BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Felicity Wilcox is greeting a new kind of guest in her home.
In her Wentworth Falls property, looking over the mountains that loom about 100km west of Sydney, Felicity hosts exclusive musical sessions – with intimately sized audiences attending through invite-only.
At once returning to the spirit of chamber music itself, while presenting music by living composers (often local, female, and under-represented), Felicity embarks on her project 100clicksWest.
It’s secretive, it’s new, and it’s all about authenticity in music and musician. Through her next concert, she’ll raise funds for Laughing Gas, a Continuum Sax project that will feature cartoons from the first half of the 20th Century and music by the quartet’s saxophonist-composer Martin Kay along with Felicity herself.
Felicity tells us why her closed-door events exist, and why they matter.
How did the concept for the 100clicksWest project come about?
I’d been looking to start an initiative that could really be shaped by my own musical objectives, as I wasn’t seeing other groups consistently prioritising the things that mattered to me, like local music, women’s music and interdisciplinary music. Those are the three focal points of 100clicksWest and I try with every program to reflect those priorities.
It’s not always easy to source works by women, as the usual repertoire is overwhelmingly men’s music. So performers come with pieces ready to go by male composers. [But] my goal is to have more or less equal parts men’s and women’s music on every program, to reflect the overall population ratio fairly. It seems like a no-brainer to me. I can’t understand why every venue and company isn’t taking these kinds of intentional and directed steps to achieve gender parity in the arts more swiftly. For me, reform is well overdue and I’m at that age in mid-life now where frankly, I’m bored with waiting for the change to happen. So I decided to do it myself in my own small way!
So how does local and interdisciplinary music fit into this broader picture for you?
Australian music is so neglected, even by our own major performing arts companies. It’s hard to be a composer in an environment that doesn’t promote music of your time, country, or of your gender, so I wanted to make a special effort to make these things part of what we do. At the first concert, I cited a passage from Alex Ross’ Listen to This, where he mentions that over 80 per cent of the music heard in the time of JS Bach was music written specifically for events and occasions of the time, all being composed by living composer. And in fact, it was frowned upon to recycle older works for these kinds of occasions. It’s hard to imagine Bach leaving such an enormous legacy without a culture around him that valued what he did. Imagine how different it would feel as a composer living and creating in that context! You would feel relevant, inspired and like you mattered. This Utopian set of conditions is a dream for anyone writing music, so I feel a strong commitment to perform music by living composers, to perform new works, to commission new pieces with proper financial remuneration eventually, and to play contemporary works that have perhaps been underperformed.
The last point, interdisciplinary music, is [connected to] where I come from. I spent many years earning my living as a composer for film and television, radio, theatre and the like, so it’s my background. Then I did a doctorate in composition for mixed media, working with visual artists, photographers, making my own video etc. Again, it can be difficult to get these works supported and programmed because many ensembles can’t cater to the added dimension of a screen, speakers, those kinds of technical constraints. As I have made a number of works that weren’t getting picked up by ensembles, kind of falling between the stools in terms of programming, I was feeling frustrated and decided to put on my own concerts and set my space up to offer this opportunity to others as well. In doing so, obviously my aim is to program similar kinds of works by other composers, and to attract an audience for this kind of free, contemporary, exciting approach to new music.
I keep the location a secret, and I don’t publicise the events on social media. It makes it more boutique and a bit more special.
You kicked off your first performance in November last year, playing to a handpicked audience in your Blue Mountains home. How important is it to have music performed in alternative spaces like these?
I think it’s a wonderful alternative to mainstream venues. What I like about it is the intimacy. I keep the location a secret, and I don’t publicise the events on social media. It makes it more boutique and a bit more special. As it’s my home, I can set things up informally, with a couch here and an armchair there, a coffee table, a lamp, and offer people food from my table and a glass of wine so they feel welcomed and embraced.
I live in Wentworth Falls, which is exactly 100km west of Sydney – hence the name of the project. There is no venue or group that specialises in new music up here and I felt it was an important thing to offer my community. Programming is flexible and up to me and the performers, not dictated by some number-crunching marketing stiff. And then there’s the heightened experience of hearing and watching music in a small venue; people in the audience last time said they’d never been so close to performers, and felt super engaged with the whole thing, the music, the physicality of the performance, the facial expressions, the ensemble work. I throw in a few pieces that might push them out of their comfort zone a little, too.
Why do you like to encourage this interaction between the audience and the composer? And as a composer, what do you gain from this?
I just think new music comes alive when you communicate your passion for it and offer the audience a way into understanding it. So many people feel alienated by unfamiliar sounds and switch off because they find the lack of harmony or melody or the extended techniques confronting. And mostly, this is because of the lack of new music heard around us in the major concert halls, and is ironically a reflection of the general fear of challenging the public, held by people in marketing and curating roles. Yet unless you regularly program new music, the audience will never develop a taste for it and be attracted to new music concerts, so it’s a catch 22!
I figure as a composer that if you can help people hear it the way you intend it to be heard – by explaining things like the concept of gesture, which is not familiar to most people, or offer an insight into what motivated you when you were composing, what influences might have been present, what image you held in your mind, what emotion was at the core of a piece – then people find a way to engage. Because ultimately, music is life, and we all share this wonderful humanity that music is so brilliant at articulating without words.
As a composer, by prefacing a piece with a few insights or a brief chat, I am holding out my hand to the audience and saying: ‘Come with me on this trip!’. I’ve had people wiring me cards and emails thanking me for the concerts I’ve put on, and for helping them to discover something new.
Build your community and make the relationship a lasting one.
What advice would you give to young composers looking to run their own multidisciplinary events such as yours?
Don’t expect to make money on the first concert! In a way, this isn’t the goal first time round; generating goodwill and a vibe should be the focus. But learn from your mistakes and don’t lose money next time! Find ways to reduce your costs, keep it simple, artist-focused and value your audience. Your audiences are your VIPs. I send each person who books a ticket a personal thank you note, just a brief one, but it’s important to acknowledge the support people give you. And don’t assume people don’t want to hear all about the music, they do! Build a mailing list, go back to those who come to your concerts and keep involving them in what you do. Support them in what they do. Bring your people: your players, audience, other composers along for the ride with you. They are your greatest asset and none of us can do this crazy thing called art on our own! So build your community and make the relationship a lasting one.
The tickets to your next event go towards fundraising Laughing Gas – what do you enjoy about combining music with visual arts?
I find visuals provide an endless stimulus to my musical imagination. Perhaps this is my training as a film composer; doing that work year-in, year-out developed a craft around composing for images that will never leave me and possibly underpins my practice more than I realise. Even when I am not composing directly to images, I am often imagining a scenario, whether an interaction between characters, a strong dramatic moment, or just simply an emotion.
I’ve tried to find a way to make music lead the way, or to stand parallel to visuals without being subordinated by them. This has been a challenge I’ve really enjoyed and has opened up some interesting lines of enquiry for me. I’m continuing to explore this with a current commission for the Australia Ensemble, where I’ve been given licence to compose a chamber work for a film of my choice. I have chosen a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and was granted approval from Godard himself not only to screen the film during the concert but even to cut the film so I could structure it it a way that supported a much shorter piece of music. This has been fascinating and I’m now literally moving shots around within sequences because my music is asking me to, something a director on a commercial production would never allow! It’s a shame filmmakers and visual artists don’t work collaboratively with composers in this way all the time. The result would be much more organic.