make the ordinary come alive

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and animals die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

- William Martin

playing the field | words from the week

Teacher Hauna Zaich via Shoko Wanger's Non-Career Advice series:

Sometimes, all they need is love. "On my desk, I keep two written reminders that I like to reference if my patience is being tested. One of them says, the student who needs the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways. I think back, and there are so many instances in my life where I wish I'd known that. I could have really used it. When I was younger, I took rudeness personally. I had a hard time seeing past a person's words. Now, especially with my students — but also in my friendships, relationships, and family life — I try to think, you must really be hurting. How can I help you through that pain? Some of the people I've loved the most deeply have also been some the hardest to love — but they need that acceptance more than anyone else. They just may not know how to ask for it."

Mervyn Rothstein on Tennessee Williams, from the New York Times Archive:  

"Sometimes he would be able to work, and sometimes he wouldn't. He was tired. But he still was so courageous. He was so disciplined. His feeling about life was always positive. One must go on. 'En avant, en avant.' It was his cry."

Emma Rathbone's 'Before the Internet', in The New Yorker last year:

"It was a heady time! 

You’d be in some kind of arts center, wearing roomy overalls, looking at a tray of precious gems, and you’d say, “That’s cat’s-eye,” and your friend would say, “Nope. That’s opal.” And you’d say, “That’s definitely cat’s-eye.” And there would be no way to look it up, no way to prove who was right, except if someone had a little booklet. 'Anyone got a little booklet?” you’d ask, looking around. “Is there a booklet on this shit?' 

Then you’d walk outside and squint at the sky, just you in your body, not tethered to any network, adrift by yourself in a world of strangers in the sunlight."

darmstädter ferienkurse | new music

All The Things I Haven’t Learnt About New Music

I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, for the most part because I’m lazy and have no follow-through. Also because formulating two or three major commitments at the beginning of the year gives me too easy a get-out to avoid self-reinvention once April rolls around. It’s too late by then; the boat has sailed, and I have yet again allowed myself to not go to the gym, not learn to cook an adult meal, not purchase a computer that stays awake for more than 45-minutes at a time. It’s too much effort, too disappointing. It makes me too aware of my failings. And yet, this year I broke my rule, allowing myself one conceptual resolution to get me through to December. The grand intention? Learn to be okay asking the stupid questions.

When I made it, this resolution felt broad enough to steer my year-long ship to safe-harbour, whilst giving me room to grow and adapt and fail. Of course, since leaving the comfortable womb of study and entering the unchartered territory that is arts practice I had already failed in plenty of colourful ways, but actively chasing failure? I hadn’t yet been bold enough to try that. Now, armed with naive courage and an open (read: empty) mind, I set off into the year ready to acknowledge my lack of knowledge.

First mission was to get a grip on the weird and wonderful land of contemporary art music. My ears full to the brim with Beethoven’s piano works and pop music from the 1980s – one inherited from my mother, the other absorbed through 18 years of keyboard studies – I was ready for something new, something unusual, something challenging. I was fascinated by the idea of a music that constantly chases innovation: in new music, that notion is written into the title.

“New music.” An obscenely broad term that, for the purpose of this essay, I’m going to define as works written since the mid-1970s and that don’t fit the stereotyped “classical music” orchestral sound, but which aren’t really electronic music either. New music borrows bits of both, and far more besides. It’s built on the foundations of old-school classical music, but propelled forward with new sounds, technologies and ideologies. Melody is not completely forbidden, but, granted, there is a distinct lack of earworms in the repertoire. There are multiple sub-genres to explore, but for the uninitiated listener, sci-fi film scores might be a good place to start. “Find a film by Stanley Kubrick,” a wonderful arts writer advised when I asked how to begin my listening, “and turn away from the screen. Listen for texture and unusual effects. It won’t explain everything, but it’ll give you a starting point.”

