Name: Vanessa Tomlinson
Occupation: Percussionist, Composer, Improviser
Current Release: The Space Inside MC on A Guide To Saints
Recommendations: Right now I am reading Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe after seeing the Bangarra Dance performance of the same title. Totally re wiring my brain and making me think about our land in a different way, again.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Vanessa Tomlinson, visit her informative website for a full discography, biography and plenty of videos.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started as performer of music, over 35 years ago – learning instruments, playing lots of concerts – and slowly have started putting forward my own voice, playing my own ideas, directing music the way I want to. Really influenced by free improvisation and travelling in the outback.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
As a performer I am always involved in playing the music of others – and at first I could always hear that in my original performances. If I had been spending 6 months playing the music of Morton Feldman, those patterns were bound to be heard in my improvisations. As a percussionist you kind of embody language, choregraph sound, in performance, so once an idea is in the body, it is always there. Again, I come back to improvisation as a tool, a place where I can speak my own voice but also a place where I get to collaborate and interact with others – from all parts of the world, with all sorts of different experiences, musical and otherwise.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I hate committing to ideas. I have way too many things I want to do, and stopping, and packaging a single idea is really, really hard. Inversely finishing things is also really difficult. That is why I have tended toward live performance and rarely involve myself in recording. But having said this, I am always incredibly exicted by my music – it might sound weird, but I make music I want to listen to.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
When I think of my studio I think of drums everywhere, found objects all over the place (I have a collection of about 30 rice bowls, 40 bottles, tiles, flowerpots … because they all have particular sound qualities), and always a tamtam in the corner.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Good question. This is where I tend towards the human and collaborate on the machines. I like physically seeing and building ideas, and then finding ways to capture what I like about that in sound. So I guess the truth of the sound is in the room, not in the headphones. I am always trying to capture the room, or the space with my sound.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
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 through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I go to a lot of gigs and listen to a lot of artists making live sound. I meet a lot of people in these environemnts and discuss what we have just heard. Unexpected things (Charlamagne Palestine’s organ just kind of giving out during a performance, but I thought the silence was really poignant), or just mechanical things – how did that sound get spatialised so vividly? So I guess my approach is to be around ideas, people, creativity, newness, as much as possible.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Schedule???? Seriously?? I am usually up at 5.30am doing the things that need to be taken care of so by the time kids get up I feel on top of the world. Urgent emails are replied to, major deadlines are taken care of, the day might vaguely be mine! As an almost 50 year old not much of my day belongs to me – I teach, I serve on committees supporting artists, and then I create. But if you are asking about an ideal, it involves being away, being alone and having space to dream. I don’t have to be on an instrument to dream these days, I can imagine sound, but I need to listen. Listening is my main driver – just consciously listening, to everything. That is probably my daily ritual.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
As I mentioned before I tend to build pieces in my mind, and also physically in the studio. The Space Between focusses on me playing two of my favourite instruments – the tamtam, a huge metal disc – and a giant orchestral bass drum. These are both instruments I spend a lot of time with, working out what sounds they can make, how complex the sound is, how I can filter it, but this is all done live. So the tamtam solo is based on me getting to know this instrument over 30 years! I think my creative process is achingly slow, and then really fast.
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?
There are two states that I notice my creativitiy being at its peak – one is being alone in the bush with time. And it involves walking, listening, thinking, repeat. The other is constant activity. I am a really busy person and when I am doing heaps of different gigs, working with lots of people, my brain starts firing and ideas are unstoppable. I love this feeling, but there is not always time to act on the ideas, which is why the solitude is also needed!
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Improvisation and live performance are central to me. They feed my creativity, and lead me to new places. I am always interested in discovering the unknown, experimenting, collaborating with new people. Right now I am obsessed with land scientists who have been teaching me about gullies and soil erosion in general. Going out to sites that have been mostly irreversibly damaged, and playing music for the land – that’s inspiring. It is improvisation, but based on a lifetime of knowledge.
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?
These days I only care about sound. But that is because I have internalised ideas of structure – form seems reliable in improvisation, I can notice form being made as it happens and so I can use it. Sound though, that is affected by everything … the room, the audience, the environment. And sound involves listening. Not listening to something, but listening in to something. And noticing interactions between sound and space. That is really what The Space Inside is about – listening in.
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?
Definitely touch and sound. I love feeling sound.
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?
If we take the time to pay attention, take the time to listen to one another, then we could fix some pretty big problems. Take the environment – if we really listen to what is happening, if we notice the changing soundscape, we would be devastated and take action. So if anything, my work is to encourage a collective call to action. I love taking audiences out onto sites in the bush to do performances. Being with trees, wildlife and intentional manmade sound seems to open people to new possibilities. We need to share ideas to open up creative pathways and thinking to as many people as possible.
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 use the term music less and less. I love manipulating and working with sound, as a potter might work with clay. And I love the live experience of sound – people risking making ideas live, in front of me. What I don’t like is lack of risk, or lack of community.