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ELISION ensemble: a bold 30-year adventure

Matthew Lorenzon: interview, Daryl Buckley

Scene from the ELISION performance of The Navigator (2008) Scene from the ELISION performance of The Navigator (2008)
photo Justin Nicholas

Since playing their first concerts at the Footscray Community Arts Centre in 1986, ELISION have become one of Australia’s most successful new music exports. Their close relationships with composers working at the edge of instrumental virtuosity and notational complexity in the UK and the US have redefined the possible in music. In 2016 ELISION return to Australia to celebrate their 30th anniversary with, among other events, concerts at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music and an exhibition at the Melbourne’s RMIT Gallery. Matthew Lorenzon speaks with ELISION’s Artistic Director Daryl Buckley about the ensemble’s past, present and now sprawling influence around the globe.


Your forthcoming exhibition at the RMIT Gallery reflects 30 years of groundbreaking work by ELISION, much of which has taken place overseas. Audiences who have only come to new music in the past decade (including millennials like myself) might not even realise that ELISION is an Australian ensemble. Can you fill us in on how ELISION started out and grew?

Essentially we began as a group of Melbourne students from the Victorian College of the Arts. Our intention was to engage with and perform a diverse range of Australian contemporary music; it was a thrill to just have contact with living composers. There was a great deal of instrumental activity in Melbourne, but even so the circumstances of the day were limited. It all happened in a fishbowl. There might have been one significant critic—Clive O’Connell writing for The Age—and one or two bureaucrats relevant to [our seeking] support for funding.

Did you have an audience?

Audiences for new music were amazing and I believe they have since declined in Melbourne. They were fuelled by the combined pedagogical activities at La Trobe, the VCA and to some extent Melbourne University. We were seriously annoyed if we got anything less than 150-200 people to a show.

How did you broaden the conversation to include, say, overseas artists?

One instance of internationalisation occurred when I discovered that we could make submissions to the Italian Ministry of Culture and secure funding to engage Italian composers and conductors. We brought conductor Sandro Gorli out, from Milan to Melbourne, over 11 times in the following decade. He became like a father to the ensemble with his warmth, intellectual engagement and care, and fully developed the group’s latent potential with his detailed attention to the scores we were playing. I really doubt that ELISION would have become what it did without his input.

By the early 90s I was also writing applications to the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Canadian Arts Council and the Holst Foundation in the UK to either commission composers like Richard Barrett or Alistair MacDonald, or sponsor recording releases. With Richard we were able to access not only his publisher, who publicised our work in Europe, but British arts funding and philanthropy for a CD that came out on the boutique Dutch label etcetera. We sold over 3,000 copies of it and received rave reviews around Europe. Our first European concerts, in Milan 1991, secured a massive audience. The internationalisation of the ensemble that began in those early years fuelled our later capacity to shift base and survive.

Eventually you all found yourselves overseas on a more permanent basis. What were the key elements encouraging that shift?

Well, in the early ‘90s a prodigious talent called Carl Rosman joined the ensemble. Liza [Lim, composer and Buckley’s partner] and I would make absolutely all of the scores and information we possessed available to him and he would just strip the house of it and consume it all. Given the size of the Australian scene, it was evident that such a talent needed to be overseas. I made opportunities for him through ELISION, such as a joint commission with Ensemble Modern of a new work by Liza, Alchemical Wedding.

Also, I was younger! I had no hesitation in arguing with a funding agency. A massive spat with Arts Victoria in 1994 led to us being defunded by the State. We moved to Sydney for a year, then Brisbane. Each shift was like a rebirth for the ensemble. There were new contacts and new possibilities.

Queensland began an important phase in the ensemble’s story. In our Queensland period we engaged heavily with site-specific performance installation work. We worked with visual artists such as Domenico DeClario, Heri Dono, Judy Watson, Judith Wright, Justine Cooper, Araya Radjarmrearnsook and curator Rhana Devenport of the Queensland Art Gallery. We had some amazing projects at the Third Asia Pacific Triennial, which were documented in RealTime.

Yes, RealTime hit the scene in 1994.

The Queensland adventures also saw a huge amount of beautiful documentation in RealTime. Keith Gallasch came up for Dark Matter (read his response), another insanely large performance installation piece with CIKADA ensemble from Norway, Per Inge Bjørlo, and Richard Barrett, all at the Brisbane Powerhouse. RealTime covered the Adelaide Festival in 2000—Robyn Archer’s amazing Adelaide Festival where we were able to do Liza’s Yuè Ling Jié on an eight-sided barge on the River Torrens.

Daryl Buckley in ELISION performance of The Navigator (2008) Daryl Buckley in ELISION performance of The Navigator (2008)
photo Justin Nicholas


So when and why did you definitively shift your operations overseas? Was there an exodus of players at some point?

No, very early on we fielded players from all over Australia, and then the world. In those days it was expensive to fly people around, but we refused to be defined by a single geographical location. While our impact in Europe was felt from the early 90s, we only moved our fundamental base of operations in 2007 and 2008. First of all, Liza had the opportunity to live in Berlin for a couple of years through the DAAD [German Academic Exchange Service], so we pursued that. That coincided, disappointingly, with a deterioration in our relationship with Arts Queensland, also resulting in the eventual loss of our Australia Council funding.

