I am a classical flutist by training. How did I go from traditional orchestral ambitions to having such an interest in the anarchic self-expression of free improvisation? (A word of warning… Despite my ambitions to keep this story fairly straightforward, this has somewhat turned into an entire autobiographical ramble. I have decided for the time being not to edit it back, but to assume that this self-indulgence might be somehow worthwhile. Read ahead at your own risk!)
I grew up on a small property, a half hour’s drive southwest of Toowoomba, Queensland. My mother is an ecologist, mostly working as a part-time public servant while I was growing up, but more recently completing her PhD and gaining employment as an academic at the University of Southern Queensland. My father is an agronomist – a kind of agricultural adviser. Originally from England, he has now called Australia home for over three decades. It’s only in the last few years that I could distinguish his accent as ‘foreign’.
My sister and I started piano lessons young. Mum played the piano, her father the violin. Theirs is a family of gifted amateurs and everyone had an instrument. It would be the same for me and my sisters. A few years of piano, though, and squabbles between Susie and me meant that I was prompted to choose something else to move on to (as the oldest, I had the responsibility to change). I selected the piccolo, I think because at around the end of third grade I was feeling that I was somehow not girly enough, and piccolo seemed ultimately feminine as the highest sounding instrument. I also thought it would annoy Susie the most. Mum sagely suggested that all piccolo players start with the flute, and that my uncle had one I could borrow so I could start right away.
I couldn’t make a sound. After getting the flute serviced, the Allan’s Music guy showed me how to finger a D and how to blow over the mouth hole. No sound. For about a week. Mum tried as well (only later I would find out that she had taken up flute for a short while in childhood), and I think she managed but with difficulty. Eventually I guess I started to toot a little on just the headpiece, and worked my way back up to the D.
For about a year I learnt through the school’s band program. Mum evidently saw that as insufficient and so moved me on to a private teacher – the sweet and kind Ms Buckley. So began my lessons with a string of different flute teachers, all of which seemed to at some stage get pregnant or move away from Toowoomba. I think I had around ten different teachers before finishing high school. At times the teachers didn’t give me much inspiration and I stagnated; at times they scared me and I contemplated quitting; at times they facilitated a rapid improvement and I became ambitious. Mrs Parker, the lovely teacher I had in mid-high school noted my musical skill and enthusiasm (I was regularly identified as a gifted chorister as a child and young adult, but she was the first to tell me I was a worthwhile flute player), took me through my sixth grade AMEB exam and then encouraged me to go to a teacher who could take me further.
I then learnt from Jennifer St George and Karen Lonsdale, the teachers at USQ at the time. Between the two of them I gained enough grounding to undertake a successful audition to the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. My training had been patchy, but varied – a blessing and a curse as one might expect. Between that and my rural background, I felt somewhat at a disadvantage when I entered the Conservatorium alongside well-groomed city kids with lofty ambitions. I learnt quickly to tailor mine, and regularly spouted that I was destined to be a music teacher because I was a realist and knew I was not good enough to make it as an orchestral musician, and these were regularly the only two options really presented to us. In truth, however, I never killed off the idea of being a professional musician – orchestral or not – and endured some fairly intense internal struggles as I tried to learn not to be afraid of hard work.
Gerhard Mallon, my softly-spoken, mild-mannered, slightly neglectful German flute teacher at the Conservatorium, noted my determination to play what other students were not playing and put Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir on my stand. I took to the wild angularity and rhythmic difficulty of the piece, and performed it with great vigour, if not 100% control and accuracy. I’d found my tribe.
Subsequent years of my undergraduate saw me taking on ‘new music’ as my primary focus, nurtured as I was especially by percussion lecturer Dr Vanessa Tomlinson in her 20th/21st Century Performance Practice class and the New Music Ensemble. She saw me through my Honours year, a shaky period in my life, and continued to offer support once I left the Conservatorium – engaging me in projects with her ensemble Clocked Out and a specially formed group called Golden Orb, with whom I travelled to China. She was also there for me as I put on my own concerts under the somewhat obnoxious title of Musicians Against Complacency, chosen to try to rouse my peers from the safety of institutions, museum music, and political insulation. To tone it down just a little, I went with MAC and when a group of players coalesced out of that and some fellow student projects I’d been involved in such as the Sounding Out Composers Collective we called ourselves MAC Ensemble.
