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The rich yield of the law of the minimum

Artistic director Daryl Buckley talks to Keith Gallasch


Yue Ling Jie (Moon Spirit Feasting) <BR />at the Hebbel Theater, Berlin (2002) Yue Ling Jie (Moon Spirit Feasting)
at the Hebbel Theater, Berlin (2002)
photo Gerhard Ludwig
Elision, the Brisbane-based new music ensemble, with a core ensemble of 20 players, has had 19 tours to 14 countries, 34 international composer commissions, partnerships with Ensemble Modern (Germany) and CIKADA (Norway), and been programmed at some of the world’s leading arts festivals and venues, including Wien Modern, Philharmonie Berlin, Hebbel Theatre, Saitama Arts Centre Japan, Agora Festival Paris, Milano Musica, Zurich TheatreSpektakel, Pro Musica Nova, BBC 3, and the Huddersfield and Liverpool Festivals.

Elision is a unique venture with an wonderful record of explorations of cross-cultural and intermedia composition and performance, engagements with architecture, medicine and science, and enjoys a capacity to develop unique and successful international collaborations. It has changed the face of Australian music, not only in its support for talented composers and musicians, but in ways of presenting music for new audiences. Elision has also cleverly developed an international market for its work by commissioning composers from other countries and by partnering overseas ensembles in productions. It has achieved a remarkable touring record.

For 20 years the ensemble has been led by the indefatigible and wickedly funny Daryl Buckley. Buckley might be alone at the helm, but not lonely. Elision is intensely collaborative. As he says, “Some people are afraid of collaboration. It’s fraught with risk. But very rarely has it ever been problematic in my experience. You invite people into your life and you share something. It’s incredibly rich and dense in that moment. It’s great.”

I’ve been witness to much of Elision’s 20 years and always been inspired by what I’ve experienced, not just what I’ve heard, and that’s always challenging in the very best sense, but by what I’ve seen and very much felt in works that range from the visceral to the meditative, the epic and the intimate and bracing permutations of these. Whether it’s the architectural magnificence of the Australian-British-Norwegian Dark Matter (2001), with audience and musicians embedded in a massive installation that conjured cosmic reflections, or wandering the dark, reflective tunnels of Sonorous bodies (1999) to the sounds of Satsuki Odamura playing the music of Liza Lim to video images by Judith Wright, Elision offers unique experiences. Tulp, the Body Public (2004) was typically and magically hybrid, defying labels with its rich merging of documentary, chamber opera, sound art and digital imagery. I spoke to Daryl Buckley shortly before Elision’s birthday concerts in Sydney and Brisbane.

In the beginning

You started out as a young man and now here you are still seeking to realise your full potential—20 years on. Still looking like a young man.

Oh, thanks! The stress has kept me young. The birth of Elision had incredibly passionate energies behind it. It was a group of 7 students who were really committed to playing Australian new music, as we understood it in the 80s. We put an enormous amount of energy and belief into it. And I think one of the really great things is that you couldn’t have predicted what would happen. The ensemble that performed in Trinity College Chapel in the late 80s, or The Oresteia (1993) with Barrie Kosky and Liza Lim, or Bardo (1993), the Tibetan Book of the Dead installation with Domenico di Clario, or that undertook the transmisi project (1999) with Heri Dono at the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial, is not the same organization. So there is a sense of journey and evolution about the work we’ve done. Dark Matter (2001), would have been inconceivable back then. That’s one of the things I really, really want to keep alive about the ensemble because it does give you life-that sense of transformation.

