In this episode of the Chamber of Musical Curiosities, Artistic Director Paul Kildea talks with the Australian artist Genevieve Lacey. As he eloquently notes in the introduction, to simply refer to Genevieve as ‘a recorder player, is missing the point’, as she has forged a rich career, with credits as a performer, composer, and curator.
In this conversation, Genevieve reflects upon the emergence of her artistic practise, talks about how ‘a life in art is one of constant evolution’, and reflects on the genesis, and importance of Musica Viva’s Future Makers program. She doesn’t leave without revealing tantalising information about the collaboration she’s developed with her friend and colleague, the harpist Marshall McGuire.
Paul: Hi, I'm Paul Kildea artistic director of Musica Viva. Welcome to the podcast. I'm here today with Genevieve Lacey, and Genevieve to call you a recorder player is ever so slightly missing the point and I thought of this recently watching the rather charming and beautiful but also very very kind of personal, documentary that you made which was screened on the ABC in August. And it was an intimate portrait of not simply an artist and her evolution, but also the shape and psychological structure of the trajectory, almost of an artistic practice. I think the question I want to ask you is that we don't know this at age 25 what our artistic practice is going to be, and this film deals very much with this tight rope. A lovely image that's included in the film this tight rope that you found yourself walking which was between the virtuosic soloist and somehow an instinct deep inside you that the way that you wanted to perform and create music was somehow more complex than just simply the soloist turning up and performing this handful of virtuosic works. Do you feel now that at this stage of your life and career that you are actually practicing the way that you want to and performing and creating art the way that you want to?
Genevieve: I think I get closer to that over time. But I suppose if I've learned anything along the way, I've learnt that a life in art is one of constant evolution and you're always responding. To, your own changed internal landscape, as well as the world in which you work. So there was a time where that tight rope of concerto playing was my world and was completely consuming and I was in the thrall of that. And I think that at that stage in life, that was right and good. But I couldn't stay there. So, at the moment, I suppose my main focus is on working collaboratively with other people, all sorts of people, whether they're musicians or artists of all kinds, or scientists or people I meet who inspire me and who somehow can help me to shape and bring to life an idea that I'm preoccupied with at the time. So now that feels like where I need to be, but I'd be almost willing to bet that in 10 years I'll be somewhere else.
Paul: And the idea off the pertinent age or just the right age for one to discover this. I suppose it changes depending upon the artist, but what was it in your journey? Which again, in this beautiful film comes across so strongly? What do you think? Or was it a combination of events that made you think, yes, I want to step off this particular tight rope. I'm at this particular age, and I suppose my question is, is it an age thing, or is it simply a developmental question?
Genevieve: It's a great question. When I observe my colleagues and my friends, I think the age differs for different people. So, some people that I know made that discovery much earlier than I did. I feel like in a lot of ways I was actually quite slow to it, and then I have other colleagues who are discovering it later again. So I think it's partly tied to age, but I think it's also very much tied to circumstance. And for me, there was always this aching split between the conventional heritage that goes with my instrument, which is European and the place that I call home and I needed to resolve that.
Paul: Talk a little bit more about the conventional expectations of the instrument because there'll be a lot of listeners who will be very comfortable saying, I know what the conventional repertory and career connotations are of a piano or a violin. But what are the ones that you grew up with regarding this instrument that you played from such a young age?
Genevieve: Well, the lovely thing about playing the recorder is you don't have so clearly a defined career path that you do when you play a violin or piano. And I think for a lot of recorder players, that's a source of great sadness. For me that's been a source of great joy and discovery and freedom and possibility, really. So, the interesting thing about the recorder is that I suppose the notion off a professional virtuoso player is one that was made up in the 20th century. It didn't exist historically, and we owe that to an extraordinary musician called Frans Brüggen who really brought this instrument to life and of course, he wasn't the only one. There are a whole series of players doing this, but he was very much at the forefront of, creating a contemporary life as a recorder player and for him that meant unearthing and playing beautiful historical repertoire and it also met collaborating closely with composers to create new works. And he became, I suppose, the role model for what might be possible with the instrument. Here in Australia, again, there are a handful of extraordinary pioneers on the instrument, all of whom had different desires for the instrument and for their life in music. So, I suppose I looked to a whole lot of different people as role models, all of whom offered different possibilities. But yeah, I think it really has always been to my advantage that there has been no, one clear path for what you might do with the recorder and I suppose as I've got older, the lack of clarity has been something that I've embraced more and more.
