BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Brisbane composer Stephanie Linsdell (aka Quintessential Doll) isn’t afraid to cross musical boundaries. Despite her background in classical piano, the artist experiments with indie-folk, pop, and electronica. She’s joining forces with pianist Sally Whitwell this week for a performance of their original works along with Sydney composer Elizabeth Jigalin. Stephanie discusses the role of classical music in her genre-busting compositions, as well as the genre hierarchies that find their way through universities and the music industry.
When did you start learning classical music?
I was five years old when I began piano lessons. I enjoyed learning classical piano, but at the same time, I was also very much in love with pop music. I learnt violin and other string instruments as I grew older, but the piano has always been my first love. It is the instrument that I feel most connected with.
What gave you the confidence to branch out and explore your creativity in a non-classical way? Classically trained musicians don’t always consider the option.
The confidence and freedom to branch out and begin the Quintessential Doll project didn’t happen until I was several years out of university. I spent most of my early 20s working on my craft in complete secrecy before I felt that it was decent enough to present to the world. I’ve always found the process of composing music (whether it’s ‘classical’ or not) enjoyable, but making it public and therefore vulnerable to criticism has been a challenge. That said, the sense of excitement that comes from presenting a work that reflects who I am in a musical sense is priceless, and that sense of achievement keeps me going.
I find it interesting that you mention that many classical musicians don’t see exploring creativity in non-classical ways an option. I suppose in some ways it’s true: the demands on a classical musician to be in the top percentage of performing musicians in a world-class orchestra can be all-consuming. This is perhaps where the premise of a musician only being able to do one or the other stems from. I don’t think that this is necessarily true as there are amazing musicians who straddle both worlds. For me, I recognise where my strengths and weaknesses are, and choose to follow a path that capitalises on my strengths the most.
How does your classical background influence your musical output today?
I can’t imagine my development as a musician without my upbringing learning repertoire from the classical music canon. I would be a completely different musician if I hadn’t trained as a classical pianist! Whilst I don’t write music for the Quintessential Doll project with the intention of referencing classical music specifically, it certainly influences my writing style and performance style. On the surface, all those years of practising scales and technical exercises have informed my piano playing style that is not usually seen in a pop artist. However, more intrinsically, the years spent immersing myself in classical music means that I enjoy creating and consuming pop music that has the complexity of art music.
There seems to be a hierarchy among univeristies where contemporary music is often stigmatized, with musicians considered less skilled than their classical counterparts. What’s your position on this sense of elitism, considering you’re involved in both sides?
It’s true that the sense of elitism exists…on both sides! Some (not all) classical musicians see non-classical musicians as inferior in playing technique and technical knowledge, whilst some non-classical musicians view musicians who exclusively play classical music as out-of-touch with the audience. Classically trained musicians have been trained creatively to fit with a certain industry, and non-classical musicians have their own ways of doing things to fit their industry. Having worked with both classically trained and non-classically trained musicians, I have experienced the subtleties of different expectations and ways of working. Without trying to sound like the devil’s advocate here, I really think there are things that both sides can learn from each other. I want the classical music snobs to know that there IS sophisticated and intriguing pop music out there that is worth exploring, and I also want people who don’t normally go to classical music concerts to connect with art music without preconceived prejudices. A musician friend of mine commented that the audiences of classical and non-classical music rarely mix. However, I love working in both worlds as it keeps life interesting!
Tell us about how your chamber ensemble piece ‘The Gremlins Come Out to Play Construct No. 2 for Quintet’ came about.
I recently released an EP called ‘Let Not the Monsters Destroy Me’ and for its launch in Brisbane, I am putting on a multidisciplinary show that involves art, music and poetry. The themes explored in the songs of the EP are quite dark in nature, and the artistic concept of the launch show is based on a spooky, carnival theme. I wanted the show to open with an element that Quintessential Doll audiences in Brisbane aren’t used to experiencing, so I wrote a chamber piece for quartet (‘Construct No. 1’) that reflects the vibe that I’m going for with this show: slightly disconcerting, yet incredibly quirky and fun. Most Quintessential Doll fans have only seen the indie-folktronica side of the project, so it will be cool to present something out of the ordinary. I’m obviously very excited to perform a composition that features my roots as a classical chamber musician.
Sally Whitwell and I are collaborating on a concert titled ‘Curiosity & Whimsy’, and I reworked the quartet into a quintet (‘Construct No. 2’) to include Sally on the piano. It fits in very well with the quirky and charming program that we have planned, which reflects both our personalities too: a little bit kooky and fun!
You’ve said this concert plays on the concept of our living in a post-genre world. Can you explain a little more what you mean by this?
As a musician, I often feel pressured to fit into a particular genre when I get asked, ‘what kind of music do you write/perform?’. It’s hard to put a label on my music because it gets boxed into something that doesn’t fully represent what I set out to achieve musically. Music isn’t always straightforward and labels sometimes serve more as a barrier than paint an accurate picture of what the music is about. We also live in a world where we’re more exposed to different types of music through technology, so it makes sense that worlds collide and the lines between genres become blurred when an artist creates work influenced by his or her surroundings.
There is a collective of music lovers out there who appreciate the abstract structures of classical music yet enjoy the aesthetics of indie singer songwriters who connect with the listeners through song. As I mentioned previously, I love listening to pop music that has a level of complexity that is found in most art music, and I’m sure there are people out there who feel the same way. Sally and I have selected repertoire for this concert with the aim of connecting to the listeners with our music without genres or conventions getting in the way.
Quintessential Doll will perform with Sally Whitwell at Foundry 616 in Ultimo, Sydney this September 24 at 8.30pm. Tickets available from www.foundry616.com.au and follow the events page at https://www.facebook.com/