Pre-Concert Talk: Genevieve Lacey and Marshall McGuire
Listen to this exclusive pre-concert interview hosted by Ed Ayres. During the chat Ed, Genevieve and Marshall discuss the ideas behind the concert, how covid has influenced the choice of music for the performance, choosing composers and commissioning new works and what to listen for in the program.
Music by John Playford, Jacob van Eyck, Cipriano de Rore, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Henry Purcell (some arranged by Genevieve Lacey and Marshall McGuire), alongside Australian premieres:
BENNETT Baiyan Woka (arr. Erkki Veltheim)
KELLER I Surrender
VAN REYK threaded in amongst the infinite threading
FLYNN AND HUMPHREY A mutual support for precarious times
VELTHEIM Nocturne over blue ruins
RODGERS Birds for Genevieve
GENEVIEVE LACEY RECORDERS
MARSHALL MCGUIRE HARP
JIM ATKINS SOUND DESIGNER
NIKLAS PAJANTI LIGHTING DESIGNER
RUTH LITTLE DRAMATURG
PAULA LEVIS COSTUME DESIGNER
MARTEL OLLERENSHAW PRODUCER
Ayres: Hello. My name is Ed Ayres and thanks so much for listening to this concert talk with Musica Viva for the series of concerts that will be presented by Genevieve Lacey and Marshall McGuire. And I'm delighted to be joined by Genevieve and Marshall for this. Well, it's pre concert, it could be post concert, that's the joys of the digital world. So Genevieve starting with you. How did this whole idea of the concerts of Bowers, this idea of collections. How did it come about?
Lacey: Well, thanks Ed and lovely to be talking with you. It came about through the very, what shall we say, contemplative year that was last year. The musicians who often spend their lives in motion, it was a year of quite remarkable stillness which provided us with quite a lot of thinking time. And one of the things that I found myself thinking about a lot was about art and music in particular as shelter, as a place where we can take refuge and something that gives us sanctuary and a sense of hope. While I was thinking about that and wandering around my neighbourhood in my five km lockdown, what shall I say, environment, I was fascinated by birds as I always have been. And then I started thinking about, about bower birds and their amazing ability to collect beautiful things, small beautiful things and make them into these almost miraculous structures that then become a place that are both for art display and making, but also intrinsically linked with their own survival. And that was something that really interested me last year. To think about how art is actually central to our survival as a human species.
Ayres: You talk about the sound world and this, this feeling of, of shelter. How much did the change in the sound world, during lockdown and during these covid times, how much do you think that that has influenced your choice of music for this concert?
Lacey: I think it influenced it a lot and I think it influenced the composers a lot too because the music, we, we commissioned a suite of pieces and almost all of them – it'll be interesting to hear Marshall's thoughts on these too - but they're incredibly gentle and they're often in the realm of the exquisite so that people who are thinking with incredible kind of care about the detail of sound and sonority and I think that very much reflects the quietness and the unexpected stillness of many of our lives last year.
Ayres: Marshall, you've known Genevieve for a long time, right?
McGuire: It's been a while. It's been many, many years of beautiful musical relationships. But this COVID disaster that we're facing is actually opened up the opportunity we've been seeking for so long to actually spend some quality time together making music. We've often been ships in the night, both, both personally and professionally. But as I say, this lockdown, the lockdown, the third lockdown in Melbourne, enabled us to spend some time in the Primrose Potter Salon at Melbourne Recital Center, recording this beautiful album and actually realising something we've been talking about for, probably a decade or more. So in that sense, it's been a very special project and the more it unfolds, and it will continue to have resonances as we perform it live. But it's actually cemented what Genevieve said about the importance of music in our lives. This was coming in December when we recorded the album, was after a period of three months being locked at home with nobody to perform to, really contemplating our internal worlds, but also missing that external impetus, if you like, for performance. So I think as time goes on, probably for all of us, as audience members or as performers, we're going to realise the importance, as Genevieve has said, of music in our lives and what it means to our very purpose. It's a very core - and for that reason, this has been a particular delight. Of course, getting into the rehearsal studio recently and leading up to the live performances, is a whole separate bunch of joy. But as Genevieve said, you know, it's really interesting to reflect on all these new pieces. Often a lot of music is quite overt, it comes out and it grabs you and that's great and we love that there's an excitement about that. But I think one thing that Genevieve and I have found separately in our careers is that it's the music that, it's the interior music, it's the music that draws an audience in, that says - come a little bit closer and I want to have a conversation with you, want to say something special to you and to listen. It's about listening from, from both sides, from the stage, but also from the audience. And I've found, and Genevieve knows this, I found this to be quite a moving experience along the way because of these moments of stillness, of moments of reflection and through that comes moments, I guess of, little bit learning about yourself, about establishing what's important. And just sitting quietly for a little bit is actually really valuable - in a moment that we can control actually, and I think, and I hope this will apply to audiences as well. They're entering into our space, but we're giving them a space to come and listen quietly and gently and just think and consider it. It's been a very special project.
