Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
When I was in my last three years of high school I was accepted into a scholarship program at The Melbourne Recital and every year we got to do a solo performance in the studio. It was the highlight of my year to curate and perform my own concert. It was the moment I knew I wanted to do music for the rest of my life. Nothing has ever made me feel that good before.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The absolute best state is the flow state. You are just on fire. Everything is happening so naturally and time is not something you are aware of. When I'm composing in this state I think I am the happiest I have ever been. It usually doesn't occur in the initial stages of the creation of something new for me. The initial state is more of a sharp excitement that is fleeting because it is followed by a desire to cling on to that initial idea in its purity. Of course, this is not how music creation works; you must mould and shape the idea and run the risk of destroying it. This is terrifying for me because of an underlying fear that what comes next will never be as satisfying or as good. This also partly because the idea is just in my head, and anything that exists in my head is normally too perfect to be true.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
We know music heals. Neuroscientists have shown that listening to music lights up various parts of the brain and this knowledge is used in treating people with dementia or neurological conditions. I did some work experience alongside a music therapist a while ago and it was absolutely fascinating how she used music as part of rehabilitation. She sat next to a man who was in a comatose state and sang him his favourite song in an attempt to reach him. She helped a man who had had an overdose, write a rap song to his child to explain the situation and how he felt. She helped a man who had recently had a stroke and had lost his speech, sing again. This is so powerful. In a more personal sense, I have had people tell me how helpful they have found something I have played or created. One of my neighbours who is undergoing therapy for cancer, recently said how each time I practice, he turns off the radio and listens. As my mother reminds me often, the ripples we create can have long-lasting and wide-reaching effects. Big splashes are great, but if you can alter just one person’s life for the better, is that not just as important as 10,000 people? There is research which shows the harmful effects of music on mood. People can get drawn to music which reinforces their pain and distorted views of the world. Composers, like all artists, have the power to manipulate emotions. The ubiquitous nature of music can turn it into a pollutant; ring tones, dial tones, hold music, etc. I am also concerned that perhaps the sheer accessibility of music these days maybe actually be rather damaging. We use music to fill silence. We don't necessarily listen to it, rather we just sometimes hear it - whether we choose to or not.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This is a very important conversation to have. Copying or borrowing elements from the practice of another culture should never be done unless there is a conversation and understanding of what is being used and why. Intention is also important here. Ideally, there should always be some sort of collaboration if there is going to be cultural exchange. There are so many things we can use to make music, I am not sure if we should have unlimited access to materials especially if we have absolutely no link or experience with them. Such endeavours require deep research, collaboration, cultural safety and respect to be done well, and to counteract the undeniable power imbalance that cannot be continued under the guise of “artistic freedom”.
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?
I think the senses are entirely linked! We may be more in tune with one or more sensitive with another but they are all connected. I find though that my hearing and my imagination are inseparable. I have synaesthesia so visuals are very strong for me. Sounds will give me direct images or visual associations. For example, I will be practicing a scale and the whole time I will be experiencing a video sequence in my mind, in a similar manner to that of experiencing a memory very vividly. Sometimes it’s very strong but most of the time it’s in the background unless I concentrate on it. It’s very linked to what I am playing, so if I go up in pitch then the narrative will go up also in some way. If I repeat a section, then often the visual will also repeat or get stuck like a jammed CD. It feels very much like making music is just externalising a link between a visual story and an aural story that is already there in my head. It is also why a piece of art as visual as The Conference of The Birds felt incredibly natural to write.
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?
I guess my approach to my own art is to say things that I think are important, useful, comforting or beautiful. It’s not always about having something to say, but I think I enjoy making music that has some sort of story the most, probably because it feels more natural to me. If I am making music that follows a story it is automatically bigger and more important than myself. I think music that follows a story gives an opportunity for people to relate or empathise.
Making art is an incredibly vulnerable place to put yourself. You are essentially standing naked in front of the world, offering something that no one asked for. Nothing is guaranteed, the only reason you continue to make and share your work is because you are a little bit mad and at some point you realise that the compulsion to create is not a choice and that actually making art keeps you sane.
That being said it is also an act of social justice. It is a way to voice stories and capture the zeitgeist. I recently wrote a piece of music in an attempt to capture the surreal experience of trying to connect and express emotions, sometimes very strong and painful ones, via technology. This became the norm for literally thousands of people during the pandemic. My grandmother was in a nursing home in the north of England and we would Skype her and the line would keep crapping out. Technology gave us a window and potential for connection but it also highlighted the isolation. I was trying to create a time stamp and paint a picture of this stark new normality. I think it is the role of artists to explain the times we live in.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music conjures up emotions we didn't know we had. It can process them for us. For me, music is a reminder that I am alive and it is an automatic connection to others. It is a shared experience, even when we are alone. It is a language we can communicate in when we don't know how else to.
My grandfather died in a hospital in the north of England a few days ago and just before his passing my mother Skyped him, because she wasn’t able to visit him due to the COVID-19 restrictions. She said he looked like a dying man. He couldn't talk, he didn't seem that receptive to her presence. My mother told him a story of how she had missed her choir rehearsal that week and as a sign of support her fellow choir members had sung an arrangement of Edelweiss and sent it to her. She started singing it to him and he joined in. All of a sudden he was smiling and swaying and lively and remembering the words. When they reached the end of the song he sunk back into sleep. I think music gave them one last moment of pure connection before his passing. What else has the power to breathe life into a man who is on his death bed, other than music?