In Conversation: ACO Artistic Director Richard Tognetti with Huw Humphreys
Huw Humphreys: Hello, my name is Huw Humphreys. I'm Head of Music at the Barbican Centre. And it's my great pleasure to be joined by a great friend of the Barbican's, Richard Tognetti, the Artistic Director and lead violin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Richard, it's been a crazy year. And it's really great to be talking to you. I actually just wanted to start by saying, what is the mood at the moment in Australia?
Richard Tognetti: The mood is one of respite, actually, it's like we're waiting for the next onslaught of something to happen. So yes, it's a crazy year. We've heard a lot about the Melbourne sort of total lockdown for 12 weeks or so - what conditions did you have in Sydney? We were like you I think, at the beginning: we went hard, we went early, and we didn't stop until we felt that were there. We're looking pretty good. You know, we're doing concerts at the moment. But did it affect us? Yeah, absolutely. And we lost half our staff. We lost our beloved Anna, it was shocking, horrifying, dreadful, and we're still reeling from it. But we thought we were going to have to start making horrible decisions about ourselves, about musicians, because we're not a government sponsored organisation, but the management just kept on cutting. And so we're still here. And now we're playing concerts.
HH: I'm going to say something slightly difficult in the context of that picture that you've just presented, which is one of the things that I found in the context of lockdown and not giving concerts was that it actually presented an opportunity to step off, call it a hamster wheel, which is planning and performing and you're just in this cycle of planning and performing.
RT: And, we just returned from the Barbican, by the way, didn't we?
HH: Oh, exactly. And it's just like saying, you obviously had this enforced step off the wheel. What did it make you consider, confront, think that you needed to change for the future or the way that you think about your audiences or you know, any number of things. Particularly you as the ACO, you have, or you have had quite a sort of routine of national performing where you take a programme and perform it in across the country.
RT: Look, we go Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth. Back to Sydney, Brisbane, Wollongong, Newcastle. It's like travelling from London, to Moscow, to France, down to Italy. All in consecutive days. You know, some UK orchestras do that. But we do it this extensive travel non-stop. Yeah, we've had to take stock, we're no longer in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, we’re the New South Wales Chamber Orchestra for the moment. I was thinking the ACO acronym, we could have called ourselves the Australian COVID orchestra. Yeah, that whole goat track is stopped dead for us. And so, look, like a lot of performing arts organisations, we faced ruination at one point. And I heard a grisly statistic that 64% of our dear London musician colleagues, are considering alternative plans. So at one point, yeah, we were thinking 'God, if this goes on, we've got to plan.' Because you just couldn't plan for the next week, as you know only too well. So out of the fear, and the unknown came lots of ideas, shooting stars some of them, and ability to reimagine ourselves. We've been delaying the really full impact digital content provision, that we have as providers that we've now become, and as a result of COVID, taking the bull by the horns. So we're now an experience provider, there are two major concerns. One is how to monetize them as we jump off the cliff, in competing with Netflix, and all the other extraordinary platforms there. And Spotify of course, and YouTube. Then I suppose because we're bespoke production houses, the Barbican and the ACO. I suppose maybe people feel that they're getting something special there. And the other issue that's really important is how to encourage people not just to do this.
HH: This is Richard looking at his phone.
RT: because that's a hit, isn't it? We take that as a hit, if you've done that, you've seen our concert. But no, you haven't. You know a bit, you come up as a number. How do you encourage people, inspire them to set up their platform so that you've got really good state of the art speakers, or that you use your state of the art speakers on your flat screen TV or whatever, or even just your computer. And so they're the two issues that we've really, that we're really facing.
HH: The way we thought about this at the Barbican actually, is, one of the things that was most important to us is actually preserving the uniqueness of the live experience. So, our series is called 'Live from the Barbican', and it is viewed live, you have a chance to view it as catch up. But actually, the vast majority of people are viewing it as live. And it's that kind of crucial experience of it's not something you can choose when you want to watch it. It's not something you're therefore going to glance at or dip into too. It's something that you're going to pay for, commit to, and actually take the chance almost to recreate some of the concert going experience, I think.
