4PM is without doubt the most ambitious and most personal work I’ve ever undertaken.
Years ago I made a pitch from my ego. Years later, when granted the opportunity to undertake it, my ego had recognised process as its ruler.
Now, I’m ensconced in the MONA museum, Tasmania Australia doing what I said I’d do.
The following two statements may contradict each other:
Beginnings are easy; finishing something is more difficult.
There’s no such thing as a blank page, only one’s resistance to writing on it.
Each day at 4pm a quartet arrives to play what the composer has written. At the beginning of each day is a blank page (not really, see above). The hours then press on the composer’s courage to write what comes to mind without too much reservation because the musicians are on route to play the work. Today! No covers, no repeats, no forgiveness. Vulnerable.
An outcome every day that doesn’t always promise good music, but an outcome must be reached. The work of making. Make work. Conditions and limitations must be set.
As an artist, I’m interested in what gets finished. The courage to complete, surrendering to scrutiny. As an educator it’s even more compelling to encourage the young to grow comfortable with that surrender. To suck at something for a bit and own it.
I also suffer a mild form of auditory processing disorder which, developmentally, has always made it very difficult for me to remember things in sequence. This makes reading music and playing it straight away a complex process (I don’t remember what I just read when I then look down at my hands to play piano and vice-versa). I’ve learned to cope in my own way.
This process of working under pressure will test claims of ‘finishing’. This will force me to suck a lot. I’m comfortable with that. For a while at least until something good comes.
You heard it right. In 2016 producer Kim O’Connel called me to score what would become the worlds biggest drive-in albeit not how you might imagine from its title. It wasn’t an Avengers film but there was popcorn!
A story was developed on the beginnings of Tasmania, its original people, animals, seismic events and its journey to now. Sounds simple enough. But the canvas was a mountain and the image was later projection.
So the final laser projection was 3.5 kilometres wide (read that again) on the face of Mt Roland in Tasmania’s north. The project was so advanced that the laser company developed new software features just for it! The 30 minute score was broadcast over a short-throw FM frequency, thousands of people drove up in the depth of a Tassie winter, sat in their cars (defogging their windscreens) tuned in their radios and watched FIRELIGHT 17.
It was a remarkable thing to witness and to make. The extraordinary crew from Sheffield sparked by Des Brown, led by Kim O’Connel and a technical marvel to make the record books*.
*Guiness book of records people didn’t come because they cost too much
So a narcicist King who thinks too much of himself invades a country, dividing everyone and turns the world absurd. This story repeats itself almost daily in or never-too-quick-to-learn world. King Ubu is an adaption of Ubu Roi, the original French production by Alfred Jarry. The original production bears the same hallmarks of the premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in that there were boos, heckles, people leaving and the (gee I hope they really did do this) throwing of fruit. (Why did people always seem to have fruit on them back then?). It was a brave beginning and the theatre of the absurd was born.
Re staging of Ubu has happened many times in its absurdist vein and the political volatility of its story has never been out of date. And so, under the want of MOFO’s curator Brian Ritchie, we did it again. In this production, the central characters are 9 foot high puppets, the good guy is played by multiple actors, and no one on stage speaks because they are voiced by actors 6 feet above them on scaffold, a cheer squad, dancers, a brass band, ludicrous puppet violence and the audience watched from a swimming pool.
I was approached to write the songs. There are scant details about original score from the late 1800s, so I took cues from the amazing new adaption of the script by writer Willow Weiland. There are 6 songs in all that were often sung by the whole company of 60 people. The music underscore we developed as a band of Taiko Drums, Harp, Saxes, Bass, Banjo, Harpsichord, brass band, choir, kazoo, surf guitar, toy piano and absurd percussion. Members were Brian Ritchie, Spile Mason, Yyan Ng, Emily Sanzaro and myself with help from the Launceston RSL Brass band. We played it 3 nights for free.
In the first few years after arriving in Tasmania, I saw a production by Terrapin Puppet Theatre in which a colleague of mine had scored the music for an absurd, nightmarish puppet production in a small Hobart theatre. I was so thrilled by the idea that SOMEONE I KNEW was making music for theatre. I wanted that so badly it hurt. But 20 years ago, my skill set lacked, my connections were thin and it all seemed a long ways away. Fast forward to 2016. Terrapin calls me and…you’ll never guess? It took about 15 years and a raft of success and failure to get there, but I have now scored and toured with this delightful show by Terrapin written by Finegan Kruckemeyer. A few weeks of development, (full-time development – now that’s where the quality comes in), and we’re on the road around Australia. This post about the show is now a few years in to its production life and so far we’ve toured most major centres of Australia, Edinburgh, the USA (including the Lincoln Centre in NY), China twice and Japan. This year 2020 (all things Coronavirus going well) we look to return to China and Japan again.
