Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Printing with Light

When I lived in Edinburgh, for a time I shared a house on Calton Hill, just a couple of doors down from 'Rock House' where David Octavius Hill and  Robert Adamson pioneered photographic techniques in the mid 19th century.  The British Photographer and Botanist, Anna Atkins, working at around the same time as Hill and Adamson, used the cyanotype process to illustrate an entire book - possibly the first book to use photographic illustrations.
I've always been fascinated with photography, particularly early photography and the cyanotype process.  After some browsing and researching, I recently found an excellent cyanotype kit that provides the light sensitive chemicals that you then combine and use to coat paper or fabric.  So I did some experimenting and came up with these.

(Feather and Jacaranda leaf, printed on cloth. 2018)

Such a beautiful and simple process, capturing images with light.  There is a magic working in this way and I can get a sense of how the early pioneers of photography would have felt, seeing images emerge for the first time.  

Friday, May 25, 2018

Some forgotten thoughts on motherhood

I wrote these words over seven years ago and rediscovered them today.  Such a strange experience - looking through a window in time to a younger me.  I only vaguely remember writing these pieces and I'm not sure why they didn't make it into this blogspace at the time. Maybe they were too close, too personal.  With the distance of time, I feel happy to share them now.


I look into my baby’s eyes and have a strong sense that she is not a blank slate.  From the time she could focus on my gaze I am convinced that she knows things.  What if we were born with a full slate, with memories and knowledge and understanding of things, with experience of a life lived before.  What if our inarticulate tongues and bodies had no way of telling this.  If as each week and month and year went by, new memories and experiences and knowing wrote over the old knowing so that  by the time we could speak our earliest consciousness had been replaced with a new version, a new life, the old one fading out of reach.  We can never know that this is not the case.  I can remember those knowing looks that my very young baby gave me – it was not a look of blankness and incomprehension. It was sometimes a look of searching and questioning, sometimes a look of calm containment and fullness.  Observing me with the eye of someone who knows as much as I and perhaps more.  I can’t help but think that within this gaze there is something like wisdom or understanding or knowing amusement at my ineptitude.  Is it just because the idea that such a look cannot come from a baby whose age is still counted in days and weeks?  That these ‘windows to the soul’ open into a blank-ness seems impossible.  Does consciousness begin or is it just a continuation?  Is there a ‘collective consciousness’? I no longer think that the idea of  re-incarnation beyond considering.  I am no longer sure that death is the end and birth is the beginning.


I remember when my friends started having babies. First one friend, then another, then three or four or five of my friends all became ‘mothers’ and I became aware of fundamental changes in my relationship with them and how my own position in the scheme of things seemed to have shifted.  Some of my friends would go ‘off line’ – they would talk of nothing but babies or they would disappear, not answer the phone or not return messages for weeks.  And when I met these women, sometimes with other friends who also had children, I began to feel peripheral, on the outer, like someone who has not been watching every episode of the latest TV must see.  I don’t quite ‘get’ things, references, in-jokes, shared laughs or looks.  I can no longer finish the sentences of the friend whose sentences I have finished and she mine for many years.  Something has opened up between us.  And then I start to perceive a certain smugness on their part.  The complicity or women who have ‘secret mothers’ knowledge’, the phrase “you’ll understand when you have children” made me seethe quietly.  How dare these smug women think that just  because they have children that they have somehow tapped in to some profound knowledge and wisdom that makes them know things that I cannot know, experience things that I cannot experience, understand things that I cannot understand.  And all of this while they outwardly give the impression of being people with incredibly narrow areas of interest, little to talk about and no fun to be with.  I have lost drinking companions, travel companions, shopping companions, artistic companions. These women are lost to me and I resent it and am annoyed by their children and their overly domestic preoccupations.  And I make a quiet oath to myself, that when I have children I will not be like this,  will not be smug and self righteous, I will not ignore my friends, I will not allow my life to contract to the extent that drinking and shopping and art cease to be a part of it.  And I swear to myself that I will never say to anyone, “you’ll understand when you have children”.  And then I have a baby, and then another one and although I don’t think I have actually said those words, I have often thought them.  And I don’t reply to phone calls or emails for months at a time and I don’t want to go out and I lose interest in art and shopping and drinking and am too exhausted and preoccupied to notice.  And I do look at friends who don’t have children and think that they are missing out on perhaps the most amazing thing possible to experience.  And although sometimes I envy them their independence and their autonomy and freedom, I often find myself feeling a little pleased with myself, a little bit fulfilled and perhaps superior and that my life experience may perhaps even be a little bit richer than someone who doesn’t have children and part of me feels a little bit guilty that I have betrayed my previous self and my vow to avoid smug-motherness but now I think I just misunderstood – what I saw as smugness was something quite different.