RT: So we've viewed our what we call 'Studiocasts' quite differently. So we decided that we wouldn't just have a live concert experience that we transmitted in cyberspace. That I mean, that's because we weren't doing the concert experience. But now that we're doing the live concert experience, we're going to be presenting live concert transmissions and also what we call these Studiocasts, which are bespoke theatrical experiences, musical experiences, and the portal through which we hope people are going to travel to get to the paid Studiocasts are our Homecasts. So they're free, they're not high end productions, they're 'Do It Yourself DIY', which is what we've been doing all year. We're releasing a studio cast with Emmanuel Pahud who's playing in an arrangement that I made of The Musical Offering and he's in Berlin. And so that's where the Studiocasts and even the Homecasts are a wonderful thing. But it takes a lot of time. And money, effort, and technical know-how to stitch them all together.
HH: And as you transition back into live concerts, how have you found audiences returning? Has there been a lot of resistance? Or is it actually, you really feel that this there's been this hole in people's lives and social lives and spiritual lives in the absence of live concerts?
RT: Definitely the latter, definitely the latter. But that doesn't mean that, you know, we call them the 'trickle of the brave', but there has been a certain amount of trepidation. So we had some crash test dummy concerts, just after things looked pretty stable, and people were scared, but they booked last minute. We were, I think it was one third capacity. So most people wearing masks, but it was an incredibly emotional, emotionally charged experience. And we made a decision that we weren't going to just play Top of the Pops. So we played a Mendelssohn quartet, D major quartet and Verklärte Nacht and collaboration with the Indigenous musician, and comrade in arms of mine, William Barton. Yeah, it was emotional. Even at the moment, you know, doing these concerts, people are, people feel, I think because of this communal thing, that's what the live thing is, isn't it? That ineffable communion, state of communion that we have with a live audience, you know, you can rehearse and rehearse and perform to oneself, but you really don't know how people are reacting. And even if people don't over-clap, you still get a sense of how they've reacted.
HH: I actually found of all the sounds in the Barbican Hall in our first concert back after lockdown. The sound of applause was almost the most emotional, just because it is the sound of the music being received and passed back. You know, it is as you say the sound of the communion between performer and audience, you take it for granted in the context of normal concerts.
RT: No, you do. And it's a release of emotion, isn't it?
HH: Richard, you mentioned this programme with William Barton, we should have seen the ACO return to the Barbican in October of this year. And we are working hard on our plans for when the ACO will return.
RT: It's our favourite thing of the year. HH: In place of your actual residency we'll have a digital residency and that will have as part of it three concert programmes and one of these is this this concept that you mentioned with Mendelssohn's String Quartet in D, and Verklärte Nacht and a piece by William Barton. I lived in Australia for eight years. And I am very aware of the cultural phenomenon that is William Barton. But could you explain a little bit about the extraordinary artistry of this man?
RT: I met him post 911. I wanted to get a cantor from a synagogue. And I wanted to get a chanter from a mosque. And I wanted to get an Indigenous artist. And I wanted to get someone from the Middle East, and put them on stage, not necessarily together. But that's where I first discovered, I shouldn't say discovered, that's where I first met Willie Barton and Joseph Tawadros.
RT: And yeah, so that was an extraordinary concert. And so I've kept in touch with him, so he, I knew him only as a didgeridoo player. I've heard him sing a little bit, chanting with his mother, and they're from Mount Isa. The Kalkadunga, the people of Mount Isa. Mount Isa is in the middle of Queensland. The scene in the middle of Queensland is incredibly hot, dry and arid. And as I say that, according to William they are a warrior tribe, from the nation of Kalkadunga. His country is very much a part of his spirit, even though he's an urban fellow. And he formed a really beautiful and wonderful relationship with Peter Sculthorpe, the great Australian composer. And Peter wrote a lot for him. And Willie, even though I think he's just self-taught, or at least the theoretical part of his music making is self-taught, he says he has an affinity with Bach, he adored Peter Sculthorpe, he attends a lot of our concerts. And I'm happy to be corrected, but I think he's possibly the greatest synthesis that Australia has produced. That is a result of European, Western music traditions with his own Indigenous spirit, and musical traditions. You've got to remember that it's only since the 50s, 1950s that they really started doing a Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Bartók, you know, going around and recording music, and imbibing this music into certain compositions. But William respectfully absorbed his own traditions and mixed them with European Western music traditions in a way that is scintillating, engaging, spiritually sophisticated. No token gesturing and really entertaining. And he's an extraordinary singer. Even though I've played with Willie a lot, I've never been in a room with him singing so you can find it on YouTube. Just look up 'Willie Barton ACO'.
