In Conversation: Bianca Gannon

In Conversation: Bianca Gannon

On gamelan, colour and finding ways to feel creative. 

Bianca Gannon
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Bianca Gannon

On gamelan, colour and finding ways to feel creative. 

Tell me about Four Reds in Dark and the multi-sensory experience you’ve created.

Four Reds in Dark is an immersive multi-sensory experience combining sound, light, movement and taste. It features myself and Jeremy Dullard on gamelan, Adam Simmons on woodwinds, Bronwyn Pringle's light installation, and dancer Ade Suharto. This synaesthesia-like experience is a chance for the audience to bathe their senses in colour. Alluding to distinguished artist Mark Rothko’s immersive painting Four Darks in Red, this event transports its audience to a new intense yet meditative realm. Through the power of the gong and the other-worldly resonance of the gamelan, my music fuses with the lingering notes of the specially created and site-specific drink Four Pillars in Red Cocktail. Similarly, Adam, Jeremy and Ade gently penetrate the red haze created by lighting technician Bronwyn. These four artists together become the Four Reds, and will enhance one another in new, enlightening ways.

What is it about creating synaesthesia-like experiences that engages and interests you as an artist?

Everything is connected. Realising these links, however tenuous or intense, really engages me. It's somewhat natural for me to think about music in terms of its relationship to other creative forms, such as visual art and food. I love visual art and food almost as much as I love music, so I'm always thinking of ways to marry the three. Creating a multi-sensory experience, rather than a 'traditional' concert, is equal parts self-indulgent and generous; I want to share and create something special and all-encompassing for the audience to immerse themselves in. 

Can you tell us about how you discovered gamelan, and what the process of learning it was like?

I first learned about gamelan through ethnomusicology modules at university. Looking back, what we learned was pretty detached from what I've since experienced in Indonesia but nevertheless I was hooked. Since then, I've continued to listen to gamelan, especially Balinese gamelan, as it combines all the things I love in music: syncopated rhythms, persistent repetition, and meditative and other-worldly tunings and qualities. 

While studying at Cardiff University I was aware that there were active gamelans in other parts of Britain, but as it was just such a foreign and intangible culture to me, and for many others in that part of Europe, I hadn't considered that this was something I could become a part of.

Fast forward five years and I had just moved to Dublin, where Central Javanese gamelan has just been set up; they were looking for members so I got stuck in. As a lonely solo pianist, I really enjoyed making music communally. I was also really drawn to the resonance of the instruments and the tuning. These aspects made the simplest of tunes magical. In this gamelan, like many Javanese gamelans, we used a simple notation system with numbers representing pitches, and dots for rests.

After about a year with that gamelan I had the opportunity to study in Bandung, West Java on the Indonesian Arts and Culture Scholarship. This is by no means a straight-up gamelan scholarship, which I only learned once I arrived there. At first, I was disappointed and tried to create as many opportunities as I could to learn gamelan in my free time. But these 3.5 months living in Bandung a deeper understanding of cultural context, which is vital to anyone learning another tradition and something I'll continue to learn for a lifetime. I gained so much invaluable insight into all things not strictly gamelan related, from dance, language and martial arts, to pop music, to social cues, to lifestyle. All of these are things which inform how gamelan is practised and performed. It was one of those situations where, with hindsight, I am now so glad that things hadn't worked out at all how I expected. 

I then moved to Melbourne 2.5 years ago which very fortunately has a handful of different gamelans. I joined Gamelan DanAnda, a community gamelan, who play various different Balinese music styles and instruments and ensembles, from Gong Kebyar (flashy, syncopated, modern orchestra) to Gender Wayang (to accompany shadow puppets) and Rindik (soft bamboo instruments and flutes). Led by the tireless Jeremy Dullard, a Balinese music specialist, this is a very dedicated group who rehearse together up to three times a week. Eventually, everyone learns all the instruments and all the parts to our repertoire. This is a really nice way to learn as it helps with learning cues and creating smoother interlocking between parts, which is a huge part of Balinese music, and also improves ensemble playing in general. 

Most of our learning is done aurally, through a lot of repetition. As in Bali, you grab a mallet and just try to follow along. If we have a gig coming up and someone needs to learn a part last minute, we use Javanese notation for simpler parts and western notation for those who can read it. We are also very lucky that Jeremy has created isolated parts for us which sound really good and are a very effective and pleasant way to learn parts, even while cooking dinner! All of these things help to memorise the music and to internalise not just one part but how all the parts fit together.

