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15 November 2018

Mind on Fire

Sam Gill and Brad Gill (Mind on Fire) Image: Sam Gill and Brad Gill (Mind on Fire)  

Mind on Fire is a saxophone and vibraphone duo based in Sydney, comprised of brothers Sam and Brad Gill. Formed in 2016, the duo draws on their years of experience playing together, including with the composers' collective Sideband, and acts as a forum for their compositions as well as related improvisation-based work. Both are also active as composers and performers in their separate musical lives, and Mind on Fire frequently collaborates with guest musicians joining the duo in larger ensemble pieces. The 2017 debut album The Process of Unbecoming featured Daniel Herscovitch, Novak Manojlovic, Mary Rapp and Holly Conner. Recently, the duo has worked on new music with Chloe Kim, Felix Bornholdt and Jacques Emery; the new works will be featured in upcoming performances and included on a new album in 2019.

In this article, Sam and Brad Gill take turns writing about their work, and their mutual interest in combining pre-composed material and improvisation. You can catch Mind on Fire in Sydney on 27 November.

Sam Gill

Over the last three or so years, I've felt that the materials I'm interested in exploring through my compositional work and in my instrumental practice have been increasingly feeding into one another. This is particularly true of the music that I've conceived for Mind on Fire; the compositions I write for us are often archetypal expressions of musical ideas that I've been exploring on my instrument.

These ideas may be individual tetrachords and polyrhythms, or more abstract approaches to manipulating density and intensity. In any case, I try to direct both practice disciplines towards moving from the initial intellectual nature of the ideas into the realm of embodiment and intuition so that they can emerge freely and naturally during improvisation and/or the act of composition.

I feel that the more I direct my practice and thoughts toward hyper-specific musical materials, the less time I have to worry about larger questions of aesthetics - but, paradoxically, the more I feel I'm able to make music that sounds like I want it to sound like. This has been a profound realisation for me because it allows me to maintain an awareness of the elements of my playing that I'd like to improve and further develop while also allowing me to feel happy with the standard of my playing at any given point in time.

I also try to bring this same detachment from individual performances to what I might otherwise consider 'completed' compositions. Rather than being a culmination of a particular line of thought, each composition is an expression of an idea that was executed (written down and/or recorded) at a particular moment. This idea has been borne out in my experience with every single piece I've written for Mind on Fire, with my notion of what each work is often changing radically over time. One example of this is detailed in the liner notes to our debut album, discussing the process behind the creation of my suite Traced, Sing the Veil.

A more recent example involves a four-part suite that I wrote over a period of six months for our quartet formation with guests Felix Bornholdt and Jacques Emery. During our first performance of the music, there was one piece in particular, Done & the Same, that brought out a quality within the ensemble that I immediately wanted to explore further. So, despite my strong initial conception of the work in four parts, two of the pieces have now been discarded completely while a third, Deloomed, has entered our duo repertoire. Future performances of this quartet will now feature Done & the Same in a two-part suite alongside a new work that I hope will expand on the ideas we touched on during our improvisation at that first concert.

Brad Gill

For me, Mind on Fire is a platform for exploring improvisation and connecting it with my activity as a composer and music theorist as well as with my other performance activities. An aspect of this has been developing an approach to improvising informed by jazz (in a broad sense as a repertory of approaches to working with musical material and other musicians). It's also been a vehicle for practically exploring how I can connect my work as a musician with an abiding engagement with Chan (Zen).

My early interest in music theory was about finding a way to exploit and synthesise approaches to organising music learnt at university and through self-study. Music I composed in the years following tertiary composition study tended to be constructed and concerned with technique. My approach focused around the overtone series and microtones, number sequences and isorhythm as tools to construct musical compositions. Other influences such as the music of Takemitsu, study of North Indian tabla and Javanese Gamelan were important, but the approach was primarily cerebral. There wasn't a sense of the music being 'embodied'. A good example is Shadows (2000), performed in this Soundcloud clip by the WASO New Music Ensemble under the direction of the late Roger Smalley.

Night Song (2011) by Brad Gill, performed by Kaylie Dunstan.

Largely as a result of preparing a tertiary advanced analysis course (2011), I came to interrogate my existing understandings of musical analysis. I wanted to go beyond the composer's method (e.g. use of a note row) or intention and fully understand the consequences of a particular approach, from the musical surface to the deepest structure; what I can only call the truth of a work. I found this useful in distancing my existing taste inclinations a step from my compositional process, once concepts and materials became clear, where always going back to the truth of these is the guide for technical and expressive integrity and unity. An example of a piece in which I was very conscious of this is the timpani solo Night Song (2011).

This approach is also the foundation of my performance activities generally, and especially the basis for improvisation. Something I have learnt more fully, through performing improvised music informed by both composition/music theory and working with jazz trained musicians, is conveyed in a quote that I've thought about a lot since I first heard it: 'I learned […] to listen to silence. And for me, listening is the most important thing: to listen to each other, to listen to what people say, to listen to music'1.

Brad Gill: The Stones are Dead, performed by Daniel
Herscovitch (piano) and Geoffrey Gartner (cello).

Bringing all this together has increasingly led to an expressive flow between my fully composed works and primarily improvised ones, and I'd like to trace some of these pathways. In 2015 I completed a piano solo commissioned by Daniel Herscovitch, variations on Webern's own op. 27 piano variations. Preparation involved deep analysis of Webern's work leading to the development of distinct musical 'spaces' spanning the entire range of the piano, and various harmonic and rhythmic material for my own variations, in addition to the development of a Chan-inspired aesthetic (digital audio is available on Bandcamp).

This evolved into the first duet for Mind on Fire, Trails in the Sky, which made use of quotation from my piano solo as well as some of the pre-composition as reference points for an improvisation-based work (you can watch this one YouTube). Both Chan and the same pre-composed material then served as a basis for another fully composed work, The Stones are Dead (2017) for cello and piano.

This work, in turn, was the basis for another Mind on Fire duet. Interestingly, it is of a very different character and the mood is very different: the cello work is quite dark, whereas Drawn Towards the Light (2017), composed for my partner, is joyous (watch it on YouTube).


1 Claudio Abbado in The Guardian (8 August 2009).

AMC resources & further links

Brad Gill - AMC profile

Sam Gill - homepage (www.samgillmusic.com)


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