In conversation with Oscar Smith

May 12, 2019

Bumping into Oscar an unusual amount of times at gigs I had been doing led me to be curious about what his work involved. Over the past year I heard him sing as a soloist and as part of choirs, heard his compositions and performances with the Gamelan Ensemble in the Asian Music Ensemble concerts at the Con (where I’d be performing in the Chinese Music Ensemble) and we’ve also done a gig or two together where his photographic skills came into play, documenting in wonderful detail some concerts that I’ve played in.

I’m excited about his upcoming project with Gamelan Salukat, definitely check out all the links to his work, and enjoy the read!

 

 

1. List a few words describing your mood and where you are writing this now.

 

Excited, curious, comfortable, at home.

 

2. Describe your work.

 

I compose and perform in a wide variety of contexts, from contemporary chamber music ensembles and small improvised acts to church choirs and Balinese gamelan ensembles.  One thing that seems to underpin these somewhat disparate connections is the idea of something old contained within something new.  This might be the complex polyphonies of William Byrd reimagined in contemporary style, or the use of ancient Sanskrit mantras transposed onto hybrid gamelan instruments.  My interests as a burgeoning ethnomusicologist meet my current practice as a composer in this space. 

 

3. Rant for a bit about your style, and describe the sound worlds you love to create (this is an additional question if appropriate to your work).

 

I am very much enveloped in the sound worlds of Bali and many other world music cultures, especially intensely rhythmic ones.  Rhythm is especially fascinating to me as it sits in this world between highly measured and totally intuitively driven structures.  In the field of ethnomusicology worldwide, rhythm is becoming a focus as it seems to be one of the only ways to properly compare the vast span of music out there.  I am also very interested in the intellectual processes used by the minimalist composers, especially Steve Reich, both as a way to generate new material and for the abstract rhetoric that it suggests. 

 

 

4. What’s in a typical day?

 

Whenever I arrive in Bali on my study trips and my schedule is not as much in my control, I am still surprised and shocked at my dependence on routine.  One interesting pattern in my routine: before I even leave bed and get ready for the day, I have an urge to be productive and whether it’s typesetting a score or editing my thesis, that stuff happens just as soon as my eyes open.  I’m often more productive then than when I’ve properly washed and dressed and am actually sitting at a desk trying to do those things!  Another is listening to CDs while I drive.

 

5. Where could I find you practising/rehearsing and do you have a particular routine?

 

My whole neighbourhood knows that I play fugues in the late afternoon. 

 

6. Is your work influenced by larger global issues and if so, how is this expressed?

 

This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has their eyes open, but the world is coming closer and closer together.  I can access the original facsimile scores of ancient composers from another continent with a click or two, or in only a six-hour flight I can be in a place totally foreign to mine that offers totally unique approaches to the whole conception of music (and you don’t have to go that far!).  So whilst my music is still about the way I happen to process all of these influences there’s so much that I can’t really take credit for.  I hope that rather than celebrating me and my ideas and my individuality, the music I offer celebrates the interconnectedness that we are so lucky to experience in our age with other people, cultures and other ages.

 

7. Tell us about a recent collaboration/project you’re proud of.

 

I think I’m most proud of the upcoming project I have with Gamelan Salukat that touches on all the things I have mentioned above.  At the busiest crossroads of a Balinese village, you will inevitably find a huge Banyan tree. These are unkept and often grow to nearly 50 metres. They are highly sacred, and it is believed that both auspicious and malevolent spirits spend their time nearby these twisted, sprawling behemoth trees that tower over Balinese villages.  These trees are among the oldest in the world and have stood sentinel over the rapidly-changing surroundings.  My composition for Salukat is about this.  As well as experimenting with new ways of developing rhythm, I touch on Balinese musical style out of respect and wonder for its incredible heritage.  Additionally, it is infused with my own “Western” sensibilities.  I think it is perhaps the most honest piece I have composed.  It combines two facets of what it is to be a person - the intellectual side: process, as well as the human side: emotion.  It is also very special to be working with esteemed Balinese musicians in this way, and I am so excited for all the things we will learn from and share with each other.  

 

8. What do enjoy most about what you do?

 

I enjoy being exposed to new ways of thinking or other challenges.  While we stop growing physically in our mid-20s, we continue to change forever in basically every other way.  I never want to stop learning. 

 

9. Do you have any musical or life advice you would give to yourself this time five years ago, and that you would also like to share with young musicians?

 

If you’re obsessed with something - take it all the way.  There have been so many chances when I had the option to do something that I might not have done, and my instinct was and still is: “why not?”.  I first heard about gamelan in high school as this supposed influence on the minimalist composers.  Then I took the gamelan ensemble at the Conservatorium and little did I know that it was the start of an exponential learning curve.  Four trips to Bali later and I still know so little.  But this has not been unrewarding in the least.  Last time I was there, a drummer friend of mine reached out knowing I was in town and asked me to help teach a children’s gamelan group out in a poorer region of Bali.  I still reflect on how much I learnt from that experience. 

 

10. Who are your big 3 influences right now (musicians and/or non-musicians)?

 

Dewa Alit, Tigran Hamasyan, and Pérotin. 

 

11. What are you continuing to learn as you develop as an artist?

 

Just how many different approaches there are to music and life and everything.  To quote John Roeder (an ethnomusicologist idol of mine): “Musicians of the world-the ultimate experts in shaping time-have given us much to wonder at. 

 

12. Do you think about your practice as continuing to preserve a certain aspect of culture/tradition, or modernising or adding twists into new forms?

 

This requires a piece by piece response.  Sometimes I am looking for something totally new.  Sometimes I look at ancient forms and want to take a fresh look at them.  Sometimes I like to quote directly as a way of absorbing something, and this material could literally come from anywhere: Pérotin, Louis Andriessen, Wayan Gandra, Stravinsky… So all of the above I guess!

 

13. When you’re having a bad day/week/month, do you have any strategies you like to use personally, or people you like to turn to?

 

Have a really hot bath.  Listen to Mbira music from Zimbabwe.  Have time to myself to process and overcome. 

 

14. What other hats during the week do you wear, if any?

 

Everything I do is related to music in some way.  I process and produce scores for the Australian Music Centre, I teach piano, I sing in various church choirs, usher for concerts… Sometimes people say I should have something outside that little world, but then I realise how happy I am where I am. 

 

15.  Have you used social media in the past to invite audiences to explore your work?

 

I just use my own Facebook account to share with my friends.  I have SoundCloud but it’s drastically out of date and doesn’t really show where I’m at now. 

 

16. When’s your next performance and how can we hear more about your work?

 

I’m performing with Korean drummer Hannah Kim later this month.

 

You can hear my composition for gamelan only a few days after, at the Asian Music Ensemble Concert at the Con.

 

And to support the aforementioned upcoming project in Bali you can learn more about it and support me here:

https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/waringin-recording-gamelan-salukat/

 

Cover photo credit: Nick Gilbert

 

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