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29 August 2008

Genevieve and Ganassi

A Navigated Journey

Genevieve Lacey in The Navigator Image: Genevieve Lacey in The Navigator  
© Justin Brown

Morwenna Collett caught up with Genevieve Lacey in July, when the recorder virtuoso was in Brisbane for Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator. The opera was performed by the ELISION ensemble under the direction of Barrie Kosky, as part of the Brisbane Festival. The Navigator evokes stories from the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, as well as the romance of Tristan and Isolde. In its telling of how people risk everything in journeying towards unity and/or transformation, the opera questions the contingency of living only one life in one world.

Genevieve Lacey performs, with commanding passion, music spanning ten centuries. She has performed as concerto soloist with orchestras such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Academy of Ancient Music (UK). Her regular chamber music collaborators include Paul Hoxbro, Karin Schaupp, Danny Yeadon and Neal Peres Da Costa, Marshall McGuire, The Song Company, Astra and ELISION ensemble.

Genevieve Lacey has won numerous awards and holds academic and performance degrees (including a doctorate) from Australian and European institutions, is a Fellow of the University of Melbourne and will become an artist in residence at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2009.

Morwenna Collett: Thank you for taking some time out of your Brisbane schedule to speak with me. First of all, I’m really interested to hear how you came to the recorder. What drew you to it?

Genevieve Lacey: It was my first instrument and I didn’t have the plastic primary school experience, which is why, a lot people say, I’m still playing! I had amazing teachers when I was a child. I picked the recorder up first when my family was living in New Guinea – I had an older brother who wanted to learn an instrument, and we didn’t have a lot of choices in that environment. But there was someone in the community who taught recorder, and I wanted to play, too. "If you play the recorder and you display any aptitude, people tend to move you on to 'real' instruments..."The family memory is a bit vague on when I started but I would have been four or five – so pretty little.

MC: A good instrument for the New Guinea climate too, I would imagine. And do you play any other instruments?

GL: Yes I do. You know how it is, if you play the recorder and you display any aptitude, people tend to move you on to real instruments. So they did! I was quite a serious pianist all through school. I also played the oboe and, when I went to the Con, I did a double major on oboe as well as recorder. So, I certainly have played other instruments, though I don’t any more. I decided to specialise in recorder after my undergraduate degree.

MC: I wanted to talk a bit about contemporary music, since that is why you are in Brisbane, and you’ve certainly got a reputation in this field. How important do you feel it is to advocate new works for the recorder? I believe this is something that is very close to your heart?

GL: Yes, it is very important to me for lots of reasons. I guess primarily because I want my art to be a living one. The idea of things constantly in a state of reinvention and renewal and exploration is something that is really exciting to me. The process of working with composers is honestly the most inspiring thing that I do. It’s completely amazing.

MC: And is that a lot of the work that you do?

GL: Yes, now it is. There was a time when I did more early music than new music, but now the balance has definitely tipped to the other side. In pragmatic terms, otherwise the repertoire is quite limited. There’s been a huge growth in contemporary repertoire in the last sixty years or so, but I think it’s important to keep adding to it. So, if people are prepared to write for the instrument, that’s really exciting.

MC: You are also on the Australian Music Centre board and I imagine your role there would have you advocating passionately for new music. How did you come to that role?

GL: In simple terms, I came to it because I saw there was a vacancy and I hoped that I might be able to help. I really am passionate about new music, the music scene in Australia and where we might be headed, so if I can make a contribution on any sort of level, I am really happy to do so. It is a wonderful organisation.

MC: I know you work with a wide range of ensembles. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with ELISION? I understand you’ve been with them for a while, on and off.

GL: Yes, I have. My first project was John Rodgers’s work Tulp and I think we began the development for that in late 2003, so I’m quite a newcomer to the group. A lot of the members have been around for a couple of decades. I was invited to become involved with that project primarily because it was inspired by a Rembrandt painting, so the idea was that I’d be a link between the old world and the new. I think neither Daryl (Buckley, Artistic Director of ELISION ensemble) or John realised that I was actually really as in love with new music as I was with old music, and that was a wonderful way of me showing that side of myself. That led to a whole lot of other things.

MC: And is that something that comes up with you often, being the link between the new and the old, as the recorder player?

GL: Yeah. It is a recurring theme actually. I’m often a link between all sorts of worlds because recorders are really versatile. And I like that role. I like being able to sit in multiple places and draw from a whole lot of things.

MC: What do you like about working with ELISION? Is there anything specific about the ensemble that is attractive to you?

GL: They are a really extraordinary collection of people, honestly such an inspiring bunch and completely passionate about new music. Their commitment particularly to Liza Lim’s music is absolutely palpable.

MC: Have you been involved in any of their other Liza Lim projects?

GL: No, I haven’t. Over the last couple of years, Liza has written me a couple of solo pieces, really stunning works, but this is my first part in a really big ensemble piece. Because I am a relative newcomer to ELISION, it’s going to take some years before I participate more fully, because it’s about developing repertoire as well. But yeah, a huge part of the drawcard is that the people are amazing. They’re astonishingly skilled, and they come from really diverse backgrounds, so everyone is bringing quite an individual perspective to what we do. And the calibre, the creativity, the scope of the projects is really amazing, so it’s a complete pleasure.

