Musings about the nature of ‘quality’ after over 30 years in Launceston, Tasmania. What might it mean and how is it done in a regional area?
I thought I was a big-city person. When I came to Launceston from Seattle, I figured I’d stay two years, then go back for post-graduate study. That was 1989. I’m still here, undertaking a 30-year experiment in how one can make quality art music in a regional area. Visual artists and novelists seem to. Can a performing artist? Specifically in ‘art music’?
‘Quality’ is a fraught term. I’m using it instead of ‘excellence’ which connotes comparison and competition to me. ‘Quality’ feels more intrinsic.
I grew up on a beautiful island north of Seattle, in the USA, in the 1960s-70s when science was flourishing, music was wild and expansive, nuclear and environmental disaster loomed, but also when civil rights, racial, gender and economic equality seemed possible. I read the school and town libraries, especially science fact and fiction. I spent hours in the backyard and parks observing and collecting insects, mosses, and imagining tiny worlds.
I also learned music. My parents were music teachers: my father, the school choir director and a church organist; my mother, a clarinet and piano teacher. The school system had good programs, and my high school music department was particularly welcoming and challenging for musicians in classical, jazz and rock styles. Most of us did them all. It was a safe space for the counterculture, without excluding the mainstream.
My nascent passion for social justice was fanned by the Jesus People Christian hippy movement, world hunger advocacy groups and simple lifestyle advocates. Becoming an orchestral clarinetist, playing for the rich, didn’t make any sense to me. Addressing material and psycho-sociological needs of the poor did. I put my musicking to the side, studied Social Work and ended up an urban youth worker for 5 years in a big southern US city.
I saw and heard how poverty is structural and culturally embedded, and racism and classism are endemic. There was progress being made, but it was so slow. It would take generations, not years, to overcome, if society allowed it. I was opening small experiential windows to the young women I worked with: seeing their first waterfalls and live chickens; going to the beach, camping, learning to swim, fix a bike, play guitar, double cookie recipes… Our group was an experiment in living less defensively and more kindly than was safe ‘on the streets’ in their neighbourhood – kind of like my high school music department. Somehow, it seemed my role was to work closely with a few, pilot some more positive ways of living, and entrust God to work on the structural change through others who could be effective in politics, law, or policy.
Eventually music and love called me back to Seattle. That’s a story too long to tell here, but in short, I ended up studying with marvellous, generous teachers: masters of jazz guitar, then classical and extended clarinet, theory and composition. I had found a vocational home, at least for a while. It was also the right mix to apply for a woodwind lecturer opening in Launceston (back when there was a tertiary music course here – long gone). And, thus, I moved to another beautiful island.
Consistent with my youth worker experience, my teaching, playing and composing were about opening windows to more possibilities. (Why not have the clarinet section in a band play multiphonics to get a mysterious texture?) I instigated an annual experimental performance event that became known as the ‘Avant-garde concert’. It soon became entirely locally-generated originals, often incorporating other artforms (visual art, theatre, dance, sports, cooking…) There was a lot of interest. Three weeks before the show we had three shows’ worth of material promised. One week before there was 1/3 of a show. On the day there was always enough. When the audience arrived the programs were still warm from the printer. By the last years, my work demands had increased and organising was taking too much time and energy to include my own work. I couldn’t do both. After I left the University at the end of 1997, it was run by others two more times.
Untethered from the university, I shifted my focus from performing to composing (plus parenting a young child and finishing my Masters) before eventually getting back into casual teaching. And we stayed here.
One of the things that made staying here attractive was Garry Greenwood’s work. Garry was a sculptor who worked in leather, including creating playable pieces. I recruited musicians to bring them to life. Could we make music as exquisite as his sculpture? Here was a positive push toward quality. Garry died in 2005. We’ve kept playing his sculptures in The Chordwainers quartet, the Tasmanian Leather Orchestra (6-35 players) and as individuals in collaboration with other musicians and artists such as Colin Offord’s Time Distance Music and Sonja Hindrum’s SkinMusic with electrified SCOBY.
In 2009 I began a PhD study of post-tertiary composer teaching and learning, looking at transitions and inductions into the profession. I’ve also been involved in studying Musica Viva’s FutureMakers program. Both have been enlightening and confronting. Creativity and quality are a lot more context-dependent than I’d wanted to believe. Quality is partly determined by what the end-users want to use. Context includes geography: a bigger city has more artistic infrastructure, more niches, more audience variety.
I finished the PhD during a year we spent in the US for some extended time with family. When we returned I had a blank slate awaiting. Now what?
Curating and match-making
I’m not much of an organisation person so I haven’t started one. I enjoy helping other people’s ideas come to fruition. One consequence of longevity is knowing a lot of people, so when someone has an interesting idea, I can usually think of others to help make it happen. There’s a lot of creative ability here so there are plenty of people to connect. Recent matchmaking includes recruiting musicians for MOFO’s through-the-year sessions in Launceston, the local hospital’s music program, Mapatazi: an all-female electric guitar ensemble led by Rose Ertler, Tannery: a collaboration between Launceston taiko players and the Tasmanian Leather Orchestra, and the Launceston Improvised Music Association’s ‘Free For All’ sessions and World’s Smallest Improvised Music Festival.
They provoke the sort of community I want. Of course, it often means offering my skills to the project. As a multi-instrumentalist, I’m usually binge-practising on something I’d put aside due to previous projects, keeping me in a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none state, which I find both frustrating and energising. Launceston is a performer community. My shift toward composition couldn’t mean giving up playing. I’ve been composing in a range of arty, experimental and popular styles: theatre is big here and I’ve recently written incidental songs for several productions plus the score for a musical about Marjorie Bligh (Tasmania’s domestic goddess – look her up!). Serving with the skills and knowledge I have is part of being in community.