I have re-entered the land of measurable time.  I searched through drawers and unpacked belongings and found my two watches, both non-functioning – I think their batteries ran out in 2006.  I put “watch batteries” on my shopping list and, although it took me several weeks to complete the task, I did buy watch batteries for both watches.  I managed to replace the old batteries, prising open the battery casings on the back of the watches that were gummed up with years of dust and wrist grease.  Then I put a watch on – for the first time in several years.  And throughout the day I checked the time.  I saw what time it was when I left the house and how long it took me to walk to the shops or take big girl to crèche.  I could see how late I was running or how much time I had to spare.  A revelation.  I had always been a watch person.  I can remember in the past feeling rather anxious when my watch battery ran out and making it a priority to replace it.  The feeling of my left wrist being naked if there wasn’t a watch on it: feeling exposed and vulnerable and at sea and out of control.  But the arrival of babies put a stop to all of that.  Not because of some huge philosophical and spiritual shift in my life, although there was one.  Not because I decided that time was of little consequence when faced with the constant and unceasing demands of a baby, although this was also the case.  I stopped wearing watches because the hard metal edge of the watch band could scratch the softer than soft skin of my baby as I changed position while cradling them to feed or that the angular face of the watch might dig into the side of their sleeping face or wake them up.  And having something hard and metallic and mechanical on my body seemed increasingly strange and unnecessary and before long the various watches were relegated to the back of a drawer or the bottom of a trinket box and left there – for years.  And then I started to emerge from the fog that enwraps you when your life is taken over by babies and breastfeeding and sleepless nights and the idea began to take shape – I think I want to wear a watch.  I think I want to know what time it is, at any moment of the day, just by looking at my wrist.  How liberating.  How radical.  The watch still feels strange on my wrist, like being manacled or encased in something foreign.  It makes my wrist feel sweaty or pinched or just not free.  But I keep wearing it.  And I feel as though there might be something significant in this development – this need for a way to measure time, to orient myself in the day, to latch on to something definite and unequivocal.  It poses the possibility that I might need to be somewhere at a certain time, that stumbling through another chaotic day with no idea of my temporal coordinates is something I would quite like to change.  That perhaps by measuring and better accounting for my time I may even find some more of it, discover that there is 30 minutes somewhere that was overlooked in the chaos, hidden under a pile of unsorted washing or several weeks worth of local newspapers and junkmail.  Maybe there are little bits of time waiting to be mustered and corralled and consolidated into chunks of time that could actually be useful.  With an eye on my watch, who knows what might happen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Being in the Moment ... or not

I had some time in town today and decided to go to the NGV International to see the Triennial before it ends.  I have't been to a gallery in ages and was so happy to be back in one of my favourite galleries and to spend some time navigating my way around a very eclectic mix of work.  Such a great way to recharge my creative batteries and have some time to be immersed in other people's creativity.  Within the first five minutes of being in the space I noticed that almost everyone had their mobile phones out and were constantly taking photos of the art works and installations.  After a while I started to find this kind of annoying, having to be aware of whether I was about to 'photo bomb' someone's shot, having to navigate my way around all these keen photographers when all I wanted to do was to look at the art.  I started to watch how these people interacted with the space and the art in it - how much time they spent looking at the art and how much time they spent taking photos of it.  It almost felt like the actual viewing and experiencing of the art was somehow secondary to the documenting of it, presumably to experience later at home.  It struck me as a very strange way of being with art.  I noticed my own impulse to get my camera out to capture an image of a particularly striking room of red flowers and then I made a decision to leave my phone in my bag, particularly as I witnessed yet another couple of gallery visitors take selfies and pictures of each other posing in different parts of the room.  My phone stayed in my bag and instead I focussed on my experience of each piece of art, spending time really looking at each piece, thinking about which pieces appealed, which pieces didn't, what surprised me, what irritated me, how the different pieces interacted with each other in the different spaces.  Some works made me smile, others evoked curiosity and wonder, and they all caused me to think about my response to them, my experience of them, at the time when I was looking at them, right there and then in the moment.  Yes, the experience is transitory and fleeting and no, I can't take the art home with me.  But that's fine.  Life is full of fleeting moments of wonder and curiosity; experiences may seem ephemeral and transitory but they impact on how we are in the world.  I wonder if we are losing our ability to experience things, right here, right now, because we are too busy trying to capture the moment.  I think I'd rather let the moment be free.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why ‘Three Kinds of Silence’?