Paul: It might be worthwhile saying exactly when Brüggen was at the height of his career, on pioneering these wonderful excavations into old rep because it interests me, of course, because the other person who was doing something similar was a great hero of mine Wanda Landowska, who was working with modern contemporary composers on a modern instrument. It has to be said, but at the same time doing these fantastic archaeological forays into the 16th and 17th centuries. So, I'd love that. And how much of it was Brüggen's almost re-applying or re-appropriating repertory that had been taken over by other instruments, flute or other woodwind instruments and giving it back to the recorder.
Genevieve: He certainly did that, but he also, as you said, unearthed and excavated a lot of treasures that had been buried or lost and also, he played, you know, he was an extraordinary musician and an extraordinarily charismatic communicator. And so he was able to give I suppose to kind of gravitas to a whole lot of repertory that had been deemed second rate. Or also quite frankly, hadn't been played particularly well in the public domain since the 18th century. So, he was really able to embody and give a voice to a whole lot of the things that literally had been lost. So, I guess he was doing this, really, later than Landowska wasn't he?
Genevieve: I always think of Brüggen and that sort of handful of early music hero pioneers like Gustav Leonhardt, and then, of course in England, the Dolmetsch family and the whole sort of resurgence of interest in history, which of course, came about for so many reasons. I mean, that's another whole conversation, isn't it? But the kind of Arcadian ideal of recreating a past and a type of music making that was somehow pure and somehow like the whole idea of the Renaissance consort and things being equal and shared and collegiate and intimate as a kind of an antidote to what was seen as the overblown excesses of romanticism that then landed in the world wars basically. So, music, this craving for something that was simpler and purer, I think, was a really important part of the whole early music movement as well as a bunch of a maverick visionary, curious people who started discovering these old instruments in this old repertory and just saying, well this is fantastic music, we should play it, but I think there are lots of things going on simultaneously there.
Paul: I like the fact that you link him with Gustav Leonhardt because it would seem, as though those two as pioneers off the kind of explosion If you like in early music and historically informed performance in the 1980’s and 90’s. They somehow still managed to keep their heads up, and their very early discoveries and the very early experiments in how to think about this music and perform it weren't discredited by the subsequent generations of performers who were also very interested in this part of the industry and this type of repertory.
Genevieve: Yeah, they weren't discredited, but in some ways, I feel like it's a pretty typical generational pattern for me, at least in that if they were the parent generation, they were really radical, and they were really interested in going to places that people hadn't gone before. And I think they were very, as well as being extremely scholarly they were in many ways very intuitive, expressive musicians, and I think that there was a swing with the next generation and if we could, you know these are extremely broad-brush strokes, but I think almost a reaction to that. The next generation became quite obsessed with doctrines and treatises and actually being able to codify what this music might have sounded like and how it was played and what instrument that was played on and how it was tuned. And so, there was a time where people became quite obsessed with facts, with empirical evidence and again that goes hand in hand with what was happening in the world at that time and I like to think that then there's a next generation where things are a little bit more fluid again. So, I would agree that Brüggen and Leonhardt certainly have never been discredited. But I think there was a kind of a, phase where people got a little bit obsessed with doctrine.
Paul: Yeah, and you and I have talked about your understanding off different modes, different tuning systems like, so you have all this knowledge because you after all, were a student of the early nineties when this was a, very hot flame. But it doesn't dictate, to the point that you can now slip into those clothes very happily when you need to. But it doesn't dictate how you think about a piece of music does it?
Genevieve: No and it never has. I've always been heretical in that sense; in that I've always been interested in the experience of music now rather than the recreation of an imagined past. And I have deep respect for scholars and musicologists and colleagues who wear those clothes to use your analogy all the time, who actually live in that world and whose first language it is, whereas for me it's one of many dialects that I speak. So, I always like to try to be careful about that because that's not been my way. But I have a lot of respect for people who have gone a much longer journey down that path than I ever did.
Paul: I think this idea of speaking with a different accent is interesting on a number of levels. One is the one you touched on a moment ago speaking with an Australian accent but being a student overseas and working out what your relationship is with Australia and how best to reconcile that. But there's another part of it, and I think this speaks to what you were just talking about regarding early music or historically informed performance, and that is the way that you look at the world and I think I'd love you to talk a little bit about even your doctoral studies, which is something you don't ever really talk about. I know, but it just, even the way that you approach that, as a fairly young person was indicative of a very different way of thinking about this career and life of yours.
