Following in the footsteps of Kate Moore and Julian Day, up-and-coming Brisbane-based composer Connor D’Netto is the latest in a line of Australian composers to benefit from time spent at one of the Bang on a Can summer festivals held each year at MASS MoCA, the uber-cool Museum of Contemporary Art located in a converted Print Works factory building in North Adams, Massachusetts.
Connor D’Netto. Photo © Ray Roberts
In 2017, under the watchful eye of BOAC founding composers Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, D’Netto not only made a new musical friend – American violinist Shannon Reilly (currently violin professor at University at Buffalo – but he also got to work with her on (and sneakily record) his very first solo work, Susurrus. It was an experience he describes as “transformative”.
Now, the short work has been reworked and released on BandCamp with first day profits being donated to Black Rainbow, an organisation specialising in suicide prevention and improved social outcomes for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI community. Limelight caught up with D’Netto to find out how the work has developed over time, his relationship with Reilly, and why linking releases and commissions isn’t just a new way forward, for him it’s a responsibility that comes with privilege.
What did you and Shannon get up to at MASS MoCA, and what excites you about her playing?
Daily fellow-curated lunchtime concerts in the gallery spaces were part of festival life, so we put together a performance of my piece Susurrus, placed in front of some gorgeous Sol Lewitt wall drawings. Even with only a couple of days to learn the piece, in amongst all the craziness of the festival schedule, Shannon performed it amazingly. Her playing is just so electric – she found such a sparkling crispness out of all the harmonics that make up much of the piece.
Shannon Reilly recording D’Netto’s Susurrus at MASS MoCA
We knew immediately we had to find an opportunity to record it, so that night after dinner and before the next concert we snuck away to do a very makeshift recording session. Inside the Boiler Building, which used to power the former factory site, there’s a giant steel water tank now fitted with a little metal catwalk so you can go look inside. It had such a strange resonance to it, which we thought would kinda fit with the piece. So, with nothing but a Zoom handheld recorder, a basic SM57 microphone and the light fading fast, we managed to get a couple of runs through.
What is the inspiration behind Susurrus?
I wrote it in 2015, while still in my undergrad at the University of Queensland School of Music studying with Robert Davidson. It’s actually my first piece for solo violin, which is somewhat strange, since violin used to be my instrument (well, I played all through school but haven’t since then!). I had become pretty fascinated with all of the thinner, shimmering, less-stable textures a violin can produce, such as harmonics and trills, so I took this as an opportunity to really push myself to explore that. I was also really into Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas at the time, so there’s that too.
Shannon Reilly at a MASS MoCA lunchtime concert, 2017
The work utilises live electronics. Were they part of it from the outset, and how do they work?
Yes and no… Looking at the score, it looks just like a solo violin piece. It was premiered that way, and when Shannon played it in that lunchtime concert and at other performances since then, she played it as just solo violin. However, I had always thought and intended that it could work with some subtle electronic augmentation, be that just a tad of reverb or delays, or something more involved.
That feeling isn’t limited to this work either; I love the idea that any piece of mine can adapt to its situation and context. But if you’re making a studio recording – something you know will be heard in someone’s earphones or on the radio – why wouldn’t you use the possibilities of the medium on hand? I guess it’s much like how “popular” music genres treat the difference between live performance and recording; good artists don’t just try to reproduce the recording on stage, they create versions that make the most of the different mediums while still “being the same piece”.
The “straightforward” recording here is coupled with a Josh Wareham remix. How did that come about?
Josh was also a fellow at the Bang on a Can Festival in 2017. He’s a fantastic viola player, working a lot in the Boston classical scene, as well as having toured and taking on some really incredible works of the modernist European repertoire.
Josh Wareham with Australian flutist Naomi Johnson playing D’Netto’s duet Parallel
Aside from that, he is also a producer and beat maker. For the last few years he’s been producing beats for various hip hop and R&B artists. Just a few months back he released his debut album, Chances, which meshes influences from both viola and hip-hop worlds together. When I was looking for someone to do a remix it was a no-brainer to ask Josh, and I couldn’t be happier with what he came up with.
Why was it important to you to donate the release day proceeds to Black Rainbow?
As a cis-male, white-passing, first gen Indian immigrant, that has a supportive family, went to a good school, and had incredible opportunities do postgraduate studies and live overseas, it’s important for me to first recognise how privileged I am. I am so lucky, and I have to acknowledge that part of my success and the opportunities I have had has to do with my privilege. I believe it is my responsibility to use my platform as an artist to actively engage with important issues; that in my work as a producer and curator I need to be working towards creating equity in the arts and our community, such as in my work as Associate Director of Dots+Loops [the Brisbane-based post-genre music and arts series that explores the spaces between traditional classical concerts, underground club gigs, and experimental art shows].
I need to not just talk about it but be giving real-world support to these causes however and wherever I can. From here on, I am committing to donating 10 percent (up to $1000) from commission fees I receive to a community organisation and am encouraging commissioners to match that donation. It’s not much, but it’s something that I am privileged enough to afford to do, and so I should.
Connor D’Netto. Photo © Ray Roberts
I’m really lucky to be working with the amazing team from People Places Records on this release. They’re a great label based between New Jersey and London Ontario, founded by Aeryn Santillan (who I also met at Bang on a Can) and Andrew Noseworthy, with a completely DIY community-focused approach. After the Black Lives Matter movement came to the fore this year, PPR began an initiative to actively contribute to communities with every release, including ours. They have been donating their release day earnings to grassroots organisations in the USA, which was something I definitely wanted to do, but bringing it back to Australia, as our First Nations communities face ongoing systemic racism in so many ways.
Black Rainbow is fantastic queer First Nations organisation in the pursuit of positive health and wellbeing for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Sistergirl and Brotherboy (LGBQTI+SB) community, and I’m really happy we were able to contribute to them through this release. We raised just under $100 through sales on BandCamp on release day, which isn’t too bad for this little surprise release. I have some other little releases planned for the not-too-distant future with similar fundraisers, so stay tuned.
Connor D’Netto’s Susurrus is available on most platforms. Details here.