BY JO ST LEON
We would like to welcome Jo St Leon in her first story as a CutCommon contributor.
Composer Samantha Wolf was commissioned to write Unbelonging for the project A Sunburnt Country, which premieres in Antwerp on 19 May.
The brainchild of flautist and Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp student Maddilyn Goodwin, A Sunburnt Country aims to celebrate the unique and diverse continent of Australia through the work of its creative artists, and to showcase Australian culture internationally along with an exploration of the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
Other commissioned composers include Michael Bakrncev and William Barton, and the project also features works by Ross Edwards and Anne Boyd.
With the project exploring themes of identity, we settled in for a chat with Samantha about how her personal experiences have influenced the themes of her composition in this project.
Samantha, who graduated from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 2011 and has won the Silver Harris and Jeff Peck Composition Prize, opens up about the way she invests in her music making, and the emotional challenges that can come with the process.
Sam, thanks for taking the time to chat about A Sunburnt Country. Tell us a little bit about your involvement in this project so far.
Thanks for having me! Maddi first approached me about writing a piece for A Sunburnt Country about a year ago. I’d had an idea for a flute and percussion duo for a while, so I was really looking forward to working on that and testing out a few ideas. My only hang-up was the underpinning idea of Australian identity, which I found extremely problematic – and still do. So while I was excited to write for Maddi, it took some time for me to decide how I would approach the concept.
How have issues of belonging and ‘unbelonging’ been significant in your own life?
Unbelonging isn’t about me, but it has prompted me to reflect on my own sense of identity and belonging. I realised I was hesitant to do so many things because, subconsciously, I was waiting for permission. But you can’t necessarily expect others to create a space for you. Sometimes you need to carve out a space for yourself. This doesn’t come naturally for me, so it’s something I have to practice, but I’m not going to wait to be invited to become the composer and the person I was meant to be.
Of course, it’s much easier when you’re the beneficiary of power structures that are outside your control. So much of our lives is determined by chance and circumstance, and that was one of the main things I reflected on while writing the piece. Having said that, Australia’s mandatory detention policy is not a product of chance, or inevitability. The policy, and the suffering of the people subject to it, is a deliberate choice made by the Australian people and carried out in our name. We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility for this.
You’ve said that you struggled with mental health from when you were just 14 years old; that music became a lifeline for you as you would ‘lose yourself’ in the music. Is there a sense in which losing yourself was also finding yourself?
Absolutely. I think being in that ‘flow’ state of music-making helps get me out of my head, which is a godsend for an overthinker. Music gave me permission to take time away from my thoughts and focus on something productive and corporeal. In the context of what I was going through at the time, it was invaluable to remind myself of my creative capabilities. It was basically a way of reinforcing that I was more than my illness, that I had a life before it and I would have a life after it too.
Do you have a sense of shedding light on the deepest recesses of your soul when you compose? Are you sometimes giving voice to the shadow self that most of us keep hidden?
I’m a pretty open, heart-on-sleeve person, so I don’t keep much hidden (especially after that second glass of pinot!). There is a sense though of magnifying some aspects of myself that I wouldn’t usually. But I don’t think they’re deeper; just aspects that take a back seat in everyday, run-of-the-mill life.
Music creates a space for exploring and understanding things that can’t necessarily be translated into words, so it can be a great way to tease out what’s bubbling away under the surface. Like therapy, but for broke nerds!
Creativity is often linked with a perception of emotional challenge, or even pain, in the soul of the artist. How do you think human struggle drives creativity?
One of human nature’s most endearing qualities is the desire and ability to create meaning from experience. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. In fact, I think that belief can be quite destructive in some circumstances. But I think the act of searching for meaning in times of struggle reveals something much deeper about ourselves. I suspect that it comes from the need for personal agency. We want to be able to write our own stories, and we want some say in how we move forward in our lives, even – perhaps especially – when we are subject to forces beyond our control. Whether there actually is an underlying meaning behind struggle is almost irrelevant; the creation of a meaning for ourselves can be extraordinarily empowering. When that manifests as a creative impulse, then some of that newfound power is shared, and that’s a very beautiful thing.
Unbelonging is a brave undertaking in which you address emotional and disturbing issues including abuse and self-harm. This research must have taken considerable mental strength. What inner or outer resources did you draw on when the going got tough?
Writing Unbelonging was a tough slog. I knew it would be, but after working on The More I Think About It, The Bigger It Gets, I thought I could handle it. That turned out to be a bit naïve, and I found myself struggling. It took a long time to write, because I had to take breaks, sometimes for weeks at a time. I had to practice forgiving myself for taking small steps: maybe I only wrote a few seconds of music that day, but at least I was a few seconds closer.
I wrote myself little notes of encouragement on good days, so I could read them on bad days. I kept some paper nearby so I could do a ‘brain dump’ when I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes, getting intrusive thoughts out of your head onto paper is a great way to move past them.
My partner Kieran was fantastic, too. It’s helpful to talk to someone who has some distance from what you’re working on, and our long chats helped me gain perspective when it felt too close or too big. He also wrote me encouragement notes, which was incredibly sweet!
The human stories behind Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers are filled with pain and despair. Looking back on the time you spent writing and researching, is despair your predominant emotion? How optimistic do you feel about the prospect of change?
Yes, I would say that despair is my predominant emotion, along with incredulity, because I honestly thought we were better than this.
Honestly, I’m not optimistic at all. It seems to be always one step forward and two steps back for refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. But giving up is not an option. We all have a role to play. Just because you can’t fix everything doesn’t mean you can’t do something.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes! If you’re lucky enough to be near Antwerp on 19 May, please consider coming to the concert. Otherwise, please consider donating to the project. Maddi has poured her heart and soul into this project and it deserves all the support you can give. Please also consider supporting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or UNHCR if you can.
If you would like to support A Sunburnt Country or read more about Samantha, Maddilyn, or the project, please visit www.asunburntcountryproject.com.
For mental health advice we recommend visiting Headspace.