While most of what I know about repertoire comes from Jeremy and Gamelan DanAnda, I learned most about technique and cultural context from the source: study trips to Gamelan Cudamani in Ubud. Performing next to some of the world's best musicians as a total novice in important temple ceremonies giving Ngayah (an egoless musical offering to the gods) is the most beautiful thing I've experienced musically. I strongly recommend the Cudamani Summer Institute in July each year to any musician or dancer of any level seeking immersion into another culture. Emiko Susilo and Dewa Berata at Gamelan Cudamani do it really well!

I've also been trying my hand at gamelan from Cirebon, which is its own unique culture in Java. Michael Ewing, a Cirebon language expert, generously leads Gamelan Putri Asmara - possibly the only Cirebonese Gamelan outside of Indonesia. Here we also learn aurally and we also get to frequently rehearse with dancers, which is such a luxury and a treat to watch. While I'm still very much a beginner at Cirebonese Gamelan, so much background music from my time living in a very active arts centre in Bandung was subconsciously internalised and now helps me to learn Cirebonese Gamelan.

The various gamelan activities have led to my experimentations on mixed Balinese gamelan with loop pedal; this feels like the natural next step in processing the information I've absorbed. The repetitive nature of looping lends itself very well to Indonesian concepts of gong cycles, layering and interlocking parts, so it's helping to consolidate previous knowledge as well as give me a platform to create something new. While I haven't received any formal cultural approval for this project, I feel that Balinese music has always pushed boundaries and is constantly evolving in highly innovative and modern ways while still respecting tradition. This is what I am striving for. However, it is a huge learning curve! I'm completely new to using technology in this way.

You are also a composer, pianist and piano teacher. Can you tell me about how you manage your overarching artistic practice, and how each individual activity inspires the other if you find that to be the case? 

Like most freelance musicians I'm somewhat used to over-stretching myself - going from rehearsal to teaching, to other rehearsal, to grant application deadline, to starting a composition, to private practice, to performing, to going to other people's gigs, sometimes all in one day (okay maybe a weekend - but still...!). The variety is great, but not always being able to get stuck into one thing and the lack of downtime is not ideal. Some people do it really well but I don't think it's an easy life to balance. As I'm pretty early-career I tend to say yes to everything and never have a proper weekend, but I definitely crave and need better work-life balance.

I earn my living from teaching, and one of the things I enjoy most about it is making music with my students - sometimes that's playing a notated duet together, but what I love most is improvising with my students. This usually happens in an organic way - they'll be telling me something interesting they did at the weekend or how they've had a bad day at school, and I'll say "what does that sound like" or "let's make some music about that" and we'll start to improvise. The students often have great ideas and I'll give some guidelines to draw on and usually set up an accompaniment on the fly, and together beautiful and interesting and heartfelt music is created. Even if that particular musical material doesn't find its way directly into my compositions or improvisations, I feel that these very creative and expressive moments created together are truly enriching as a musician and as a composer.

In your work as a composer and a pianist, you often focus on free improvisation - can you tell us about improvisation and its importance in being creative in art music?

Improvisation is a relatively new thing for me. For me, it's the biggest release that music brings me but unfortunately it hasn't quite found its way into my compositions yet. My compositions tend to be somewhat rigidly structured and lack the energy of freedom and spontaneity that improvisation tends to embody. It's something I'm working on - making more open compositions and more structured improvisations. So much of making music is about putting in countless hours before getting any tangible results; while the same can be applied to improvisation, there is an aspect of instant gratification with free improvisation and I think that's great. That's why in my students' first piano lesson I always get them to improvise. It's very powerful to create music without over-thinking it - it forces you to be really present and engage with your environment in real time, and helps you to process any musical and non-musical material you've come across both consciously and unconsciously. I also notice that after my students improvise they then automatically interpret their set repertoire with much more passion and expression. 

What have you learned from developing and executing your own shows? 

I've learned so much from being mentored by Adam Simmons, as part of New Music Network: LAB. He has so generously taught me many things about promotion, balancing budgets, booking venues, musicians, touring etc. etc. that I wish I'd been taught at University but am only just learning now.  From the beginning, he has always looked at the bigger picture asking "where do you want to be in ten years" and "so how will you get there". He's encouraged me to have my fingers in many pies - and each one has been rewarding in its own right and had a knock-on effect for this show. Everything is connected. 

Adam has shared so many nuggets of wisdom with me always at just the right time. This week's mantra is "focus on what it is and can be, and not what isn't and can't be".

I've also learned that you really can't start early enough. There are endless tasks in curating and producing an experience, and unfortunately that eats into time spent on the music, so the sooner you start the better.

Finally, it's been really beautiful to learn what a supportive community the Melbourne arts scene is. People have really blown me away with their encouragement and help with Four Reds in Dark, so I've learnt that reaching out leads to stronger partnerships and new and vital perspectives.