In Conversation: Vincent Giles & Alice Bennett

In Conversation: Vincent Giles & Alice Bennett

The ins and outs of producing a new music and sound art festival.

In Conversation: Vincent Giles & Alice Bennett

The ins and outs of producing a new music and sound art festival.

What made you start the Tilde Music Festival, and what is the philosophy behind it?

At first it was a desire to offer something akin to, and loosely based on, the European festival/academy/summer courses (Darmstadt Ferienkurse für neue Musik being the most well-known), because such things were unavailable in Australia despite quite a healthy interest in new music amongst performers. But the culture is definitely different, and so is the art, so we grew to accommodate and represent the diversity of practice here in Australia, and so now we try to present a snapshot of active interest/practice within Australia (and a little beyond).

There are a few personal philosophies: the first is that the program is not 'curated', per se, rather it is aesthetically restricted and we accept applications from anybody. These applications are then peer-reviewed by a panel of between three and four people and ranked based on aesthetic suitability, logistics, and a few other things. This has a couple of implications: the first is that it's about as fair a system as we can create, because it removes potential programming and personal biases, which in turn tends toward reasonable gender equality to date (it has fluctuated in this regard, but sometimes this can't be helped). The other thing that this process allows is for new ideas to be tested out; they do not necessarily need to be complete at the time of application, and this can be very freeing for artists and very exciting for us. The second is that the festival, as we see it, exists for the scene/culture of art music in Australia, and is driven by those who are involved in that world in some form, making it very grass-roots and community-driven. The third thing is attempting to lower some of the perceived barriers to art music, and to bring it well out of the concert hall. We hope to change perceptions of how these works can be presented.

The Academy is a more recent addition to Tilde: why is it important to encourage young musicians to collaborate, and what are the highlights of the week this year?

The academy this year is now looking at being focussed on composition at a fairly high level. The academy was in fact one of the primary original motivations for starting Tilde in the first place, and is crucial to our long-term vision. The highlights this year are, for me at least, having composers Liza Lim and Chris Dench tutoring composition, with Liza doing one-on-one lessons and requesting that we donate her pay to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which is absolutely wonderful. If your readers do not know either of these composers, then they should certainly investigate. I'm not a biographer of Chris, and have only known him a little while (though known of him for a number of years), but he is one of the first generation of British composers associated with what became known as "new complexity", though like any music of any kind, mass-categorisations like that do no justice to the work itself, which I find absolutely wonderful. Liza's music is equally wonderful, and utterly different, though I would (hesitantly) say that she draws upon a similar lineage -- at least in part -- in her work. Her work is rich and complex and dramatic, and I still quite strongly remember the two performances of her works by ELISION Ensemble at BIFEM, and more recently a solo KOTO performance of another of her works at the RMIT Gallery -- a more varied set of three works you could not ask for. It is wonderful to have such accomplished composers in one place over a week, offering whatever they can to our composition students.

The question of collaboration is an interesting and complex one. I'll have to speak as a composer rather than as an organiser, and please forgive the potentially rambling nature of my reply. The kind of trite and obvious answer is that collaboration is inescapable in a very literal way -- even if you play in a rock/pop/jazz/whatever band, and you feel as if you're not contributing to the song/music writing process, collaboration is necessary to actually make music in the first place, and the same is true with ensemble performance in art music. But collaboration as a composer and as an instrumentalist, I think, can take on some subtly different meanings, or perhaps implications. In my own work, and looking back in recent history, a lot of my favourite pieces have been composed for specific people and their idiosyncrasies with their instrument(s), and my least-favoured of my own works are kind of "generic" for certain instruments. This requires collaboration, because as a composer, I must come to know and understand a performer -- their tastes, their style, their musical ideas and interests, and their personal values -- in order to really understand how to write compelling music for them to play. This process often involves testing ideas out, to which the performer(s) might respond with suggestions, and so forth, which refines ideas. So while the ultimate shape and content of the piece is still the composer's, developing it is a collaborative effort. History would point to Berio's Sequenzas as a great example of exactly this. However, more thoroughly collaborative efforts are important, where composition may be more loose (structured/free improvisation, for example), and requires active participation by all performers/composers, and in such a situation, the role of performer/composer becomes irrelevant.