At this stage I was working closely with my friend/partner-in-crime/sudden-romantic-interest/future-husband Liam Flenady. It wasn’t too long until the MAC project gave way to a particular set of young musicians who had a strong interest in playing contemporary music, and Kupka’s Piano emerged on the Brisbane scene (and I am very proud to say it has stuck around). I had done some part-time work for Southern Cross Soloists since finishing my undergraduate studies, but having met and begun learning from the inimitable Patrick Nolan I took up further study – a Master of Philosophy in Music Performance at the University of Queensland. Patrick took a real interest in my playing and worked hard with me to gain the technical skill I lacked. He also was far more enthusiastic about my new music single-mindedness, although he also professed ignorance, despite a number of relevant experiences. I chose to focus my study on flute music with vocalisation, something I felt particularly at ease with having done so much singing through my school years. I nevertheless found writing that paper difficult, being regularly too ambitious with philosophical content as well as with my performance repertoire.
In fact, biting off more than I could chew was (and is) an extremely regular occurrence and for some reason I was never appropriately cautioned against it. Only now, as I approach 30, do I think I’m able to better judge my abilities, although it is admittedly still a problem. I am something of a procrastinator and a perfectionist from way back. I don’t have a very clear understanding of why that is exactly, but I do manage to get a lot of good work done under pressure of a rapidly approaching deadline. When it comes to planning the next project I’m usually just completing the previous one, and the exhilaration of managing to get things together and turn in something mostly worthwhile at the last-minute fills me with a false bravado. Probably this tendency has contributed to my interest in improvisation.
I couldn’t exactly say why I didn’t come to improvisation earlier. It’s not that I didn’t ever improvise, whether alone or with various groups of friends, but I didn’t feel justified in taking it seriously. It was something to do with identification I think – having come from the classical music world, leaving the score behind seemed reckless. I didn’t have the experience or the knowledge or the skills for that, those were the domains of students with jazz training. I didn’t know the first thing about jazz. (I long held similar hang-ups about composition.)
Like many who pass through tertiary music education in Australia who desire a performance-based career, I saw study in Europe or America as a rite of passage. I didn’t believe I had a chance to be taken seriously until I had done this. I had met some significant hiccups when it came to this particular ambition – my first trip to Europe ended up coming on the tail of a rather terrifying near-death experience (getting caught in a flash flood in Toowoomba in January 2011) which uprooted my already shaky mental health (basically due to a very punishing superego). I had already been extremely nervous, and now I was downright terrified of just about everything in the world. I am not sure how but I got through my lessons and workshops there in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria – playing exceptionally badly – and eventually got over the various fears of flying, swimming, flute playing, and every teacher I met there. In fact, Austrian flute tutor Eva Furrer (at the Impuls academy), managed to be caring as well as stern. It was she who suggested I check out the degree I would end up taking some years later in Belgium.
There were any number of things that landed me in that degree at the Ghent School of Arts, under the mentorship of Ictus Ensemble, and especially flutists Michael Schmid and Helen Bledsoe (musikFabrik, Cologne). There were failed auditions for ANAM, as well as courses in Basel and Frankfurt. I almost didn’t get to my audition in Ghent after missing a tram in Cologne the morning of! It wasn’t this course alone that set me towards a dedicated improvisation practice, but I believe other courses might not have left the room for it in the way that this one did. Nor would it have placed me in such proximity to one particular influence: Richard Barrett, who teaches at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague.
There is a long list of people that I could credit for my interest in improvisation, and perhaps many of those come ahead of my own awareness of that interest. (Curiously, I think of this in much the same way as I had realised I’d fallen in love with my best friend, now my husband, once it had already happened, the seeds having doubtless been planted some time earlier…) Certainly I could look back to Jan Baker-Finch and the Improvisation and Movement classes I’d taken in my first semester at the Con. There was Vanessa, with her own beautiful practice. Patrick, who encouraged me to improvise as a practice technique. Dr Kathleen Gallagher, another teacher and incredible performer, who demanded to know why I wasn’t improvising. But while I was in Belgium, some key experiences really made it clear that this was to be important for me.
