Music has always been a part of my life. I am also passionate about human rights and trying to help make the world a better place.
I grew up in Singleton, a rural town in NSW, the eldest of six children. My parents nurtured my love of music. My mum played piano and sang, dad was a music lover, sharing his passion for music with us kids. I remember the day he bought an old gramophone player. He would sit us kids in front of it and put on all kinds of music – classical, jazz, blues, popular, world music.
In rural Australia in the 1960s music teachers mostly taught piano. I started piano when I was five and practised with my grandmother; we didn’t own a piano until I was about seven. It wasn’t until I went to boarding school that I started playing clarinet. One of the music teachers said to me “we have an old clarinet and you are musical so you can play it”. There wasn’t an abundance of instrumental programs in those days.
My father had a family law practice, sometimes doing pro bono work in the days before legal aid. Instilled in me from an early age was a strong sense of social justice and education was of paramount importance. From a young age I knew how precious life was; my youngest brother had a catastrophic car accident as a baby which left him profoundly disabled, so I have always tried to make the most of my life. Family camping holidays were memorable. Before we set up camp we dug a pit and cleaned up our site; my parents said “always try to leave a place better than you found it”.
I went to Sydney Conservatorium of Music and studied clarinet. Composer/performer classes were a favourite, some of the collaborations formed in those classes continue today and arguably gave me my passion to champion the music of Australian composers. My teacher Gabor Reeves encouraged me to explore the diversity music offered, for me the more eclectic the music the better. I was introduced to some contemporary clarinet repertoire by visiting clarinettist Gerry Errante. My teacher Elsa Verdehr in the U.S.A extended my techniques and repertoire of new music. Don Banks was on staff at the Con then and I was fascinated by his electronic pieces. I love playing his funky Trio for bass clarinet, Moog synthesiser and fender piano – he created such wonderful music combining jazz and new music genres. I’ve always loved playing electro-acoustic music and multimedia pieces, early on performing Stockhausen’s Kleine Harlekin and later multimedia works by Australian composers, particularly Martin Wesley-Smith’s music.
I have collaborated with so many composers and performers over the years, commissioning, recording and playing their music all over the world. The chamber ensemble I play with now, Charisma, has been together for more than twenty five years and performed many new pieces of music by Australian composers. One collaboration which was life-changing was with Martin Wesley-Smith. We both share a passion for human rights and toured his music to many countries of the world.
In 1999 East Timor voted for independence from Indonesian occupation. Predictions were that there would be a violent backlash by the Indonesian military and their puppet militia. Inaction by the Howard Government resulted in public outrage. I also protested, but wondered how it could make a difference.
Then Martin gave me his multimedia piece X about the plight of the Timorese and Xanana Gusmao. I first played X in Darwin in 2000. At the end of the performance was an audience response I had never experienced before, the sound of people weeping. At that time there was a huge number of Timorese living in exile in Darwin. I took X to the USA two weeks after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the response was similar to the Darwin performance. People empathised, many had never heard of East Timor or the occupation and genocide that occurred. This experience made me aware of the power of music to convey powerful messages.
In 2002 Martin and Rob Wesley-Smith and I went to East Timor during the campaign for the elections of the first president and did many performances of X. It was such an exciting time to be in Timor playing music that retold the story of those tragic years of occupation to people recently liberated who would call out “Viva Xanana” every time his image came on the screen.
During these concerts elders came up to me and said “you are musicians and have all this technology, we are worried that when we die so will our music”. It made me think how important national identity is, and the kind of music that helps define it. I had spent years playing music by Australian composers; this music is part of our cultural identity.
I thought about those elders comments for a while, and what ensued were many memorable journeys over more than 15 years to East Timor recording the traditional music, staying with Timorese families, playing music with them, and forming many lasting friendships. I also co-ordinated several collections of musical instruments (particularly guitars and violins, as these are the most commonly played Western instruments) to be donated to Timorese musicians.
In 2012 I wrote an award winning bi-lingual book Lian Husi Klamar – Sounds of the Soul, the first book about Timorese traditional music in a language the Timorese understood. When I gave the book to Salvatore Da Costa Pereira, an elderly cultural custodian in the mountains, with tears in his eyes he said “perhaps now my music won’t die with me, and young people might be interested”. He died two years later.
This book is now a textbook in the new education curriculum for the subject cultural tradition. My doctoral thesis is also about the traditional music. My next venture in Timor is a collaboration with a wonderful artist and musician Etson Caminha researching and exploring new ways to engage young people in his Fataluku musical culture.
Timorese have often said to me that “music is part of our lives, our klamar (soul) and comes from our ancestors”. It is for me too.