Ayres: Yeah. That's, it's such a fascinating point Marshall about having time that we can control when so much of our lives is out of control at the moment. Is that something that you would necessarily have even thought about, if it weren't for living in this particular moment?
McGuire: What an interesting thought. Immediately, I think, yes, it's something that all musicians think about, because whenever we sit down and practice or consider music making, it is a very quiet, internal, focused, controlled environment. In fact, one of the things, it's been a real solace all through my life, that when I sit down at the harp and start working, playing, exploring, that's all I can think about, the rest of the world is shut out. So it's a great solace and I think that's something that, it's been amplified during this period of time. It's become more important. The challenge has been having that moment of quiet preparation, consideration, without the outlet for performance, which is ultimately what performers lead up to. We always work towards a performance for an audience. With the audience taken away, it's left that moment of solace as kind of the only thing we've had. So this brings, in many ways, our private moments into the public, for an audience.
Ayres: Yeah, I just can't wait to see the concerts. So Genevieve, with the program and with this series of commissioning, how did you, first of all, let's let's talk about the commission's the, the newly commissioned works. How did you choose the composers? And what kind of questions did you want them to ask of the music?
Lacey: Well, we tried to compose us together, Marshall and I. It was very, everything about this came together incredibly quickly, which I think also was a reminder that, as Marshall said, that we've been thinking about it, even if not in the front of our minds, for more than 10 years. So it's sort of appeared on a page as though, as if by magic. But actually it had been percolating inside for a very long time. So we approached people whose music we love and whose person we love. I think for a lot of people over the last phase of our lives, it's been increasingly clear who and what is important to us. And it was very easy to reach out to people that we either had long working relationships with, and/or whose work we love and, and really wanted to support. So I suppose it was a gesture from us two of inviting people into this idea of shelter and asking them whether together we could take care of one another through this very particular time. So yeah, the invitations were surprisingly easy to make and, and everyone said yes, which is always a wonderful thing. And in terms of what, what we gave them, we gave them a very brief conceptual statement about the idea of Bowers and just ask them to respond. It was wide open and it was in pretty early stages of thinking. And as Marshall said, there was something about the quality of most people's lives last year that meant that what came back to us was intensely personal for each of the composers for very different reasons and that was expressed musically and utterly different forms. And again, it's such a privilege to realise that and to try to embody these deeply felt experiences in sound
Ayres: Marshall, can you talk about some of the pieces, in particular, going through the program? What will people be listening out for?
McGuire: Well, starting from the top of the show, I mean, we start with a bang, this joyous celebration of this work by Lou Bennett, a fabulous leader in Australian music. As arranged with this sort of mega soundtrack by Erkki Veltheim. It's the most astonishing work. In fact, we only heard it really for the first time about a week ago, because there's so much multi tracking. Everything that everyone will hear in the concert is Genevieve and I doing our own thing. But it just sounds like there are a million recorders and a million harps, which is either our idea of heaven or hell. But it's the most astonishing sound world of this iconic song by Lou Bennett. Look, other works, every single one of them posed challenges and has given enormous rewards. I think of the work by Andrea Keller, perhaps better known as a jazz pianist to many people, but also a very deep thinking composer. And this work I Surrender, I think it's fair to say Genevieve, we looked at it and we didn't immediately understand or fall into its beauty. But as we worked on it and we spoke to Andrea about it, we went through it, we've discovered this very, sort of flexible playing around with time, these harmonies that just shift gradually and then build and then come back. And it's a work that I'm intrigued actually to see how it develops because it feels like it almost has a world of its own that we don't fully control. It just adapts. Is that right Genevieve, is that - ?
