I have been excited about sharing this conversation with Brad for a long time – not only has it been a long time brewing – this content gets personal, so get ready for a deep dive!
Somewhere in the middle of last year, I started improvising for fun with a few close friends. “Improvising for introverts” is a good way to describe the way we went about it, exploring sounds, blending colours and being present to each other – in the moment. fresh. with barely any instructions but going with any fragment of an idea, following its path, breaking it down, coming together again, pausing, and reflecting. Our goal was partially to escape the brutality of perfectionism that can sometime take over classical musical practice, and to say “yes” to whatever came in the moment – and also just to truly explore the idea of “playing” music – embracing freedom, spontaneity and joy in creating sounds.
And then Brad came along (my former composer-performer workshop tutor at the Con in late 2014) , asking if we could record a semi-structured improvisation for his composer collective album SIDEBAND. Our first rehearsal I can only really describe as “awakening” –partially because the microtones we were blending and bleeding into each other created an other-world-like time bubble, and by the end of the session I completely lost sense of where the 12 pitches lay as we were so often in-between ‘normal’ notes.
We explored some incredibly vast sonic territory via improvisation, inspired off some light, then darker themes based off a series of haiku that Brad had either pre-selected or written. Our ‘scores’ were glittered with this intimate poetry: of rainforests, snow fall, tombs, mortality, human suffering. Being Brad, he also might have mentioned very casually something about the handful of notes he had selected being based from a tone-row from a Webern piano concerto that he had previously studied in-depth.
Since our last recording a couple of weeks ago, we’ve since had a few more sessions, now with the addition of Brad’s brother, Sam. No more spoilers from me, just a deep gratitude for Brad for inviting me to be with him on these creative journeys!
Describe your work.
Now and for the last few years, I describe myself as a composer-performer, with a focus on developing a mode of practise aiming towards a path comprising composing, music theory, improvising, performing and Chan (Zen). A way of working has emerged beginning with pre-composition (analysis and music theory). These ‘seeds’ are explored and internalised so I have a deep connection with the ‘truth’ of the material and the sound of it. This is in conjunction with activities of a meditative quality (actual meditation, long walks in nature) and leads to the beginnings of fully composed pieces, but also very quickly to the germs of improvisation based work incorporating jazz approaches to working with ideas. The whole process leads to groups of composed and improvised projects with a distinct character and sound.
Describe the sound worlds you love to create.
That sound or style isn’t something I like to define, but words I use to describe it are atonal, microtonal, experimental, and exploratory. I studied North Indian tabla seriously for a period, as well as Javanese Gamelan, Japanese music and studied comparative religion at university in addition to music, so all of that feeds into the music too. I do consciously try to make music that encourages moment to moment attention “like listening to water flow” [by Cheng Wen, ‘Humanity magazine, DDM], exploring Chan inspired aesthetics. A recent commission is ‘for cello and piano can be listened to here. Another good example of my improvised work, here. Others have described the music as evocative, peaceful; a broadcaster privately referred to a piece as ‘Webern re-composed by Anne Boyd’. I hope some of this might convey some idea of the sound worlds. I will say that the focus for me is to discover the ‘truth’ of the piece and focus on this, rather than my tastes and sense of what I ‘want’ to happen, to the extent that is possible, either as a composer, improviser, performer or sometimes all of these.
What’s in a typical day?
I wish I had one! For most of the last decade I have taught composition, music theory, taken research and analysis classes and composer-performer workshop classes at the Sydney Conservatorium part-time along with other work (bookshops, warehouse inventory control) in parallel, whilst trying to maintain and improve my vibraphone technique and compositional output. The last 10 months I haven’t been able to find work, and have had some ongoing serious health issues, so the notion of a routine has been a bit of a dream! I do practise vibraphone every day, with few exceptions now, in a pattern of warm ups and basic four mallet technique, a series of etudes I cycle through, dampening practice, and some scale and free improvisation practice. Later, I do some more of that and then work on specific pieces I am learning or work on aspects of improvisation I want to develop or improve. All depending on how I am feeling! This is broken up by job applications, reading, cooking etc. and thinking about composition and periods of rest, although recently ‘rest’ has been long walks in nature or local parks. Evenings are unpredictable, but every night I video chat with my partner and am in bed quite early (10:30). The lack of a typical day has allowed flexibility with rehearsals and recording sessions over the past year, though. Anyway in a month or two, my answer would be different probably, but that is my typical day, such as it is, at the moment!
