This entire season of work is incredibly exciting - you’ve got Australian premieres and world premieres, and some of the best artists in the country! Can you tell me about how you planned this particular program, and how it fits within the broader season?
Argo definitely has its own style that every performance in the season somewhat works within, but each concert stands alone in terms of audience experience. Each concert sits in a different space and engages with a wide variety of artists of vastly different styles. But, in saying that, I really think if you like one concert, you’ll probably enjoy them all!
The idea for the program of Saturation was born out of a really fantastic piece by a contemporary American composer, which, as the program grew, ended up being cut entirely! I’m not going to tell you what it is because I’m saving it up for something else, but the point is that the ideas and feeling for the whole program was inspired by the feeling that I got from this one piece, even if didn’t make it to the final concert. The feelings were intense, overpowering, saturated. I’ve brought together a program of works which play off that same feeling and those same experiences and ideas. The themes also drew me to two local composers whose styles fit perfectly - Ben Heim and Tom Green - and I consequently commissioned two new works by them. It’s fantastic having both world and Australian premieres in this concert, and the two Argo commissions are particularly exciting: I talked with Ben Heim, who used to work on Argo (and co-founded it with me) and now is based in London, about commissioning a piece for solo piano and electronics, and he’s created this really cool work that takes textures of the live piano and uses live signal-processing to create soundscapes and environments in which the piano plays. The other piece we’ve commissioned for this concert is by Thomas Green, a Brisbane-based composer whose is equally at home with contemporary classical “art” music as he is with producing brilliant electronica/dubstep/Aphex Twin-esque electronic music. The new work he’s written is for flute, piano and electronics, and it’s heavily inspired by dance rhythms, using a heap of samples from the piano and flute and turning them into crazy glitch electronica percussive beats. Between the two works, and the other stuff on the program, there’s a really cool blend of electronics and live performance - they’re sometimes beautiful and evocative, sometimes they’re really heavy and emotive, and sometimes driven and propulsive.
You have a clear interest in combining electronic and live music - how did this come to be a priority, and why do electronic and contemporary classical work so well together?
I genuinely believe that there’s a style or genre of contemporary art music to suit and engage everyone, it’s just not all out there for people to know about yet. There’s so many amazing things going on with composers around the world that work in that grey area between genres, and combine elements of pop, art music, electronic, dance, experimental, etc. There are the big players - Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, Nico Muhly - but there are also a lot of lesser known composers doing cool things, including many contemporary Australians. A lot of them also write “actual” pop music as well, if you want to make that kind of hard definition. I think it’s about how people listen - lots of the electronic and pop music being listened to now has elements and influences that you can also hear in contemporary classical music. If you enjoy listening to electronic music and dance music, there is something for you in this space that utilises those elements. And generally, we’ve found that people do really enjoy this kind of music because it’s not a huge stretch from what they already listen to, its just that the context in which they hear it that is different. When you go to hear a gig at a club, you’re not required to partake in all the formality of the concert hall, and its often even the same when you look at the more relaxed vibe of a contemporary theatre, so we’re just trying to provide a space that's comfortable and where the audience feels like they can engage with the music with no barriers. It’s not a strategy, it’s just part of the experience we’re creating. Similarly, the electronics aren’t an add-on to draw in an audience - they work part and parcel with the music you hear. It’s in the DNA. It’s the kind of music I like to listen to, and the kind of experience that I enjoy! Honestly, I don’t spend time listening to classical music when I’m at home or on public transport. Most of my relaxation time is spent listening to electronic music. The combination with contemporary classical is what interests us, and it think its something that other audiences will definitely enjoy too.
The way you’ve approached programming has changed a little over Argo’s lifetime. What have you learnt about the process, and how do you think about crafting a program now?
Things certainly have changed from when Ben and I founded Argo to the way I’m running it now. When Ben and I began Argo, between the two of us we were essentially composing and producing the entire program from scratch. This year, I wanted to take the ideas we had created and the same kind of experience that we were giving our audience, and apply it to a broader cross-section of music. Honestly, programming a concert for me is actually much the same as composing: I start off with the initial concert inspiration and gather ideas around that, then shape them together into an entire concert experience. The whole performance is basically one large piece of music: one seamless musical experience created out of smaller musical parts. Looking at it this way really helps me focus in on the audience experience. You get to think about where the climax of the concert sits, where the contrasts are and how it’s building. These broader elements really help you fit things around that original idea. Looking out for how the audience is experiencing the concert is pretty important to me, and certainly to Argo, as we're trying to create something that’s more than just music. While all of the works are absolutely amazing and could work brilliantly in a more traditional concert setting, I’m trying to re-contextualise them in a way that’s a little more sensory. It’s a different way of experiencing a concert, and I like there being that variety of experiences on offer in the scene!
That interest in creating a multi-sensory and multi-disciplinary concert experience is really evident in your focus on visuals and other artistic elements. Why is creating an experience that is more than just music so important to you?
I’ve always been interested in visual arts, having done a decent bit of photography, film, sculpture, painting and sound art in the past. It’s always interested me to see how those artistic mediums can interact with my composition and music making. There is so much that working across mediums and genres can bring to what you do. Whether it’s simply taking inspiration from a different medium - something that artists have been doing for centuries - or actually collaborating with different types of artists to create something new, there is heaps to be learnt. We’re doing a lot of the latter - sticking all the creatives, composers, performers and other artists in a room and seeing what will happen! That collaborative process can bring about so many great ideas. I think it’s important to recognise that when we're part of an audience experiencing a performance, we take in information with all of our senses. So, as musicians, why not create something that utilises all of them as part of the musical experience? I think that’s also a really interesting point in terms of what we were talking about before - engaging with those who don’t listen actively to classical music. Creating and presenting a concert that has elements of several art forms that the audience has already experienced can be a really great thing.
Your skill in visual arts is really evident in your marketing of this season (and in fact, all of your marketing in Argo’s history!) Why is how you package your concert series so important, and what is the process like for creating things like a season’s print and digital marketing collateral?
I did all the digital and print design myself, and it took WAY too long! Several things happened a long time ago, like making decisions around Argo's fonts, which takes a bit of the pressure off, but the specific season design has kind of ambled along since October. I started out by coming up with a general formatting and style direction, focussing particularly on the formatting of text and logos, then started to work on the artwork itself. I worked on that up until about two days before the deadline for printing, and then basically decided I hated it all, so I threw everything away, and spent a whole night redoing it from scratch. I think if I could give some design-y advice: it's good to have a bit of a system for making small choices to help your work be as cohesive as possible - stuff like working to a grid or having a well considered colour pallet, for example. In regards to our colour palette, it all stemmed out of an actual piece of artwork that I saw in the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (I am working with them towards the end of Argo’s 2017 season). I took a photo of it and selected a bunch of the colours, which became the season colours!
I think right now, when we’re oversaturated with things to see and do, good packaging and design can be the difference between someone stopping to look or continuing to scroll. It’s important to get all your marketing elements looking good. The process really doesn’t need to be intense and time consuming, it just needs to be consistent and well considered. When I was in undergrad, I got given some advice about the basics of design and marketing yourself, which was to design out the following three things items: a letterhead for invoices, letters and proposals, a business card, and a sticker. You should do them all at once, using the same image or fonts and colours, and once you’ve done that, you’ll have something to springboard off for other things. It takes a bit of practice, but you just have to do it. Believe me though, there were a lot of crappy posters on the way to what I'm creating now!
Argo’s 2017 season kicks off with Saturation at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane on the 27th May 2017. More information here.