Lacey: Yeah, absolutely it is and this whole idea of surrendering to it and to its enigmatic beauty but also to the freedom in it and allowing ourselves to sink into that is a beautiful challenge because improvisation is Andrea's natural habitat and it's something that Marshall and I do a lot. But to have large tracts of a score, extremely flexible for both of us is a beautiful challenge and provocation and a real testament to it, or a challenge, I suppose, in terms of our ability to communicate musically, it's really beautiful.
Ayres: Yeah. How closely did you work with the composers? Was it different for each one?
Lacey: Yeah, it was different for each one Ed. So some people wanted to work quite closely and other people's process was quite different. For instance, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's work - that's another incredible creation - and for that one, we pre recorded a whole lot of sounds for them. So we spent an afternoon with them, out of which they created what's technically known as a patch, which is basically like an algorithm that the computer generates based on sounds that we made. So it's like playing with some kind of creature, isn't it Marshall? Like it's got its own consciousness and it's never the same. So it's constantly responding to what we do live. What we do live is completely improvised, but how it responds to us is also something that only happens in the moment. So this piece is never ever the same twice. It's not even vaguely the same twice. And because they are such deeply thoughtful people, one of the things they said to us in rehearsal the other day was that they wanted to create something that whenever we got to it in the program, we could just exhale and go, oh, it's this one, we don't need to worry about this one. And it's so true. You just you enter this magical world and you just see where it takes you. It's amazing.
McGuire: It's a fascinating piece and I am going to confess here publicly. I don't understand at all how the patch works. I don't understand this, this entity that they've created because it really does. Every time we play something, it does something different with what we've played and then we respond differently. It's like, it's a third musical partner, a little bit scary I feel, that it's actually thinking and creating, but it's fascinating and beautiful and completely of our time and our place and I think, but it's also so exquisitely beautiful, I think, because of the sounds that we're creating, it's like a bath of sound of these beautiful, unusual sounds that are coming out of the recorders and the harp. But the other thing I think it's important for audiences to note is that everything that Genevieve and I do on the recorder and the harp, we haven't done anything extra to the instruments. They're just exactly as they existed, 100, 200, 300 years ago. We're just making different sounds on them which have always been in the instruments. And for me this is, I think, a really beautiful but important concept to note that there is nothing strange or odd or scary about it. It's just inherent in the instrumental sound. And I love bringing out these, these beautiful sounds that Genevieve and I know so deeply from our exploration of our instruments, but to get a chance to share it this way is very powerful.
Ayres: Have there been any composers who have brought out for you a completely new sound? Maybe the patch sounds, I'm just, I've sort of got this image of this spreading energy, like some sort of sci-fi film. But apart from the patch, is there anything else that is completely new for you?
Lacey: I think that there are, there are things that are new in every piece and often the combination of the sonority is something that's, you know, like the mind of a composer is like a miracle and to get to, get to be close or inside one even, even momentarily is such a gift. So like Bree van Reyk's piece feels like a universe, doesn't it Marshall? She conjures up these enormous world and in that I play multiple different instruments and that's maybe something that is interesting to note across the concert, that I'll be playing anything from a tiny sopranino that I can only just hold in my hands, it's so little, to a contrabass that's as tall as I am. And Bree's piece has us traverse that whole realm, often in quite quick succession. So we'll go from the kind of ethereal, glistening sonorities of the harp way up high with the sopranino kind of, almost they create these beautiful burnished halos around one another, to the sort of subterranean very, you can feel it in your solar plexus sounds of the deep and more percussive end of the harp and the contrabass. So yeah, a good composer will always take you places you actually didn't imagine what possible.
