BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Many of us picked up the recorder at least once as a child – but when you count how many have gone on to take out ARIA and Helpmann awards on the instrument, or performed musical works spanning a millennium, you’ll find the number significantly lower. Genevieve Lacey is Australia’s virtuoso recorder player, and she has represented the country with great talent through concerts across the world. Gathering her array of recorders (from the sopranino to the contrabass), Genevieve will present Fade – a concoction of “light and dark, seeing, and not seeing, in a way that we hope intensifies the listening experience”. It’s a series of recorded improvisations which have been remixed by composers around the world, compiled, and brought back to life as Genevieve plays over the final product. Electronics, lighting, and a revolving stage will be part of the show at Tasmania’s MONA FOMA this weekend, and Genevieve talks about her instrument and production ahead of the gig.
So, is recorder really as easy as what we learned in school?
Yes, it is! You can derive great pleasure from the instrument very quickly, which is why it makes such a brilliant instrument for children and amateurs. It’s not like many other instruments, where simply producing a sound takes a great deal of skill. And then, like any instrument, playing it really well takes hours, weeks, months and years of care, thought and very hard work.
What’s it been like to achieve fame through such a traditional instrument which – in modern times – is not conventionally used?
I guess the way that I think of my instrument is that it is in essence, a simple wooden pipe, which is found in varying forms in pretty much every culture right through history. It’s a great traveller. So to me, using it in a broad range of contemporary contexts, responding to the sounds and stories of this time and place, makes perfect sense. If you think of it within the smaller lens of western classical music, then it might seem odd to take an instrument that flourished in Renaissance and baroque times, and transplant it into contemporary jazz, or weave it into the world of a singer-songwriter, take it into an electroacoustic realm, or highly experimental art music. But to me, this seems natural, and is endlessly stimulating. Each time I step into a new project, I give my instrument and myself a new chance of life.
Tell us about how you got involved in Fade.
We’ve been working towards this project for some years. Jim Atkins (sound design) and I have a long history of collaboration. More recently, Bluebottle (Ben Cobham and Andrew Livingstone), Jim and I worked together on a couple of projects that weren’t entirely of our own devising. They were great experiences, so we were keen to create our own world. We gave our four-way collaboration its first outing in MONA for Synasthesia in August 2014. Working in a very different space and context for MOFO in January, we’ve reimagined similar material for the new situation, and can’t wait to see how it develops.
Who improvised the original sounds which were sent to composers around the world, and who are some of these composers? Why were these people chosen?
I improvised the original sounds. The composers were Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Steve Stelios Adam, dj olive, Christian Fennesz, Taylor Deupree. Lawrence English was my generous, skilled guide in the sound art world, and helped me choose these musicians. After months of listening these were the ones who stayed in my ears. They each create beautiful work, in quite different ways, and they’re all experienced collaborators. Some of them, I’d worked with before, many of them, I’d never met. I was fascinated to hear how they would transform me and my instruments.
How is it that the piece which you improvise over was written by many composers – who obviously have their own stylistic trends and skills – and turned into one single piece? Wouldn’t it sound inconsistent?
The way the process worked was that I sent a series of recordings of my improvisations on many recorders to the composers I mentioned above, along with a description of what I was hoping to achieve musically with the project. So each composer was working with the same original sounds, and the same philosophical brief, to help frame their work. Lawrence English, Jim Atkins and I then re-mixed a tiny selection of all the miraculously altered sounds that came back to us, into a bigger piece. In its original iteration, the music worked in duo with a film, and the filmmaker and I had a strong picture of the overall experience and arc we wanted to trace, so that helped created the form. In performance, I improvise live over the electroacoustic piece, which humanises that world, and helps bring the process full circle – it began and ends with pure, unadulterated recorder sounds.
You’ve achieved success through both traditional and unconventional live performance. Do you think musicians need to be forward-thinking and take instruments and ideas – no matter how old – to the next level of innovation, like you have? Do we need to keep changing to stay fresh and alive?
I think each musician needs to make their own way through the world and do what they’re passionate about. I’d be reluctant to say that anyone ‘should’ do anything, as acting from a sense of your own integrity gives whatever you do real resonance and strength. For me, understanding the history of my instrument and knowing its classic repertoire is a source of joy, richness and inspiration. But ultimately, I want the recorder to be an instrument with a vibrant contemporary life, so for me, that means working with composers, improvisers, artists and collaborators of all persuasions. I’m also very interested in creating communities of listeners around the work that I do. Traditional listening spaces like concert halls are wonderful places, and I love the fact that people make time in their lives to come and sit quietly and listen together – that’s an unusual, beautiful choice. Taking my instruments into other spaces like rural communities, prisons, deserts, science labs, gardens, I have found listeners also hungry for beauty and that pure human connection that comes through being in the presence of music together.
Genevieve Lacey will perform Fade at Hobart’s PW1 on 16 January at 8.45pm and 17 January at 9pm as part of MONA FOMA. For more info go to mofo.net.au/program/genevieve-lacey/.
Image supplied. Credit: Andrew Rankin.