HH: There's something about his didgeridoo playing as well that if you are expecting a sort of a very traditional sound of the didgeridoo, this isn't necessarily for you because it sometimes feels that William has incorporated beatboxing into his, into his playing. It's taking it into a different realm. It feels like he, that synthesis has just kind of exploded all sorts of boundaries.
RT: Yeah. And he's got, his CV is insane. Have you seen his CV? Soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic, LSO, the LPO, SSO. Well, the great symphony orchestras around the world...'soloist with'...and yeah, he's a really terrific fellow. I don't think I'm being pre-emptive because we're still to write some of the music but he's, he's going to be a featured artist in 'River', the movie, the sequel to 'Mountain'.
HH: So we should talk about 'Mountain' actually because it forms part of this digital residency as well which will be a performance from the Sydney Opera House. You are a chamber orchestra based in Sydney, but touring all over Australia, and indeed the world, but it marks the ACO becoming a film producer. What...how did that conversation start? Because I can feel that conversation being shut down in just about every other orchestral environment in the world.
RT: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Okay, so it started for me sitting in front of the computer and starting to get into electronic music, and starting to write music inspired by the still problematic synthesis of the acoustic organic and the inorganic electronic. And I had that wonderful experience working with the Guildhall electronic music department, and Mike Roberts. And for me, that's really, really interesting. And indeed, the next generation or the generation younger than mine, eagerly pursuing this, this important synthesis as, as I...so I started working with Jon Frank, the cinematographer who was mainly making surfing films, but he had such an extraordinary eye. And so when I was running this festival in Maribor, I was very liberated, and lucky to be able to do whatever I wanted. And so I could put on really weird stuff, and include video. And so that's how we started making films. And then we made this film called 'Musica Surfica', which was a proper film, documentary, but really, about music. And then we made 'The Reef' which came to the Barbican, and then everyone kept on saying, 'why don't you do a skiing film?' And I said, 'because they're boring.' And then somebody said, 'well, what about mountains?' Okay, well, let's start collaborating with Banff. And then what happened is that technology just took off. And so we didn't need a studio anymore, a laptop would suffice. And then we started making this film and found a director. And it was the director Jen Peedom who'd made a film called 'Sherpa'. And then she came to me asking if I could further collaborate with her, but the other way around now, so she's producing ‘River’, whereas we actually produced 'Mountain'. And here we are. I'm asked all the time, and of course, at first, people, especially the musicians, 'what are we doing making films?' You know, it's spending all this money because of course, it costs a lot of money. The simple reductive message is that you end up hearing more with your eyes, listening more with your eyes, and you see more with your ears. And we've learned a lot about offering this, a certain space and knowing how music can take over the visuals. And I think we're, it's fair to say that we're unique. I can't think of any other orchestra that, you know, makes bespoke films of that kind of stature. But it's thrilling. I mean, it's fraught, and it's got so many elements to it, and makes us very nervous.
HH: There's one moment in ‘Mountain’ that takes my breath away. And, and it's actually entirely in the use of the music. And it is a piece that everyone knows incredibly well, it's one of the world's most beloved concertos, Beethoven's 'Emperor’ Concerto. And it's used towards the end of the film, in the slow movement, and it is basically the only time you will ever hear that movement end as the second movement before transitioning into the third movement.
RT: Da, da da da....
HH: Suddenly the kind of the stillness that you create, and the kind of feeling of enormity and the vastness of the mountains.
RT: Yes. So you're able to breathe.
HH: And it just, it was such a kind of emotional reaction for me, because you're always waiting for that movement, that music to drop down into pitch, and then to go on.
RT: But it's the same with the Violin Concerto. So we searched...oh my goodness, we tried everything under the sun, and then just see what happens if we just try something that is so sublime. And I thought, 'oh no it'll just eat up the mountain footage'. But then we realised we were sort of so high, and in many senses by this part of the film that it was worth taking this risk. So we let it sit and we played it to a few people and they seemed to resonate...it seemed to resonate in the same way, so it's okay, we're taking a big risk here. Some people found it confronting we would use such extraordinary music but at the end of 'The Reef' you got to remember we finished with the 'Cavatina' from Op 130. We have to finish with the greatest music ever written. That's a caveat of mine.