McGuire: The other thing I love about this program, sorry to jump in, but it strikes me that of all the individual pieces, they're all commissioned individually to this theme of Bower, but somehow they all reference each other in various ways. And I'm thinking about Bree's piece with its sort of twittering, upper end of the harp which matches John Rodgers' Birds where he has me and Genevieve impersonating birds there, but also matched with Andrea's sort of middle, warm section of the harp. And then some sort of other extended techniques of scratching and rubbing which match with Maddie and Tim's piece as well as with Bree's piece. Erkki's piece is very simple in a way but perhaps ties closer into the baroque, some of the baroque works were doing. They all talk to each other and this has been a lovely thing to see as the program is being put together. It kind of all makes sense. Which is, well we think it makes sense. We hope it makes sense.
Lacey: Yeah, it definitely makes sense to us. And I would love to just talk briefly about Erkki's work as well because he's been a really central collaborator on this. And his piece is called Nocturne over Blue Ruins. And it is the most extraordinarily meditative, gentle state of mind. It's like you enter it and maybe you resist for a while like you do at the start of a meditation when you can't let go of your own busy mind, and gradually you breathe and you become more and more present and then you just exist in this beautiful universe that sort of cradles you. And Erkki tells the story too, of writing this with a very young child. His little boy is probably 16 months old now. But this whole thing about sleep for a child and how you get a child to sleep. And I feel like in a very abstract and poetic way this piece is almost a lullaby, isn't it? It's, it's a cocoon that you enter.
McGuire: It really is. And I'm just thinking it's quite a long piece. It's one of the longer pieces in the program. And I'm just thinking this and I'm going to just say it. But like the slow movement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, you know from that very first moment, you're just hooked, you're on that thread from the first moment to the last moment and when you get to the end, you're not quite sure where you've been, but you know you've been to this beautiful place. Erkki's piece feels like that to me from the very first articulation of the note. It just unfolds and it, at the end of it, you feel like you've had a, I don't know, a really great long cup of tea or something or, it's a beautiful feeling. So I encourage people to, as they are listening to it, think about, just go with it and trust it. It will support you and nurture you.
Ayres: In terms of preparing, people preparing to listen to the concert and to watch the concert. What kind of sound worlds would you suggest for them to listen to? Because the music is also intertwined with baroque and renaissance music. Would you suggest perhaps, just having a little bit of that in our ears before we hear the concert?
Lacey: Yeah, I mean it's always a pleasure to have that in our ears, isn't it? And certainly we're in the realm of the 16th and 17th centuries. I suppose for me, the thing that that speaks across these very different languages musically in different styles is: any of the composers that we're working with have a great ear for and a great care for, kind of, clarity and purity of sound, I think. So anything that gets you into a frame of mind where the world is quite almost austere, but in a very exquisite way. I think that's the world of this Bower, don't you think Marshall?
McGuire: Very much so. And I'm, I'm just thinking about, if you like this, you should listen to something else. But I'm thinking of people could, if they're familiar with the works of Arvo Pärt, that might be a good place to sort of consider some of the sound worlds we're looking at. For the baroque period I mean, Purcell is included in this program, but any of his sort of passacaglias or chaconnes, they're, any of these long unfolding variations on a theme where you just have a simple baseline and they happen in all his works. Dido's Lament is a very good example of that. These works that just unfold gradually, but in magical ways. There's a bit ofm bit of dance music in there too. So, but you know, I always recommend people listen to John Playford, to get an idea of the breadth and astonishing nature of his music. So yes, that's where I'd probably start with matching sound worlds if you like.
Ayres: Yeah. And then with the actual concert, is it played all the way through with no applause so that there's very much a feeling of segue between pieces?
Lacey: It's such a great question Ed, and we've rehearsed and talked about it a lot in the rehearsal room. We feel like audiences should feel really free to respond however they like. So if at any stage they want to clap, we love that. If they just want to sit quietly, we love that too. So in our mind there's a logical unfolding. Something's happened almost as you say, very much in a segue, something leads seamlessly into the next piece. But then there are moments where we all want to breathe and if people want to break that spell by stretching or clapping or smiling or having a quick chat to their neighbour, all those things are welcome. We just want to create a place where people feel like they can rest a moment and just be beguiled, because we certainly are by this sound world. And we've had a great pleasure of working with an extraordinary dramaturg and also a really amazing lighting designer, and they've helped us think very much about the audience experience. And what we're trying to do is very, very light touch, really kind of elegant, almost you wouldn't know that we've thought about these things, but we have thought about them because we're trying to create a world in which people feel, as Marshall said, really nurtured and really welcome. And it's not a sort of a concert where you need to walk in and feel like you need to have studied things, or know things in order to understand it. We would like it just to be a very warm and heartfelt human exchange. So for me, good lighting design creates a state of mind and that's very much what Nick is doing. He's sort of amplifying the moods of the music in order to just create these, or allude to worlds that can help people just slip further and further into their own imaginations.