Silence has been a musical preoccupation of mine for a while now. I wrote the following blog post in 2011 and the ideas discussed in Thomas Clifton’s article led me to explore his way of thinking about musical silence in a new composition – Three Kinds of Silence – that was premiered in Edinburgh in early 2013 by Artisan Trio, who commissioned the work.  This is one of the pieces to be included on my new CD. 

PS If you would like to support the making of this CD, please consider making a tax deductible donation here through the Australian Cultural Fund.  Thanks!


Thomas Clifton’s ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, published in The Musical Quarterly in 1976, offers some interesting insights into the role of silence in music.  Although the essay is very clearly focused on the roles of silence in traditional Western Art music, the ideas developed can easily be applied to any kind of music or sound art.  Clifton sets out to discuss different qualities and types of silence and the effects these have on the listener’s perception.  He opens by comparing the study of musical silence to “deliberately studying the spaces between trees in a forest”: from the outset this essay has so many connections with my own work and preoccupations.  For anyone interested in the poetics of silence, this paper is well worth reading, but I’ll attempt to outline some of the ideas he presents.  Clifton’s work seems to give physical form to silence – he describes “hard-edged silence” where there is sharp contrast between sound and silence.  In other instances the boundary between sound and silence is almost imperceptible.  In his description of ‘Silences in Motion’ he outlines a kind of silence where sound “disappears below the threshold of audibility” but is still present, just out of hearing, until the sounds re-emerge above the hearing threshold once more.  He explores the idea of “Silences in Registral Space” – the idea that the sound space covers the whole range of audible frequencies, or register, and that sounds can drop out of a particular register, leaving a kind of sonic void that seems to wait to be filled.  One of the main points that Clifton makes is that one of the strongest effects of silence is to heighten our perception and awareness.  The introduction of silence makes us listen more intently, waiting for the return of sound.  The dramatic nature of this perceptual focus is clear in the use of silence to surprise – sudden silence, or to increase expectation – the tension of waiting for the next sound.  His essay also reflects on the nature of ‘ending’ – the quality of the final silence.  Silence can be approached by a gradual emptying out of the registral  space, a gradual disengaging from the composition: “the piece itself becomes absent”.  This type of prepared ending allows us to accept that the piece is indeed coming to an end and that the silence that will follow is final.   We had an interesting discussion about the impact of abrupt or unexpected endings in music – that these types of endings can be quite disturbing, unsettling and in some cases quite shocking.  I was reminded of a friend who always insisted on ‘fading out’ any music that was playing on the stereo before he left the room – he would NEVER just press ‘stop’, so extreme was his reaction to any unprepared ending.   The nature of ending is something that relates to so many aspects of our lives, and as is so often the case, music can act as a kind of sonic analog for things other than music.  Clifton takes this to its extreme when he draws a parallel between musical ending and Heidegger’s phenomenological description of death.  Clifton invites us to “consider the way music presents the essence of dying.”  A musical ending is in effect a disengaging with the possibility of further ‘relationships’.  The piece becomes ‘absent’.  “When silence intervenes… the piece itself passes over into nothingness.”  Such a powerful and beautiful way to think about the nature of ending, musical or otherwise.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A day in two parts

Part One.
A freezing cold morning.  I'm waiting for the train into town, sitting outside in the clear nearly-winter sun.  The train arrives and I get on, look around for a seat, find one and sit down.  The man opposite moves to give me more room and asks if I would like his seat; 'no, I'm fine thanks'.  I look down and notice he has bare feet.  'Are your feet cold?'.  'No, not really, I've got my warm jacket on.' And so our conversation begins.  I spend the rest of the train journey chatting to him, I ask him his name and tell him mine (I'll call him John, even though that's not his name).  We talk about gardening, growing veggies, how I never have any luck with broccoli, how much fun it is to have chooks, how sometimes they stop laying in their laying box and you have to hunt around the garden looking for their eggs.  John lives in a rooming house, the cost covered by his pension.  He says he likes where he is living; that he is happy there.  One of his favourite things is to sit in the garden with a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  He asks me where I am heading and I tell him.  'How about you?' - John says he is heading to his GP for his regular medication, as he has a mental illness  I ask him if he likes his doctor and we talk about how nice to is to have a regular GP that you know, that knows you, not like those mega-clinics where you join the queue for whichever doctor is rostered on.  John asks me about my children, how old they are, what does my husband do, is he a good sort.  He asks me if I have any illnesses and I answer no, so far so good.  We talk about John's school days, that he was a good kid but got a caning once for a bit of classroom mucking around.  He went to Melbourne Grammar.  Then he went to University and studied chemistry and mathematics and went on to work in the mining industry.  He got married, they had one child, and then he got sick.  His marriage ended, his wife and child moved away.  He misses them terribly and sees them sometimes.  But he says he is happy now, that he likes his life.  Sometimes he goes into town to beg outside Parliament house to make a bit of extra money for tobacco (he rolls his own cigarettes because it's cheaper).  He likes the company and the conversations he has in town.  Then our train arrives at Flinders Street Station and we say good bye to each other.  I feel really happy for having met him.

