A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Drumroll please…

Are you ready?



I’m thrilled and not a little bit nervous to announce my new book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

You may have gathered from that something was in the pipeline. I’ve been spending time revisiting my alma mater, and rummaging through the cardboard boxes in my father’s study, which contain the archives of the Summer School. Let me tell you, there’s gold in there. Photos, letters, diaries, programs, dating back to the very first Summer School at Bryanston in 1948.

IMG_3426 (1)The Summer School archive is the subject of my studies for a doctorate at UTS. It will become a thesis and a collection of stories, probably using lots of long words and stuff. In the mean time, however, I’ve been looking into how to get the fascinating contents of those boxes out to a wider audience. Now, thanks to UK publisher Unbound, I am delighted to launch a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for the picture book.


Ah. Yes. Sorry. You have just been sucked into yet another crowd-funding campaign. But why do I feel the need to apologize? A book about a summer school where composers and performers and students and listeners gorged themselves on music and ideas was never going get a twentieth-century publishing deal. So I’ve gone for the eighteenth-century publishing model, with a twenty-first century spin. If Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens can fund their books by advance sales, so can I, especially with the help of Unbound!hall


Conducting Course, 1983

Over the next year I’ll be writing words, compiling photos and working with designers to create a beautiful picture book to celebrate the Summer School’s 70th birthday. I’ll be blogging about my progress and showing you some of the goodies along the way. And if you like what you see, I hope you’ll sign up to buy a copy of the book.

You can also show your support in non-financial ways. Cups of tea, glasses of wine, a big grin or a stern word when I’m doing the ironing instead of writing, all welcome. Or if you’re not close enough to make me a cup of tea, you could help a great deal by passing this on to anyone you know who might be interested. You know the drill: reblog, retweet, email, whisper secrets, gossip salaciously, dance naked down the street shouting ‘buy Harriet’s book!’. Well maybe. Anything to get the word out.

That link again:


Go on. Click. You know you want to.



Timeline: how was it for you?

After the blow by blow account of my 11 yo’s journey through time, space and the land of nod, what did Harriet Cunningham, music critic, make of the experience?


There’s much to love about this quixotic project. Firstly, the immaculate production, which should be the norm but often, in this space, the exception. The complexity of amplifying so many different sound-making devices, from violins to drums to the human voice, alongside sound samples and live electronics, is mind-boggling. Then add in a visual track, lighting, a smoke machine, all needing split second co-ordination… It must have been so tempting to do away with live musicians and just make a DVD.

Live music, however, is what the ACO is all about. Seeing and hearing the ensemble scramble through a Brandenburg Concerto, rip into some Xenakis or re-invent themselves as a backing band was a thrill. The novelty value of seeing Christopher Moore play the chaotic theremin, Satu Vanska doing her delicious Marlene Dietrich impersonation, Julian Hamilton of ludicrously talented The Presets singing Sephardic chants, and a spirited rendition of 4’33”. As I said, so much to love.

Beyond the magical fun palace of sights and sounds, however, Timeline’s genesis is as a conceptual piece, and the concept was what had me thinking as well as listening (and propping up my daughter’s head). Richard Tognetti’s  Theory of Everything approach to music, finding patterns and synergies between distant cultures and times, is clever, creative and a genuinely useful way to look at the history of music (not to mention the history of the world). Only connect, as E.M. Forster reminds us. Only connect, the head and the heart, the primitive and the sophisticated, complexity and simplicity, harmony and melody, vertical and horizontal, until your brain explodes in a kaleidoscopic shower of flashing neurons.

Some of the meeting points were truly revelatory: overlaying Japanese Gagaku music and Satie, putting The Unanswered Question and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis next to each other and – my personal favourite – playing the third movement of Philip Glass’s third symphony overlaid with Daft Punk, Britney Spears and Eminem. That’s a keeper.

Other meeting points worked as part of the theory, but not so much as part of a show. And that’s Timeline’s weak spot. Film makers know music is useful stuff as an ancillary to a narrative, pushing certain harmonic and rhythmic buttons to trigger visceral emotions. But when music itself is the subject it is more often than not about stopping time, about being in the moment, and not being beholden to what comes next. There were times during Timeline when I heard a reference – Right O, here’s Monteverdi — ticked the box and then… what? Move on? Or listen to a longer or shorter excerpt? Long is nice, but that means stopping, and the point of time is that it never stops. (Some of the tempi, by the way, were quite bracing – I guess you gotta keep moving when you’ve got 40,000 years to cover). I welcomed the sanctuary of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied after the rush and bustle of Rameau, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking “What’s next?”