So you had one foot in Europe and one in Australia. When the rug was pulled out from under one foot you just shifted your weight. This sounds like a common narrative in the Australian arts scene.

Perhaps unusual for an ensemble though! Our joint decision was, however disappointing and disruptive those attitudes coming out of Arts Queensland and the Australia Council were, they were not going to be the epitaph for the ensemble. It was only when I left the country for six or seven years that I could really see the ensemble’s work from the outside. You might know that something has had an impact when you’re inside the bottle looking out, but to be outside looking back in is a completely different experience.

You’re back in Australia for your 30th anniversary celebrations, how does it feel to be back in the bottle?

The impact of the Global Financial Crisis in Europe and Australia is a huge point of difference. The rolling impact it has had within the social fabric and the arts in the UK has been devastating and has underwritten Brexit and a stack of other events. The wealth, opulence and opportunities present here—this is not to say that the arts are funded well here, or funded enough—means that a lot of practitioners aren’t propelled to make the most of the opportunities available. Australia is fearful for and protective of its wealth and that projects onto how it deals with refugees and immigration policy as much as it does on how art is made. Although there are exceptions, it is happily unambitious.


You are now reflecting upon your own artistic production by curating an exhibition at RMIT. What kind of a story are you going to tell?

The initial idea for the exhibition came from Associate Professor Lawrence Harvey, who was my PhD supervisor at the time. We’ve been involved with both the RMIT gallery, who commissioned work from ELISION through the RMIT Art Committee, and with SIAL Sound Studios as a long-term collaborator. That provides a natural framework for an exhibition, a story of this group of people who had a certain arts adventure that had consequences and a meaning, not just for us, but for many other practitioners and audiences elsewhere in the world, and how we have become part of other people’s practices. For instance, in the US you’re now seeing an increasing presence of what I term the “American choreographic school,” including composers Aaron Cassidy and Timothy McCormack. Particularly through the recording legacy and performance advocacy of Tristram Williams and Benjamin Marks, a new generation of players in the US is really rocking and rolling with it.

Are you surprised at some of the things that you have found trawling through the ensemble’s archive?

Yes! A lot of it is in the National Library of Australia in Canberra. There’s a massive amount of stuff there that I deposited when we left Queensland in 2008. It’s all catalogued and organised into years, correspondence with particular composers, and particular projects. There are some great objects there. When we first performed Yuè Ling Jié on a barge on the Torrens River the conductor’s score fell into the water. Simon Hewett did some wild gesture and the whole stand went into the river with the sconce—which was attached to a socket—still lit. So when Simon reached into the river to rescue the score we had looks of frozen horror on our faces. The river was potentially live.

And live in multiple ways. How did the score look when he pulled it out?

The soprano Deborah Kayser and the rest of the singers took turns drying it out with hair dryers in a nearby rowing club. I put the score into the archive with a note about the incident. The NLA’s Curator of Music Robyn Holmes recently told me that a PhD candidate has been researching the collection and came across the score, which had gone all mouldy.

You inadvertently preserved the biodiversity of the Torrens River in this petri-dish of a score.

There are a lot of memories in there!

ELISION performing The Navigator (2008) ELISION performing The Navigator (2008)
photo Justin Nicholas


As one of Australia’s most distinguished contemporary music ensembles, you are performing this year in Australia’s youngest new music festival, the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. You are comprehensively represented through three concerts.

I really have to thank David Chisholm for including us. David stands squarely outside some of my earlier remarks. He is indefatigably himself and is pursuing his vision in his own rugged, inimitable way. He’s not appreciated enough here. As you gain a broader perspective it’s often the people who stand for something, who have a vision that’s not being shaped by or filtered through compromising to meet funding constraints, the people who are chasing down their vision, they’re the people that you really value in the music community.

There are three strands to our program at BIFEM. There’s our collaboration with ANAM [Australian National Academy of Music] which sees the first performance of Enno Poppe’s massive orchestral work Speicher in Australia as well as Liza Lim’s Machine for Contacting the Dead. Machine... is a beautiful work dedicated to the women, the courtesans, musicians and entertainers at the court of a Chinese Marquis who were interred in his tomb alongside weaponry, jewellery and other material belongings.

The second strand is purely ELISION, which includes a new work by Liza. She hasn’t written a new work for us since The Navigator (directed by Barrie Kosky, 2008; read the RT review) which was about eight years ago now. The soloist is the amazing sheng player Wu Wei. It is called How Forests Think and was completed in the world’s largest remaining rainforest—the Amazon. How this unusual circumstance came about would take another 10 minutes of interview. Lastly, Aaron Cassidy has written a work for the two giants of trumpet—ELISION’s Tristram Williams and Peter Evans. It’s massive.

I look forward to hearing it soon! Thanks for speaking with me.

Have a look through our archive for numerous reviews of the ensemble’s productions and concerts.

ELISION Ensemble: 30 years, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, 9 Sept-22 Oct

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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