I should probably tell you at this point that I’m a full-time artist manager and a part-time music journalist – and that means I am no stranger to a) music that you don’t hear on commercial radio and b) spending time at performances that don’t make immediate sense. And yet, prior to my sci-fi initiation, I was only aware of these sound-worlds by reputation. I certainly didn’t know them well enough to construct a firm thesis when asked for my opinion. Like other music graduates, I had been thrust into the world of Boulez and Stockhausen thanks to classes in theory and music history, but back then my bleary-eyed, 19-year-old self was more preoccupied with getting to the pub after class than with the development of the avant-garde.

“How hard can it be?”

“How hard can it be?” I asked myself, not realising how far off the mark I really was. My days were already full of music: as well as my day job, I spent my nights listening to records and going to chamber music concerts. I was, I thought, “high brow”. I could talk about Schubert for hours, and knew quite a bit about Bach and a little of the Renaissance. I owned a coat that was assigned specifically for wearing to The Opera. Full of false confidence, I coasted to the library and armed myself with books on everything from mysticism and eroticism in contemporary sound-art to queer dialects in electronic music. I googled composer after composer until my knees burnt from an overheating laptop. I bought tickets to performances in public toilets and swimming pools and parks to get a feel for new-discipline theatre and post-genre composition. I was committed. I was confused. I asked generous and knowledgeable friends to explain jargon to me: “what’s a split tone?” I would yell, jogging after amiable brass players. “Can you explain isorhythm?” I’d ask unsuspecting composers who accidentally stood still for too long.

But following the final note of any given performance, I’d still scamper away immediately, terrified of being asked what I thought about the works I’d just heard. Sure, I had opinions, but did I have the right opinions? The right conceptual language? The right facial expression that says, “yes, I do understand your point about solipsism and post-Adorno discourse”? I did not – but what I did have was questions. Loads of them. And yet I couldn’t voice them. I would sit on my queries and misunderstandings, promising myself I’d speak up next time, consoling myself that this hadn’t been quite the right time. Then again, would there ever be a right time? Turns out, the right time was the last place I imagined: Darmstadt International Summer Course, the most renowned, widely-intimidating new music festival on the globe.

For more than 70 years now, performers, composers, thinkers and curators from around the world have descended upon an unsuspecting town in southwest Germany to talk high art philosophy and contemporary music. For many participants, getting to Darmstadt is a long time coming: they’ve done the work, they’ve written the theses, they’ve mastered the aesthetic. Composers have poured over the works of Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann until they’re memorised. Performers have grappled with extended techniques and perfected circular breathing, sampling, subharmonics. To attend Darmstadt is to follow in the footsteps of contemporary music’s forefathers (as my colleague aptly pointed out, there are no mothers in this story) and to etch your name into a rich history that – for better or worse – continues to write the new music rules not only for Europe but for the world.

The more I spoke with my fellow participants, the more I understood what I had wandered into. Without thinking, I had skipped those preparatory years, hopping on a plane with my questions and my lack of academic rigour, simply deciding that if I wanted to learn a thing or two about new music, I might as well go to the source. And so I found myself floundering about in a sound-world and a country that were foreign to me, without the language to describe what I was hearing or seeing or feeling. I was in over my head. During the first few days, haphazardly attending concerts, lectures and sound installations, I counted the word “dichotomy” used seventeen times in relaxed conversation. I was hit with thoughts on temporality and spectral analysis, pointillism and the arrière-garde. In a lecture on Nietzsche’s philosophy and its relation to contemporary art music, I scrawled notes that I did not fully understand in a bid to feel engaged and look intelligent. Revisiting those notes, I found I had written only four legible words: “affirmative”, “religion”, “knowledge” and “structure”. Was I not smart enough for this kind of conversation? Was I not good enough to be here?

“Not today!”