Part Two.
I walk from Flinders Street Station, past the NGV and along St Kilda Road to the VCA music building.  As I walk up I see my friend walking towards me with her cello, ready to rehearse my music.  We walk in to the building, having a quick catch up and a laugh, and make our way to another colleague's room, jam packed with not one but two grand pianos and are joined by two more lovely musician friends who have signed up to help make a CD of my music.  I always feel nervous and full of self doubt before a rehearsal - what if the musicians don't like the music, what if there are mistakes in the score (which there inevitably are when the work has only been played once or twice and not had the benefit of a sharp eyed editor).  Even working with musicians I know, I still feel this moment of anxiety.  We start by listening to some less-than-perfect recordings of the pieces we'll be working on - "beautiful piece, Chris" - and my anxiety fades.  We spend the next three hours working through three pieces, none of which has had more than two performances.  This is a first rehearsal and the notes are yet to sit under the hands but the musicians start the process of acquainting themselves with my music.  We have a break, a few more laughs and then back to work.  There is a set of pieces I've never heard played and I am unsure as to whether they are 'good enough' to go on the CD.  The pianist and violinist delve into this unknown territory and after a couple of sections I hear that the music DOES work, that there are moments of loveliness and subtlety.  "These are great! I really like them" says the pianist and I feel a surge of validation and satisfaction.  We finish up, people have places to go, meetings, classes, we say goodbye on St Kilda Road.  I feel happy and hopeful and I soak in the nearly-winter sun.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ballade No. 1

Chopin Ballade Opus 23 No.1.  What a monster of a piece.  This is the piece that defeated me in my final recital at the Con.  I got very close but it was just out of reach.  For years I felt not quite good enough because of this ‘defeat’.  But this morning, I played the Ballade through, slowly, carefully, and made it to the end.  Bloody Hell.  What a marathon.  I thought back to my 21 year old self and felt like giving her a huge pat on the back for even attempting such a behemoth.  Well done me, for giving it a red-hot go.  Even the most experienced and technically skilled of pianists would admit that this piece is VERY difficult.  Today I can see that my efforts were not a ‘failure’ – that the piece was just beyond my capabilities, but I had done my best.

I can remember the ridiculous amount of repetitive practise, over and over and over again, faster and faster to get it up to speed.  And I remember the amazing elation of getting it almost right, the huge power of those chords, the gorgeous lyricism, the flying passages up and down the piano.  It takes my breath away just thinking about it.  And this morning, my body remembered that feeling – the elation was there, my fingers remembered more than I thought they would and could play more than I thought they could.  To be inside the huge emotional span of this work is kind of amazing, exhilarating, terrifying, moving, poignant and profound. 

Earlier this morning I sat with my 10 year daughter as she struggled, in tears, because she couldn’t get the ‘right’ sound out of her flute.  “I don’t want to go to my flute lesson”, “I want to give up”, “I can’t get it right”.  I can remember that feeling as well; the misery and frustration and feeling of inadequacy.  And she’s worrying that her music teacher will think she hasn’t done enough practise, that her teacher will be cross, that she will be judged and found lacking.  I know why she wants to just run away.  My response to her, apart from lots of hugs and reassurance, was ‘No, you are not giving up.  You have to learn how to get through the hard stuff.  That’s what life is like.’  I have no parental ambitions for her to become a professional musician – in fact I think I would probably discourage it!  But what I do know is that learning a musical instrument is an incredibly valuable life experience and it teaches us so much more than just how to play an instrument.  Tenacity, perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, self-reliance, as well as all the other well-researched cognitive benefits.  I explained to her, that if she stopped now, she would most definitely NOT feel better; what will make her feel better will be to work through her current technical ‘block’ and then know what she can achieve through hard work and determination and mental focus.  And then, she can decide whether she wants to keep learning the flute or go back to learning the piano, which is where her musical journey (and mine) began.