HH: And then the third programme that we have in the digital residency is one that would have been part of your physical one, which when you toured it in Australia, it had the title 'Indies and Idols'. Can you tell tell me what kind of links this programme of Lutosławski, and Jonny Greenwood and Penderecki and Szymanowski. It's a massive, wide ranging programme.
RT: Yeah, well, look, I was talking about the younger generation of composers who are wired, but also listening, and some of them play acoustic instruments. And it's a coming of age story for me. We all know that McCartney, and we know that John Lord, to a lesser extent, the Pink Floyd guys, you know, the wanting to look over the fence and, and have a go at writing orchestral music. The difference with these, or this generation I should say, and these particular 'rock stars'… don't we hate the term? These 'rock stars', they're not stars at all, they're incredibly successful musicians who play in, you can't even call them 'rockbands'. You can't call Radiohead a 'rockband'. You know what I mean? But it's worth saying that I think they can write music. It's not that they can just imagine something extraordinary. And then they go and work with somebody to release their musical imaginations. I mean, Jonny Greenwood is there with metaphorical pen and paper and so is Bryce...now, what's really interesting is that they are both obsessed, I don't even think they know. I don't know if they know each other. But they're both obsessed with really obscure, for the average punter, really obscure, avant-garde Polish composers. So Bryce Dessner, with Lutosławski, who's one of my favourite composers of all time.
And Jonny Greenwood famously with Penderecki. So we thought, well, wouldn't it be interesting to put a programme together, where we have Jonny's music and Penderecki and Bryce Dessner and Lutosławski, excuse my pronunciation. And it's a really wicked programme. And then we finished with Szymanowski String Quartet No 2. We also had in there a piece by Sufjan Stevens that we've played in the Barbican, and the most shocking piece on the programme is by Penderecki, and it's Three Pieces in the Baroque Style, movement 1, the ‘Aria'. You won't believe it, if you hear it. Sounds like Pergolesi...Here we go we're ready for Penderecki and then... But then we did have his String Quartet No 1, which is just like threnody...it's an amazing piece. So we made it somewhat theatrical with minimal lighting and I think it's fair to say it was successful, it worked, it felt good - it felt right. And so as I say Huw, it was a coming of age, you know, these guys can write. So they straddle these two worlds and it's the first time in the history of popular music that you get musicians who are so talented and so adept and are able to bring their musical dreams to life.
HH: Richard, I know you're an artist that is permanently looking forward. I've just got two questions for you. First is this: we've already had three physical ACO residences at the Barbican, one when you were Artist in Residence at Milton Court and then two when the ACO became our International Associate Ensemble at Milton Court. What do you look back on and think are the highlights of those?
RT: Gosh. That's a hard...Oh, wow. Well, look, as I say, I mean just from my own, you know, a fish swimming through a vast sea...the digging down into the cellars, metaphorically and literally in the electronic music department. In the general sense of honour that comes with being such a part of the most prestigious and talking about forward thinking, curious, performing arts centre in the world. And just the sense of being part of the extraordinary City of London, I've never lived there. I never will there because I never want to tire of it, and I always want to be in awe of it.
HH: That was actually the last question I wanted to ask you...having done now a kind of series of extended periods in London, what do you look forward to? Like, what, where do you eat? Who do you catch up with? What things do you need to see to get away? How do you relax in them? Because you have such an intense schedule in London when you're out? How do you actually find space?
RT: Last year, we did the 'Goldberg Variations' with my hybrid interpretation, which we'll unpack some other time. Then the next night we did 'Luminous' and then the night after we did the collaboration with the Guildhall. That's another highlight just the collaboration with the Guildhall, and Helena Rathbone and a number of our musicians past and present have come from the Guildhall. So that's extraordinary as well. But look, we'll go to as many events as we can possibly pack in in the lead up to the concerts.
HH: You normally have an appointment about your instruments as well don't you?
RT: Oh, yeah, well actually look, I spend most of my time in the bloody violin shop, just playing instruments playing the greatest instruments in the world. That's actually what I normally do. Thinking ‘Come on. I'm in London! There are so many exterior...I’ll play another Strad...which I love... that’s Simon Morris at Beare’s.
HH: Well Richard, thank you for giving up so much of your time.
