Thursday, March 17, 2022

A long time between


I wrote a grand total of two pieces of music during 2020/2021 and one of these was a very short piano piece. The other, Power in Stillness, a more substantial work for SATB choir commissioned by the Australian Chamber Choir, will finally see the light of day next month when the choir kicks off its 2022 season. This is a joyful thing, for several reasons. It means musicians are again able to put on concerts, audiences are again able to hear music live and experience music in shared spaces with other people, and on a personal level I get to hear my music brought to life by a group of fabulous musicians. 

It has been a long time between drinks - 2020 and 2021 were lean years for many people in the creative and performing arts. But I feel that this period of lockdown, isolation, strangeness, introspection, loss and anxiety is giving rise to many new creations that attempt to reflect on or make sense of this weird time. My first outing to a live music concert in quite a while was to Claire Edwardes’ performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre, featuring compositions from her new CD Rhythms of Change, at least two of which reflect on aspects of the covid pandemic. There will no doubt be many more works emerging across art forms exploring these themes. Reflecting on lived experience is one of the things artists do, and this has certainly been one of the driving motivators in my work for some time. 

I composed Power in Stillness during the covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, while navigating the reality of having two teenagers at home attempting school and a husband in the next room attempting to teach high school English remotely. It was a very strange time and I remember feeling that time itself had taken on a strange quality. There were long periods of time where not much happened, long pauses, a lot of waiting, a lot of time to sit and think and just be. As a family we spent a lot of time together in the same place, and daily ‘mental health walks’ became a necessity. We live near a hidden gem of a creek – Edgars Creek – that snakes quietly through some of Melbourne’s northern suburbs, the land of the Wurundjeri / Woi Wurrung people. Many of my walks would be along this creek, through groves of eucalypts, past rocky escarpments, listening to the quiet, the waters gently passing over mossy rocks, the native birds, particularly the kookaburras. It was a time to breathe, to listen, to feel the ground under my feet, to spend time with trees and the feeling of slowness they evoke, the sense of connection to the land and the land’s history reaching back before European voices were heard here. I loved these walks: the connection with stillness and the land, listening with my whole body. The concept of listening to the land, ‘Deep Listening’, is as old as the land itself: it reminds me of the immense wisdom and knowledge of First Nations peoples, it reminds me to be humble and grateful. In composing Power in Stillness I sought to evoke these qualities of stillness, of listening to the “spaces between”, and also reflect on the concepts of isolation and connectedness that the various lockdowns seemed to bring into focus.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

What I miss

… stage four lockdown unprecedented pandemic covid curfew border closure quarantine failure economic collapse mental health crisis road map out and on and on and on… 
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got 
Till it’s gone 
('Big Yellow Taxi', Joni Mitchell) 

Actually, a lot of what I had I don’t necessarily miss.
I don’t miss cramped tram rides at peak hour 
Or crowded shopping centres 
Or crowded railway stations 
Or crowds of any description. 
I don’t miss noisy, bustling cafes. 
On the whole, I don’t miss social gatherings, dinner parties or rooms full of people. 
I don’t miss small talk. 
I don’t miss the stress of school mornings and getting out the door on time. 
I don’t miss being busy and yearning to have time to sit and read a book in the daytime when I am not about to fall asleep. 

For the most part, I have what I need. 
I have regular and secure paid work and so does my partner. 
I have my health. 
The people I love have their health. 
We have a home and a garden and some pets. 
We have plenty to eat, enough money to pay the bills. 
We are fortunate and I am grateful for that. 

But there is a heaviness to it all. 
Some days I feel like I am wading through treacle. 
Or so lacking in motivation and energy that even looking at the garden makes me tired. 
I have walked all the local walks over and over and over and they hold little joy. 
My quiet paths are now muddied and churned by the many other walkers and their dogs and their children. Early on in the lockdown there was a kind of camaraderie, a “we’re all in this together” spirit, strangers smiled and said hello as they passed each other on the not yet muddied paths. Now I keep my gaze down, almost resenting the intrusion of my fellow travellers in these ‘unprecedented’ times. I just want to be alone, to have space to myself. 
Most of all, I want to take this f***ing mask off my face and take huge greedy gulps of fresh air, to breathe in and out without feeling anxious or reckless. 

As I sit quietly, reading a book in the daytime, my mind wanders. I remember a warm summer day at the beach. I am in the sea, floating on my back, feeling the gentle bobbing of the water as it holds me. I am free and weightless and utterly relaxed. I look up at the ridiculously blue sky. I smell the sea, the salt, the seaweed. I listen to the sounds of the waves as they meet the shell-gritty sand, of kids laughing and calling, of sea-gulls overhead. And I remember thinking at the time - “remember this moment”.  I made a conscious decision to store the richness of the experience in my memory, to keep it safe and treasure it. And this afternoon I retrieved that moment from my memory bank.  I sat in my suburban living room on a glum September day, with the weight of our current reality sitting like a bag of sand on my chest, and I remembered what it is like to breathe, to float, to feel utterly free and suspended and weightless, and it made me cry.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


I went for a walk this morning.  A beautiful Autumn morning: some warmth in the sun but not too much.  Walking has become a kind of mental health necessity – get outside, breathe air, look at trees, sky, breathe more air, listen, keep walking.  There is a stillness and quietness - one of the more positive bi-products of the ‘shut down’.  I find people are quieter, more respectful of each other’s space.  In nearly an hour walking along our creek I saw four people, a quiet ‘good morning’ and a smile as we pass each other, and then solitude again.  

There is a bend in the creek where it comes up against a stone escarpment and an ancient gum tree hovers over the creek at an angle.  This place feels old and sacred and I am drawn to spend some time here, listening, watching the tea coloured water as the sunlight glints and shines through to the stones beneath.  I could stay here for hours.  