McGuire: It's important to note, I think, too, thinking back on the rehearsal room, that it is a conversation between us and the audience and we don't want to just talk at the audience all night, we want it to be a conversation and it's funny, Genevieve, we were there and we said to our colleagues, you know, we'd like to - is that a place where we should just continue going straight forward? They said absolutely not. We just have to clap. I mean there's, there's no question about it, that's the moment where we have to tell you how wonderful it was or how beautiful we feel, and that was that spontaneous, authentic response that was really beautiful. And as Gen said, we want to leave space for the audience to do exactly that if they feel like it. I think both Genevieve and I are never ones to not encourage audience applause or audience response, because that's the joy of that conversation. So it's the audience to make of it as they will, and if they want to clap, that's great. If they don't want to clap, that's also fine. However the mood takes them.
Ayres: It certainly seems that as concerts are starting to come back during these weeks and months, that a certain rigidity about the classical music scene has really relaxed and that it is, you know, as you were talking about Andrea Keller's piece and that idea of improvisation that going to a jazz concert is so wonderful because you just applaud when you feel like it or don't if you don't want to. So it seems like there's that kind of feeling of a communal love and a, really a shared emotion for everyone, no matter where you are in the hall, whether you're on the stage or in front of it.
McGuire: It's a really good observation Ed. Yeah, it's interesting how, you know, there's a place for ritual isn't there in a concert and it's important, and we have our rituals but so many of those have gone. You know, there are often no intervals now, there are no drinks beforehand, there's no meet the artist, there's all those things that we normally do, but it makes us get back to the essence of what a concert is about, which is about music making between people. And I think it's been quite nice to strip away some of the artifice. And get it back to a little bit of a more authentic conversation there in these times. And that's again why this project is a beautiful product of its time and its place. Maybe we wouldn't have made it at any other time, Genevieve, maybe we wouldn't have been allowed to make it another time or have any place to present it. So it's very much a 2020, 2021 creation.
Ayres: And with the amazing sound design as well of Jim, Jim Atkins, one of the great sound engineers and sound designers in Australia, if not the world, really. He's such a genius.
Lacey: Yeah, I'm glad you say that Ed because audience members won't see Jim, but Jim is really, he's a trio member in this concert. So there are two of us on stage, but he is absolutely critical to it because so much of what's happening, is happening live in this interactive electro-acoustic sound world. And yeah, so Jim will be working his incredible magic in each different venue in different ways. And the thing that I love about what Jim does, I can't tell you the number of times that I have worked with Jim and then after the performance, people have come up to me and said, I had no idea the acoustic in this hall was so beautiful or, I just didn't know that your instrument would carry so well in this vast space, which is like, well, yes, it doesn't. But Jim did his magic. And he does his magic so, with such grace that people don't even think he's there, you know, it's the ultimate illusionist. So yeah, thank you for paying tribute to Jim. He is indeed a national treasure.
Ayres: Yes, Yes, he really is. Well, look, so are you two And I just can't wait for this series of concerts to go ahead and thank heavens that you two have been friends for all these years and that you've been able to come together. You originally had the idea Genevieve, and then it was taken up by Marshall and then everybody else has joined in and what an extraordinary Bower you have created for us all. So thank you.
Lacey: You're so welcome. We can't wait to share it with people.
McGuire: Thanks Ed.
Ayres: Thank you. Genevieve Lacey and Marshall McGuire. Thank you so much and thank you for listening. And we hope that you enjoy the concerts. My name's Ed Ayres, thanks and bye bye.
Ed Ayres is a writer, music teacher and broadcaster. He was born on the White Cliffs of Dover and began playing violin when he was eight years old. He studied music in Manchester, Berlin and London, played professionally in the UK and Hong Kong and moved to Australia in 2003. Ed was the presenter of ABC Classic FM’s breakfast program for many years.