...amongst a Melbourne music environment teeming with new music ensembles, there was at times a fierce aesthetic opposition from some within the new music community—simple anxieties and unarticulated fears of the European art world, even of the wider Australian situation itself: “You can’t have a national new music ensemble or an ensemble larger than 7”, or “Australian musicians will never play this kind of music”.
Daryl Buckley, Australian Music Centre, Update, No 143, May-July 2006

Originally it was a very clear group of 7 players of whom there are still 3, including myself. Then there were others who joined in the early 90s and stayed. They’ve also been integral to the development of a lot of other organizations since. So you find vocalist Deborah Kayser who went to school with Liza. One of her very first major professional appearances was in The Oresteia. Years later, Deborah performs a hell of a lot of other work in Melbourne. It’s the same with Jeffrey Morris, Carl Rosman and a host of others. So it’s that thing of providing something of a platform from which people can either bounce their careers or their creative endeavours into other areas.

In the ensemble the core is always there but you can get major generational change, bringing in other people who totally challenge the predictability of the artistic experience within the group, and the way you work.

Music re-staged

You rarely use conventional concert formats, you’ve got a couple of major music theatre works under your belt, you use installation and multimedia. Where did that all come from?

Again, it’s an evolutionary process. When we began, we played notated chamber music with a conductor and we would play more or less anything as long as it was Australian. After a certain point it became unsatisfying, a service organization, if you like, to help a community that will have, to put it politely, varying capacity to actually engage with what’s being offered. Earlier, people like Simon De Haan who formed Pipeline had issues with that way of working too. So we weren’t unique. And you’ve got limited resources. You don’t have the money to pay everyone. You don’t have the funding to work as a nationally representative organization effectively. So what I decided to do was I thought, okay, this group’s gonna be fucking great. We’re going to focus, develop some strategies, build some core repertoire, really work on that and get to a serious standard. So we focussed on recent Italian new music around the aesthetics of the composer Franco Donatoni and also on what came to be known as the English Complexity School around composers such as Richard Barrett, and Chris Dench in the way he was writing then. The idea was that we were going to carve out expertise in these aesthetics and, over concert after concert, build up our skill base.

The musician dances

I started to think about the way the vision of a choreographer impacts upon the musculature and the physical capabilities of a dancer and how the idiosyncracies of a particular dancer might trigger things for a choreographer. And that provided a basis for an even greater degree of specialisation. It became very interesting to me, within the chamber music that was being written at the time, how far and how deep an engagement with those two composers we might have, and how experimentations with performance, of pushing to the nth degree the most bizarre, extreme techniques, might impact on their imaginations and vice versa.

Because complexity is demanding on the body of the musician?

Absolutely. It’s not just how the notes might look on the page. You bring to the forefront a whole lot of ethical questions, what you can do, what you can’t do, your own input into the music as a creative person, the physical possibility of actually doing it. Then you start to notice these really interesting composers have relationships with other people who are not composers. At that stage Liza had met Barrie Kosky and Domenico di Clario and that provided the impetus towards doing The Oresteia, our opera, and then The Bardo, the durational work which we performed over a week. It became an exercise in spatialisation and duration performed as an installation on a farm outside Lismore and then a year later in Perth. Richard Barrett was working with a UK visual artist, Crow, and that became Elision’s The Opening of the Mouth (1992) in the 1997 Festival of Perth.

Out of the desert...

It then became really apparent that Elision was working in ways that our peer ensembles in Europe were not. Now, of course, Ensemble Modern does works with Heiner Goebbels like Black and White, but in Europe the cultural infrastructure is there to encourage you to do the work the way you’ve always done it year after year. Of course, there are new technologies and ways to utilise them, new experiences bring change, but the basic core also encourages a lot of stability.

In some ways I think of Australia as a desert where you have the law of the minimum. I think people running ensembles before me have found Australia to be an incredibly frustrating environment because the ceiling is there, the desert is there. I was very conscious of using these limitations. We still do concerts, but they’ve become more rare. I still think it’s good to do them. They can be really subversive. One of the hardest things to do is to stick somebody in a hall and ask them to listen to something really actively, to listen to a piece of new music they have to concentrate on.

I think Elision and I think of vision. I think of an incredibly flexible entity, constant fiddling creatively with things-form, relationships, technology-going at it, but with a great consistency of purpose There’s a certain openness making the most of what’s there, in an arts ecology where resources are scarce.