For a long time, I’ve struggled with where to put myself. Working in the arts throws you myriad skillsets and possible pathways; if you’re lucky, you end up with an exciting and multi-faceted job, but you can often feel like a jack of all trades. This feeling of imposter syndrome is not unique to me, nor is it unique to new music. The concept was first coined in 1978 as part of an article by American psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who defined the phenomenon as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness” felt by high-powered professional women. The syndrome turns up regularly in the arts, where measuring yourself against your peers and colleagues is impossible, yet we do it all the time. The challenge is recognising your own feelings of inadequacy and pushing on regardless of the hurdles thrown into your path. Sometimes you’ll trip over and go flying off-track, but allowing yourself a moment of recovery is the key lesson. The suspicion that I might genuinely be an imposter might never go away, but giving myself permission to look that feeling square in the eye and say “not today!” has allowed me to accept what I don’t know as a positive part of myself.

What I’m learning, then, thanks to time and practice and open conversation, is the validity of asking stupid questions. That as I nervously roll the words around in my head, those same words are circling in someone else’s mind, too. Sometimes their language sounds flashier than mine, but the ideas are often similar, and by stepping forward and owning the bits I don’t know, I allow the people around me to acknowledge their confusions. My questions don’t paint me as ignorant; they make my voice an important part of what should be an ever-expanding conversation.

In new music, as in all forms of shape-shifting and boundary-pushing art, audience involvement is essential. Artists, writers and thinkers need to leave the door open at least a crack to invite in inquisitive outsiders. Entry points should be a requisite part of the art, and questions should be a valued part of the conversation. Over the last two weeks at Darmstadt, I’ve learnt a huge amount: more than I ever thought I’d need to know about the hinterlands of acousmatic practice and the dodecaphonic works of Pierre Boulez. More importantly, I’ve learned that the world of new music is only made stronger by the variety of backgrounds, personal experiences and creativity of all its members. The best way to further art is to further the conversation around it – so here’s to the people who ask the questions and to the people who answer them. Here’s to those who are confused, and to those who shed light.

For the Darmstädter Ferienkurse

not that bad

“I honestly believe that before you crash and burn in a show, you will never truly be a fearless performer,” she said in an interview. “You spend so long trying not to embarrass yourself. Once you have the worst show of your life and survive, you know it’s not that bad. Then, you become this fearless, shameless weirdo version of yourself that turns out to be who you really are.”
―Amber Ruffin

before you tell

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
― Parker J. Palmer


words in mind

Often times, I carry words about in my head; handling them gently, smoothing out the edges, letting them rotate in my hands over and over until they wash away, as if rocks turned gradually to sand. I lose them slowly and then all at once, in a moment no longer able to grasp what felt so concrete a minute before. It's as if they evade me, ducking away and spinning just beyond my grasp, though my fingers stretch to hold them. Ah! There they go, I catch myself thinking, as the words go in and out of consciousness. I do not think to chase them. They'll come back - I believe, perhaps naively - if they need to. A lot of things are relegated to this dusty corner of my decision making - that place that laughs nonchalantly and thinks it best not to exert yourself at all if you can possibly avoid it. Stifle the desire to run screaming like a mad person towards the things you want; turn away from hurtling towards potential danger that may end in reward. It is safe, my conniving brain says, to stay right where I can see you. I scold myself, as a mother scolds a child, shooing away the possibility of adventure or frivolity. There is no time for that today, I say, wagging a finger at my childish self; there is only time for the things you already know.

elsewhere ~

cinema paradiso by Ennio Morricone (on repeat, played by a student orchestra) 
the yellow wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
tiny desk concert by Andrew Bird

