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Working the globe

Keith Gallasch, Stevie Wishart


Stevie Wishart, Tracking Stevie Wishart, Tracking
photo Joe Glaysher & Ludo Engels
In this edition, 2 interviews focus on the working lives of artists. Composer-musician Stevie Wishart and dancer-choreographer Kate Champion describe the inspiration for their work, the challenges faced over many years in creating it, including the way they live, and the attempts to reach a balance between their overseas and Australian realities.

Stevie Wishart is a leading Australian musician, a member of the renowned Machine for Making Sense, and a composer for and performer in installations created in collaborations with Sydney’s Joan Grounds and New York’s Lisa DiLillo. Wishart’s medieval music group, Sinfonye (on the Glossa CD label), plays across Europe and is recording the complete works of Hildegard of Bingen. Wishart performed and improvised on her score for Richard Murphet’s play Slow Love for the 2000 Adelaide Festival and a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands. Out of artistic and material necessity she is constantly on the move, but such a life needs points of certainty. Wishart spoke to RealTime with the kind of ease, passion and fluidity so evident in her music, about what places and cultures mean to her and how they relate to her survival as an artist.

Beyond the great divide

My partner, the musician Jim Denley, and I have come to the realisation that if we’re going to carry on as fully professional artists without teaching or the other sorts of income that artists can draw on, we’re going to have to focus quite a lot of our attention overseas, especially Europe. So we’ve actually got a small base in Brussels. I still feel Australia is my home and the interesting thing about moving to Brussels is that it’s made us both feel how Australian we are and, overseas, people still see us as being extremely un-European, which is good and bad.

I think it probably always gets harder the older you get. When you’re younger you’re more flexible. You don’t have such high expectations. But I do expect a certain standard of living now and in Australia it feels a bit like being on the dole, being an artist. I felt that the only way I was going to get gigs was by getting grants which doesn’t always feel good. I don’t feel we’ve got the artistic climate here where curators are going to ask me to do what I do. I think we’ve also got ourselves into a situation—and I suppose this is quite a controversial comment—where artists who live here all year round, have had to take other jobs. I don’t know anyone in Australia who’s surviving purely from their art. We’ve got very good artists who are on salaries and therefore when it comes to their art seem to be prepared to work for very low pay.

The Belgian government has realised that an artist needs time to prepare and develop work. So they’ve brought in a new rule for social security that if you’re “unemployed”, ie you’re not working in a theatre but you’re composing or preparing for the next gig, you can actually get unemployment benefits or some equivalent. They actually have a special status for artists so you don’t have to pay the big national insurance. And when I went to my bank manager to get a loan, and I said I was an artist, he said, oh interesting and he’d actually seen some of my shows. I just feel there isn’t this great divide over there. Of course, it’s easy to compare...but it’s almost impossible to exist here as a freelance artist, especially if you’re a composer who’s not able and not interested to do more commercial work. I kind of ran out of energy and got seriously despondent, wondering if I had anything to offer.

Things fall into place

In the early days of Machine for Making Sense, when we were getting annual funding from the Australia Council, we had money to put whole shows on ourselves. And we got good audiences and I think we made it work because often artists are very good at knowing how to promote, who to employ. But now that that sort of funding has pretty much disappeared in Australia, artists aren’t empowered very often to have their own idea of how to do it without the backup of some organisation. We’ve occasionally thought well, damn it, we don’t care about the money, we’ll just try and put on a gig and do a door deal. We did it when we were 18, we’ll do it now we’re in our early 40s or whatever. Then, you’re dealing with rents. I mean, just forget it!

I had an amazing experience in Belgium. I went to an old converted theatre. I wanted a place that was quiet but with a nice wooden old theatrical acoustic, and they have these things—and this would be good for other Australian artists to apply for—where you have a residency for a week, there’s no rental, and then you do a concert at the end and they pay you to do it.

I have an agent in Spain but mostly we look after ourselves. What you find is that there’ll be a few curators and as long as you keep in contact with these people and carry on producing decent stuff things fall into place. That’s something we’ll probably never have in Australia. My mother in Cambridge helps me with contracts and keeping the accounts together. You have to be very good with small business stuff.

A repertoire for survival

You have to be very flexible. Like I’ve got to go to Spain for about a week in a couple of weeks and I don’t wanna do that. It’s crazy that I can pay the airfare to go to Spain and earn enough money to do 2 concerts. And I’ve got no work like that in Australia at all.

I hardly do any medieval stuff any more because I just find it conflicts too much with my contemporary work. I just do 4 or 5 concerts a year max and a couple of albums. I’m doing mainly 14th century instrumental fiddle music which I love and still trying to develop this show mixing data projections of Renaissance Italy with some simple triggering—it was such a multimedia age then. I want to somehow capture that in performance.

