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23 February 2017

Insight: The Usefulness of Art

Origami performing at the Festival of Slow Music in 2013 (from the left: Howard Cairns, Adam Simmons and Hugh Harvey). Image: Origami performing at the Festival of Slow Music in 2013 (from the left: Howard Cairns, Adam Simmons and Hugh Harvey).  

Adam Simmons writes about his new initiative, 'The Usefulness of Art', and the way it brings together various strands of his earlier work. Forthcoming events as part of 'The Usefulness of Art' include concerts on 2-5 March, 24-27 August and 7-10 December 2017.

> Read more 'Insight' feature articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists (scoop.it).

I call useful all that gives us happiness. - Auguste Rodin

After more than 25 years of being a professional performer and composer, I am embarking on a new initiative, 'The Usefulness of Art', as a way to bring various threads of my work together. Underlying this is my increasingly evangelical understanding about the importance and fundamental nature of art for us all, despite feeling the arts are under siege from various quarters. My humble offering is to try to do what I do to the best of my ability - which is to write and play music.


I was born in the outskirts of Melbourne but largely grew up in Ballarat. One of Australia's largest inland cities, Ballarat can be dreadfully conservative, but has always had a strong artistic and cultural side. Indeed, other Ballarat musicians that emerged around that same time as me include Benjamin Northey, Barry Cockcroft and Genevieve Lacey, though I came through a different world with bands such as the Valiants, the Boxing Tostados, the Fat Thing, the Mavis's and the Dead Salesmen.

I finished my VCE studies in 1989 with an extra year focused on music at School of Mines Ballarat, with excellent tutelage from Helen Fairhall (who also taught Genevieve Lacey). This year focused on classical harmony, theory and performance, which was vital in establishing a foundational base I had been lacking. One particular aspect that I came to appreciate via Helen's teachings was the need to understand the function of each note in order to properly interpret and express a melody, and that the score was a beginning, not an endpoint.

I moved to Melbourne to study at Victorian College of the Arts, completing my Bachelor in Music Performance (Improvisation) in 1992. I feel very fortunate to have had as main lecturers Brian Brown and Tony Gould. Tony's attention to detail contrasted with Brian's encouragement to just do it, and, at times, they seemed to sit in contradictory positions. I slowly understood they were actually trying to impart similar ideas, just from different perspectives. In the process of grappling with these perspectives, it actually was behoven on me to form my own opinions and position.

In the years since graduation, I have performed and recorded with numerous ensembles across many genres. Throughout this time, I have led my own groups performing predominantly original music. In the beginning, my compositions were quite prescriptive, despite my desire to play free jazz. But slowly that has shifted through attempts to something less calculated by simply singing and transcribing, or by deliberately leaving things unstated or introducing aleatoric elements, be it in the scoring or through the use of extended and idiosyncratic instrumental techniques I have developed.

A more recent influence has been my taking up of the shakuhachi, Japanese bamboo flute, some 15 years ago. It has been a very humbling experience - most significantly in the way that timbre drives the traditional Zen honkyo-ku rather than melody or harmony, and that specific shakuhachi notation has developed to efficiently impart this information over the past centuries. There is also a very different way of relating to time: the honkyo-ku generally is working with each breath, rather than with a regulated pulse. There are still 'right' and 'wrong' ways to play, but it can be much harder to quantify what the difference is without proper understanding of the musical phrase.

So, from being a young lad who thought that, if he was lucky, he might get to teach music as a potential career, to now having performed my own music internationally and performed with some of my idols, it has been a curious and fulfilling adventure to this juncture.

The Usefulness of Art -

But… why am I doing this? What is the point? Where to from here?

These are questions I have been asking myself since my student days, and not just about music. In searching for answers, I found early inspiration in the works of artists such as John Fowles, Van Morrison, Peter Booth, Franz Kafka, Roald Dahl, Robert Wilson, Christmas Humphreys, Werner Herzog, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, and many others. In particular, it was reading Rodin's thoughts about the 'usefulness of the artist' that helped give me a sense of purpose and justification in pursuing a vocation in music.

I have conceived 'the Usefulness of Art' initially as a vehicle to develop, present and record five major works for larger ensembles. In 2017, three existing works will be performed. Each utilises different compositional techniques, which I liken to using different tools as appropriate for the job. It is also about finding ways to communicate musical ideas clearly and quickly, which can vary depending on the artists involved and whether there are existing relationships and shared understanding or not.