RT: Oh, no thank you.
HH: We're delighted that we can present this digital residency in lieu of the ACO return to the Barbican, which we hope will be as soon as possible because it is always a great pleasure to have your extraordinary music making within our walls.
RT: That's very touching. Wonderful to speak with you Huw and say hi to everyone and good luck.
HH: Thank you so much, Richard.
William Barton in conversation
James Drury: Hello William and welcome. It's great to be able to talk to you today. William Barton: Thank you very much. Thank you for having us.
JD: So for those who don't know, you're regarded as one of Australia's leading didgeridoo players, you're a multi-instrumentalist, a vocalist and a composer. You've performed all over the world at some of the most high-profile events imaginable, from a premier at Westminster Abbey for the Queen to the Beijing Olympics. And your compositions and performances have won many awards. But let's rewind a bit and go back to how this journey started for you. Can you tell us a bit about your earliest musical memories?
WB: Look, I grew up in a regional town called Mount Isa, which is about 1800 kilometres west of Brisbane, in Queensland, and it's quite multicultural. But my mum used to play classical music to me before I was born, and during my childhood. And so I had these seeds being planted, with different musicality, and different canvasses that I can approach and learn about the different colours and textures. And that coincides with the great Australian rugged beauty, where you have these sorts of rocky outcrops in the spinifex grass, the sharp grass, out in the bush, and the sun shimmering down, and in winter you have these beautiful sunrises and sunsets as well. And that all contributes to the musical making process. And so, there was Country and Western music in the house as well. And then, of course, my uncle, my teacher of the yidaki, more commonly known as the didgeridoo, and I was very intrigued by this mystery, it's kind of like when someone hears or sees someone painting this beautiful picture, or violinists or guitarist, and you're sort of in awe, so I was that kid in awe of my uncle, and there's a certain magic there. And that's why I call it mystery as well, because I wanted to be a part of that. But the only way you can be a part of that is to actually keep on breathing that path, and so I'm very grateful for that journey. From growing up in Mount Isa, to going to what we call the Mount Isa Folk Club, where a lot of folk musicians, once a fortnight, from Scottish bagpipes, Irish Uillean pipes, to all the old folk songs, so I had a very sort of mixed bag of opportunity to listen to different styles of music, and lyrics - of course, lyrics are an important part -and my mother, Aunty Delmae Barton as she's known as, would do (and still does) these big magnificent poems about Mother Earth and about the land. And so just learning these little things, or just picking up on these little things over time help describe your instrument, like it helps you converse with your instrument onstage, to connect to a broader audience, and that's why I'm so passionate about bringing one of the world's oldest cultures to the forefront and blending that with the European, the western classical orchestra scenario.
JD: So how old were you when you first started playing the didgeridoo? What drew you to playing it? You said it was your uncle?
WB: Yeah, so what drew me to playing it, I would have been around about just over seven years old, eight years old, maybe. And I was one of my uncle's last students. And so when I say student, I don't mean in a classical or formal sense, but it still had a formal sense where, you know, I'd be there, I'd be listening, and I'd take on board things and just be like a sponge and just sort of absorb these little things that even if they go over your head, you know, because someday, if you keep on this working at one particular technique, it'll all make sense. And then you're like, ah, like a jigsaw puzzle. You sort of can eventually put all the pieces together. And my uncle, he was a well-respected, traditional law man, and medicine man. And so, it was a really great privilege to be there as a youngster, and he passed away when I was 11 years old. And I played at his funeral and normally they break up the didgeridoo or bury it, the silence is now forever…
JD: When someone dies?