Actually it would be much easier to survive with the medieval stuff. There’s just so much more money put into the European bourgeois classical music scene. It’s in Australia too. But in fact, that’s one of the reasons why I decided to become an Australian, got my citizenship and decided this was my home. It was because it really stopped me with all the medieval stuff. That’s what Australia does. It kicks you up the arse and says, we’re not in old historical Europe. You’re a woman of today and I mean stuff like that you can’t quantify. So I decided I would never do Sinfonye in Australia because it felt absolutely wrong to be doing this weird European stuff that had nothing to do with the landscape.

The other thing about having spent some time in Brussels is that there’s a huge Moroccan and Turkish community. So having said that I’m not doing so much medieval music, I’ve now met some fantastic Moroccan musicians. So, for my next record I’ve got a very good Moroccan percussionist and also a very good ud player.

Hanging out for sound

Belgium is phenomenal for the arts compared to say London. Real estate is really cheap. There’s loads of fantastic spaces. In my street there’s 2 and I live in a small street. There’s lots of room for curators and artists to do things. That’s how you educate people. In Brussels, there are so many things—and not all of them are good but they’re there and you meet people, you network with the audience....where would you hang out as a sound artist in Sydney?

The NetworK

One of the reasons we chose Belgium is that it’s got one of the best arts sponsorship scenes and it’s very multicultural. You’ve got the whole Moroccan-Turkish refugee/immigrant population which is incredibly interesting, the whole Flemish community whom I mainly work with because they mainly do the contemporary stuff. Then you’ve got the French community. It’s multilingual, but a lot of people speak English and they’re very open to foreigners.

I’ve been asked next year to curate quite a big festival based around Sinfonye and my work in Spain with the 13th century court of Alfonso Assabio which was very political. It was the time before Spain really became divided—Jews, Moors, Christians, women—a really multicultural court. So the idea of the festival is to have a mixture of medieval and Moroccan. The festival is planned for April next year.

The other project which has gradually been taking shape is called Escape. I was playing in Switzerland last year and DJ Scanner [UK] was there and David Shea [USA]. Lisa DiLillo was working with them. She does real time visuals, mixing. It was one of those wonderful festivals—a bit like Adelaide actually. There are a few popping up like this in Europe which have the idea that it’s very important to get artists to stay for the whole of the festival. And they’ll actually pay you to be around and see all the shows. So Lisa and I saw each other’s work and decided we absolutely had to work together. So that was a year or so ago. Then we got invited by the Walker Centre in Minneapolis to present our work there. You see it’s this network again.

Lisa lives in New York so we don’t get together that often. We’re still working on the show and developing it but some of it is pre-sequenced video. Her work uses very fast, flickering movements. There’s lots of rhythm in it. So part of the show will be doing a live soundtrack to that. Another part will be a film that she’s started to make about a girl walking through a city. She’s got a little set of props on her desk in the performance and she’ll move from pre-recorded film to live filming, but you won’t know it. What I love is I do everything from foley sound to playing pieces, to sound effects, sounds from movies, throwing little bits in. We have a long pre-recorded sequence of our faces showing different expressions. Lisa’s looped that and I match very different sounds to those same expressions. The Festival van Vlaanden, which is the main arts festival in Brussels, and Argos, a video distributor in Brussels, loved the work and immediately asked if they could distribute it. They’re putting in for a big grant so, hopefully, we can really develop it in Belgium in October.

The US experience

I always think that Australia is a real mixture of America and Europe artistically. So I’d say, America is at the furthest extreme and something I probably find most difficult. Europe I find the easiest and Australia is somewhere in the middle. So, with America I really only know New York which, as we all know, is very cut-throat but very good. We did a Machine tour for 5 weeks at the end of last year and the last concert was in New York at a really interesting new space called Engine 27 which was started by a philanthropist who made a lot of money designing speakers in the 70s I think, and he’s now bought this warehouse in Tribeca. He realised that, apart from the major concert venues, there wasn’t a small concert venue designed purely for sound. So he decided to do it. It’s a room about half the size of the Performance Space with state-of-the-art surround sound speakers. Everything is controlled through a G4 computer but all the machines are downstairs so it’s beautifully quiet. You can completely move the space how you want. And they recorded the gig and sent us each a copy and it’s a fabulous recording. So that was a joy to find New Yorkers open to ideas and a place that only wants to do experimental electronic music.

The Walker Arts Centre is a big institution. And I guess what was incredible was to have my airfare paid from Australia to go and do one concert. A fantastic technical team. Put up at the Hilton, all expenses paid. With that type of venue, they just treat you very well. That’s their whole thing. It felt a bit funny to go all that way to play for 200 people. What is great about the Walker, and we haven’t got it here, is that there’s a gallery which is always a wonderful space but it has a whole dance thing, a film and video part, there’s a whole music thing, a whole lot of stuff going on around you which is always great.

