Helen Svoboda is a double bassist, vocalist and composer whose work 'defies categorisation', according to Andrew Ford of Radio National's The Music Show. She recently undertook a three month solo residency at the Helsinki International Artist Programme on Suomenlinna (FIN), supported by Creative Australia.   

She is also one of Musica Viva Australia's FutureMakers for 2023-24. As she enters her second year of the two-year program, she talks to Harriet Cunningham about her FutureMakers project, her practise, her audience and... vegetables. 

‘When I was doing my masters research in the Netherlands I was focusing on extended techniques on the double bass, and through this I was entering into a new music world where I was learning lots of unconventional sounds and techniques. One of my teachers prompted the idea of the importance of the audience.  

‘You don't want to just learn extended techniques for the sake of learning them,’ he said. ‘You want to find the ones that are interesting to you and learn to apply them creatively.’ 

And that is how she came up with Vegetable Bass, a digital album featuring a stew of sounds with titles like BEAN, Jerusalem Artichoke, Soggy Ratatouille and Beetroot (in blossom) 

‘What does this sound like? I think this sounds like a beetroot, for some reason. I'm going to write a piece about the beetroot and have it focussed on the sound, and tell the audience, this is a song about a beetroot.’ 

She laughs as she talks about writing her vegetable songs, but the visual image, and the laughter, for that matter, are an important part of the way the work connects with an audience. 

‘It can be hard, for myself included, going to see music that is already challenging for the listener to enter. I know what I'm doing, to some extent, but I can't expect anyone else to know what I'm trying to convey. Sometimes that's OK, but most of the time I want to give people something to grasp onto. To listen through a particular lens. 

‘Humour is really important. I'm doing some crazy sounds with my voice and on the bass, and sometimes it is ridiculous! Audiences should feel permission to laugh, have a chuckle, find the absurdity in some of those moments as well. Because it is sometimes a bit abstract and a bit crazy. It's play.’ 

Over the last 12 months she has undertaken two weeklong ‘intensives’ with the Emerging Artists team, alongside fellow FutureMaker Katie Yap. In them they explore creativity, cross-artform possibilities and wild ideas which take them to the very edges of their practise. Helen is now developing a performance project, which she will present towards the end of 2024.

What is your project about? 

I love solo performing, but I also love collaboration and having other bodies on the stage to bounce off, and to be inspired by. My project looks at multiplying the individual solo identity by bringing in another vocalist and another double bassist. I'm then not just by myself: I can work with what I've built in my solo practice and multiply it and dissect it in different ways.  

To this end Helen will be working with Finnish vocalist Selma Savolainen and Australian double bassist Jacques Emery.  

‘Bringing on Selma and Jacques is the obvious next step for me in arranging solo work for an ensemble of three using sonic imitation and duplicity. I feel quite stuck with my instrument, because it's so big. Having other bodies in the room gives me the chance to move around. If I stop playing I can have Jacques continue the sound and I can walk around while I'm just singing, but still feel like I'm in that sound world.’ 

Her performance also involves sound designer Tillman Robinson and choreographer and dancer Jo Lloyd, plus a producer, Michaela Coventry, dedicated to facilitating her FutureMakers project. 

‘I have so many resources around me to help me to focus on the making of the art. So much time can go into doing these other administrative tasks, and to have that support and access all these interesting people that I wouldn't know about... The art making comes from that too. 

For Helen, this is how FutureMakers is different from a more traditional fellowship. 

‘It's focussed on building those other skills: how do you talk about what you do, how do you pitch an idea to a festival programmer, being aware of the challenges. Navigating ways to make the most of what you do as an artist and make it as fulfilling as you can within the Australian landscape. Being more specific about what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. It's really huge.’ 

You can follow Helen's artistic adventures at her website, and you can find out more about FutureMakers here.