Michael Kieran Harvey and Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble
at the Festival of Slow Music, Ballarat, in 2015 (Vimeo).

The larger vision is to highlight the value of art through actual shared experience. My protest against the degradation of the arts in recent years is to just do my best to create more opportunities for sharing.

Concerto for piano and toy band

The first project to be presented on 2-5 March 2017, Concerto for Piano and Toy Band, was composed in 2008 and my most ambitious work at that stage of my career. It took seven years for it to be performed but the composition process was one of great personal development, which has impacted upon my subsequent work. It was premiered for the 2015 Festival of Slow Music in Ballarat, performed with Michael Kieran Harvey and the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble (ASCME).

The impetus for this work was an invitation from Michael to write something for us to perform together. I didn't really believe him at first, as the first time we had performed together was as part of an anarchic theatre performance directed by Lloyd Jones at La Mama Theatre, and I had actually spent most of the time sounding like I couldn't play. But the second time we met was when performing Kate Neal's Rabid Bay which required more conventional playing on my part, and so, when Michael reiterated the invitation, I figured that he was actually serious.

I decided to combine Michael with the Adam Simmons Toy Band (ASTB), which was active at that time, as an unlikely yet complimentary combination. Michael's strength of presence and experience as a concert pianist would more than match the energy of the eight-piece ASTB, a kind of Charles Mingus/Sun Ra-inspired ensemble that augmented performances with several suitcases of toys. I chose the concerto form as a starting point, in order to highlight the interplay between soloist and ensemble. I didn't want Michael to be subsumed into the ensemble as a more typical jazz pianist might - the idea was for him to be the feature. At the same time, for ASTB, it would be a way to showcase the ensemble's strength of playing as an ideal foil for Michael.

It was a daunting prospect to write for a virtuoso like Michael, with a formidable reputation for playing the impossible. I shifted my thinking from trying to write something that would be a challenge to trying to write music that was interesting and engaging. My own thinking had been shifting, especially due to my shakuhachi studies, and I was becoming much more concerned with whether I was engaged as a performer or not. For me this engagement is apparent when I am actively listening to the rest of the ensemble and I feel that something is reciprocated - a slight push on a note, or holding back, is responded to by the group. This may come from being an improviser, but it comes as much from having learnt Bach and traditional honkyo-ku.

Another aspect of playing that interests me is exploring physical interaction with the instrument. Again, while it is an obvious part of contemporary and improvised practice, it is integral to standard shakuhachi technique. Partly I blame working with Nick Tsiavos who makes me play too many long notes, but I have also come to appreciate, especially via shakuhachi, that it is vital to master the control of one's sound and breath before worrying about complexity. Encouragement of deep listening and sound exploration within the work felt like the perfect way to shift Michael from dealing with pages of notes, that I might have written, into trying to make music based on his own explorations.

One example is the piano's first entry (see the first score extract above): after an extended initial sonic assault from a drum solo, underpinned by the winds and brass in a 7/8 ostinato, the piano comes in with the same rhythmic energy, but instructed to play silently, only hitting the keys to get the resultant percussive sound, creating a massive shift of focus for all in the room. Creating moments of such cognitive dissonance is something I have enjoyed since being inspired by the likes of Art Ensemble of Chicago, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Frank Zappa and John Zorn.

Knowing whom I was writing for helped inform the writing. For Michael's cadenza prior to the third and final movement, I simply gave indications of sample rhythmic motifs and general shapes for him to assemble as he wished. This turned out to be a wise decision on my part, as these bare bones were totally fleshed out by Michael in the premiere with an energy and freedom that I would have struggled to notate conventionally. With a performer such as Michael, it only makes sense, to me, to create an environment to just let him do his thing.

As a kind of framing for the three main movements, there are four short 'Toy Plays' as prologue, interludes and epilogue. For these I used small DIY music box mechanisms that operate similarly to pianolas. The 'melody' is formed in an aleatoric manner by the shape of words and letters punched into paper. The text I used was a quote from Confucius, which helped inspire the overall form of the concerto. This was the first time I used these mechanisms in this way, but a year or so later it led to a foray into visual arts via sculptural assemblage, and some of my works finding their way into the National Museum in Szczecin, Poland - but that's another story.

The experience of writing this concerto helped me to lay the foundations for a shift in my compositional aspirations. I may not have succeeded in achieving all of my objectives, but the result comes from the attempt to do so. And from that I moved forward with new understanding and inspiration. As the first project in this series, it does provide a window into the ideas that are revisited in the later works.