What is next?

When we came out of the Opera House 3 hours and 40,000 years later, the sun was setting and it felt like the end of a very long day. “Mummy, I’m tired,” said the Little One.

“I know. Time is tiring,” I said. “Exciting, but tiring.”


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Don’t call it Indie Classical…

An interview with Nicole Canham

Nicole Canham is, amongst other things, a clarinetist, artistic director of Canberra Festival from 2005-2008, one of the dudes behind Polyopera and plenty more. She’s also doing a PhD. We had a fascinating chat about musicians doing what musicians do. (MDWMD).

Indie Classical? Alt? MDWMD?

Labelling things is always difficult. Classical musicians going into other forms of music, collaborating with musicians from other musical backgrounds or artistic backgrounds… a really successful artistic collaboration takes on the form of all who are involved in it, so to say it’s this or that creates an umbrella that everything is simply not going to fall under. It is increasingly becoming a model for viable and successful artistic practice, becoming a model for a career path, and not an alternative career path.

Reality bites

With a Conservatorium training it is easy to believe that your options are to get a spot in an orchestra, or perhaps a defence force band, or teach. Or maybe you can do a little bit on the side. The notion of saying no, it’s quite a sound and rewarding and viable option to not choose any of those things, necessarily, and to actually make a career doing something else is increasingly common. And realistically, if we’re going to keep turning out the number of music graduates that we have, we’re going to have to make room, mentally, for other models. Otherwise if you don’t get one of three or four closely defined jobs you’re a failure.

 One musician’s story

I’m Conservatorium trained. I did an undergraduate degree at the ANU and then a Postgraduate studies in France at the Versaille Conservatoire. So I had a very orthodox classical training. I started a clarinet ensemble called Clarity, and the primary reason for starting that was that we knew we weren’t going to get a lot of work in an orchestra at the beginning of our career and we wanted to develop our section playing skills, so that when we were called in to do casual work we would be able to do a really good job. Plus we had a great time.

Doing that got me into producing concerts, then I got the job as artistic director of Canberra Music Festival, which I did from 2005-2008. That marked quite a big turning point for me because after that I decided that what I wanted to fuse the skills I had developed as a performer with my curatorial, my broader programming skills I developed on this festival.

Artisan v. Creative

I took that job shortly after coming back from Paris, so I had seen a lot of things, a lot of international work, had a lot of ideas, and was beginning to feel that I needed a job that would incorporate both perspectives. If you’re working as a freelance player you’re not necessarily being called upon to use particular creative skills; you’re working as an interpreter. I don’t have a problem with that but I think if you are going to make a career as a musician in such a competitive environment, which is the way in Australia and many other places, and you are going to sustain that, your career’s got to be built on more than just playing the instrument. Who you are as a person, your aesthetic leanings and all that do have a big role in shaping where you end up.

Canberra Festival

My job at Canberra was to increase the amount of new music in the program and to increase the youth audience of the program. There were a couple of reasons. They wanted to build the profile of the organisation, and they wanted to increase the audience in general, and at the time of my appointment Barbara Blackman made a large gift to the festival. She was primarily interested, through that gift, to see more music by Australian composers and living composers. That was something that both she and I were very passionate about.

We went from a fairly small festival — I think we did 15 concerts the year before I started. In my final festival we did 80 concerts over 12 days. We had 22 pieces that were either Australian or world premieres in the program. The profile of the festival changed a lot over that time. What I found interesting was that notion that people didn’t like new music, or were scared of it, or think it sounds terrible… All those things were just not proven be true. We had a very enthusiastic response. People were very excited by the notion of new music. We did collaborations with national institutions like the art gallery, did specific commissions that tied into their collection.


Very central to everything I do is collaboration. as it has turned out, most of my partnerships have an international component. I also try to have an intergenerational and an intercultural element. Hourglass [Nicole’s current project] is actually a collaboration between Mexican and Australian artists. It is a 1 hour installation. The audience are inside, surrounded by 100s of metres of black chiffon screens and they’re in a completely surround sound environment, and I’m performing on the other side of the screen. i can sometimes be seen and sometimes not be seen, there’s video projections, and one of the Mexican guys is a Technology artist. A lot of the work he does is actually with machines, so he’s making amazing machine sculpture instruments that I’ m going to perform with in the show. It’s a mix of video, surround sound and installation art.