Genevieve: Well, I guess what I was doing in those doctoral studies was I was really interested in the fact that when I went to university, I studied two things simultaneously. So I did a music degree, and in my music degree, I was studying both recorder and oboe and then I was also doing a degree in English literature. And at that time in the academy as you say in the nineties, not only was the flame of early music hot, but the other flame that was extremely hot was the flame of cultural studies, literary studies, literary theory, women's studies, queer studies. It was a time where there was a real re-evaluation of what we consider to be universal truth in what we consider the cannon to be and so the work that I was doing in the English Department was at the radical end of that spectrum, and it was fundamentally questioning what is this notion of truth? And does truth actually reside in the text? Is there a God in the text? And should we still be worshiping that God or in fact, is the text a product of a person who is a product off their context? And could it also be true that what we bring to that text actually informs the text as well? So I was being brought up in two diametrically opposed intellectual ways of thinking, which I loved but also was quite fundamentally bewildering and that really came to a head when I went to Europe because I went to the heart of early music like, I went to Mecca itself because I had fallen in love, particularly with medieval, Renaissance music and I felt like I wanted to go to the source of that and the years that I spent then in Europe, right in the depths of that, really to me, brought to a head this kind of crisis of, where is the truth in this? Or more pertinently, perhaps, what is my truth with this? What do I think this music is and how do I want to use it? And who do I think it's for? And so that sort of unravelled a whole series of questions, and my doctoral studies were very much about trying to tease that out, trying to work out well, why have we got so obsessed with this thing called early music and this whole idea, which was very strong at the time. This whole idea of authenticity, of recreating a composer's intentions. So, they're the words of early music, and then the world that I'd grown up in in the English department said, well, we can never know the authors intentions. And what is this recreation thing anyway? So really, it was me just trying to navigate my way through that and work out well, what do I think and why? And that really led me to the heart of, well, what does it mean to be a contemporary Australian woman playing this music? And what is my relationship with it? And with history in the past, which led me very much to the question about what is actually my relationship with the here and now?
Paul: That's a nice point to take a quick word from our supporters.
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Paul: Talking about having those dual approaches in these two faculties is an amazing burden in some senses for a young musician and thinker. And I know now that this is partly why you have such a commitment towards young artists in Australia, young musicians in Australia, not least of all because of the very beautiful scheme that we have at Musica Viva called the future makers. I'd love you to tell us a little bit about the origin of that and why you were so passionate that it was missing in the Australian landscape and necessary for the future of this landscape.
Genevieve: Well, the origin story for that program comes from dear and visionary philanthropists who have a long relationship with Musica Viva. And that's the Berg family, particularly Tony, and Carol Berg, whose family have been entwined with Musica Viva since its very origins and in true Berg fashion at a significant moment, I think it was the 70th anniversary. Musica Viva, they said, well it's wonderful to celebrate this, but what does the next 70 years look like? Who is going to populate that? How are we going to take care of them? How do we identify them? And so that began a series of conversations, both internally within the organization and externally, and to cut a long story short. I ended up in a kind of consultancy role with the organization for some years, working closely with a handful of key staff members, particularly at that time with Tim Matthies. And then when Tim moved on to another job with Katherine Kemp, trying to think really deeply about what a young musician needs. What do they need in order to survive this world, to thrive in it and to shape it? So that they're not merely receiving what they think their tradition, or their role is, but they're actually actively shaping it. And that, of course, brought about a whole lot of very passionate conversations both within and without the organization. And you ask why I feel so strongly about it? Uh, for so many reasons Paul I mean, I suppose primarily because I feel like I've been so extraordinarily privileged through my life in that many people have been very generous to me, many people have given me advice have given me opportunities have been either official or unofficial mentors and guardian angels to me and I'm very much a stage in my life where I would love to play that role for other people. So there was a sort of a fundamental sense of yes, it's time for me to do this now, but also a very fundamental sense that unless as a community, we think very seriously about what kind of a future we want to have. And unless we see it is our job to create that, then I can very easily see an art form that is so dear to may dwindling and disappearing and I would hate that. So it was a very kind of strong role of advocacy and activism about how we take this artform forward.
