In Conversation: Adam Simmons

In Conversation: Adam Simmons

On building a community, becoming an artist and the usefulness of art. 

Adam Simmons
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Adam Simmons

On building a community, becoming an artist and the usefulness of art. 

Your upcoming concert series 'The Usefulness of Art' spans multiple genres and incorporates the sounds of objects as well as instruments. Can you tell me about the conception of this idea, and your inspirations for building a show in this way?

I have always enjoyed playing music from a broad range of genres - on a practical level, it has just been a consequence of trying to cobble together enough work to survive as a musician. But on an artistic level, having experience and understanding of different genres, instruments, mediums, musicians, teachers, cultures, whatever, have all helped influence my music in one form or another. I remember my father gave my sister and I a turntable when we were probably around 5 or 6 years old, plus a bunch of less precious albums that we were allowed to play. These included Howlin' Wolf, West Side Story, Yes, Tom Jones, and something from the Mickey Mouse Club. But once I was allowed to access the real collection, I was listening to the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Ensemble of Chicago, World Saxophone Quartet, Elton John, The Beatles, Captain Beefheart, Buddy Guy, Philip Glass, Anthony Braxton, Glenn Gould, Steve Young, and Albert Ayler. Many of these artists are extremely diverse in their approach and their output. For me, this diversity seems to just be part and parcel of developing and exploring one's craft. Only later on did I come to understand that it was maybe the exception rather than the rule.

"The Usefulness of Art" is something that I have conceived to help bring together some of my various threads, whether stylistically or by way of my broad network of colleagues. I have identified several aspects that inform each of the works, though maybe explored in different forms. So, rather than present each one separately, by performing them within a larger series, I hope it will help develop and frame the works as a cohesive collection.

As an artist in our current political climate, the "usefulness" of our work is often called into question. What are your thoughts on the use of art on a broad scale, and how is this depicted in your concert series? 

Reading Auguste Rodin's thoughts about "The Usefulness of the Artist" while studying helped give me some reason for becoming a musician, by naming "useful all that gives us happiness". But after many years of performance experience and a mix of formal and informal research, I am now of the firm belief that art is a vital part of our humanity. It is something which helps build community through expression and sharing of our diversities, leading to better understanding. Art helps develop empathy, it helps to communicate beyond verbal language, and it can help to physically form different and new neural pathways. Yet, in the current political climate, I feel the usefulness of art is measured solely in terms of the financial benefits it brings - this is most evident in how we now talk about creative industry and creative economies. This has been exacerbated by cuts to various arts institutions and federal arts funding cuts over recent years.

I might be grumpy about stuff, but I don't know how to change things. I am a musician, and not a very influential one - if I choose not to put my music in Spotify, no one is going to care. So my response has been to work from a positive place and do what I do, which is compose and play music. It may be to a small community, but if I can help an audience understand the value and necessity of art in their own life through an actual art experience, that is within my capacity to achieve.

What I would really like to do is build a community through this series. Not just an audience, but a community. It might not be that everyone comes to the gigs, it might just be through someone reading this article that the community grows. But words only get so far - it is the doing, the experience; that is where things are transmitted, transformed and understood. Each concert will take a willing listener on a journey - even tonight, one of the musicians at rehearsal remarked she was reliving all of the emotions in a physical way from the premiere performance which was nearly a year and a half ago. And in this way the artists themselves will also by necessity become part of the community through their performances. This is not a gig to just clock in and out of - I ask a lot of both audience and performer alike, but it is about going on a shared journey and enjoying the adventures that pop up.

You often use toy pianos and other toy instruments in your work, and you have spent a large portion of your career teaching. Has working with children influenced your performance and composition, or developed your ideas on creativity in any way? 

Yes, in some ways, teaching and working with young children have influenced my ideas, yet that's not where the influence for using toys came from. The main thing that I think I have perceived from my various interactions with young children is that they are open to all kinds of music when young, which slowly narrows as they grow. One thing I have seen is my own kids happy to watch Hi-5 on television, but they never asked to listen to it as music - instead, they would ask for the "sleepy music" (Kind of Blue by Miles Davis) or "the pussy music" (Debussy) or the ballet music (more Debussy or anything classical). From this, I take away the belief that if music (or art) is engaging, then it will connect on some level at whatever age - and that it is actually incumbent upon us to expose our youth to quality arts experiences. One thing I have seen in Europe is how the CD collections in people’s homes can be extremely varied, especially in contrast to homes of the general Australian populace. Imagine if our culture encouraged sport and art, instead of forcing a dichotomous wedge between them?

Teaching is something I could talk about for quite a while. But let me just say that while it is not my focus, it has played a vital role in my own development and I have come to understand the great value of transmitting knowledge to others, young and old.

