BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Have you ever heard a piece of music that has transported you away from the moment? We often describe compositions as ‘otherworldly’ or ‘spiritual’, but what do these terms mean for the performer who creates those sounds?
Melbourne cellist and composer Francesca Mountfort’s new video Cosmic Raven explores and celebrates the ethereal. The classically trained musician used pedal effects to create an ambient aural space; fragile and imaginary. She’ll perform it tonight in the real world, but first talks us through the expression of spirituality in her music.
Tell us how you became inspired to craft Cosmic Raven.
My album Swift & Raven has a theme loosely based around the raven being a spirit creature who is able to pass between the realms of the living and the dead, inspired by raven mythology and folklore.
The track Cosmic Raven is about the raven spirit who spends its time in the cosmic realm. Tom Hume made the video: he has a deep understanding of my music and of the visual themes because we create the live shows together. Most of the raven footage was filmed in our garden in Northcote.
How does spirituality – especially symbolic traditions surrounding the raven – make its way into your work?
My music has always had a spiritual aesthetic – not in a religious sense, but as a way of connecting to something more than our immediate surroundings, or deep within ourselves.
When Tom and I were discussing our new live show, we were inspired by the idea of other animals having spirituality and myths from the past. We’ve found ourselves on many occasions watching ravens and their behaviour, so we decided to go with the theme of raven spirituality and to explore where it could take us artistically.
The raven spirit has made its way into quite a few of my tracks as a spirit guardian, a majestic god-like bird and as the cosmic raven spirit.
Your work sounds ethereal and otherworldly. From a musical, aesthetic sense, what do you feel are the elements that make a piece of music spiritual?
I don’t think it’s possible to be technical about what makes a piece of music spiritual. There are ways of making the music sound atmospheric. But I think as long as a piece of music is expressed from the heart and with intent, any music can be spiritual, or could trigger emotions in the listener that could be interpreted as ‘a spiritual experience’.
All art is about connecting with our higher selves, and I think music is a very powerful way of tapping into that because we are able to feel sound, not just hear it. As an instrumental performer, I’ve found that if I really, truly feel what I want to express, people tend to pick up on that feeling even though they may not understand exactly what it is. For me, music is about feeling and connecting with our emotions, and if there is some other realm, I think music is a way to connect with it.
How have you used your classical cello training to inform this album – and similarly, why did you decide to move away from a strict classical genre?
As much as I love playing classical music, it doesn’t interest me to perform or record it, I’d rather do my own thing. Over the years, I have actually been embracing the classical elements of my playing more, but I don’t at all think of myself as a classical musician.
When I was at music school studying the cello in Wellington, I actually developed an overuse syndrome from so much playing and stress, so I was forced to stop playing at that level. It was actually such a blessing, because I started jamming with friends and finding my own style of playing. I got into recording and sampling my cello and have never looked back.
You’ll be collaborating with special guest Mindy Meng Wang on guzheng for this performance. How will you bring Chinese improvisation styles into Western spiritual styles?
Mindy is a musician who understands what it is to feel something and to be able to express it with her music. Mindy and I play together in a trio called The Yellow Peril Symphony with hip-hop producer Joel Ma. In YPS, we have musical forms and themes, but within that it is all improvised, so Mindy and I are quite used to improvising together and responding to each other.
Cy Gorman will also be joining me on piano for a few pieces, so the intention is that at the end of the show we’ll all do an improvisation together. Cy and Mindy are both very sensitive and experienced musicians, and even though I’ve played with both of them on a number of occasions, we’ve never played as a trio, so I’m looking forward to the spontaneity at the end of the show!