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.
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?
Risks are good. They help break conventions and skulls. Professionally, in music, the breaking of conventions is a necessary hazard. It’s how people know you’re there. Otherwise you’re wallpaper.
This year, for Her majesty the Queens 90th birthday celebrations, Government House in Hobart took one such risk. They asked me to produce something for the occasion that would be new yet referential, risky yet respectful. I used the opportunity to engage two people I’d wanted to create with for sometime; Kelly Ottaway and Julius Schwing, and we discussed the concept. Truth be told, I think it was Kelly who first spake the idea of God Save the Queen – Theme and Variations. Well, that is what it was called in the end. Initially, the ideas ‘Meditation upon… or GSTQ Re-arranged… were bandied about, but they presented too much fog around the idea and not enough clarity of meaning for a traditional occasion.
Kelly, Julius and I began to explore phrases from GSTQ and its closest friend, the Hymn Jerusalem. What became of it was a 45 minute concert composed equally by the three of us for string quartet, brass quartet, piano, guitar, samples and taped excerpts of the coronation.
The risk factor rung on in the minds of the Governor and staff so that right up until my baton went down for the first time, everyone was a little on the edge. What was this going to sound like? How kooky were the variations going to be? Would the Queen be offended? One month earlier, I had been called into the Governor’s office and asked this question directly. They wanted to avoid any unpleasant complications given the gravity of the occasion. I played them a freshly composed example from my laptop of a brass quartet piece with the working title God Save the Brass Quartet, which I had penned not two days earlier (phew!). They liked it, (phew!) and we went on…cautiously.
Did it work? Did we vary too much? Was there anything left of the regal theme and its potency? The Governor and staff seemed overjoyed with the result (phew!). So much so the next night a camera crew was employed to film it and send it to Buckingham Palace the following day in time for London’s celebrations for the Queen in the Mall. Did the Queen see it? Not sure. Haven’t heard yet. But, personally, I couldn’t be happier with the process, the outcome and the story to tell.
Sometimes ,missing a deadline works to ones advantage. I’m not suggesting this as a business strategy, but sometimes, as in this particular time, something good came of it. I was so busy with the NW project, that when an email loaded with a poem from David Walsh, issuing the challenge to set it to music came, I quarantined it, knowing that it would become the greatest of marvellous distractions from all other work. I left it for a few weeks. This, apparently, is far too long for a poet who’s muse was restless for music upon his verse. So I was both disappointed and delighted when informed that, due to my lack of activity in this area, the poem had been sent to Sting to muse upon.
In the following blog, David writes that I dismissed said poem. See above my defence. See blow the blog. Being one point of a triangle of David Walsh, Sting and myself is a pleasant place to be. Sentimentally, I rejoice.
As kids some people read. I listened. I absorbed not the word and its way of encasing and exploding, but music; The way it sounds after its made, encasing and exploding ideas I had and were yet to have.
My world was defined by the feelings that music promoted. Through endless hours of listening I began to understand that which my meager, sheltered existence had not been exposed. The chaos and safety of humanity.
Both listeners and readers are voyeurs; absorbing ideas after the genesis of someone else’s moment. Someone else’s time. However, through a lack of motivation in my young body and the safety of solitude, it took me years to enable my body to begin replicating these sounds and feelings for myself. Making my own music. Thus my ears worked better than my hands. It took many years of slugging it out in shitty gigs and later the rigor of university to get my body up to speed with my ears. Too many years.
*note for future musicians, do them together; much easier that way.
The ears work in mysterious ways when not associated with your body. They can allow dreams that your body struggles to unfold from the physical realities of gravity and touch. I learned too late that I was actually a physical being having a dream as opposed to the other way around. But over the years, I have delighted in explaining these dreams in great detail to my body and encouraging it to employ and retell them. Had it gone the other way, the limitations of my physical understanding may have hindered my imaginings and thus, made them smaller. I suppose I’ll never know.
But now my work is leading away from the physical again in that I am writing for larger ensembles that don’t contain me. I’m back to imagining music without making it, but I’m on the other side of my ears. Instead of hearing music made by someone else from the outside, it is my own inner ear (if such a thing can be understood) that is making the dream and initializing the experience for others.
Now others hear my music like I used to hear it exclusively; without being in it.
For anyone who does not yet play music but is hearing mine; dream it, hear it, take it, learn it, play it, make a mess of it, do whatever is necessary to put it into your hands. There can he no greater understanding of music than when you play it for yourself.