In Conversation: Oliver Mann

In Conversation: Oliver Mann

Getting creative with your programming. 

Oliver Mann
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Oliver Mann

Getting creative with your programming. 

There's always a mixture of excitement and torture to do with the anxiety about whether it’s going to come off, but putting on this concert is a choice that I made: I had other things that I could do, but I have wanted to do these cantatas for about a year and a half. In the end, it was a matter of if not now, then when? 

On eclectic programming

I listen eclectically, and while I rarely use it, I love the idea of "shuffle". As consumers of music, we have the choice to hand over our listening decisions to algorithms and listen randomly. I’ve always loved eclectic programming, and the idea that you can, in a sense, listen to things and watch things that contrast, but find a truth or common thread throughout the entire program. Genre, taste, and other associations become irrelevant, and it becomes about the energy of the works. I love the idea of people trying to communicate an idea, then boiling music down to its very core fibre and trying to find a common truth in it that makes it accessible to everyone.

On career development

The voice that I’ve been given physically has lent itself to classical music, and so the original music that I write has gone hand in hand with me developing a living out of singing. I grew up singing in a choir, my career has developed what I sing and where I sing it - and the context in which I sing has come about as a matter of necessity. Through that combination of wanting to sing and needing to make money, I’ve sung a lot in choirs and churches, as well as performing with the Opera Australia Schools tour. Singing a lot for primary school kids has been absolute heaven, and then to be able to write and perform my own stuff in clubs has been a fascinating alternative. The audiences that are the best are the ones where the people there want or need what you’re doing. Kids want to be affected and quite often it’s the same with churches. People want to be moved and elevated, which is why music making can be so joyful on both sides.

On the logistics of concert planning

I sing a lot of Bach cantatas, and I see a lot of these musicians coming through programs like the one at St Johns Southgate. I touch base with the people I see every week, and ask them how they're going and what their news is, and then they tune to 415 and bring out their weird and wonderful instruments, and we get stuck into work. When I decided to get this project going, I just got on the phone with those musicians that I work with frequently and said I’m doing a cantata, and they said great, let’s do it! As far as Mick goes, I used slightly different language: "I’m putting together a bill, would you like to play a set?" Quite often he does a 40 minute set with loop pedals creating big lush soundscapes, but here it'll be a lot more raw. We're not trying to create a fusion between the genres, we’re just contrasting and juxtaposing. We’re also having Alan Brough introduce the music - he’s very funny and lovely and a dear friend, and he’s going to put people in a comfy space. He's not going to talk about the complexities of the music, but instead just chat and make people feel happy and comfortable. It’ll be a lovely evening!

On finding a space

That is certainly another big thing: taking this music out of a sacred context. It is an important thing for me to get out of that environment, and present it in a contemporary secular setting. I love the idea of consuming music in such a modern way. People now have a choice, like we spoke about before:  you can subscribe to Spotify premium, and then flick to whatever you want at the drop of a hat. You can listen to music everywhere, it has become completely ubiquitous. People can now come to a concert in a factory in Brunswick - you don’t have to go to a church in the suburbs to hear it. And this music really does deserve the same audience, and it deserves contrast. 

On context of sacred works in a modern space

We live in an age where it’s hard to find a space of peace. We are compelled to touch and investigate and Google and check our mobile phones. We’re addicted to updates and news jolts, and as a result, we're getting information all the time. I was lucky in that I was maybe 18 or 19 when I had my first email address, so I haven't had the experience that people in their early 20s have now, where they've never experienced a time without being so connected. It’s conducive to anxiety and stress, but it’s subliminal, and you only realise how peaceful it is when you turn off your phone. These cantatas are about finding a happiness in death, and while that thought has no solace for me, I think it can be reread in finding a happiness in disconnect and in quiet. 

On broadening your listening

Listening widely is really important because you get to see what will move you - and sometimes it's not anywhere near what you'd imagine. Some friends and I are part of an album club, where every fortnight we get together and listen to an album that none of us have heard before from start to finish without talking (if you talk you get banished). How can that kind of engagement with new music not inform your performance practice? It not only informs you as a practising musician on a technical level but it also affects your desire to communicate. That’s one of the things that baffles me about tertiary institutionalised music learning - you go through the classical music treadmill and come out at the other end with amazing skills, but you have no idea how creative you are! If you're a piano student, you’re not just good for the Chopin, you’re good for so many other things. If singers with this amazing facility sat down and come up with their own ideas, the industry could be so much wider. I'm always blown away with the facility of musicians who go through the tertiary process, and if they don’t get one of the finite amount of gigs available they lose confidence and move in a different direction. You don't need to! 

On making a profit

Emotional support is really important, and financial support is almost even more so. You have to be prepared to diversify and be creative with the way you approach your discipline: expand on it, and push boundaries! It's important to be your own judge. We’re often told by someone else that we’re good enough or not good enough, but that's one person's opinion, and if you are invested, it shouldn't be enough to push you away. It’s about being versatile and saying "okay, I have this skill, I’ve aspired to this thing (for example, being a principal artist with an opera company) since I was 17 years old, but I didn’t get accepted", then figuring out your next step. You don’t need to give up. You have a huge amount of skills, so put together something new. If you don’t find the answers right away you might want to throw your hands up in the air and do something entirely different, and while it’s a matter of persevering and being passionate, it’s also a matter of being creative at how you can best use your skills. Failure can equal skill expansion if you allow yourself to think that way. Keep going.

Oliver Mann and The Australian Bach Society present Bach: On Random at XO Studios on Saturday 29th April. Tickets available here