WB: Yes correct, and so they passed his didgeridoo on to me as part of the family, which was a huge honour. And so in those early years, as basically a kid, just learning this instrument and just wanting to be immersed in it and how connected it is, to the earth. And then if it's played in a certain way it’s a healing instrument as well, because with breath and the different frequencies you can get the different tonalities, different pitch references, you can lip up and lip down, there's the rhythmical aspect of it as well as melodic, so with having this sound palette, like the sound canvas that I had the opportunity as a young kid, it sort of grew or helped develop my listening skills, especially as an improviser, which is sort of unusual, even though I'm not a straight classical musician. You know, my improvisational skills certainly play a big role in my real time connection with the audience and with the players and the conductor, but also the compositional structure as a soloist that I take on board. And for example, I recently did a webinar for ANAM, the Australian National Academy of Music, and so as part of my 90 minute workshop talked about improvisation and so on and so forth. But I had two recordings; one was a recording of my first performance of Peter Sculthorpe's 'Earth Cry' for full orchestra and didgeridoo with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 2002, conducted by Michael Christie. And then another example was a clip with conductor Eschenbach and the Australian Youth Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House in 2013. So there was a particular section in the score in the recording that I wanted people to take note of. And that was, in the middle section, there's this like really awesome, amazing cross rhythm with the tom-toms. And I listened to my 2002 recording, and to the 2013 recording, and not much has changed because I already had this preconceived idea of how the solid bit should be.
JD: I read this quote, which I really loved, that your uncle told you that the didgeridoo is a language, it's like a speaking language. What does that mean to you, and how does that manifest in your life and in your performance? I guess that kind of relates to what you were just saying about the improvisation?
WB: Music is a speaking language. It's an essential necessity of every human being. It doesn't matter what cultural background you come from, you know, a simple lullaby that your mother or your father, your auntie, your uncle, your grandfather, your grandmother sang to you as a baby, as a young child, or while you're still in your mother's womb. So language helps identify certain stages of your life and connectivity to your cultural heritage, whatever that may be, wherever that may be. And so the point being is to have this sort of common ground as music at the forefront of conversing with people from different walks of life, in a concert hall scenario. That's sort of where I'm getting at, you know. So the language of my honesty, and my truth as a human being, is what people will hear and feel when I'm on stage, and hopefully offstage as well. And so it's about engaging. As an improviser I'm not just improvising, I'm not just playing anything, I'm drawing upon all of my skills and all of my language, my conversations that I've had in different languages, different musical languages, with different instruments and different people over the last 20 years. And so that's a really, really fascinating thing, if you think about it because two different instruments can be from two different backgrounds, but then they can make music in harmony. And even if it's a very traditional ethnic instrument, like the didgeridoo, it’s a sacred instrument, you blend that with strings, or brass section, and all these textures come out in the landscape. I often say the old school composers of the day, their music has lasted because they wrote about their country and their mother country, very nationalistic music, and the same with our traditional music. It's the song line specific to regional communities, regional tribes, and so I take all that on board as my experience and then I try to translate that into a modern context, but still having some grassroots elements there, which is important for me as an improviser, as well as a human being.
JD: The didgeridoo is emblematic, I think, of the sound of Australia. Almost anywhere else you go in the world, if you speak to people about Australia, it's one of the first things that they think about, but can you tell us a bit about its significance and use in the Kalkadunga tribe?
WB: Growing up in Mount Isa, I had the very good fortune of still being connected to the land and having the opportunity as a young child to go out bush and experience these sacred cultural sites. And that helped me I guess, combine the inspiration of the didgeridoo with my modern day take on working with classical music. Now how the didgeridoo fits into the Kalkadunga tribe? So throughout parts of Australia, the didgeridoo has been traded down over time, over many hundreds of years, thousands of years, perhaps. And there's a lineage that goes with that, like, the song line of the yidaki or the didgeridoo, and how important it is to society in the Indigenous culture. It's part of ceremonial use with the song man as part of healing. And that knowledge gets passed through I guess, the elders, that we listen, watch and learn from. So it's a very important sort of journey that one takes because you're not only learning about an ancient history and ancient culture, and the language, the identity of this instrument, and the identity of yourself. But you are, being in this modern day and age, you are adapting as well. So you're adapting the language of change to help communicate with the audience. And that's so special about the instrument is that it can connect to anybody. It's a very meditative instrument of connection.
JD: And then you're bringing this whole really long history and culture to a much younger Western musical tradition. I wonder what drew you to that? And what drew you to fuse them together?
