My Rehearsal Room: Gemma Horbury

My Rehearsal Room: Gemma Horbury

On the usefulness of art.

Gemma Horbury
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Gemma Horbury

On the usefulness of art.

So, when the last and dreadful Hour
This crumbling Pageant shall devour,
The TRUMPET shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And MUSICK shall untune the Sky.
John Dryden (A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687)

I am a performer, an artist, and an educator: I am an agent of change. My work responds to the strangeness of everyday life in the early twenty-first century. It seems to me that society has subscribed to a horrifying consensus reality where the basic requirements for human survival are commoditised, and the effects of irreversible climate change are still being debated rather than acted upon by our government.

My tools are the mass media technologies that promised to unite us, but instead, distract us from connecting with each other in person. As a trumpeter, my chosen instrument represents ancient histories and biblical mythologies; it speaks of battles won and lost, of heavenly exaltation, but rather than an apocalypse heralded by angels blaring golden trumpets, today the alarm is being raised by scientists. We are in a new geological epoch, where so many humans have forgotten their place in nature that we have not only conquered the food chain but also assumed a dangerous influence on our planet’s climate.

The dislocation of our communities mirrors the fragmentation of the plastics that are altering our soil and water. Our social connections have suffered, eroding our sense of responsibility to each other to such an extent that artificial intelligence is being touted as a solution to providing quality care for our ageing population. Nostalgia and utopianism; longing for how it used to be or how we wish it could be, if only we weren’t so busy working to maintain our “lifestyle.” The possibilities that lie in our future are a mystery, but what if we do become so consumed with the business of working for capital that it seems perfectly normal to have a robot looking after grandma?

Every day, research builds the dossier of evidence for how the arts and creativity can help us determine a path toward a brighter, more connected and inclusive future… yet it’s been there all along: melody and rhythm existed before language as we know it. Art as part of nature is bigger and much, much older than us.

The Usefulness of Art, my current project with the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble (ASCME) offers a space to meditate and share with a collective of musicians and artists; to embody themes of acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith. The audience is equally embraced in the live experience – acknowledging that we’re all in this together: listening, feeling, seeing and responding. It’s a contemporary ritual, a communion of hearts and minds that offers a sense of calm, a breath of fresh air in the chaos of everyday life. These are the experiences I most value in my work as a musician. Adam Simmons is often lauded for his abilities as a multi-instrumentalist, but I’m most touched by his ability to work with people. Apart from being extraordinarily hard-working, he has a rare gift for generating community: instinctively and gently encouraging the ensemble and audience alike to create, collaborate and celebrate spontaneity. Here with this group of musicians from Melbourne and Adam’s hometown of Ballarat I feel accepted just as I am. Whatever I can contribute today is just fine because nobody is expecting to produce the same performance tomorrow. But it wasn’t always like this.

Fifteen years ago, I was a freshly-minted conservatorium graduate. As an emerging artist, this is probably the time when arts funding is most accessible. Overseas travel goes with the territory for young orchestral musicians in training, and I’d recently returned from a scholarship trip to study historic brass performance in the UK. But all the possibilities I saw for myself changed suddenly one Sunday afternoon. The very same weekend that I came out to my parents as gay, I was the passenger in a high-speed car crash.

At the scene were a truck full of cows, a bus full of schoolchildren, and an ambulance that took me to hospital… I insisted that I was fine, and I’d already organised a lift to get to my four o’clock rehearsal, but I was discharged from spinal six hours later. I missed a rehearsal and the album recording that ensemble had been working towards. I’ve kept my copy of it all these years (it was to be my first proper release), but someone else’s name took the place of mine.

I went back to work after a few weeks off. I kept trying to play the trumpet, but the pain was intolerable without medication. My brain and my senses were so dull that I couldn’t reliably perform anymore. I was too proud to ask for help and I didn’t tell my colleagues what was wrong. I was full of shame.

After one last season of Handel’s Messiah, I silently withdrew from music.

In the many months of rehabilitation that followed, I was consumed by physical and emotional pain. I was invisibly damaged. I recall walking down the street one day, struck by the realisation that my desire to conquer Berio’s Sequenza X had disappeared. Having contemplated my own death, the idea that I would ever devote months of practice to master a piece for a single performance was immediately ridiculous. Everything I’d aspired to meant nothing. Standing on the street, outside my local supermarket, all I craved was a simple melody.

Slowly, I rebuilt my fledgeling career as a community artist. Instead of making and playing natural trumpets, I built hose-a-phones and instruments from almost anything you can imagine (hard rubbish was a goldmine). If I couldn’t perform, then I could still teach and share my love of music. The gift of grief or pain is that you start to recognise the invisible hurt in others, and I could see that my training had given me many skills as a facilitator. When the insurance payout came through a few years after the accident I bought my first laptop and learned all the skills I’d never had a chance to when I was focused solely on trumpet: photography, video, animation, whatever took my fancy. I became a creative generalist. As my experience grew I started to work in youth centres, and even in a children’s hospital. The difference in this new realm of the arts was that we could all learn together. I made a DVD with skateboarders, ran a hip-hop project, even a TV channel. I can honestly say that having your own gameshow is fun, and damn… playing Wii tennis on a big screen with a twelve-year-old who’d had both hands amputated in the days before, or iTunes randomly playing a song you made with a guy who never made his eighteenth birthday (the day you heard of his passing)… well, I wasn’t gonna be so ashamed about not nailing Messiah after that.

And so I came to see that I’d constructed music as some competition. To win, you needed to be the best, to practice long and hard enough to get noticed, to get the work. But I’d forgotten the PLAY. Now, the performance outcome didn’t matter so much as the process of making; the sharing and laughing that happens with understanding how to organise sounds to create music.

This other mode of creating, where the experienced and the inexperienced are equals; where the performer and the audience experience the ecstatic together, this is where I find myself today. From that vivid moment on the street, wracked with pain, longing for some idea of a simple melody, I’ve come full circle. I’m skipping over the bit where I started playing the trumpet again by tap dancing with my busker friend doing Michael Jackson covers, but hey… Rodin nailed it when he said, “I call useful all that gives us happiness… art shows man his raison d’être.” A hundred years later, Adam Simmons created TUoA in response to Rodin’s ideas, and this work is essential stuff for humanity. Not purely for the ecstatic, immersive experience of the performances, but for the conversation and reflection it invokes within the broader community beyond the performance season or the recording. I get to be part of The Usefulness of Art, not just tonight or for the run of this show, but every day in what I bring to the world. Art is my reason for being, but it’s the sharing part that really gets me.

Adam Simmons and the Arcko Ensemble present Travelling Tales at fortyfivedownstairs from Thursday 7th December. More information and tickets available here.