Paul: It's wonderful and I have the great privilege, of course, of stepping into your very large shoes, but take the responsibility very seriously because I completely agree, and you and I have talked about this and similar things for a very long time. Genevieve, I said at the beginning that to call you a recorder player is really missing the point, and I really believe that, and I'd love you to talk a little bit about the anatomy of collaboration, because when I think of you, I think of you just and astonishingly fertile collaborator. You touched on that some moments ago, saying that it's not always musicians. It's not always the most obvious person in the room. And so, I'd love you to talk about some of those collaborations and how they came about, because the process is a very long one. And it starts, as I know with you was just this initial idea that you then scratch at for a while and then kind of give it flesh and the giving of the flesh is rather wonderful. And then there's a legacy of it, and it's often a legacy of relationships. So perhaps talk a little bit about collaboration and why it's so dear to you and how it defines you so much and then, perhaps also talk a little bit about some of the collaborations that we're thinking about and working on at the moment of Musica Viva.
Genevieve: I suppose I love to collaborate because it's not just about the pleasure of being part of a team, but it's a genuine belief that I have that you have the most fun in life when you are the person in the room who knows the least. It's so fantastic to be surrounded by brilliant, gifted, generous people who, on a daily basis ask you questions that completely alter your perspective on not just the project that you're working on but how you want to live your life. And also, collaborators whose brilliance is almost frightening enough that every night you go home and you have to try to remake yourself and you have to constantly learn a whole set of skills that you didn't have previously. Not in order just to try to keep up, but to feel like you have a right to be there. So, there's something about collaboration for me that's deeply entwined with this insatiable quest for growth, I suppose, for learning more and for becoming something other than what you think you are. So, I suppose your question about the anatomy of collaboration, I think a really essential trait in anyone who wants to take that seriously is a willingness to be small and a willingness to be incredibly porous. I think if you're going to be a good collaborator, you have to be willing to let go all the time, and that's a really interesting process and I think I have a time like with most things, if you do it more, you get a little bit better at understanding kind of where the boundaries are, where you need to hold firm and where you need to let go. And I certainly wouldn't say that I've mastered that, but I feel like I'm more at ease with it. I suppose another thing about an aptitude for collaboration for me is also about a willingness to stay for quite some time, not knowing what something is going to be. So, I think there's a huge amount of instinct involved and trust involved where you invite people into a project or a conversation, and I think that's something that I've definitely got better at is actually not pinning things down too early, being willing to sit in that very uncomfortable space where people are saying what is it How long is it? What your elevator pitch? Can we please have the marketing materials and saying, I understand you need all those things, but we don't know yet and it's really powerful to learn that those things take time and that that sort of dual relationship between risk and trust in terms of the sorts of collaborative projects that I've done, they've been many and varied from incredibly privileged scenarios were I’ve been invited into an indigenous community and a family in particular, to help carry the story of one of their great elders. One of their great family members project around the life and legacy of Albert Namatjira.
Paul: Which was astonishingly powerful. It was just a beautiful, beautiful presentation and profound as well for us working out who we are as Australians.
Genevieve: Yeah, thanks Paul well, I feel like that was one of my apprenticeships, and I really sat at the feet of masters there. So, I was working with a company called Big Art, run by the genuinely visionary and extremely maverick Scott Rankin and watching that company work and understanding a lot about risk and not knowing. And also, you spoke earlier about the length of collaborative projects? That was a beautiful thing to learn in that company too, that if you're going to do something properly and seriously, it's going to take years, not months but years. So, yeah, from projects like that that for me were early iterations of what it means to be a creative collaborator through to I suppose that, you know, I spent the last seven months not being able to play live, not being able to tour, do the things that have been a big part of my life, which has been um. Well, it's been many things, but it's meant that I've been working really hard at four new large-scale projects which I think will come to life, probably over the next 10 years. But it’s been really interesting to have a window of time where I could just work solidly at that because normally my life is much more of a juggling one, between playing, recording, the kind of advising, mentoring, leading that I do and then this collaborative work. So, it’s been really interesting to just work in this way.
Paul: Yeah, one of these projects is going to come to life much sooner than 10 years I'm delighted to say, and I'd love you to talk about it a little, first of all, perhaps, as a way of introducing it. Talk about one of your firm old friends and collaborators, Marshall McGuire, and then lead into what you're working on. It's going to have a few different lives, and I'd love you to talk about those lives and how you're thinking about it at the moment.