away from home

I'm currently sitting in a motel room 63.9 kilometres from home (about seventy-five minutes away in good traffic) drinking orange juice from a litre bottle and trying desperately to think of the right words to note down here about the experience. I'm too unreasonably close to my house to call this entry a travel monologue, really; so close that if I stood on the street now and hitchhiked my way back, I'd be home just in time for dinner. There would be nothing waiting for me to cook, of course, because I'm mildly disorganised when it comes to vegetables and other food with nutritional value, but I digress: this story is about the motel room. Have you ever stayed in one? They're funny places; cold and utilitarian, but most often with quirks too wild to invent. This one has a wall of mirrored tiles - a striking feature against the exposed brick that covers the rest of the room, and a terrifying one when you awake in the middle of the night to find not one but twenty versions of yourself staring back, all of them discombobulated and bleary-eyed. It's very cold here too, so when you encounter those many mirrored selves blinking back at you, you do so shivering - not only from surprise but from catching a chill overnight. Perhaps I'm painting the motel room too negatively? I do not mean to. Motel rooms are the best place to think. You only bring essentials to a motel, so there's not much you can get up to besides boiling the kettle, reading paperbacks and thinking. And this is where I've got to. Just sitting here, amongst my mirrors and my orange juice, considering what to write.  

elsewhere ~

the man who invented soul by Sam Cooke
i feel bad about my neck by Nora Ephron
domestic policy by Alicia MacDonald

the blank page

is there anything more comically absurd than the fear we feel staring down a blank page, an empty notebook, an untouched document? in the hearts of all writers, professional and amateur, it strikes terror. the distinct blankness mocks you, daring you to mark it with your silly words, daring you to destroy it simply by lifting your pen. does it get easier the more you look the page dead in the eye and courageously scribble your thoughts, despite the page's jeering? perhaps. but then, perhaps not. and yet, we persist, don't we? the writers, the thinkers, the feelers, writing, thinking and feeling our way through pages and pages, once blank, now full. 

and so begins a practice. feeling the fear and writing anyway. 

elsewhere ~

the music from S-Town by Daniel Hart
even if you beat me by Sally Rooney
a writer and three script editors walk into a bar by Matthew Saville


orchestra victoria | on music and friendship

Sir Malcolm Arnold, the eminent English composer, said that “music is the social act of communication among people; a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is”, and the letters between two of the best-loved Classical composers – Mozart and Haydn – are testament to this message.

It is, perhaps, the human spirit that makes classical music so enduringly relatable. Friendship, and its power to inspire and drive, clarify and comfort, gives and has given artists throughout time the impetus to create some of history’s most powerful works. Historians and audience members alike have taken interest in the impact that artists have on one another, from J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, but in the musical world, no pair is so greatly admired and looked to as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn.

Mozart and Haydn - both giants of the Classical era in their own right - were also firm friends; championing each other’s work, consoling when projects fell through or writers’ block took over and being, above all, great listeners through the ups and downs of personal successes and failures. In the Italian dedication of his six string quartets, Mozart wrote;

“To my dear friend Haydn. A father, having resolved to send his sons
into the great world, finds it advisable to entrust them to the protection and
guidance of a highly celebrated man, the more so since this man, by a
stroke of luck, is his best friend. Here, then, celebrated man and my
dearest friend, are my six sons.”

The two artists inspired each other to keep pushing their own individual boundaries; encouraging one another to explore new ideas and musical concepts. Haydn when asked about his younger counterpart remarked; “He alone has the spirit of making me smile and touching me to the bottom of my soul.”

When they met in 1781, Mozart was a sprightly 25 years old as Haydn turned 49, but the considerable age difference made no difference to their close friendship. Built on an ungrudging mutual respect, the pair’s relationship began when Haydn had already developed a reputation as a famous composer and Mozart’s career was just beginning to flourish across Europe.

A constant source of inspiration for the younger composer, Haydn’s work and support made a profound impact on the development of Mozart’s writing, and the warmth between the two men endured until Mozart’s death; Haydn often speaking with great gravity on the encouragement his friend had given him. Well into his seventies, Haydn insisted that there was no work of Mozart’s that he had heard without learning something. And so, when listening to either great composer’s work, think of course about the technique and talent that has enabled its creation, but perhaps dwell a little on the human nature of the pieces, and the great friendships that built them.

Written for Orchestra Victoria.