 Boundaries? What boundaries?

In this kind of collaborative work there is a lot of blurring and crossing of boundaries. I think that’s part and parcel of it. In terms of whether that’s symptomatic of a lot of conservatorium graduates, I couldn’t possibly say, although I would say the internet has changed people’s behaviour in very significant ways. With technology becoming a lot more ubiquitous and very affordable – compared to how much it cost thirty years ago — the tools of creation are now accessible to many more people. So the role of the specialist has now changed and it also means there is a space where we might feel more enabled to try different things.

 If it’s good, it’s good.

If I’m a classical clarinet player but I’m secretly interested in hip hop, say, I can actually download a hip hop app on my iphone and muck around with it in my spare time, upload it to the web, and because there’s that anonymity to the internet — people don’t know whether I’m a professional musician or a plumber — if music is good, the music is good and people will listen to it, or you’ll get the hits or the downloads. That is a significant shift from the way things used to be and I think it’s a head on challenge. It’s a completely game-changing occurrence.

‘New’ is no excuse

Fundamental to being successful is actually having a very strong artistic ethos and having a very strong and tested framework for what you stand for, what you’re going to explore and your reasons for doing it. What we’re doing with hybrid artworks is not a new concept, so we’re out of the safety of ‘it’s so new, any experiment is good. ‘ We’re not in that time anymore. Now we all have the technology, we’ve all got Skype and what we need. Who is doing really interesting, imaginative work?

 And then there’s the audience…

There is a huge potential audience who don’t have difficulty with the music but just don’t like the relationships on offer. I think that’s underestimated. There’s a code of behaviours: you don’t clap at the wrong time, you remain seated. The way we structure the experience is not everyone’s idea of fun. I get frustrated because it’s not a criticism of the repertoire; it’s a criticism of the way we choose to present the repertoire. And the way we present it today is not the way it was presented 200 years ago. There’s no reason it must be in a large concert hall, everyone in their seat, conductor representing the players, players entering by a separate door to the audience, never the twain shall meet.

It does not have to be that way.


The eyes have it #3

Part 3 of my follow up to ‘Music to the Eyes’ in Spectrum at the weekend.

I’ve quoted Tim Calnin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra talking about the use of big screens to visually amplify an intimate performance in a large hall. But that is just one element of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s interest in Music + visuals style concerts. Like Rory Jeffes, he’s interested in an emerging genre of performance pieces which integrate music and vision to commentate, amplify, enhance the work, either as an add on (a la Bill Viola’s Tristan and Isolde) or from word go.

The ACO have been moving towards this with their Musica Surfica series. I have been known to suggest that this is the jammiest gig of all times – getting paid to surf and play music, two things which Richard Tognetti loves beyond all else. However, he has a serious aesthetic purpose, which is becoming more evident as the years go by. Over to Tim Calnin:

In the past we’ve done Luminous – the project Richard developed with Bill Henson – was a musical commentary on the photographic images. Similarly, with The Glide, it was a musical response to the images. What we’re doing this year is commissioning music and film  at the same time for The Reef. The work is taking place in May and June. Richard and Iain Grandage and a group of musicians and cinematographer, film director, camera crew, surfers are all going up to the Northern Coast of Western Australia. It’s going to be more like feature film length with a substantial amount of original music in there, augmented by some existing music from the ACO repertoire. That to me is a good way of trying to take the concept a bit further.

Calnin cites an example outside of ACO’s work which has caught his imagination.

Michael van der Aa is a relatively young Dutch composer who has integrated visuals into his scores. They’re properly integrated, so it’s not an add on. It’s not dressing up a purely musical experience. This is a visual dimension to the whole concept of the piece. I found it quite striking, in the sense of opening up this genre in a way I hadn’t previously imagined or thought about. There’s a fully produced film, the whole piece is about 30’ long. There’s a live performance with a solo cellist and a film that runs simultaneously.  I spoke to Richard about it because it is something that would be very interesting to look at doing, but also to be inspired by the development of this kind of form.

Final instalment, I promise, tomorrow…