I haven’t written a blog in some time. To be perfectly honest, I have been feeling quite blunted and blocked. Although many people have been sparked into some wonderful creativity during the lockdown, I have found it difficult to shake a kind of heaviness that greets me each morning. That’s not to say I have been idle – far from it. I am proud of the practice, language study and gardening I have done, and of the freelance editing business I continue to build. I have also been plotting some exciting chamber music collaborations for the future. But the effort it took to be proactive and productive seemed to deplete me of my creativity when it came to writing. I didn’t want to blog about simply being sad, nor did I feel comfortable diarising my daily activities in a public way. The news is also increasingly difficult to stomach. So, what to write?
To overcome this, I recently returned to Ken Mellor’s Unifying Meditation – a powerful guided meditation that has often helped me understand and shift certain blockages in my life. It helped me remember that I want to write this blog from a place of honesty. My original conception for the blog was to have an online presence that I felt comfortable with. I’m rather social media shy, and generally prefer long-form ways of doing things (opera, song cycles, test cricket). I didn’t want this to represent a shallow online persona. But so long as I was trying to overpower the sadness in me with cheerful proactiveness, I couldn’t write honestly. This was the disconnect. The “polarity” as Ken would say. To write honestly, I had to start by writing this truth, even if it is uncomfortable. Unifying this polarity during the meditation released a burst of energy, like someone had unkinked a garden hose. It allowed my sadness to flower into creativity. I immediately began to write my notes for this blog.
So, in that vein of honesty, I must confess that a significant part of this heaviness comes from the Federal Government’s ongoing disdain for the Arts, and for freelancers in particular. Part of me feels foolish that it continues to affect me so much. The Victorian and Queensland State Governments have released transition support packages for their arts sectors, as have New Zealand and Germany, which is a source of some hope. And I am careful not to base my sense of self-worth on the recognition of others (heavens above, particularly not on members of the Coalition !). Nevertheless, I feel betrayed and disheartened. Perhaps it resonates with childhood feelings of exclusion, of passionately loving something that is not valued by the mainstream. Music is everywhere. It is inescapable, and usually free. Why should it be valued?
Fortunately, there have been rays of sunshine from the philanthropic sector. I am deeply grateful for the financial support I have received from the Sidney Myer Trust’s National Assistance Program for the Arts, and from Freelance Artist Relief Australia (FARA), in partnership with the Music and Opera Singers Trust (MOST). Although the financial relief was most welcome, it was being recognised as a freelancer that had ‘fallen through the gap’ which gave me a huge emotional and spiritual boost. I deeply thank the donors, philanthropists and administrators involved in these organisations, as well as the inimitable Nicole Car, who acted with vision and speed to found FARA, when freelancers needed it most. Victorian Opera has also been wonderfully supportive to its artists, as has my most excellent agent Kathryn Morrison. It is really nice to have a musical family.
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The lockdown has sparked a lot of online music making, including the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. This is important work and goes a long way to helping people stay connected with live music. But as much as I support it, it is undoubtedly different to attending live concerts. Why is that? Certainly, the ritualistic elements of a concert experience are missing: the dressing up and going to the venue, applauding as artists enter and bow, the murmur and glow as you leave, feeling that you have experienced something extraordinary, beyond the humdrum of the everyday. But there is something else too – something about the way we perceive the sound itself.
The sound of a digital concert is obviously depends on the quality of your speakers. Similarly, microphones, mixing and internet speed will dictate the quality of the sound. It means we can only ever listen to a digital concert with our ears. We cannot listen with our bodies. Whether conscious of it or not, in a concert hall we experience the resonance of the sound in the space – each note creating a cloud of hundreds of thousands of echoes, bouncing back and forth around us, constantly changing in infinite complexity. We feel near-field sound wave vibrations in our chests, our necks, our heads, through the seat beneath us. Our very bones conduct the musical vibrations through our bodies. We feel the collective energy of the performers and the audience emanating through the space – waves of quantum energy or chi (which is ultimately the same thing) fizz and fold around us and within us, making a heady cocktail mix of each audience member’s personal emotional experience.
Seth Horowitz Ph.D. talks about this in his outstanding book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. He describes a performance by the phenomenal percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, where she doesn’t so much play her instrument, as play the room itself.
“Walking barefoot up to the six-foot-long concert marimba, she positioned herself and the instrument carefully, then rose up on her toes, tilted her head back, and with four mallets struck the first notes and made the whole room ring.”
In her stunning TED talk, Dame Evelyn says “music is something you create and listen to with your whole body, not just your ears.” By playing barefoot, exposing her body to the vibrations and noticing the feedback of the mallets through her hands, arms and bones, she turns her body into a resonating chamber.
Dame Evelyn Glennie is one of the few international concerto percussion soloists. She is also deaf and experiences music through her body much more than through her ears. This informs her unique perspective and profound musicianship. To record her concert, Seth Horowitz used two geophones – microphones which record seismic activity at the very bottom range of human hearing and beyond. During the concert, these geophones picked up rich patterns of vibrations in an auditory range below what we would typically describe as ‘music’. Yet according to Horowitz, this is closer to Dame Evelyn experiences sound – this is her perception of music. These vibrations are a part of music that is sensed, rather than merely heard. It is what Dame Evelyn refers to when describing the act of listening to and playing music as something “so raw and so basic to experience the journey of”, when one really listens with the whole body. As Horowitz wryly notes that “you can’t record music, you can only save CliffsNotes of it”.
I first consciously experienced this when rehearsing the Bach cantata Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme. Because of the rather cramped rehearsal space, I was singing from the middle of the string section. As the famous chorale Zion hört die Wächter singen began, the strings played their beautiful warm, low melody and the resonance of those crafted instruments, the energy of those individual players and the old church hall surrounded me. I felt embraced, held and wafted along by the sound. I felt harmonic vibrations envelop me and I only hope my voice made a worthy contribution to that milieu. It was a profound moment that will always stay with me. It was like the Chinese proverb says: 三天繞樑 (sān tiān rào liáng) – beautiful music that resonates among the roof beams, long after the notes have died away.
I hope we will be able to experience live music again soon. When we do, I hope we can value it, revel in it and listen with our whole bodies.