The show is a puppeteer, a narrator, a visual artist drawing the show live on an iPad, and me playing a bunch of instruments. This quartet is a delightful romp through an island story that touches many cultural issues, dilemmas and solutions. It’s pure joy to work on and I’m grateful for the partnership with Sam Routledge and Terrapin Puppet Theatre.
Almost immediately after the performance of Tim Passes on June 12, I checked my watch: I couldn’t believe it went by so fast. The fastest hour of my life. Remarks flowed in that another hour could easily have been enjoyed. A repeat? or a development? Either way, I want to feel that hour again…and again. Often, as a mentor, tutor or such, I talk to student about the landscape of the set, the song, the verse, the phrase, the line, the word and the breath. People will hang onto the most inane of things if you deliver it well, with intent, and with the authority of a map; you know where you’re going and no one is going to get hurt.
I spent much time thinking on the set order for Tim Passes as the 8 poems were not given to me chronologically, alphabetically, or in any other discernible state or theme, other than Tim’s joy and suffering. I organised them so as to introduce Tim with a reference to his end, then celebrate his inner child, his children, his genitalia, his inevitable end and the family that needed consoling after the fact. It was this final point which had the most significant weight. This work was about, and for a family; a family that I believe had engaged in little ceremony for Tim’s passing over 20 years ago and had yet to celebrate him. Not that I’m claiming to have any authority on the passing rights of a man through the families eyes, but I don’t imagine Tim ever had a party as big as this one.
I learned a great deal about poetry, music and respect during this process. Tim’s work was of a unique position; closer to death than any of us care to be and vividly aware of its slow grip and of the nearest peoples reactions to it. I can’t say that I’ve felt that. I had a ripping hangover once and can’t remember the booze I drank to get it – that’s as close as I get. Lame. I can imagine though as life grinds down around you, that whatever words you commit will ultimately define your position. They will become your expression after you part. Tim chose his words well. Honest and brutal. The music needed to fit the same shaped hole he made; the hole his family recognised as ‘Tim’. During the lead up, there was much press about the event. One such article in a weekend magazine had a quote from Tim’s brother David about my composition of Tim’s work. Referring to Tim’s “right-angled turns and about-faces” swerving from “truculence to tenderness”, David went on to say, “Dean must preserve that inadvertent ambiguity”. David had announced this expectation via print media and I shit myself. It was the word “must” that buried in the most. I must interpret the words in accordance with the Tim-shaped-hole that I was still learning to appreciate only hours before the show.
I spoke on an earlier day about the study and use of vowels and consonants when defining the parameters of the music. But beyond that is the performance, the delivery of another mans ideas who can no longer tell you if you got it right, nearly right, or missed completely. But, as I’m sure any musician can empathise, when performing someone else’s work, a line delivered poorly has you imagining the originator in the front row, tongue out, fingers up, or turning their back on you as you over-sing the next few lines to attempt recompense, ultimately making it even worse. I learned a lot about performing with an orchestra too. With a band, when you trip, you can turn to the band, raise your eyebrows (literally or metaphorically) and the band can react to this and adjust. An orchestra is like the Titanic approaching a u-turn at 80 knots; if you trip, there’s fuck all you can do accept find your own way to make what you just did sound like you meant it.
The media were kind. The Age called it the ‘highlight of the opening weekend’. Given the other acts on that weekend, I’ll take that. My favourite moments? Being a piece of bread in a stage-light toaster in Song for the Adequate Person and listening to the guy who tried and failed to wait until the music stopped before clapping (he was so keen!). Keeping focus whilst singing about a floating cock in a bathtub. The dynamic smash of the Professor of History Greets His Students, conducting the Fragment of a Requiem for Timothy Hamilton Walsh and who doesn’t like a 5 minute standing ovation. I wonder now what Tim would have thought at the premiere. His remaining friends and family seemed chuffed, but would they say that with Tim standing by?
As mentioned in earlier posts, I was fortunate to be asked by the Bookend Trust to compose music for their up-coming film Sixteen Legs; a film on the Tasmanian Cave Spider featuring a host of marvellous people including the narration of Neil Gaiman and the beautiful sounds of Kate Miller-Heidke. I waited for a long while for the crews to come in with enough footage to begin assembling, and when they did…whoah! So this spider is amazing and really, really big. The footage by Joe Shemesh is in 4K, award winning and shockingly beautiful. He’s caught the spider doing a lot of things including eating crickets and…yes…having sex. That’s the big one. Never caught quite like it before. Kooky, I know. And there are caves under Tassie that will put the most grand cathedrals to shame.
I had the deep privilege of recording much of the score with the wonderful Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gary Wain (what a legend!) and then to Melbourne to add the extraordinary voice of Kate Miller-Heidke. What Kate did to the music is to be heard to be believed. I simply can’t do it justice by describing it here. Kate was a wonderful, gentle, utterly professional soul to work with and I can’t wait for you to hear it.
Keep a look out in late 2016 for Sixteen Legs. Here’s a preview of Joe’s award winning shots of the spiders in habitat.