The toys actually came from working in 2001 with Motoko Shimizu, a fellow resident at Music Omi (USA). It was part of her practice, and it was just a natural extension for me from the kinds of explorations into extended techniques that I use on my conventional instruments. They certainly have been useful in expanding my opportunities to share music - in part because it opened up the chance to play for young children, but more because the use of toys helps to open up the minds of adults. Toys bring a sense of play, of fun, of nostalgia, as well as opening up the possibility that the listener might actually be able to do the same thing - and indeed, I have often given toys and party supplies to the audience, allowing them to become partners in creating soundscapes and musical experiences. 

Can you tell us about how you came to music, and what made you realise that pursuing a career in the arts was what you wanted to do? 

Well, I'm not sure I had much choice - my father is a sax player also, self-taught but with big ears and a whole lot of passion. My mother was not a performer but I do remember long sessions where I think she would improvise loosely around certain pieces she had learnt as a child. Friends of my father would come around and they'd be sharing their latest vinyl acquisitions, getting excited, swearing, drinking wine and pumping it up loud on the AR speakers. As I mentioned earlier, we were given a portable record player to use as we liked. We would watch Countdown together religiously on a Sunday night, but we'd watch Young Talent Time also. Music was just always there. 

In terms of actually playing music, I first dabbled in a snippet of piano with my mother's guidance, but I gave up when I had to do two things at the same time. Later in Grade 2, there was the option of beginning recorder, which I did. Choosing to do it helped immensely as in Grade 3 it was introduced to everyone as a compulsory instrument. While everyone was struggling to learn the basics, I was going home and memorising the song for the next day. This set me up for my first "real" instrument, clarinet. I wanted to play sax and had been mucking around on my father's soprano sax, but my teacher, Peter Russell, suggested that clarinet would be a better place to start, should I one day wish to play both. To cut a long story short, I then added saxophone to my repertoire when I began high school and flute towards the end of year 10. 

Though, while I enjoyed music, I didn't seriously consider that I would ever be good enough to pursue it as a career. My dad introduced my to Keith Wilson, a saxophonist and teacher (he taught me my first blues scale that got me improvising), to talk to me about being a professional musician. I thought that if I was really lucky that I might be able to become a music teacher, but even that seemed out of my league. I fully expected to go into maths or physics - the theoretical and experimental stuff, mind you - and I could have, but I decided to try music first with a fallback option. As it happened, I just kept on going...  

For young performers interested in being involved in multiple different ways of making art, what advice do you have on diversifying and creating your own opportunities? 

As Henry Rollins would say, "Do it!" Especially when you're young. There are artists like Eugene Ughetti or Aviva Endean that have quizzed me about these very issues when they were younger, and whether they used my advice or promptly ignored it, they certainly have embraced a wealth of experiences and created strong identities for themselves. NY saxophonist Ellery Eskelin is one who definitely helped influence my thinking in this regard - about the need to develop one's voice, not just try and be someone else for each gig. But don't be in a rush - make sure you do learn along the way - and continue to do so. 

I will just add a note of caution though... play appropriate to the gig, don't impose your ego upon the music, but instead explore how the music can draw the best out of yourself. Each different gig simply offers the opportunity to explore different perspectives of your playing. Slowly this can help you maybe understand the core of what inspires you. Finding myself suddenly knee-deep in the visual arts world a few years ago was extremely daunting, but I slowly understood that the accolades my work was getting came because of my decades of musical experience informing my visual work. At this point, in the same way that playing toys made me feel I was a musician, not just a woodwind player, I was now an artist, not just a musician. I have learnt from various collaborations that artists of different artforms are often dealing with the same concepts, so in a way it made sense but it was still a revelation. 

On a more practical note, it is a matter of simply making contacts, building networks, being seen. Going to gigs and listening to people is vital - they may be the gigs you end up doing or the people you end up playing with. Become part of your community, and you will build your community at the same time. Do not be afraid to approach your idols - some people can be difficult, but most of the good ones are not and will happily chat with someone who is genuinely interested in their work. We are all but human. 

When you were beginning your journey as a musician and an artist, what do you wish you had known about creating an artistic career? 

Going back to being a young kid and thinking I couldn't possibly make a profession as a performing musician, I wish I'd known that there are all kinds of options and possibilities. I am not saying it is easy, but with the right attitude and some flexibility, it is actually more achievable than I had ever thought. I am not famous, but I have played in major festivals here and overseas, I've travelled to numerous countries to play music, and I've performed with some astounding musicians, including some that I listened to on records as a teenager. I am not rich in a financial sense, but I have a wealth of life experience that I never thought possible. 

And be patient. Just because you have obtained your university qualification with flying colours, do not expect that to mean anything in the real world! There are already a whole lot of fabulous musicians out there that may be struggling as well! Find your feet, learn about the broader musical community and make connections. With a proactive attitude, a willingness to be flexible and a commitment for the long term, you can get there.

Adam Simmons' The Usefulness of Art 2017 Concert Series opens at fortyfivedownstairs on the 2nd of March. Find more information and tickets here