The focus of my own composition is shifting to be more overt about environmental and justice issues I really care about. They have always been there in my motivations behind pieces, and suggested in program notes or titles. It’s time to move them to the fore, simply as an act of honesty.
One recurrent theme is making time-space in which people can experience and express strong emotions, particularly grief and joy. My concerto for saxophone and strings, Homage, Laments and Ecstasies explores those emotions in response to recent wars in the Middle East. Fierce: The Vengeance of Joy, for Taikoz, continues my exploration of the essential energy of joy.
In It Together is a project in which the audience is the performer and expresses and experiences an emotional journey from grief through to resolute joy. Unlike the sax concerto and Taikoz piece for professionals, this is constructed so anyone can participate. It’s pushed me to consider musical materials in different, maybe even deeper, ways. Each new thing increases the difficulty. That doesn’t stop me from putting in new things – introducing people to new sounds and techniques is still a significant love. But I’m getting better at pacing them. Weird music doesn’t have to be hard, and will introduce learners to more expansive musical language. The film, Babette’s Feast, often comes to mind – not for the extravagant feast, but for the way she transformed everyday meals for shut-ins with her chef expertise. A little onion can make a big difference.
Many of my local composer colleagues create for the end-product of a recording which is a way to transcend regional limitations. Through them, I’ve realised my interest is more in composing social situations: the musical experience, especially for performers, can be a preview or prototype of a better future. It can be inclusive and encourage moving towards quality. It can create genuine, valued places for novices as well as for people with aspirations, ability and well-developed skills. It must be a well-crafted, window-opening piece of musical art.
I’m now thinking how quality is contextual. It is contexted within the ecosystem in which it is practised. In this regional community there are supportive factors that might be stronger than in a big city: connectedness, less competition, interdisciplinary collaboration, short commutes. There is less reverence for tradition, so it is easier to be multi-instrument and multi-style.
But significant supports are lacking: dedicated music venues, producers, arts journalism, tertiary training, and a full range of performer expertise. One subtle but powerful difference is that there isn’t a culture of creative development and multiple performances. Many fabulous ideas don’t get beyond what would be a preliminary showing in another context. They don’t get refined and polished. We don’t have the audience base for multiple performances, but more significantly, we don’t have the support infrastructure for development. Yet we’re so accustomed to a rhythm of one-show-only that many don’t know what we’re missing.
As much as I deeply enjoy composition – carefully crafting in sound and for players – my place here requires performing and organising. They can’t really be separated. Quality goes beyond artistic products to how one engages in the ecosystem. Are we making the ecosystem stronger and healthier, or simply succeeding at the system’s existing game? Are we building and nourishing the ecosystem? After 30 years, I’ve concluded it’s all part and parcel: you make your work and nurture the ecosystem.
As for my experiment, I feel I’ve developed a varied practice that’s usually quite inspiring to me. But I also feel I haven’t gotten the refinement and precision I might have if I worked in a context in which my niches had pre-existing support structures and networks. I’m sure I would benefit from the synergy of working with expert producers, from the maturation of creative development periods, and from access to a wider range of expert performers – those rhythms and networks of practice of a larger ecosystem. Mine is not the same ‘quality’ or ‘excellence’ I’d have achieved in a big city. On the other hand, I’m part of a vibrant, creating community that sometimes gets what I’m trying to do, and with people who wouldn’t have noticed those open windows if we hadn’t been on the journey together. ‘Quality’ is found in the mix. I’ll probably stay.
Karlin Love is perpetually looking for surprises: ‘Ooh! That’s bigger/deeper/wider than I’d thought!’ for herself, for performers, and for audiences. She aims to gently extend and expand traditional sound worlds and provoke greater democracy in ensemble music-making. She has been commissioned by numerous Tasmanian and Australian performers, notably saxophonist Jabra Latham, Clarion214 clarinet quartet, lutenist Susan King, and the University of Tasmania Community Music Program. She is a fully-represented composer with the Australian Music Centre and published by Wirripang. In addition to composing, she is a teacher, community provocateur, curator and producer, and performer on Greenwood leather instruments, guitar, and clarinets. Over the years she has accumulated a few degrees (PhD, MA(hons), BMus, BA).
VIEW AND LISTEN
Tasmanian Leather Orchestra. Music by Karlin Love, photos by Christie Hidding (permission granted)
On Power: concerto for electric guitar and wind ensemble: https://www.reverbnation.com/karlinlove/song/2374528-on-power-3-gannets-flight
University of Tasmania Wind Orchestra. Darryl Kerkham, guitar; Monte Mumford, cond.
Light in the Tunnel (piano trio):
Emily Sheppard, vn; Georgia Shine, vc; Karen Smithies, pno. Recording: Karlin Love and Paul Radford.
is perpetually looking for surprises: ‘Ooh! That’s bigger/deeper/wider than I’d thought!’ for herself, for performers, and for audiences. She aims to gently extend and expand traditional sound worlds and provoke greater democracy in ensemble music-making. She has been commissioned by numerous Tasmanian and Australian performers, notably saxophonist Jabra Latham, Clarion214 clarinet quartet, lutenist Susan King, and the University of Tasmania Community Music Program. She is a fully-represented composer with the Australian Music Centre and published by Wirripang. In addition to composing, she is a teacher, community provocateur, curator and producer, and performer on Greenwood leather instruments, guitar, and clarinets. Over the years she has accumulated a few degrees (PhD, MA(hons), BMus, BA).
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