WB: Yeah, so mum used to play classical music to me before I was born, and during my childhood, and I always just felt at home listening to classical music, especially like the big grand orchestral pieces. Like how magnificent it is to listen to that, and that was just over the radio as a kid in Mount Isa. And then to actually be a part of that engine room, that sort of driving force, as a team on stage, to carry people on this journey, when they've finished work for the day, or it might be a special celebration and then they go out to the opera hall, or a classical concert. I'm very conscious about how can I make that person’s day better, or not even better, but just give them some space to be free in this timeout, when they come in and listen to such music. So the combination of the didgeridoo and orchestra, I think, is quite an intriguing thing. And I wanted to create new repertoire for the didgeridoo and not make it a tokenistic sort of collaboration. I wanted it to be a real and meaningful engagement of this ancient instrument the didgeridoo. The yidaki with these magical instruments of the orchestral world. And they do both go hand in hand. The didgeridoo is made out of the branch of a tree. But I think this finding the breath and the language that helps communicate the cause, and the cause for me was to reach out beyond my own community, beyond Mount Isa, not only nationally in Australia but internationally, and just share this something special of unity on stage. And so through this collaboration with ACO in particular, having my work ‘Didge Fusion’ be performed it's quite special. There's a song component that I sing within the work: It’s like “Kalkadung man, Kalkadung woman, teaching young bila bila around the campfire in the night, we got to watch, listen, learn, and then we got to do it ourselves”. So I’m talking about the passing of the culture around the campfire in the night. And I wrote that bit of the song, that melody, when I was 15 years old, and so that sort of holds deep in my heart. The reason why it's called ‘Didge Fusion’ is then I combined my other musical influences, from listening to alternative, heavy rock and rock music, to the classical. From a bit of ACDC to Bach and Vivaldi sort of thing. And so I wanted to combine those elements with the guitar and the didgeridoo, and make it really interesting, and have this level of musicianship that I can still keep on getting better at. And that's another beautiful thing about collaborating is because it makes you a better artist, obviously, if you're collaborating with the right people. So you know, it's like you're both on each other's toes because you want greatness and you want success. And you want to fulfil your own ambition, as well as being someone who can keep notching yourself ahead, this a little bit more, a little bit more each and every time. It's important, you know, and that's why live performance is so critical, particularly now, throughout the world. We will all get back on the road and start performing live again, to our audiences internationally. As we know the ACO was supposed to be there this year, and I was supposed to be in London early on in the year as well, so everything's just been moved. So the importance globally of music is the time now, more than ever.
JD: How did your relationship with the Australian Chamber Orchestra come about?
WB: So my relationship with Australian Chamber Orchestra came about some years ago, in my early 20s, and through the connection with Peter Sculthorpe, and the ACO were attached to a particular festival, Out West. And we became good friends over time, Richard and I, and the ACO family. We’ve always sort of chatted about things, about a collaborative project, and so the time just happens to be right now, and I just happen to be ready for the next stage in my career in terms of a lot of things, and to have ‘Didge Fusion’, which was just a guitar, didge and vocal piece. I remember that actually, when I first performed this piece, I learned my different chops on the guitar, and so on, so forth. I remember I got a video of it, actually, when I first performed ‘Didge Fusion’. It was in Paris, probably 15 years ago, more. Yeah. And I'm like, “Ah, that sounds right”. And so because I was improvising I had to learn what I was playing. So anyway it's become this piece that sort of encompasses and embraces my musical learnings as a kid, and then of course to sing Kalkadunga language song in it is special and important because I can connect to communities outside of my own community and engage with them. And then if they're interested, especially overseas audiences, if they’re interested in Australian culture, I always say just come and visit, visit Australia and experience it for yourself. So there's a very Australiana sound over the last so many years, from the Sculthorpe’s of the world, to the Ross Edwards, Lisa Lim and Matthew Hinson. So all these particular Australian styles that have sort of organically developed, and so this is sort of a combination of my uncle's journey and my mum and father, what they taught me as a kid and through cultural identity.
JD: And you had a particularly close relationship with Peter Sculthorpe, right? You both worked together quite a lot. He wrote quite a lot of work for you as a composer.
