BY LUCY RASH
Adelaide composer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Thorpe is decimating the boundaries of genre.
Broad in Bradford, United Kingdom he completed a year of his tertiary studies at the University of California before delving into the “mystical sounding but very creatively rewarding” world of sonic arts and composition. In 2015, Dan completed a Master of Philosophy (Sonic Arts) at the University of South Australia. Last year, as he begins “doing the rounds” of classical composition, Dan became part of Ensemble Offspring’s Hatched Academy, and this year sees him attend the highSCORE festival in Italy.
But his most personal venture is his recently released album homecoming (three years later), which he’ll tour across Australia and the United States. Dan speaks with CutCommon about the very personal, intimate inspiration for his latest record, as well as the array of theories and techniques informing his work.
Can you give us some insight into your background, musical training, and current work?
The background question is always a fun one for me to answer as a weirdly accented, sometimes pink-haired person, generally with far too many instruments on hand. I’m kinda English, kinda from Adelaide, and I play a whole bunch of instruments though mostly the piano. I grew up on a combination of ska, punk and new romantics (from my mum) and a combination of enjoyment of Triple J and laughing at Classic FM (from my dad). Boy, how the tables have turned with the latter! I started out playing guitar and swapped over to the piano. As it turns out, it was a good move! I always was and still am an absolutely tragic computer nerd, so I started making stuff with computers in my early teens. I started off studying composition at the Elder Conservatorium, but my style was far too weird and I swapped over to the somewhat mystical sounding but very creatively rewarding Sonic Arts department. I’ve just finished my Masters.
What I bring to the genre though is a love of writing music for myself and electronics. I love performing it myself, too!
Explain the navigation of genre in your writing – is it enabling or constricting?
This is something I think about a lot. I play almost exclusively in pubs, and it’s weird because punters never say ‘classical’ — even if I’m performing work by Anne Boyd or Missy Mazzoli or Nico Muhly or Philip Glass! The most common label I get is ‘experimental’, though generally, people seem quite reluctant to try and put label on what I do. I think that’s actually pretty ideal; of course, that’s until you try and fill in any APRA or grant paperwork!
Perhaps my biggest source of genre angst is around the supposed cultural worth of different types of music. I really don’t think the idea of classical music as being the exclusive source of ‘high culture’ particularly holds true. There’s so much pop that has profoundly shaped my view of the world. For example, I watched the video for Flying Lotus’ Never Gonna Catch Me on repeat for pretty much a whole day on its release, and I have never cried like I cried at Sufjan Stevens’ Adelaide Festival concert this year.
That being said, I find conversations around ‘accessibility’ in classical music super tedious. Firstly, because it’s utterly patronising. Audiences are not idiots. They can take weird stuff and (shockingly) they often really enjoy it. Secondly, but certainly not least, because they’re very rarely talking about accessibility vis a vis who can actually come to the concert. For me, this is perhaps clearest along lines of class. I went to my first orchestral concert when I started at university. As a kid growing up in Adelaide’s outer-northern suburbs, there simply wasn’t the opportunity. To be quite frank, I felt there was much more interesting music to be heard. Don’t worry, I’ve changed my mind since…although perhaps not about J. Strauss waltzes.
So why do you make music?
I make art because I want to tell people something about being alive in 2016. Music is great because it hits you right in the guts. Sometimes physically, with the sheer volume and pain of it, like My Disco or The World is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die do, or sometimes gently and in the most heartbreaking way possible, like David Lang’s Wed or Aisha Orazbayeva stopping playing Lachenmann to sing a Russian Song. So much of my work is about being brave enough to be vulnerable in front of an audience, and encouraging them to be vulnerable too. It’s not about all the technique that goes into it; it’s about having an honest conversation with a group of people and hoping for a mutual respect and trust to talk to them honestly about life, and sometimes death. The rest of my work, however, is about having fun – it’s not all super heavy stuff all the time!
What inspired your latest LP homecoming (three years later)?
homecoming (three years later) is about loss and healing. I found out my best friend had had a sudden and severe heart-attack a few hours after getting off a plane from Europe. We found out he was brain-dead the next day. I was meant to be in Sydney for Ensemble Offspring’s Future//Retro in a fortnight – I had made a piece that involved flickering, microphoned fluorescent lights and reactive graphic scores, which also meant I had to drive from Adelaide to Sydney (they’re filled with mercury so you can’t fly with them) to transport them. But I knew I had to make the funeral. So, I packed my bags, threw the fluoros, assorted guitar pedals and a computer into the back of my car, and drove from Adelaide to Sydney before boarding a plane across the Pacific Ocean to California. This album is recorded fragments of my recovery: first in California, later on New Zealand’s South Island, later still on a piano prepared with remnants of foreign currency left in my pockets between the strings. What results is somewhere between a diary and an act of self-healing; a requiem and the sound of life going on, regardless.
What was involved in your composition process?
I feel like this is meant to be a question about technique, but what actually happened was an outpouring of unmediated and utterly bleak grief over the loss of someone with whom I was incredibly close. I started doing the field recordings used so heavily in this album because I felt like I had to do something, that I needed something to do with my hands, otherwise I’d forget what they were for and be utterly overwhelmed by my sense of being alive. It was soothing, even if it was just to listen to the sound of my own breathing, or crying, or singing through the headphones. It reconnected me with myself in a way I could deal with. The piano fits under my hands, and always has, in the same sort of way — this giant machine that makes sounds based on how you touch it, but the muscles controlling your touch start at your fingertips and end at your abdominals. It’s so bodily and involved and consuming in a way that I needed while writing this album. Probably about a third of what I recorded ended up on the album, although the piano part was recorded in one long take with very little pre-meditation.
Where – or in what mindset – are you most inspired to create?
So much of my work comes from physical gestures and sense of embodiment so, bizarrely, it’s usually after going for a run, or doing something physical that gets my brain ready to write notes. Somewhat boringly, however, I’m also just one of those people that sits down and works because they have a deadline. There’s nothing quite as inspiring as a terse email.
What words of advice might you have for musicians who are curious about, but haven’t often attended, gigs outside the lower c ‘classical’ genre?
Wait – is this a thing? I honestly can’t imagine a lifestyle where I’m not regularly in the basement of Ancient World, or Format, or in the band-rooms of The Metro or The Cranka moshing/grooving/thoughtfully-nodding-my-head-like-a-good-experimental-musician-ing myself silly to music my friends and their friends have made. Maybe that’s my tip: make friends with people who make music and aren’t locked in a practice room 24/7 like you are. We’ve all been there, it’s ok! Go see their shows! If you like it, then go to all their shows and their friends’ shows. I guess my point is that the best music I’ve ever heard has been in gross rooms by my friends, and it’s been great because we’ve had fun. There’s no need to be scared of people who don’t have the same musical/fashion/lifestyle tastes as you. You’ll learn stuff from them. I guess the wine’s a bit s**t, but it’s sometimes less than $5 a glass and you’re never going to get that in a concert hall. Live a little – you’ll have fun.
How can CutCommon readers support your project?
Of course, the best way to support any artist is to buy their work and see them in action. But if you’re feeling extra generous, myself and my colleagues at Concrete Collective are raising some extra dough for our American tour over at the Australian Cultural Fund. It’s tax deductible, and you’d be helping us survive the trials of presenting work in a mysterious and foreign land!
homecoming (three years later). Dan Thorpe. Full album.
Dan Thorpe will perform tonight at 7pm at the Red Rattler, Marrickville. He’ll perform again at Backhouse in Wentworth Falls on May 21 with the Klangberg Ensemble.