A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

1 Comment

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.

I just did a feature on the use of visuals in classical music concerts. It’s published here.

I could have written so much more. I spoke to about six different people, and felt I was only scratching the surface. Then someone reminded me that blogs don’t have word limits. So here are some edited highlights from various interviews on the subject.

First up, Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony.

It’s a relatively new trend which started in the US with orchestras looking to ‘enhance’ the concert experience. It’s partly a reaction to the entertainment rich culture that we have now, at home as well as outside; a way of trying to provide another element to the traditional concerts. First there were close-up images of musicians projected on screen, then that moved into devising programs of live performances with projected images, in a number of different ways.

One way is through stills, one is through is moving image and the third is through multimedia works that are actually created to go with the music. There are examples in what we do of all of those. We did a project last year where we did Holst’s The Planets and we projected NASA images of all the planets while we were playing it. We sold out three concerts of that and most  people thought it was fabulous. Some closed their eyes and didn’t want the images because it got in the way of the music for them. But there’s no doubt that that additional element was extremely well received by a lot of people.

We’re doing quite a lot of work in [the area of movies]. We started with Battleship Potemkin and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, which were silent movies which we then played a score to, and they were extraordinarily powerful. If I’m honest, I hadn’t expected them to be as powerful as they were. Battleship Potemkin was a score put together from Shostakovich’s music from the time, and it was amazingly powerful. Y’know, there is nothing like hearing 110 musicians on stage playing huge symphonic music. So to have that as the accompaniment to the film rather than the soundtrack was amazing.

We’re doing the second of the three Lord of the Rings movies this year. That crosses over into the area of the cinema experience. I think now with the incredibly fine home entertainment systems there is a theme of ‘is this a cinema movie, or one I can watch at home?’ In a way the presentations we’ve done with Lord of the Rings or West Side Story are almost the other end of the spectrum – these films with really incredible film scores – it’s just amazing to hear them live. Those all sell out. It is a different audience, but it’s a big audience. People love it.

The third way is to use multimedia as a way of providing and actually exploring a whole different interpretation of a piece of music. An example – Bill Viola with Philharmonia does an opera in concert, Tristan and Isolde, projecting on vast screens all around the hall. It was incredible. I think this is the real pinnacle of where technology and multimedia can add value into symphonic performances. I think you’ll see a lot more in the coming years. There are a number of other operas that that would work really well. For the large number of people who really enjoy classical music but also enjoy big spectacle that’s a hugely attractive way to go.

So is the traditional concert a dying form?

I don’t think it is. We’re doing four performances of Beethoven 9 this week and they’re all sold out. 11,000 coming to see that.  if you get concerts right, in terms of the content and the repertoire, soloists, it is still extremely attractive. We’re growing audiences.

When I go to concerts where there are giant screens I hate that. You are being guided where you should look. I think that limits the experience more than often, rather than adds to it. In the same way, I’ve been to sporting events where you trek all the way out to Homebush then watch the giant screen. Why?

I find that with concerts. If you are actually in the hall I don’t look at the screens, I close my eyes. Music speaks in a way that is beyond images. It’s your own emotional connection with the music that is so powerful.

We will continue to explore and develop it and become more bold in what we do. You take a risk with it, just because the sheer presentation of the multimedia is a very significant cost. For me, don’t go half cock and produce something mediocre. Really go for the highest quality of production you can – really great sound, big screen, powerful projector. Otherwise people will go out and say “it’s not really a cinema movie, I could’ve watched that at home.”

Next up, Tim Calnin from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.