Where could I find you practising/rehearsing and do you have a particular routine?
I’ve answered this largely in the preceding question, but I will add that I cycle between exercises as I warm up. For example, there is a rolls exercise I play VERY slowly initially, and I come back to it in alternation with other etudes and warm up drills, until it is played at full speed. I also try to exhaust the possibilities for every exercise, So with a major scale, for instance, I’ll play up and down the whole instrument with one mallet at a time (so I do it four times); the same for scale patterns (like c,d,e,d,e,f,e,d,f etc.), then do 1+2 (RLL, LRR etc. in every combination of the four mallets) then improvise in the scale I am revising. I’ll pick what scale or pattern I am doing to relate to other things I am working on. And the whole time the focus is on freedom of movement, knowing all the potential ways of working with the material, the sound, and being creative and expressive or focussing on overall goals at each stage, and cultivating the whole exercise as an extension of the meditation I am interested in, uneven as my practise is. The primary goal and rationale of the practice routine is being totally comfortable with and bonded with the instrument so it is my ‘happy place’. As a consequence, when I am performing, I am as relaxed and comfortable as possible and the associations for me are always positive. Since I am currently not a student or working at a school or university, you’d find me practising in my room at home. Although soon I will be finding somewhere else to live and practice!
Is your work influenced by larger global issues and if so, how is this expressed?
This is something I have thought about a lot. A former lecturer at the Conservatorium wrote a lot of music and audio visual works concerning East Timor. It seemed to me that it was fuelled with rage, expressing that person’s feelings and that as Western Art music it by definition had limited meaningful reach. It isn’t a criticism, especially since the person I am referring to engaged in more direct political activism too, but in terms of work, I’ve experimented with this type of thing early on and it seemed somehow off course. I think (and judging from varied feedback, this is the case) my more recent music encourages an introspective quiet, and anything encouraging ‘real listening’ is by definition a social good, I think. I am more interested in finding outlets to volunteer performances in concerts raising funds for causes; I’ve sought out that type of thing a little, and as I get my life beyond music better sorted out, I hope to pursue more if that. But I think choices like vegetarianism, trying to polish and improve my ‘spirit’ through music making and contributing where I can in fields relating to education are how I can engage meaningfully with social issues.
Tell us about a recent collaboration/project you’re proud of.
At the moment, the third SIDEBAND recording project stands out for me. Partly because it has led to collaborations like yours and mine, and led to other musical friendships. We began as a composer collective working with a variety of performers, but we stumbled for a while due to some irreconcilable artistic differences, which is regrettable. With the current project, we had a big rethink and re-set, trying to learn from any mistakes we had made collectively or individually, evaluated what we could realistically do in terms of concerts – one this year – and recording. And despite major challenges we’ve somehow completed all the recording sessions on schedule, the sound is great, the performers have all had fun and found it interesting and worthwhile and the energy and momentum of the project has been nothing but positive. The fact I’ve had performers contacting me and asking to be involved in future projects if they can be is something I am really happy about. And I think the sound and ‘voice’ of this CD is very consistent and has a lot of integrity. We hope to release it this year, so keep your eyes out!
What do enjoy most about what you do?
The opportunities for unexpected deep person-to-person connections I’ve experienced when improvising with individuals or small groups and transformative flow experiences. A similar kind of thing increasingly happens when I am composing – after a period of struggle, solutions and ideas start to appear and the sense of connecting with something deep through the process seems to contain meaning and purpose, but it’s difficult to articulate.
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 other musicians?