Genevieve: Yeah, well, this is a project called Bower or currently called Bower, you know, all good projects change their titles multiple times, but this one seems to be sticking, and it's been commissioned by Ian and Carrillon Gantner, with support from Oregon, Klein and You, Correa. And yes, at its centre is my dear friend and colleague Marshall McGuire. And even though this project feels as though it's going to emerge quite quickly, it does come out of a 20 year relationship. And that's often the case with good collaborations is that it's as though the seeds are sown and are quietly germinating over many, many years before. Suddenly, an opportunity arises where you think, oh, I've actually been thinking about that without knowing I was thinking about it for 10 years, so this feels very much like that kind of a project. And Marshall and I have played together in so many different contexts We've had some incredible adventures together. He's a beautifully open-minded person and musician, and he's one of those rare colleagues that I can play 12th century music with and new work by Liza Lim and pretty much anything in between. And not a whole lot of musicians have that kind of breadth and feel at ease in so many different styles. So that's something I really treasure, working with Marshall.
Paul: I love seeing you together because you've accumulated a shorthand almost, in the way that you communicate and so much of it is instinctive and So that does allow you finally, to capitalize on 20 years of investment. It's an artistic investment. It's also an investment in friendship, and all of this comes across on stage. I'm embarrassed to say that I am not a bird lover and so I of course when you first said that this was the working title and I had to think of the Bower bird, and I didn't know what its distinction was as a bird and you said to me at one point that this was a project slightly about safety and sanctuary and that it seemed necessary. This year of all years to have that sense of sanctuary. So perhaps you could talk a little bit about that and also the repertory and how you've landed on the repertory.
Genevieve: Well, I am a bird lover Paul.
Paul: I know that.
Genevieve: And birds find their way into so many of my projects more and more as I get older not just birds, but the natural world in general. And yes, it does feel like this is a year where ideas of sanctuary, of solace, of respite, of hope, of building something out of beauty, out of sound and light feels extraordinarily important because so much of our world has been shattered. And I suppose so many things that have been problematic for a long time that we allowed ourselves to, I think was somehow below the surface had become devastatingly apparent over the last while. So, the idea of trying to make something out of the rubble seems really important and to think very carefully about what materials you want to use and so for me all the repertory comes out of relationships. And to be honest, that's how my artistic, that's how my whole life works. It's based on relationships of trust, really so. Marshall and I have reached through our 20 years of playing and thought about historical music that we have an affinity for. Interestingly, at the moment when we look at the repertory list, they're actually only a couple of things that we've been playing a long time. Most of it is new to us, but a lot of it is related to other things that we know and love, but that somehow felt important too it feels like it's been a year of letting go of things. So in terms of repertory, we at the moment we think we might go. Back as far as the 14th Century we’ll certainly spend a decent amount of time in the 16th and 17th early 18th centuries. And in terms of that early music, most of it is the kind of early music that I absolutely love and that Suits our instruments so well and that it's music built on repetitive patterns. So what in music terms gets called a ground bass or basically a series of chords or harmonies or simply a series of bass notes that get repeated multiple times over which something intricate is built. And to me, that's sits beautifully with the way that the bell bird makes his nest. And it is a he who makes the nest because the whole making of the nest is about trying. To seduce a mate, basically. So, our old repertory basically takes the idea of simple patterns that become extravagant ornate and really beguiling And then, really, Bower’s a commissioned project. So, we've commissioned four new works from artists we know and love. We've commissioned a whole series of arrangements, as well and where Marshall, I both work across many different domains, musically and so the composers that we've chosen are similarly diverse in their styles and their backgrounds from Andrea Keller, who's best known as a jazz pianist. But that also does her a disservice, she's an extraordinary composer who works in many different realms. Ec Evil Time, who is one of the most versatile musicians that I know, breathe and right, who works as a drummer in the indie rock world, as well as a composer, conceptual sound artist, a really interesting woman and then Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, who always worked as a duo and for me, probably our most important conceptual artists in the country, working in sound. So wildly different practices, backgrounds and to go to each of these marvellous people and say, what would you like to do with the recorder and a harp within this idea of creating a sanctuary? But, you know, the results are fantastic. They are so different.
Paul: I can't wait for this tour. I can't wait to be able to take you to different cities and to see the different responses from people to this very beautiful idea, this very beautiful concept in the same way that I'm so happy that it brings together some of your favourite people. Harpist Marshall McGuire, Jama'at Cones, the wonderful sound designer. A lighting designer with whom you're working for either the first or the second time on, of course, Genevieve Lacey, with whom it's being the most delightful pleasure to sit and discuss this and many other things. Genevieve, it's always good to see you and I thank you again for being here today.
Genevieve: You're so welcome, Paul. Lovely to talk. Thanks.