reflecting on the current issues facing humanity, Alia also points out that the arts can contribute positively to social and environmental issues such as climate change and housing by providing a platform for works that contribute to the growing call for climate action and social justice.

Looking to the future, the Co-operative Orchestra has ambitious plans to expand its influence and reach. They envision forging partnerships with local communities, government, and arts organisations to foster musical education and appreciation.

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