The first of these was the second Impuls academy I’d attended, this one in early 2015. I took some of the improvisation classes with the incredible experimental pianist Manon-Liu Winter. In my first class with her there were just two students: myself and a trombonist, Juna Winston, who was already an experienced improviser. Juna and I clicked creatively immediately, and later that festival we would perform a rather amazing trio along with Australian-Japanese koto player Miyama McQueen-Tokita. Manon was wonderfully enthusiastic about my playing, which I had gone into without expectation or desire to prove anything, knowing I was a bit of a noob. Over the ten days of the academy I realised I felt more at home in Manon’s classroom than anywhere else, despite the leadership role I was playing in other ensemble projects. There was also a less positive improvisation experience – a larger group of players was thrown together for performance in the ridiculously long marathon concert, and that ended up being disappointingly juvenile. But I knew that I had found something in myself that I had not been previously so aware of.
I think the timing of this particular encounter was important. Having worked closely with a group of composers for some time, I was interested in writing some of my own music but somewhat nervous of making that step. I knew I harboured creative energy that went beyond programming and interpretation, but putting pen to manuscript is a fairly intimidating thing. Walking into the classroom that day, a little over two years ago now, revealed to me how well I could select and develop materials, and conceptualise a form taking shape over time. I just needed to be actually doing it, rather than dreaming it up in the abstract.
It was also there at Impuls that Liam and I first worked with Richard Barrett, having briefly met him sometime previously. Richard became an extremely important mentor figure and teacher for Liam, and he started travelling to The Hague on a monthly basis for lessons. It was later that same year that my interest in his codex scores would emerge, after a wonderful week of workshops in Antwerp at Champ d’Action’s LAbO #5 academy. I worked closely with cellist Arne Deforce, a long-time colleague of Richard, and an acclaimed performer of both contemporary composed and freely improvised musics. We put together a performance of codex I and also worked on codex XV, and I found I had a knack for teasing out the ‘gameplay’ of these scores and leading the improvising ensembles. I decided to focus my research project on the full set of these pieces (there are now 18 or 19 I believe), which led to me reading broadly on improvisation and notation, as well as conducting interviews with Richard and four performers who had had codex scores written for them.
This was a wonderfully fruitful time for me creatively, and I felt confident that I had found my footing in a world beyond notated new music. codex is a lovely in-between for performers used to working from scores to start thinking how they might communicate and structure ideas in group improvisation. My interviewees were Serbian harpist Milana Zarič, Australian guitarist Daryl Buckley, and German recorder player Sylvia Hinz, as well as Arne and Richard. All of these individuals gave me so much to think about and to explore in my own work, both with the codex scores and in my improvisation practice in general. I meanwhile led workshops with my fellow students in Belgium, culminating in a performance of codex V and XV. An autoethnographical reflection on this performance featured as a key component in my final paper.
One thing that frustrated me no end while conducting this research was how difficult it was to find texts by or about women improvisers. In Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: Its nature and practice in music of 1980 (a very important early text on this rarely documented practice) not a single women is profiled, despite the diverse range of performance styles discussed and the prominent women working in improvisation at the time. This notably includes Pauline Oliveros, one of the few women to have much published writings, and to have a distinctive, individual philosophy of improvisation practice. In my dissertation I cited women where I could, and evidently included them amongst my interview subjects, but no one seemed able to point me to much in the way of women who had been written about or who wrote about their improvisation practices.
This of course has a parallel in the lack of women who gain recognition in the world of composition, and the tides are heavy and slow to change there. (I recently attended the Women in the Creative Arts conference at the ANU School of Music, alongside both my supervisors, which was full of hope and enthusiasm, but also many of the same problems that have been plaguing women in the arts for at least the past four decades.) But in improvisation there is a greater danger, the art form being so time-bound and ephemeral, that without documentation in the form of writings the practices of these women might disappear altogether. Considering that even in literature women have been consistently written out of history (a phenomenon Ursula K Le Guin calls “disappearing grandmothers” in an essay from Words are my matter of 2016), it seems to me an important job to get as much evidence as possible onto the record. Hence my current research project – an examination of the practices of women free improvisers.
Image by Danni Ogilvie.