So, with that as an introduction: why is it important? To my mind, some of the best works in modern repertoire have been made with some degree of collaboration between composers and performers, and certainly more open approaches to group music-making is entirely a collaborative effort. While the Tilde Academy has some of this kind of collaborative work built in, this year a lack of performance enrolments has meant that we have had to make other arrangements. Nonetheless, collaborations between people foster a type of creativity that is not elsewhere available, and facilitating a space and time in which people from various disciplines can come and meet and discuss ideas and plan future collaborations or collaborate in the present or whatever, that is immensely valuable and will lead to, I dare say, much more great art being made.

2017 will see the fourth Tilde Festival - what have been some of the major learnings for you over the past years?

Relying on public funding is not the way forward for sustainable artistic practices. It's great if you can get it, but it is far too unstable, particularly amplified with the instability of our politics over the last six-to-ten years. The other, less cynical thing that has been of great learning for me (and Alice too, I would say) is solidifying personal philosophies that have wound their way throughout the festival. This is something that reflecting on the processes and what we value and how to make it happen and so on has allowed. Also trying to do everything gives you high blood pressure, but relinquishing control is sometimes impossible.

You do not specifically curate submissions for the Tilde Music Festival, so what is your process for putting together the program?

  We use a peer review process. After review the applications are ranked, programmed, and revised down the list as applicants confirm/reject their involvement until the program is filled with confirmations. I should say too that applicants are required to submit various information about their proposed project/program, along with a CV, tech requirements, and so forth, prior to the review process.

 What (and who!) can we expect to see in the upcoming festival?

Lots! I mentioned Laura Chislett earlier, she will be performing an hour-long recital of flute music from various composers, most of which is pretty gnarly and difficult stuff. Local violist Phoebe Green will be doing a long recital of equally difficult solo viola repertoire. There are a couple of installations/installation-like performances using computers and technology. There'll be a food truck. There's some electroacoustic work, some free improvisation, some less-free improvisation, all kinds of things. The program is huge -- I think from memory there will be about 24 performances over 12 hours. There are people coming from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, possibly New York. One of the things that has always excited me since we started doing it was the Tilde-specific collaborations, which is a separate call to the projects call, where we put together interested parties to make some work at short notice and present it. There'll be three or four of those on the day too, which all kinds of people! The website has the full lineup and all that kinda jazz. But there's no jazz...

For young musicians and composers interested in submitting a project for 2018, how do you recommend they get started putting together their ideas and planning their piece or installation?

 2018 is under-wraps at the moment, so I'll answer in a specific sense and then in a more general sense. Regarding Tilde, the best thing to do is hop on our mailing list (at the bottom of our website), through which calls get announced. That and Facebook.

With regard to getting ideas together, planning a piece, and so on: If people are thinking of doing something for the festival it never hurts to get in touch with us directly outside of the calls to discuss things well ahead of schedule, particularly if not so confident with technical setup or the space or aesthetics. It has certainly been the case where we have rejected people not because of bad work (which thankfully is a very rare occurrence) but because it's very good work with completely the wrong aesthetic focus. So if in doubt, like with most things, just ask! And ask with plenty of time. The rest is really just about the idea though, we are open to proposals for unfinished ideas, especially because once accepted, there would be time to finish it, and personally I like things rough around the edges -- there's character there. The more information an artist has about a performance/space/etc. then the better-equipped they are to deal with it; for example, someone proposing a 48-channel immersive sound installation with 6 subwoofers in a completely dark space at midday in the middle of Australian January right next to City Rd in an open space? Not quite the right fit, and likely to have the council swoop down and kick Testing Grounds out due to Southbank being a residential area! Whenever an artist is dealing with an installation on-site, it's worth asking about site limitations.

But really, just do things! Ask for feedback if necessary, and then put in the proposal when the calls are up. I would like to mention that it is important to seem professional, so even if the idea is not fleshed out -- say that the idea is not fleshed out, but detail how you imagine it would work, what it's aesthetic and conceptual ideas are, that kind of thing. Be sure to have a suitable CV (something Alice and I really want to run a workshop on...), and try to remember that Tilde is a community organisation and not Rod Laver Arena with bajillions of dollars in funding (we have none).

Photo by Yafei