Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
I work with a lot of different people, both in the short term and long term. In terms of interpreters, I'm trying to work increasingly with a small group of players that I can trust and who get me. I ended up here because I was lucky enough to have a few big orchestral performances due to my friendship with Brett Dean, who is a very big deal in that world and has supported my stuff from the very beginning. As I said, I was very lucky to have that stuff happen, but those experiences have shaped my current decisions of what kinds of ensembles and interpreters to work with.
I found that, even when Brett was standing in front of an orchestra explaining where my music's coming from and giving it his best shot as conductor, a lot of the time the players were looking at the clock and pissed at me for having to play what sounded them to be ridiculous. In most cases anyways (there's always exceptions, most often in the percussion, bass and brass sections). What those experiences taught me is that, well, maybe it's not a great way make stuff for me. You spend months on something that gets an hour's rehearsal if you're lucky. You can't refine it, you can't mess with it, and you certainly don't have any time to talk about it. It's a barren relationship. It ends up feeling like a one night stand both people want to forget.
So I said to myself, despite my love of far-out orchestral music, maybe it's not the kind of process you wanna be pursuing, because working in that world, with all kinds of crazy historical blind spots and all of this talk of the CANON to reinforce those, it gets a little weird. Again, there are exceptions. Ilan Volkov for example, the current team at Sacrum Profanum in Krakow, Brett himself, but generally, I take my historical cues from people like Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier and David Tudor, who basically got on with their own thing no matter what. Luc Ferrari too. They weren't waiting around for the big commission or institutional recognition, they got together with their friends in studios, put on concerts and made stuff happen on their own terms no matter what. Cage and Feldman at the beginning too, Zorn later, and in Australia, we have no choice but to do that. And great music comes out of that, really fantastic, vital music, which comes from a fecund combination of composing, improvising, working with all kinds of electronics and building a community.
So these days, I make stuff with my friends: Erkki Veltheim, Anthony Burr, Rohan Drape as composers, then people like Jon Heilbron, Rebecca Lane, Jessica whom I mentioned before, Samuel Dunscombe and Judith Hamann who all play music by me and support what I do with their remarkable abilities. I also collaborate with the visual artist Asi Föcker, the Slovenian artist Maja Osojnik on more esoteric ventures, as well as continuing to play with North of North when we can. Jérôme Noetinger and eRikm are currently the two keeping my musique concrète practise fresh and alive. Mike Patton and Stephen O'Malley I do heavier, but more intricate, stuff with, exploring density in other ways. All of these people are about serving the music, that's why I work with them as much as I can. All of these people give me something different to think about. People are like your diet, you know? You have to be really careful who you spend time with, otherwise you get sick.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
These days I really just want people to have a good time playing it and the audience to have a good time listening to it. My definition of a good time is aesthetically experiencing something that I haven't before. You know, there's this huge push everywhere to abandon the modernist project. Always, there are people saying “fuck it, I'm out, let's just do this thing that someone else did ages ago, just a little worse, with new gear.” And the end result of that line of thinking is very depressing to me. We are not done. We have to think, as Foucault said, that we are far from filling all possible spaces. Gordon Bennett too: to be free, we have to be able to question the way our history defines us. This is so important to remember in music!
In answer to your question, when I hear my music live, I'm always hypersensitive to the environment. I feel the weight of the place very heavily. I mean, I played the Sydney Opera House once with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It might look great on my CV, and they played amazingly, but acoustically speaking, the music sounded like shit. It made me realise that profound music-making can happen anywhere, that these spaces which are constructed to serve music often don't. In contrast, watching Chiri, which is the Pansori singer Bae il Dong with trumpet player Scott Tinkler and drummer Simon Barker, was one of the most profound fucking things I've ever heard, and it was in a pub. Seeing Michel Chion diffuse Requiem in Paris on a purpose built acousmonium for a small theatre, something else, but also just devastating. These are the kinds of experiences I can only hope to create.
Composition vs. improvisation. I can't fit all of that here, I'll probably end up writing a book about it. I'm just going to say that Heather Leigh performing Throne is up there with Earle Brown's Synergy II in this regard. It's the dissonance between structure and fluidity, the way certain elements rub up against each other, the decisions the performer and the music make together, which create certain kinds of unforgettable magic. This is what I tried to crystallise over years with my Thymolphthalein quintet, including Natasha Anderson, Will Guthrie, Clayton Thomas and Jérôme.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Composition is a temporal art form. It's based on how time is divided and distributed, how ideas unfold in a continuum. At the beginning, rhythm dictated everything for me, everything else came after. Now, I'm not so sure. After working with Erkki on long form pieces, I'm all messed up. Jérôme and I play concerts for 3 hours. These kinds of experiences change things in regards to duration. Any composer will tell you the most tricky thing is working outside of time. Performing is the same; to be able to maintain the structure of what's happened in the gig at your end and make intelligent long-range decisions based on that, while at the same time playing in the moment.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I really don't understand the distinction here. Composition is sound distributed in time distributed in space. Timbre obviously is an important part of that, how it reveals and transforms in a continuum.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
My experience of sound is directly connected to my optical nerves. I know something is working when I see sound with my eyes. I can stare at a pair of speakers and get a good sense of balance in the mix just by looking. Synchronising sound and some kind of abstract image then calling it synaesthesia shows a lack of understanding. Assigning colour to certain pitches and scales is laughable. It's completely subjective; that's what’s great about music and, thankfully, why algorithms are not actually going to take over the world.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
No I can't. What's important to distinguish though is that even if I have social concerns, my artistic concerns remain strictly aesthetic. Even though I love Nono, for example, music does not possess radical political power capable of creating social change. You can maybe effect how a few people listen, at best. If I was to summarise though, basically I aim to make strong work and not fuck over my friends. That's my compass.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I think music has the ability to spiral out into other art forms using different modes of presentation that we're not yet aware of. I don't mean some kind of networked performance, I mean ways of performing in a physical space with broadly different sound sources from all kinds of eras. My vision for that is very personal and will probably sound silly if I try to articulate it because I feel completely lost right now, but I have felt like this many times before and know it's all part of it.