I look up to the trees framing my view and see first one, then two kookaburras sitting quietly above, watching.  I get a little closer but not too close.  The kookaburra nearest to me turns and looks at me, and I look at the kookaburra, fascinated and honoured that it deigns to look at me and not take flight.  I feel like time stands still.  

I have in this moment a glimpse of something profound, a small window of connection to the people of this land who for thousands of years have looked at the animals and birds and woven stories and meaning around them. In this moment I can believe that the kookaburra knows things I will never know, that they have a connection to the land and its history and its people that I will never truly understand. Although it is only a glimpse, I feel intensely moved and honoured and humble and awestruck and comforted and curious and full of joy.  And then the kookaburra turns, stretches his wings and lazily flies off, following the creek as it winds around the rocky outcrop, out of sight.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Randomness and Unpredictability

Ink on wet watercolour paper.

Never entirely sure what you're going to end up with until the ink is dry.
Not much control but the results are often beautiful and surprising.
A bit like life really. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

On Typing and Typewriters

I bought a typewriter.  I’ve been wanting to buy one for a while and I always keep a look out as I wander through op shops and second hand 'retro' markets.  I found a Brother Deluxe 760TR in working condition for a reasonable price.  Its carriage return was a bit stiff so I took it to be serviced by possibly the last typewriter service person in Melbourne – on Johnston Street Carlton, in a shop I have walked past hundreds of times over the last 30 years.  I brought it home, smelling of oil and working like new.  I put it on the dining table, found some scrap paper, and started typing*.  When I left my place for a moment, one of my children sat down and had a go – slowly at first and then picking up speed.  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog several times.  Then my other daughter took a turn, bringing with her some poems to type out but quickly getting irritated at the challenges of this new way of typing.  Then I started writing nonsense Haiku as a way of practising but also an entertaining pastime as I read them out and then typed out new ones dictated by my younger daughter.  We laughed and shared our ridiculous efforts with the older child who had returned, recovered from her frustration and ready to try again.  I went out to do the grocery shopping and when I returned my older daughter showed me the pages of neatly typed poems she had produced (from a distance so I couldn’t actually read their content).  The day had passed with no time spent on ipads or watching television, but instead time was spent exploring something new (and old) and interesting.  I think I might be onto something here.  There is the appeal of all things ‘retro’ of course but I think there is something else going on.  The extra effort to create a typed document seemed in itself to be satisfying.  And there is something significant in the nature of typing – that you have to live with your mistakes – you can’t just backspace them away.  They are there to remind you of your efforts; that you made mistakes, that is wasn’t perfect, and the imperfection is there to see.  It doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal of Kintsugi – the Japanese method of repairing broken vessels with gold – but it reminds me of this.  That imperfection and the visible reminder of our mistakes can be accepted and even appreciated for what it represents – the effort that it took to get it right.

*Here's what I typed...

Monday, July 15, 2019

Nora's Onions

Nora Heysen: Still life with onions (1927) Private Collection, Melbourne

Today I went to see Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art at the NGV Federation Square.  Having read an excellent biography of Nora Heysen by Anne-Louise Willoughy, I was really keen to see more of Nora Heysen’s work in person. Willoughby’s biography refers to the impact of being the daughter of a famous artist (Hans Heysen) on Nora’s work and development as an artist in her own right.  As I worked my way around the exhibition of both their work, I was left in no doubt that Nora was very clearly an exceptional artist, regardless of who her father was.  The exhibition at times focuses on the common ground of the two artists with examples of their work on the same subject material.  In a particularly striking example, two paintings, side by side, tell a story.  Referring to Nora’s work ‘Still life with onions’ (1927) the exhibition notes state: “Anecdotally, this composition was a source of minor irritation to Nora. Having arranged the vegetables to paint herself, she went briefly away and returned to discover her father painting his own version” (which is displayed alongside it). As I looked at these two images – and I have to say I prefer Nora’s – I felt irritated on her behalf.  I can imagine sixteen year old Nora (yes, SIXTEEN) feeling annoyed at her father for barging in and taking over, helping himself to her still life set up, creating his own work almost as an unstated criticism – ‘watch and learn’.  Then I remembered something that had happened in my own life the day before.  When my teenage daughter had expressed an interest in doing a particular craft project, rather than let her do it her own way, I went ahead and started it off for her, outlining how it ‘should’ be done, even though she’d explained how she wanted to do it.  Here was my own ‘Hans’ moment.


I continued to make my way around the gallery, walking around it several times, all the while reflecting on how this particular parent/child dynamic may have impacted on Nora’s work.  Once she had left home, moved out of Hans’ orbit and spent time in London and Europe honing her style, it becomes very apparent what an accomplished and unique artist she became.  Her self portraits are the works that strike me the most – the gaze always direct and uncompromising.  She stares out of each portrait with a powerful sense of identity and conviction that I find both inspiring and very moving. She found herself, her own style, her own voice – not as the progeny of a famous parent but as her OWN PERSON.  She may have grown up in her father’s shadow, and been known for much of her life as the daughter of Hans Heysen, but her work transcends this.  Reflecting on her own experience of parenthood, Sylvia Plath expresses this reality in her poem ‘Morning Song’ when she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
(from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber, 1965)
As I left the gallery, still mulling over what I’d seen and thought, I was left with a refocused sense of what parenting can be.  Rather than projecting ourselves into and onto our children and imbuing them with OUR hopes for their potential and future, can we perhaps let this go? Perhaps we could aim to step back and give them space to become themselves.  And let them paint their own onions.