BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Welcome to Con Fuoco – CutCommon’s interview series with emerging musicians across Australia.
Sydney artist Johannes MacDonald started playing flute at 10 years old, and was accepted into the Conservatorium High School on the instrument in year 7 and soon switched to composition. In 2015, he began studying composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and his HSC Music Extension composition Anxiety was selected for performance at Encore. Last year, his composition Wound, Disembodied was premiered by the SCM Wind Symphony under John Lynch, and Mosaic was played by Ensemble Nouveau under John Keene at the group’s premiere concert (read our interview with the founder). Johannes is studying under Liza Lim, and plays as a multi-instrumentalist in new music group SPIRAL and band BLACK WHOLE. SPIRAL will perform at Vivid this month.
Your all time favourite piece of music?
That’d probably have to go to Morton Feldman’s (six-hour long) Second String Quartet. I’d argue that the string quartet was the strongest genre in Western art music over the 20th Century and, for me, Feldman’s Second String Quartet is the climax.
I feel like Feldman is the first composer to push past a musical conception of time as set by Beethoven – in most music, although experienced in moments, the music can be conceived as a whole. In Feldman, time stretches, loops, forgets, fractures, and remembers. You can’t consider the entirety of this piece in a single statement or idée fixe. The nature of the length of the work is that the intimacy the listener has with the piece is inherently different to most music – you have a relationship with the music, which is just as much determined by your own moods as the music itself.
Most memorable concert experience?
A little more than a year ago, the American drone-metal group Sunn O))) played at Manning Bar (March 15). Although I’d listened to some of their music before, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know that music could be like what I heard that evening. The best description of them I’ve seen is by John Wray in the New York Times, who compares their music to the ’60s minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, in that both exert an eternal, inconceivable and overwhelming mass. The artwork is experienced in direct reference to the body. I remember at one point, in some state of transcendence I typed a message on my phone to my friend beside me: ‘I’m having a conversation with my intestines’. She looked up at me worriedly, but felt the music for a moment, and typed back: ‘Yeah, me too’. It was so loud.
Biggest fear when performing?
Fainting from oxygen deprivation or hyperventilation. In SPIRAL, we play a lot of music which is: straight quavers, as fast as we can play them for up to two hours, no breaks. Playing that kind of music on flute and piccolo can waste you pretty quickly. If you’re lucky, you get to this point where the breathing situation has you in this weird dream state, and the music reaches a climax and you kind of feel like you’re floating. I imagine my obituary would read:
Played piccolo too high for too long.
How do you psych yourself up for practice on a lazy day?
I feel like, at least in my life, the irreducible core of that question is: ‘How do you get out of bed every morning?’ or ‘How do you convince yourself that your work has any meaning and is worth doing at all?’. I guess I’m mostly propelled by the need to confirm my egotistical self-conception. If I ever feel laziness settling in, I remind myself of how much I’d hate my life and myself if I failed at my current goals. Lots of internal screaming and the like.
Most embarrassing moment on stage or in rehearsal?
Just after I finished high school, one of the pieces I wrote for Music Extension got selected for performance at Encore. The piece was written for soprano, bass flute, harpsichord, and piano; and you could imagine those instruments are just about impossible to balance. So for the performance, each instrument had to be individually miked – especially the harpsichord, which was right up the back of the stage.
The first performance was a matinee, and the whole opera house, even the choir gallery, was filled with high-schoolers. We start the piece, everything is actually going better than expected. But suddenly I can hear someone talking. At first, it just seemed to be in the air, but I realise it’s actually coming through the speakers. Eventually I look back and see that two teenagers, seated directly behind the harpsichord, are chatting, and that the harpsichord is miked up so heavily that their speech is actually getting amplified. They quickly realise that their gossip is being projected across the entire opera house, and they stop. I took it really personally at the time, but I’ve since learnt these things tend to happen when you play atonal music to an audience larger than seven.
Your post-gig ritual?
Mostly, try not to think or talk about the gig. I guess hang out with friends for a bit, then go home and try to get to bed as early as possible. If I make too big of a deal out of it, I get consumed by the problems of the performance, so I try to keep my head low emotionally. Not very interesting, I know.
Best piece of musical advice you’ve received?
I’ve been told it by too many different people to accredit it to any single teacher, but basically: ‘Don’t categorise’. And more specifically: ‘Look where you least expect to find it’. I feel like in our post-modern-or-whatever times, I’ve seen a cycle of analysis across different aspects of music, in which we’re constantly being left with the conclusion that everything is kind of happening everywhere. For example, in the last few decades, we’ve had ethnomusicologists create new systems to understand, from a Western perspective, rhythmic structures in Indigenous music. At some point, we realise these systems are also applicable to jazz and popular music. And then we realise that, hang on, Bach is also kind of doing this. I imagine that analysts grasping wildly for their precious positivism must be totally freaking out, but for composers and other creatives, I think it’s liberating. We don’t have to prove anything; we just have to make ‘good’ music. The ham-fisted attempts at polystylism in the late 20th Century that bled over into our century a little scared me away from considering my practices cross-culturally for years. But every day, I see more and more examples of this radical creative subjectivity being used both meaningfully and expressively. It’s a great time to be a musician, as long as you don’t overthink it.
What are you most proud of in your musical career so far?
In terms of concrete, physical things, it’d have to be the pieces I wrote for the SCM Wind Symphony and Ensemble Nouveau. I was blessed to be given both of those opportunities, and I think those pieces represent the furthest I’ve gotten on paper. On the other hand, I think the environment I’ve found myself in is invaluable. I’m very proud of SPIRAL, an ensemble a bunch of friends as myself formed. It’s not quite your typical new music group, but not quite a band, either. The music we play tries to have the experimentation and sophistication of avant-garde classical music while having the energy and volume of, well, non-classical music.
What do you love most about making music?
I don’t think I can really answer that in one go. Hopefully, the rest of the interview up to this point has kind of given a taste of my answer. In a general way, I can say that it’s too complicated and multifaceted to discuss. But at the same time, I often find my musical experience to be weirdly homogenous across the field. I guess I just like the way it makes me feel.
What’s your ultimate goal?
Get to make the music I want to make, while making enough money to support myself and whatever family situation I’ve unwittingly stumbled into. I have some more absolute goals like writing a video-opera and collaborating with certain musical idols, but I know that the projects I really care about will reveal themselves along the way. In a lot of ways, I’m already happy – I’ve got a roof over my head and enough food to survive. I feel like the music I’m making has purpose, I’m studying with teachers that consistently challenge me, and I’m working alongside friends with creative drives that never cease to amaze me. It’s just a matter of not losing this.
Johannes MacDonald will perform as part of SPIRAL at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music this 17 June for Vivid New Music at the Con. Event details and tickets online.