Setting aside the composer’s pen, the festival’s AD explains how curation allows him to “dream on a bigger canvas”.
I’m now in my second year as Artistic Director of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival. It’s a deeply pleasurable task, programming a weekend of fine music, set in the beautiful seaside hamlet of Port Fairy, deep in the heart of Gunditjmara country in Western Victoria.
Iain Grandage. Photo © Pia Johnson
I’ve spent much of my last few years being a composer, and I see curation as a logical and joyous growth from the more personal act of creating my own music. As a curator, you have the opportunity to manifest ideas and approaches beyond your own individual experience – you get to dream on a bigger canvas, if you will. You can frame a conversation about larger social issues, be it indigenous rights, immigration or social justice from a more objective viewpoint – one shared by many of the artists you select, rather than the inherently more subjective nature of solo composition. You can create journeys for audiences that wend their way solely through traditional chamber repertoire, while simultaneously providing them with opportunities for new listening experiences that broaden ears and hearts. It feels like you have more possibility to be an agent for change, and for that I am profoundly grateful.
So how do I arrive at a Festival theme? The 2017 idea of ‘Migrations’ started with a single conversation about the possibility of presenting Strauss’s Metamorphosen in its chamber septet version. This work, the composer’s heartfelt response to the firebombing of Dresden, is imbued with deep sorrow at such needless destruction. In pondering its relationship to more contemporary events, my thoughts turned toward the plight of humans displaced by conflict. As a nation of immigrants, Australia has been the rich beneficiary of wave upon wave of migrants – many fleeing persecution and misfortune overseas. So I started inviting musicians from a multitude of cultural backgrounds to join us and present works that speak to their sense of belonging in this country. Placing them cheek by jowl with masterworks of the Western canon, hopefully creates a conversation about our time and our place.
When programming, I look not only to other cultures for fresh perspectives, but also to artists who are leaders in their fields, whose music speaks to this long and rich tradition of Western Art Music. Jazz icons Paul Grabowsky and Vince Jones, classical/pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke and folk legend Kavisha Mazzella all feature.
Whilst I see the Festival as a whole as a broad compositional canvas, on occasion I have the opportunity to collaborate more directly with artists. This process started for the 2016 Festival with the Australian String Quartet and their series of Quartet and Country commissions, where indigenous composers are invited to compose for the ASQ in works that speak to their lived history. Supported by the Ukaria Foundation, William Barton and Deborah Cheetham wrote exquisite works that have since toured nationally and internationally. For 2017, Dja Dja Wurrung/Yorta Yorta woman Lou Bennett and Yawuru man Stephen Pigram have contributed works that tell stories from the maternal side of their families in response to one unifying idea of this festival of Migrations – matriarchal heritage.
Why matriarchal heritage? Well, if you trace back the DNA in the maternally inherited mitochondria within our cells, all humans have a theoretical common ancestor. This woman, known as “mitochondrial Eve”, lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago in southern Africa. She makes an appearance in the work that opens this year’s Festival – My Mother’s Mother – a work that looks at the first few generations back towards this Ur-woman, as a means of recognising our shared and intertwined histories, and as a way of counteracting the divisiveness of some contemporary nationalist and isolationist politics. I’ve written it in collaboration with Persian classical singer Tara Tiba, whose own story of arrival from Iran is compelling and deeply moving. The aim is to speak of things that bind – intrinsically more powerful than divisions.
My biggest hope is for this year’s Festival to be a living embodiment of a supportive, inclusive community. To that end, you’ll be welcomed with open arms should you choose to take the journey with us.
The Port Fairy Spring Music Festival runs from October 13 – 15.