Rubiks Collective, the Melbourne-based contemporary art music ensemble, has named Bianca Gannon as the winner of its 2019 Pythia Prize. The announcement was made last night at the Rubiks Collective concert Sculptress, which featured music by five female composers. The line-up included the world premiere of a piece called Waiting by Christine McCombe, the winner of the 2018 Pythia Prize.

Launched in 2017, the Pythia Prize is Rubiks’ annual commission project addressing gender equality and diversity in contemporary art music. The prize supports an Australian female or gender nonconforming composer to collaborate with Rubiks to create a new work for the ensemble’s 2020 season. The winner, Bianca Gannon, spoke to Limelight.

Bianca Gannon. Photograph © Leo Dale

I believe you were born in Canada and raised in Ireland. When did you come to Australia?

I moved to Melbourne in 2014, right after living in West Java as a recipient of the Indonesian Arts and Culture Scholarship.

Can you tell us about where you studied music, and what course you did?

I have a Bachelor of Music from Cardiff University, majoring in Composition and 20th Century Analysis, but so much of my learning has come from collaborations, studying various forms of music across Indonesia, and in residencies such as Cudamani Summer Institute in Bali, the Australian Art Orchestra’s Creative Music Intensive in Tasmania, and at ICE Ensemble’s Ensemble Evolution in Banff, Canada.

I believe you play piano and gamelan, as well as compose. Do you perform your own pieces? And do you also compose for others?

Yes, I do perform my own compositions. Typically when I write for myself it’s for simultaneous piano and gamelan, is seldom notated, embraces improvisation and is left a bit more open. I also compose for various western chamber ensembles and compose collaboratively with Indonesian musicians.

When did you become interested in the gamelan?

I first learnt about gamelan in a very academic way as part of my Ethnomusicology module at uni. I continued to listen to it for many years as I love meditative ostinati, otherworldly resonances, and cheeky syncopations.

How has that interest developed?

Eventually when I was living in Dublin in 2012, I had the opportunity to join a Javanese gamelan ensemble which led to me composing a work for them with Soprano and Projections (The Invisible Light). This led to a scholarship program in Indonesia where finally I could experience gamelan in its cultural contexts. From there my interest really snowballed. I learnt a lot about Balinese gamelan from Melbourne’s Gamelan DanAnda and various studies with Gamelan Cudamani in Ubud. I now perform simultaneous piano and gamelan and have co-curated gamelan re-imagined festival I SAID NEON. I’ve also extended my research and practice into multi-purpose, wearable, food-centric and endangered gamelan-related instruments such as Bundengan (duck herder’s rain shield and zither-like gamelan), Rantok (polyrhythmic rice pounding with a giant pestle and mortar) and Gula Gending (roving fairy floss vendor’s storage vessel and steel pan Gamelan) which are the featured instruments of my immersive shadow puppet series The Sound of Shadows.

Can you tell us about your musical style – does it combine Indonesian, classical and jazz influences?

My earliest memories are of very immersive experiences so where possible I’m compelled to make immersive multi-sensory work to share a deeper experience with audiences. I love hypnotic ostinati and moving freely in and out of groove. While I enjoy exploring dissonance and darker themes, and it’s important and cathartic to do so, I have a tendency ultimately towards optimism in my music.  I love the sublime, the ecstatic and aesthetic beauty. My music is usually a somewhat unconscious culmination of all of my experiences. My music processes my experiences before I can intellectually or verbally.

Most of my listening experiences are of jazz, classical, minimalism, French music, new music and gamelan. So inevitably typical gamelan and jazz syncopations find their way into my works, but with extended harmony and in a very different context. Some of my music gets labelled as jazz, which makes me smile as it was my childhood dream to be a jazz pianist, yet I still can’t play a single standard.

I’m also constantly amazed and affirmed by how connected everything is. You can hear the gamelan influence in the music of Debussy (ostinati, tempo fluctuations, gong cycles) and so much modern jazz harmony (nine chords, modes, whole tone scales) was first heard in Debussy’s music (before modern jazz came to be). The jazz syncopations from cruise ships docked in North Bali inspired the creation of Bali’s leading gamelan style ‘Gong Kebyar’. So, it’s not really a stretch to combine these three seemingly disparate, though clearly connected forms of music. And likewise, adding in some Irish language, visual elements, tastes, and other musical influences is the most natural of progressions to me.

Bianca Gannon. Photograph © Damien Vincenzi

Is it right that you use improvisation in concerts?

When performing my own compositions, I prefer to play from memory. As such I tend to leave them a bit open and improvised for spontaneity and in case of emergency (!). When writing for other ensembles I’ve used a mixture of approaches from completely notated to inclusive of some guided improvisation. Composition is an amazing process of refinement and pushing beyond initial ideas to something really special.

When I perform as part of improv trio Impermanence (and often solo, too) the full performance is totally improvised – or rather “instantly composed”. For me this is such an authentic way to experience music – to just let the ideas flow without any preconceptions, while carefully listening to and responding to my band mates and sometimes reworking opening themes later in the performance, and being somewhat conscious of a sense of overall structure. There’s no luxury of overthinking and your ego is forced out of the way. Gut reactions blossom. Ideas constantly evolve as you never know who is going to do what. The energy is so different in performances of meticulously notated scores that performers know inside out and in pure improvisation performances. I love both!

Have you played with Rubiks Collective, or composed for them before?

I did play some gamelan with Kaylie Melville a few years ago as part of Gamelan DanAnda. This is, however, my first time working with phenomenal group Rubiks Collective.

Do you know yet what you plan to compose for them as part of the Pythia Prize?

I proposed a couple of ideas involving non-musical inspirations. I think that this resonated with them as a group with a penchant for storytelling. I plan to embrace this incredible workshopping opportunity to create something truly bespoke in collaboration with Rubiks, celebrating all our strengths but also growing together. Who knows what ideas will come out of the creative development process?! More fun surprises to look forward to!