Several years ago, I started to resist genre by un-labelling my music. Instead, I consider myself to be a genre-fluid artist: defined only by my sonic direction in a given moment of time, not boxed in by pre-existing stylistic boundaries. Everything that I create from here on is merely an audio snapshot of that particular period in my life, as it always has been.
Coming from an entire family of classical musicians, I grew up studying piano and flute until the age of seventeen. Both of my teachers were eternally patient, as I adamantly rebelled against any set repertoire in the classical realm. As long as I can remember, my specific interest gravitated towards impressionism – or as I called it back then, ‘arty music’. Reflecting back, it is clear to me that this stemmed from an indelible passion for visual storytelling and interpretation, allowing me to interpret pieces such as Debussy’s Reflections on Water via the title alone. The music invited me to connect with nature and enter a deeper space led by intuition, exploring the linear direction of the melody without focusing too much on the theoretical.
The avoidance of the theoretical continued well into my tertiary studies after I spontaneously dropped my pursuit of classical piano in favour of the jazz double bass – an astronomically large sounding-vessel quite unfamiliar to me at the time. I found that I initially struggled with the lesser melodic role of the instrument within a traditional jazz context; however, the music of Charlie Haden was the first to open my ears to the beauty and function of bass melodies. Each and every one of his recordings taught me that the role of the bassist could be expanded, coming from a place of honesty and simplicity.
My most recent endeavours in Cologne continued to unlock a completely new world of sonic comprehension through a focus on solo performance, concreting my genre-fluidity as both a bassist and vocalist. The German style of ‘jazz’ includes elements of experimental music, contemporary classical, funk, folk, electronica, you name it — fostered by a thriving educational system that encourages holistic individual growth beyond stylistic criteria. Sebastian Gramss and Robert Landfermann (both residing in Cologne) are two of several incredible bassists who enriched my soloistic musical growth during this time, constantly propelling me into unexpected directions and creative avenues. And like many other improvisers living in central Europe, all of my teachers during this period are not only amazing ensemble players, but hold a deep-rooted understanding of their instrument and what it can offer across any musical setting. They not only fulfil the function of their instrument, but they also challenge it.
Education aside, nature has always been the greatest catalyst for all of my artistic work. Almost unconsciously, my entire portfolio of projects thus far is somewhat related to plants or plant-based food. As a vegetable lover, my debut solo album Vegetable Bass was released last year with the aim of inviting the listener to relate to otherwise niche music in a refreshing, unexpected way. Across the compositional process for this particular body of work, I actively applied a challenging range of extended techniques into ten solo works for voice and bass — each paired with a designated vegetable to take off the edge. After all, have you ever considered what an artichoke may sound like? Let alone a beetroot?
The changing climate is also speaking directly to my music in the present day. I owe it to myself and others to delve deeper into real-world issues from here on through my art. I can already sense my music channelling a portion of the collective anxiety regarding the future of the planet, and humanity as a whole. It will be interesting to observe how the changing vibrations of mother earth may affect the artistic output of younger generations to come.
On a lighter note, improvised music also offers a rare sense of playfulness that I cherish wholeheartedly. In the current happenings of this strange life, some of my most fulfilling moments have involved meaningful connections with other musicians either in a virtual or real space. As a performer, I am so grateful to continually have the chance to enhance and interpret the music of others with my own voice, and vice versa. Irrefutably, the medium of art music also creates a playground for me as a composer; a limitless environment built upon trust whereby I seldom end up sticking to the chart that I first crafted. Almost always, my fellow musicians offer ideas that I couldn’t have imagined myself, which is why I am so addicted to spontaneous music-making across original projects. You just never know what is going to happen. It’s an adrenaline rush like no other.
Jazz — as a medium — is expanding by the day, encompassing a large variety of sub-genres and styles as the world takes on more incredible artists from different places and backgrounds. I predict that this fast-moving transformation will propel a fresh wave of multi-genre partnerships between musical mediums. Joni Mitchell is an outstanding example of this, through her collaboration with Charles Mingus. Whilst she is arguably best known for her work as a songwriter, her work as a jazz vocalist runs deep and true.
I suppose my overriding goal as a creative is to unfailingly follow my intuition. I will always draw upon my foundational knowledge, paired with a yearning for further sonic discovery and heartfelt meaning. Genre-fluidity allows for the breaking down of creative barriers, propelling a series of genuine individual and collective audio snapshots to document the world as it is right now. It is my hope that through my art and its connection to mother nature, I can reach an audience that otherwise may not listen to jazz or contemporary art music. I am so grateful to the Freedman Fellowship and the Music Trust for encouraging me to follow this path to the next level.
Helen Svoboda is a double bassist, vocalist, composer and nature-enthusiast.
Born of Finnish/Australian heritage, she draws influence mainly from vegetables, flowers and the genres of minimalist neo-classical music to folk and experimental jazz.
Following her recent return from two years in the Netherlands and Germany, Svoboda was recently awarded the 2020 Freedman Jazz Fellowship and named the 2020/2021 Pathfinders Associate Artist for the Australian Art Orchestra, based in Melbourne. She has released over ten albums across her own projects to date, and as a composer her work has been commissioned for a variety of ensembles both locally and overseas.
As an ‘indispensible part of the Australian jazz, improvised and experimental scenes’ (Erik Griswold, AUS), Svoboda has toured across Australia, Europe and the USA at festivals/venues including Make it Jazz (Tilburg, NL), Stadtgarten (Cologne, GER) and MONA (TAS). Across her work she has collaborated with a diverse range of artists including Kristin Berardi (AUS), Sebastian Gramss (GER) and Cory Smythe (NY).
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