I/you have time. I read this in a book by Alexander Techniqueteacher Walter Carrington (‘Thinking Aloud’). Apparently it is what you are meant to say to yourself when horse riding, before you engage with the horse. But it is true. It’s true on stage when you are about to play. Just wait, let go of worrying about expectation, be in the space and don’t start till you feel ready. You have time. People mature and reach their potential at different points in time. Look at Brahms or Elliott Carter; the latter only found his voice in his forties. Music isn’t a competition, despite the way it is largely conducted now. I believe competition in music is a huge problem. Engage with competitiveness as we must, but don’t buy into it or think winning a competition means anything. I think getting to final rounds in groups consisting of peers excelling means something, but other than opportunities and financial rewards, actually winning is, past a certain point, generally not an objective measure of talent or potential. Daily practice can’t be seen as a stress, an obligation undertaken under duress or seen as a sacrifice of time for some future goal; its value is NOW. It’s a choice, firstly, and it’s an opportunity to grow, learn about yourself and really think about how you engage with your instrument or task and to be creative. Finally I think it’s helpful to clarify if you see art as a craft or a path. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but the ambition, degree of networking and social capital needed varies considerably. Also regularly asking ‘why?’ I /you do this. Is it ego driven? Is my well being and sense of success as a person dependent on playing well on any given night? If it is, I am with Kenny Werner – that is going to be a problem for you. Is it about getting a job based on skills and talent to have a comfortable lifestyle? Is it to compete, be the ‘best’? Is it some kind of spiritual path? Is it fear of moving on to something else? All of these are valid, some problematic, but self-honesty about it is crucial to avoid real large life problems later on. And the most important advice is perspective. Health comes first (physical and mental) and it has to be something more than just playing an instrument because it’s enjoyable or expression for you/me, because if there isn’t a deeper meaning and it isn’t related somehow to that, it’s really easy to lose purpose and either blow music out of all proportion to its significance, give up, or settle into defeatist mediocrity.
Who are your big 3 influences right now?
That’s a really interesting question for me actually, and difficult, because part of maturing as an artist is recognising, acknowledging, internalising but then transcending influence. Literally right now, you are one – the positive effect and energy of our recent collaboration I can’t overstate, and what I played when we were improvising was very shaped by the to and fro of playing with you (along with my brother, saxophonist and improviser Sam Gill in the same way and for the same reasons). I’d say traditional East Asian approaches to art, not the surface (look and sound) as such, but the approaches to what it is, means. I’ve found I’ve arrived at a lot of this myself, but it’s encouraging and confidence building to be discovering just how extensive and established such approaches are, when I’ve not always found conducive responses in interactions with my peers. I’d say Martha my partner is the third. She isn’t a trained musician, but did study at school and has a curiosity and imagination that has led to the most interesting and insightful responses to my music out of anyone I have spoken to over the last few years. Her belief and love have been a huge influence.
What are you continuing to learn as you develop as an artist?
The cliché that I have learnt how much I have to learn, is true of course! I have learnt how much I can learn from myself – I record every live performance, and there are always things I hear to improve upon and which I bring into my practice regime, but I also hear new things I didn’t know I could do (when improvising) and I bring those things into my practice sessions too. I’ve learnt to have confidence in my way of working, but also to learn as much as I can from any person I engage with as a composer or performer. I also want to credit the conductor and researcher Dr Anthony Clarke, whose PhD thesis on score retouching and approach to directing a work of mine for a CD release opened me up to being much more receptive to input from performers about my compositions. It opened the door to a freer, much more relaxed and engaged way of working with others, and insight into ‘truth seeking’ in a work, where alterations motivated by a wish to convey intentions of the composer (Mahler retouching Beethoven’s 9thSymphony for example) is noble. The whole enterprise then becomes a collective creative pursuit where individual ego needs are less important. A lot of what I continue to learn, I see as an extension of all of that. Also the truth expressed by jazz pianist Kenny Werner in his book ‘Effortless Mastery’: if you are struggling in performance, or having memory lapses (or, I’d say, suffering severe writer’s block), you just don’t know the material well enough. So I have learnt not to give in to pressure to receive scores very soon before a performance and quickly learn them (in a week, for example). Some of this goes against the way things are often done, but I have learnt more and more to ‘stick to my guns’, and the ‘right’ people to work with appear.
And finally, when’s your next performance? :)
The next concert including my work (in each role, actually: composer, performer, improviser) is Sideband: Renaissance, Tuesday September 17 2019, 7pm. Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Recital Hall West Tickets $25 / $15 concession.