WB: Yes, correct. So I met Peter Sculthorpe’s music first before I met the man himself. And so that performance was, I believe, in 2002, with the Goldener String Quartet, at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Piers Lain our friend the pianist has been involved over recent years as well. And I first heard the music, the string quartet version of Earth Cry, which is called String Quartet Number 12 from Ubirr. And I'm like, wow, this is really amazing. This is a conversation that I've been looking for, going back to our previous conversation about having a conversation with different musical instruments and landscape and so on, so forth. Once I heard the Goldener's play some of the movements of the quartet, it was like, yeah, this is it. And then it wasn't until 2002 with the Queensland Symphony, that I met Sculthorpe and then we just started adding didgeridoo to a number of his major works like ‘Mangrove’, ‘Kakadu’, ‘Songs of Sea and Sky’. And then of course, the Requiem, which he wrote for me from beginning to end with me in mind. And I remember a comment from Sculthorpe saying, “Ah yes, I wouldn't have this finished a number of weeks earlier, if it wasn't for William”. He had to consider, for the first time, all the pedal notes. It’s been so long since I've performed the Requiem, but I think there's like nine movements in there. So quite a lot of cue points for me. And my process of learning the score, back then I had a tape recorder, cassette tape recorder, and I recorded the Adelaide Symphony rehearsal. It's a 40 minute work, so then I listened to it, and then I get the cue points in my head. And then I put the tape player down. And this is the bit where I sort of associate the sound with images or how my brain works, or our brains work. I listened to it. And I put the tape player down. And then once I had the ability to fast forward and rewind, you know, 40 minutes of music to all my cue points, in under two minutes in my head, then I knew that I was confident that I remembered the whole piece. So it was a pleasure to work with Sculthorpe for the last 10 years of his life, and he was a significant figure in Australian classical music.
JD: Now ‘Didge Fusion’ is an incredible piece of work. It was a piece that first introduced me to you actually, seven or eight years ago. A friend of mine showed me a video of it on YouTube and I was just totally blown away. Absolutely loved it. I played guitar and watched you play guitar and didgeridoo at the same time and was... Just the textures together felt… and when you were singing as well, the textures just really worked and it kind of set my mind on fire with creative ideas, which is fantastic. What does the piece mean to you personally?
WB: Comfortable space within myself. And I feel that it's a comfortable space for people to come into my circle, or for us to join, create our own circle. And I'm talking about the audience and I'm talking about the musicians and in some cases the conductor. And how I am proud of my heritage, where I've come from, which is Mount Isa, Kalkadunga country, far north-western Queensland, and where that journey is going. But along the way there's a foundation. The foundation is me singing that song Kalkadunga, me singing that song to pay tribute and homage to Mother Earth and my people, but also connecting to other people around the world. And how important the cultural identities again, like language is an important part of our eternal lullaby, and so this song Kalkadunga, ‘Didge Fusion’ is about fusing these elements together to hopefully create a sense of freedom and comfort for people from all walks of life to come into the circle, and to listen and to converse with me, and we have a conversation. And so I love to have the conversation with my fellow musicians on stage through music, and break down all the barriers, that's really important.
JD: It certainly feels like something we all need right now. You said that ‘Didge Fusion’ is… you're at a transition phase, you're at a phase in your career where you’re ready to move on to the next stage of your journey. Can you tell me a bit about that?
WB: So a piece like ‘Didge Fusion’ is like a pivot point that's always been in my life. And so it's going to exist continually, even when we're not here. The sound, the language is going to be here forever. And so, this transitional part of my life, nearing 40 years old, I'm being very fortunate to have collaborated with the wonderful musicians around the world, and play with some of the best orchestras in the world as well. And the concert halls. I always remember where I come from, and the beautiful amphitheatres of the Australian bush land, where I've got this photo of mom and I, and I'm about 11 years old with my uncle's didgeridoo, and I'm playing it up in traditional costume, right beside a waterhole and mum’s in a red gown. And we're just doing a little performance, you know, out in the middle of the bush. So, those elements are always underlying in my journey to the state of transition. So I believe now, I want to be able to communicate more to the world and just to connect to the everyday person, and just remind myself how important music is to me. Also being on a weight loss journey for quite a while to be a healthy warrior, not only on the inside, but on the outside too, to have a physical transformation. You get to the point in your life where to do all these things, to take on the world, you have to be mentally fit spiritually and physically. And to share that journey with your loved ones so that you can be there for them as well, which is also when I sing the song, even like the Kalkadunga song within ‘Didge Fusion’, I think about my people, I think about a girlfriend, and mom and so on and how important that they are to me in my life. And sometimes the sacrifices that they've made to support me. To be able to give back is important.
JD: It's been fantastic talking to you. And thank you so much for your time. It's been a real honour. I really hope we get to see you live in person.
WB: Yes! Likewise. Thank you so much for your time today. Hope to see you all in person performing in good old London town with