We fiddle because we have to. There’s a really big element of necessity. And I think if you don’t you’re either an institution that has a degree of guaranteed security or you’re very frustrated. It’s also bloody hard. In the end, with all of the organizations in the small to medium sector, whether they’re doing well or badly, it still depends on having one person in there that galvanises or energises the whole thing. And if they’re not persistent, or if that person disappears, or gets tired, the thing collapses....or never emerges in the first place.

How much of Elision is your vision, steering things and you enjoying the creative collisions?

Artistically, you’ve spelled out the role. Organisationally, I help keep things together and powered along. As you get older you gather skills in dealing with government or people. You gain perspective so you don’t panic.

Is there a desire to use collaboration and working across forms and media to maintain openness?

Absolutely. For me the tension of reinvention is partly driven by the need to have new things, to mutate and evolve, but also at the same time to keep a level of stability. Successful mutations, I think, are those where there’s a tiny alteration in the gene. You don’t throw out entire biological history and understanding of the organism. That’s what collaboration offers.

One of the crucial things about any canon is that a new generation must learn it. And in any re-learning there’ll be a number of creative errors, misunderstandings that create a slightly new interpretation or another approach that’s contemporary to the day. So you have to have innovation within a traditional framework. Otherwise you’ve got a fucking museum and it’s dead and why would anyone bother? If you don’t re-think the canon you don’t have ownership, if that’s the right word; you won’t have absorbed it into your body.

Elision next

What about Elision now and the future?

We’re bringing back Moon Spirit Feasting (1999) in a 6 night season for the Brisbane Festival. We’re working with the composer Maurizio Pisati who’s scored a soundtrack to a film by Hans Richter, Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast, 1928). The soundtrack by Hindemith has been lost and the Nazis banned it because it’s one of those films where objects have free will and seem to act of their own volition. We’re doing a 20th birthday concert with a fantastic new work of Liza’s called Mother Tongue, a collaboration with the Melbourne-based poet Patricia Sykes who’s in her 60s now and started writing late in life. We tour to the UK at the end of the year. We have a creative development for a new project for the Liverpool European Cultural Capital of 2008. That’s Construction, by Richard Barrett and Brisbane new media artist, Craig Walsh. We’ll be doing some experiments with the construction of models of both real buildings and visionary designs out of organic material. They will be collapsed, rotted, decayed, exposed to various biological agents of change. Small cameras will record this and the knowledge we get from that will underpin a bigger creative work in 2008 in a sugar silo in Liverpool that’s about 35 metres high and 180 metres long.

In future I want the group to spend more time on the creative development side of projects. As time goes on, people spread out and our network extends to different cities and overseas. So the loss of hangout time can be a danger. It’s really important to bring people together and actually spend time, thinking, bouncing ideas off one another, exploring things and channeling the impact into the work. It’s really hard to do that in Australia. Funding agencies here are naturally dedicated towards outcomes—KPIs, reserves, volume of activity, distribution, a whole lot of stuff. But you need time. It’s vital for the life of an organization so you don’t become a yearly formula addressing the concerns of your grant application.

So, how’s your own life?

I’m lucky. Liza is a fantastic person; a wonderfully creatively gifted and brilliant person and we have a very strong understanding of each other and each other’s working process. We’re part of each other’s working process. And having a little child, Raphael, also gives you balance and perspective, or relief. It also offers another set of things to do. It keeps you thinking. I guess I’m still really optimistic.

Happy Birthday Elision!


Daryl Buckley will give the Peggy Glanville Hicks address later this year in Sydney.
On June 10 and 11, in concerts in Brisbane and Sydney, Elision celebrates its 20th birthday with Chris Dench’s Agni-Prometheus-Lucifer (2006), Timothy O’Dwyer’s Gravity (2006) and the Amor revised (2006) of John Rodgers for intertwined flute and oboe.

Elision, Moon Spirit Feasting, Brisbane Festival, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, July 28-30, www.elision.org.au

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 35-

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

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