The Usefulness of Art

This suite of five movements was written in 2012, a suite celebrating the benefits and necessity of art, in response to a range of funding cuts to the arts and various music courses in institutions around the country. I am concerned also about the manner in which the arts are increasingly about application to industry and connected to generation of revenue. This is important to appreciate, but not to the detriment of the understanding of the non-financial benefits.

Each movement is titled after qualities that music engenders - acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion, and faith. They are actually each very simple in construction. Basically they are just melodies resulting from a focused period of developing various ideas through solo practice. There is an obvious implication of harmony inherent in each melody, but, depending on the accompanying musicians, this can vary. This is deliberately open to interpretation, allowing the musicians to explore, but at the same time requiring them to understand the music to allow them to do so. The titles are actually used to inform the improvised sections and spirit of each piece.

The Usefulness of Art - performed by Origami at the 2013 Festival of Slow Music,
Art Gallery of Ballarat. (Vimeo).

The work was originally recorded and performed by my jazz trio, Origami, and I have also performed it solo at MONA FOMA. For the upcoming concerts in August 2017, it will be realised by a 20-piece version of the ASCME. The score is the same, but each interpretation is different. Instead of the solo or trio version being more intimate and meditative, the ASCME version will be immersive and ecstatic. There is a definite shape and structure, which needs to be understood by the ensemble, but which offers a freedom with shared responsibility in how the journey is travelled. This encourages active engagement, similar to the Concerto, though in a more trusting, shared manner.

Travelling Tales

In 2013 I was invited by Specs'n'Arts to participate win the Pireaus Festival in Athens, Greece. It was to be with a jazz ensemble, similar in instrumentation to the ASTB, so I knew I had existing repertoire. But then things changed - about three months prior to the concert, it was confirmed that, instead of the jazz ensemble, I would be performing with Intrarti String Orchestra. Suddenly, I had a lot of work ahead of me as I had no repertoire other than possibly an old piece that had never actually been performed by strings.

Required for the concert's promotion, I quickly conceived of a collection of musical 'travel anecdotes' - hence the title. The pieces grew from a variety of sources: a title, a quote, an experience, a melody, a chord... I wanted the suite to travel within itself, so utilising different compositional techniques helped to create distinct identities for each movement. Challenges were that I had no idea of the standard of the ensemble, that I had to finish the parts in time to allow for their preparation and that we would have limited time to rehearse together - plus I had to learn the music also! From the experience of composing the Concerto and subsequent works, I knew I wanted to find a way to actively engage the musicians and help them into my creative thoughts and processes - I just had to be able to do this with a minimum of prep and unknown skill-set.

One example of this was to bring an aspect of wind playing into a string orchestra - in Threnody (a lament for refugees who have died as a result of being forced to flee), the instruction for the second violins and violas to play their notes for the length of their breath, sharing responsibility of the textures independent of the conductor. And then the first violins are instructed to follow my very rubato phrasing. Easy techniques to implement, unusual in this context, and effective at encouraging ensemble listening.

I actually left a number of pieces without any specific written parts for myself. On a practical level, it greatly reduced the amount I had to learn within the short timeframe, yet due to my skills in improvisation and intimate knowledge of the form and orchestral parts, I could still play confidently with a high level of complexity and interaction. Again, this helps keep everyone engaged as I am wont to throw in little surprises here and there. (You can watch and listen to movements 1-5 of this work on Youtube, recorded at the premiere in Athens in 2013 - watch part 1 and part 2.)

In December 2017, the suite will be performed with larger forces in collaboration with Arcko Symphonic Ensemble (21 members) conducted by Timothy Phillips. This is an exciting prospect as I have a long history of working with Timothy and some of the members, so there will be a more shared experience and method of working which should have a positive impact upon the performance.

For me this year is a watershed period, exploring works that have had limited public exposure to date, but also developing myself as a composer and creator of experiences. Two more works are in planning for 2018, one for a choir led by Sue Johnson, and the other in collaboration with Wang Zheng Ting, pushing myself into new directions. These concerts will not change the world, but I hope these concerts will, in a gentle way, illustrate possibilities, potentialities and insights about the usefulness of art.

Adam Simmons's project is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and Creative Victoria.

AMC resources

Adam Simmons - AMC profile

Further links

Adam Simmons - homepage (www.adamsimmons.com)

Adam Simmons - recordings (bandcamp.com)

The Usefulness of Art series (Facebook)


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