More sights, more sounds

The other project I’ve done is called Tracking which started with an ANAT Research and Development grant I got many years ago when I wanted to look at different ways of triggering stuff. I never really found the right person to do it with here but in Belgium I saw Ludo Engels—in a sort of underground squat venue, of which there are many in Brussels—an artist who just works with colour and slides. He has 3 projectors and he overlays abstract images. And as soon as I saw his work, I really wanted to do sound for it. I met him through something called Unter Anderen (Among Others), an international artists’ network involving Germany, USA, Japan, Italy, Belgium...Through that we got to work together and for the last concert I did in Glasgow for the National Year of Live Arts I invited Ludo to be part of it.

In Tracking I’m miking up all the projectors and fans and screens and treating them electronically. Sometimes the MiDi controls from his screens control my sound and sometimes vice versa and we’re playing that against how we improvise with each other. The problem is when you have an instrument it’s so much perceived as ‘music.’ I mean, a lot of what I do on the hurdy gurdy is just using the mechanics of it and the key clicks. And you also grab a lot of the attention with this instrument. And so to do something that’s truly multimedia I need to find other ways to create sound.

You have to be very tough

Part of the hard reality of this life is the travelling. It’s horrible. And in Minneapolis, during the day it was minus 20 and absolutely no humidity and I’d come out of a grey drizzly European winter and during the day the hurdy gurdy just started to shrink. All the moving parts started to collapse. 48 keys I had to take out and put little bits of paper between them, completely re-set the instrument. So you have to be flexible and, actually, I don’t mind that. I mean, you have to be very tough. Last year or the year before I did too much and I got bronchitis followed by really bad pneumonia and I was on my back for 6 weeks. All this air conditioning, bad air for hours. I’m not incredibly strong. And you’re lugging 35 kilos of gear...and you can’t afford chiropractors. I’ve started doing yoga and taken up swimming because you have to be physically so resilient. That’s something I do find a bit scary.

Iv2 -  a Joan Grounds-Stevie Wishart collaboration	Iv2 - a Joan Grounds-Stevie Wishart collaboration
image Joan Grounds
Project DOMUS

I’ve always wanted to work with Joan Grounds and to do a sound installation which is also a performance. All of the things I’ve been talking about so far have been sort of one-night stands. You’re in Brussels, Glasgow, Melbourne and you never get a chance to review the architecture of the space where you’re performing, which I really miss. So I thought one way to do this would be to try and get some sound installation work where you’re in a space for a few weeks and you create the piece for that space and you get a chance to review it and do a series of performances in the same space, perhaps for as long as a month which, as a freelance musician, is a real luxury. So that was my initial inspiration and when Alan Cruickshank at the Contemporary Art Centre in Adelaide invited me to do something I suggested this project.

It’s a very nice, quiet space, CACSA. I want to play with making sounds but having them projected in another part of the space. And we want to play with memory a bit. So perhaps something that you’ll see in one room, you’ll hear in another. You carry things with you as you go through an exhibition. Joan’s also making some sort of costume from paper which she got in Thailand which I’m building contact microphones into. But I’m not sure what we’re going to do because we very much want it to be a process. We’ll be in there for about a month and I’d like to have performances throughout. So what we’re hoping is that we really can be in residence and have people come to us.

Outback recording studio

Then we’re going to Alice Springs for a week to do a more video-based work as a workshop for the Watch This Space gallery. We’re just looking at some different ways we might approach recording the environment. I love this idea of basically using sound to manipulate how we see and possibly vice versa. All these projects are so fantastic—much better than anything I could do in Europe—but there’s just no money. You know, we’re talking about $200 a week and I’ll probably go through at least one minidisc player because of the dust! But I’m gonna do it. That’s partly why I’m going to Spain—so I can finance stuff here.

The last thing I’m hoping to do in Alice for the rest of July is a piece at the Araluen Arts Centre. The last CD Jim Denley and I did on Split Records called Tibooburra had very good responses in The Wire and in Europe and it’s the first time Jim and I have done a duo project. One of the reasons I keep coming back to Australia is that you go to the bush or the outback and it’s a recording studio once the wind drops. It is so good...a richness of resource that is unbelievable.

Performing en route

Another thing that’s happening is that the guitarist Fred Frith is now at Mills College in California and he’s inviting various people to do residencies. What you have to think about if you’re in Australia is that America is a very good stopping off point. I could do Minneapolis on a ticket that went from London to Sydney. You really have to think like this because otherwise you’re going to be spending all your profits on airfares. So, travel but do something en route.


Stevie Wishart and Jim Denley’s Tibooburra and the Wishart, Julian Knowles, Chris Abrahams album, Azerliz, are available from Split Records.

Copies of Stevie’s Azerliz, with its marvellous synthesis of medieval, pop and jazz (The Necks’ Chris Abrahams is on keyboards) go to new subscribers to RealTime. See page 39.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 4-5

© inhouse ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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