MC: I believe the recorder plays a big part in The Navigator, and in fact the overture to the work is a Ganassi recorder solo, an instrument long associated with lamentation, the erotic, and pastoral and supernatural realms. Does this mean we are going to see a lot of recorder in the opera, does it play a significant role?

GL: Well, its clearest part is in the opening – there’s five and a half minutes of recorder solo. I’m on stage in costume and masked.

MC: A recorder probably hasn’t opened an opera before…

GL: No, I don’t think it has. I’m quite excited about that. I’m actually really honoured about that. And yeah, it pops up quite a lot through the opera. Liza’s used a baroque trio, so there’s recorder and baroque harp and viola d’amore. The three of us often work as a unit. Particularly in the second scene, there’s quite a significant part with the three of us and two of the singers.

MC: Can you tell me a bit about this specific recorder?

GL: Ganassi is the name of a guy called Silvestro Ganassi, an Italian 16th century Venetian who wrote an amazing treatise on the recorder, which was basically a treatise on diminutions [ways to ornament]. It’s also the first specific instrument manual of that time that talks about all sorts of techniques, and gives amazing fingering charts. There’s a really beautiful drawing of a Ganassi recorder, and the thing about this instrument is that most renaissance instruments at that time were consort instruments and had a range of about an octave and a fifth. In contrast, Ganassi’s instrument shows a range of about two and a half octaves. No Ganassi instruments survive, and the brilliant Australian recorder maker Fred Morgan recreated an instrument based on that drawing and those fingering charts, a recorder that has the range and flexibility that Ganassi wrote about. So he re-invented a renaissance instrument. And the instrument I play at the start is a Fred Morgan.

MC: I know Liza works very collaboratively with musicians in a kind of exchange process, can you tell me about that experience? When did your involvement in this project actually start and what’s the path you’ve been on together?

GL: Liza has many amazing gifts but I think one of the greatest is her incredible sense for sound colour. She is always intrigued by new sounds and what she could do with them. So, when she knew that she wanted to have recorder in The Navigator, she asked me to show her some instruments, and these were the ones (the alto and tenor Ganassis, and the Paetzold contrabass) she really fell in love with. So, that was the beginning of the piece that is now the prelude to the opera. That’s a lovely story, too, because it was written for Daryl’s [Buckley] 50th birthday. Liza had a sketch at that stage that I played for Daryl’s birthday party, and on my request she extended it. It became a more substantial solo piece (called Weaver of Fiction) that I recorded for a solo CD I was making at the time. At that stage it wasn’t going to be the prelude to the opera, but Liza sent it to a whole lot of people who loved it and somehow it got its wonderful role of opening the opera. Liza’s relationship with the musicians of ELISION is incredibly collaborative and I think the whole ELISION/Liza story is a fascinating one.

MC: I understand you’ve just returned home a few weeks ago, after travelling overseas on a Churchill Fellowship. Could you tell me about your project?

GL: It was fascinating, and it really feels like it was a life-changing experience to take a couple of months away from the concert/recording fast track. It was a very broad research project that was basically about interviewing a whole lot of people, most of whom were working in the music field. I found quickly, when I was lining up interviews, that my heart really is with the world of new music. It was incredibly inspiring – people were really generous and I learnt a vast amount. I went to San Francisco and New York, then to Paris, Munich, Berlin and London. To get as wide a perspective as I could, I interviewed a broad spectrum of people: practitioners (compeers and players), people running ensembles, directing festivals, working in publicity, working in publishing, working in orchestras, smaller ensembles, also people in visual arts, people in theatre. I’m in the process of writing the report, trying to draw the threads together and understand what I learnt and how it can be applied.

MC: It sounds like a really relevant and important topic.

GL: Yeah, for me, at this stage of my life, it is. It really was life changing, in terms of making clearer where I want to go and how I might try to become the sort of artist and person that I think I want to become. So, yes, it was fantastic.

MC: In closing, what exciting projects have you got coming up on the horizon?

GL: Lots – I’m lucky, really! I work across a fairly broad spectrum. I'm working on medieval things as well as very contemporary things, finishing off a couple of recording projects, playing a series of concertos, about to do a residency in a high school, which will be really exciting. And a residency at VCA [Victorian College of the Arts] next year. I’m getting my fingers really itchy about the whole field of improvisation and wanting to engage with that so I can become more useful.

MC: That’s certainly something it would be good to see more classical musicians branching out into.

GL: Yeah, I think that my next big personal mission is to try to evolve skills that can take me into a whole lot of other musical domains, so that I’m not purely reliant on other people’s notes. So, we’ll see.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Morwenna Collett is the Arts Development Officer for Dance and Music at Arts Queensland. She has a Master of Music from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University and is also a freelance flautist and music journalist. She has completed both the Arts Administration and Words About Music courses, run by the Australian Youth Orchestra.


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