In Conversation: Liam Wooding

In Conversation: Liam Wooding

On audience engagement, acting as a musical translator, and going home to find inspiration.

In Conversation: Liam Wooding

On audience engagement, acting as a musical translator, and going home to find inspiration.

How has the concept of “home” influenced your playing?

Of course, home comes to me in fleeting thoughts, but more broadly, it is also a consistent part of my manifesto. I grew up in a small town in New Zealand and I began playing the piano at school and at home, before performing the local music society concerts. When I look back at that experience, I realise how influential it has been for me as a person and a performer. Being surrounded by such strong community values and people who prioritised music in such a significant way was, without me realising it at the time, completely affecting. Two other people I grew up with went on to post-graduate piano study at home and overseas, which is unheard of now, and I think the understanding that you could take your skills and do anything allowed us to consider music a real possibility.

The performers you grew up with have all dispersed around the world now - you’re here in Melbourne; do you still feel strong ties to that community experience?  

I think that experience gave me a strong set of musical and philosophical values. It’s about playing, in both senses of the word, and community. Less about repertoire or ego, performance is a collaboration between audience and soloist – which is something I learned and put into practice at home as a young pianist.

As a solo pianist, how do you create a community when you spend so much time practising alone?

ANAM is a really special place when it comes to collaboration - being there reminds you that you're part of something bigger. It’s a bit like work, I suppose; you turn up to your workspace and then you do your practice in an office. You can pop out to the corridor and have a chat when you need to and work in teams on chamber performance, too. In the industry it’s harder to recreate that, so I’m trying not to limit my possibilities as a performer, because I might not end up where I initially expect to! Right now, I want to be a pianist in the broadest sense of the word - a musician whose main tool of expression is the piano. I’m interested in finding opportunities that are exciting and interesting and collaborative.

Do you prefer to play collaboratively?

So far, collaborative performance has been my life, but playing solo has never been the strongest part of my practice and while I’m in training and I have the resources, I think it’s important to learn how to become the strongest soloist I can be. In saying that, I’m doing a bit of collaborative work in this upcoming recital with my teacher, Timothy Young.

Can you tell me about the programming decisions you’ve made for your ANAM recital?

Jack Body, the composer whose work I have referenced in the title of the overall concert, was born in New Zealand, but spent time in Indonesia developing his compositional style. He spent a lot of time working between the two places and his music references both sound worlds. Debussy, similarly, was looking away from his home of France towards Asia for inspiration. So, two composers looking away from the Western canon and away from their home to create themselves a new sense of place. There was a strong connection between Chopin and Debussy as well, so this performance is all about family and growing up, moving on and developing.

I get that sense that each of the composers that you are performing have their own understanding of their individual country’s “style”. We talk about what makes a uniquely Australian sound all the time and I wonder if you could speak on the New Zealand sound world? 

I think New Zealand is so much more than landscape representation. I know that’s a distinctive part of the country, but colonisation has disrupted or confused our sense of “New Zealandness”. As generations grow and change, who we are is so greatly influenced by our art making. Whether visual or performative, art helps us tell our stories because it shows who we are and what is important to our community at any given time in history. Every New Zealand composer writes works that contribute to the culture and to the artistic understanding of our country's stories.

Why is it important for you to champion the creation of New Zealand art and composition?

So those works are magnified; not in the sense of making something small big, but to allow us to see them more clearly. Mozart and Chopin are amazing and should be performed frequently, as they are, but not at the expense of new works, I believe. 

When you were growing up, did you play works by New Zealand composers?  

The first chamber work I played was by a local composer, and one of my piano teachers’ really encouraged me to get involved and invested in New Zealand composition. Her passion made me care for it and see the importance in finding things out and developing new ideas. It’s important to me that the work I do is more than just finding a nice sounding piece and rehearsing it for a performance. I want to show what is important about the works that I play and offer them up to the audience so it’s theirs to take something away from. In all music – historic and new – we as performers excavate the notes on the page and find ways of delivering them in the most exciting or moving way, and always for the benefit of the audience.

Speaking of audiences taking something away from each performance, what are your thoughts on engaging with those people who are coming to see your concert – perhaps not only while you’re playing, but before and after?

Audience engagement is far bigger than what that group of people sees when they are sitting in your recital. It starts when you begin sharing information online and carries through to when people buy your CD after the concert. I think of audience engagement like community building: how can my music inspire or provoke thought from those hearing it, and will they continue to be invested in my performances? How can I serve them? I think artists have to take ownership of their work and find the best ways to grow their individual audiences, and it can’t be ego-based – you can’t always just program the things you love the best and expect people to show up. There’s so much more to it and I’ve found that self-reflection around why I’m doing things encourages me to be innovative with how I’m doing them.

What does innovation mean to you more broadly in a classical sense, particularly considering that much of the music we perform is hundreds of years old?

Classical music allows us to learn new things faster – it is an art form that totally speaks to now. There are a few considerations when playing historic music: the first is faithfulness to the score but the other side of that coin is the idea of throwing the score out the window a little bit! Instead, we can try and distil the priorities of the composers when they were living – political movements, embracing new technologies, etc. – and use those in a modern context. Perhaps performers should act more like translators than historians, allowing the music to grow and change.

Liam Wooding presents The Street Where I Live on Friday 25th May from 1pm at the Australian National Academy of Music.