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1 September 2009

Christina Leonard and Mary Finsterer in conversation

Christina Leonard and Mary Finsterer Image: Christina Leonard and Mary Finsterer  

In this interview transcript, composer Mary Finsterer and saxophonist Christina Leonard discuss the art of composing, performing and collaborating. The interview was conducted earlier this year by Annemaree Dalziel, producer at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, where Mary Finsterer is currently composer in residence. One of the highlights of this residency is a forthcoming event 'Conversations', featuring not only Finsterer's new work but also music by the Aboriginal hip hop artist Wire MC and the didjeridu player William Barton. 'Conversations' follows on from two earlier events this year - 'Suburbs' in May and 'Rivers' in July. [Further edits and updates 2 September.]

Why do you do what you do?

Mary Finsterer: The changing terrain of sound worlds is a constant fascination for me. Each composition demands something different of me, creating challenges to investigate another soundworld - and that keeps me there in the act of composing. Composition is the thing I've chosen that enables me to make sense of this world and this life.

Christina Leonard: Not wanting to sound frivolous, but performing is fun! And collaborating with other performers and composers is really fantastic - there is nothing like it. Not only do I really enjoy being able to interact with people on a very different level, but to be able to do that by realising a musical idea and evoking a response from other musicians by what we are playing - there nothing that gives me a bigger rush. I can't imagine not doing it. As a saxophonist I am lucky that there is a really wide scope for different styles of music-making that I can be involved in. Having said that, you often have to 'make your own fun', as it were, which is probably the biggest strength and the biggest challenge of playing the instrument.

MF: My process is fairly insular - (but) most of my work has involved writing for specific musicians. Discussing work with musicians, before I go into the process of writing, I have the chance to understand their instrument in a lot more detail. I discover their favourite phrases - and I see my initial idea in a much clearer way.

CL: I loved the process of discussing what sort of sound you wanted and then figuring out how I was to facilitate that on my instrument.

MF: If I have an idea that I think might work, and if I can discuss it with a musician - with you for instance - who has the skill and experience to try out different techniques, I will then see if my idea is achievable.

CL: In essence, we were creating stuff that essentially hasn't been created before, just to fit with the idea that you wanted.

MF: And musicians live with their instruments - day in, day out, 24 hours a day. Composers visit their neighbourhood, and then move on. They are constantly visiting.

CL: Yes, you visited my neighbourhood, but you took me to a new neighbourhood as well.

MF: Well, access to musicians gives vital feedback, allowing me to hone my skills and keeping me open to learning. It is a kind of ongoing research that is so important. The documentation of that research occurs in the creative output, the score. The inspiration of an idea is the starting point, then there's the investigation that can become quite scientific. The science and idea have to go hand in hand with the research feeding in to the process as a conversation, a counterpoint, if you like.

What kinds of sound worlds will develop from the composer in residence program?

MF: I don't know yet how these pieces will evolve. Regarding 'Suburbs', I'm rather drawn to the rhythmic quality of industrial sounds. I find them fascinating. Like factory sounds, and trains - fascinating. My grandfather worked on the trains for a very long time. I remember as a child the sound of coming to Sydney, of sitting on the train, and especially the older ones, you hear the…

CL: The red rattlers.

MF: …rattle… I love those sounds. I used to live next to a factory. You could hear the dull movement of all of the machinery through the walls. There is something fascinating about the way all of these mechanisms are working together in one operation. Those two things, (the sound and) the movement of machines I find aesthetic. And regarding the 'Rivers' theme, the sound world of water evokes a myriad possibilities...

CL: There are so many aspects to rivers. There's the spiritual resonance of the Ganges, the terror of a flood, a gamut of emotions, violence, as well as peace.

MF: A force to reckon with. In some respects beautiful, yet - as we've witnessed in the last 10 years on this planet, floods, tsunamis - an amazingly powerful and even catastrophic force. All communities are based around water. Our whole survival on this planet has evolved on and around rivers.

CL: Yes, there are so many conflicting energies associated with rivers and water. I really wanted to exploit those aspects by using a unique combination of instruments in this concert. Sax quartet, tabla, other Indian and Middle Eastern instruments will be played by musicians from really diverse musical backgrounds, used to working in very different ways. I am really looking forward to this collaboration and to creating a new work with Mary for these performers.

MF: Yes, and our final program ('Conversations) will be compelling in that all of the artists come from vastly different backgrounds - where they are born, their history, their ancestry. Each artist represents a different voice and each is integral in demonstrating the eclecticism and plurality of the Australian voice. Spontaneity as an essential element of conversation is really the exciting aspect of the third concert. How music from different genres, with varying social and historical references can meet in a common forum, and how those genres interact - really in a way mimics the life of a conversation.

CL: This is another concert that embraces musicians from really different backgrounds and approaches to life and music-making. I am excited about how music crosses between genres and sound worlds, and how between Mary, Wire MC and the musicians involved we can create something that is unique. I am really looking forward to exploring how we can add another dimension to the language of hip-hop and the themes that Wire MC addresses by framing it in a different context, the context of 'Classical music'

MF: What it is about is how can I invite that into a sound world that I can contribute to. It will inform me in lots of different ways in my creative process. It's cyclic.

CL: This residency is going to be intensely busy, engrossing and exciting.

MF: Indeed! A formidable challenge, eh? I guess balance will be the key. That of course is very hard to achieve in all aspects of your life. In the course of a day it rarely happens, but that's what I aspire to. It is after all the thing that I've devoted my life to doing… I have to add my family. I'd be completely insane without them.

CL: Yes, two things dominate our lives: composing music, or playing music, and family. They're two major commitments.

MF: They are, and sometimes they demand of you everything at the same time.

CL: Most of the time. But they're two things you can't be without. They're fundamental to your being, almost. I couldn't imagine myself not performing; I'm not the same person when I'm not performing. Equally, how could I be the same person without my family? For a lot of people, work is just the daily grind of nine to five, and those people can't understand why I would not choose to give up work and exclusively look after the children. I love my children, but I also love my work. In a way I suppose it defines who I am, and because of that it's very hard to separate one from the other. So sending emails at 2 a.m. after feeding Thomas is kind of where it's at, there is no separation!

MF: Life is chaotic - and either you embrace that or you don't…

CL: I think the more chaotic it gets, the more you can fit in. How surprised you are at how much you can achieve, and how much more satisfying it is that you can achieve it!

Event details

Music by Mary Finsterer, Wire MC and William Barton, performers also including Claire Edwardes, Christina Leonard, Bernadette Balkus, Daniel Yeadon, Sophie Cole
Campbelltown Arts Centre
26 September 2009, 8pm
See: event details in the AMC Calendar

Masterclass with Mary Finsterer
Campbelltown Arts Centre
26 September 2009, 3-5pm
Further information: (02) 4645 4100 or AMC Calendar

Subjects discussed by this article:

Annemaree Dalziel works as Theatre Producer at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.


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