Transcription of presentation by composer and writer Juliana Hodkinson on distributed opera and interview with Tim Stitz. Recorded on Thursday 8 December, 2017 at RMIT University’s Design Hub, Melbourne, Australia.
Facilitator: Associate Professor Lawrence Harvey (Chief Investigator), Margaret Trail (Research Associate)
Participants: Juliana Hodkinson (Composer and Writer), Tim Stitz (Creative Producer, Chamber Made Opera)
Agile Chambers was part of Agile Opera: Chamber Opera in a New Era, funded by the Australian Research Council, the Australia Council for the Arts, Chamber Made Opera and Federation Square Management.
FACILITATOR: Welcome to Timothy Stitz who is our guest today; and I would also like to introduce Margaret Trail, to my right, who will also be conducting today’s interview with Tim.
By way of starting, I will just let you know the format for today; because we also have a video audio presentation from Juliana Hodkinson, composer for Turbulence. Juliana sent the file overnight and what we have is possibly a 20 minutes presentation. The first, roughly two/three minutes, has video; and then it goes to black; and then she just continues on as audio. So we could sit, I suppose, just turn and watch. But after that, it’s—what do we call it—a “group podcast”, or something like that.
Then after that, Margaret and I have prepared some questions for Tim; mainly his role as director and CEO of Chamber Made Opera; and then we will have some questions from the floor as well.
So that’s the format for today. What we might do is start and it should be about an hour, allup. Okay, thanks, Simon. So, first of all, Juliana.
JULIANA: Good afternoon, from Berlin. I am recording this on Monday, 5 December 2016, after having attended rather early this morning, by Skype, part of the development going on at the Design Hub with the Turbulence team. So references that I make are to this iteration, based on what has happened so far, up to Monday. If major changes happen during Tuesday/Wednesday, or if they have happened, I will not be embracing them here.
In 2013, I wrote an article about what I called “distributed opera”. At the same time, I was warming up to write for the first time in my life some opera music. That was Turbulence and I had just received Cynthia Troup’s libretto. In my article, I discuss the online screen as a platform for distributing opera experiences; both the commercial distribution of mainstream repertoire from the world’s premiere opera houses to cinemas and private screens, as well as the possibility of experimental, artistic explorations into virtuality, augmented virtuality, and all manner of mechanic technologies at the intersection of music, drama, opera and the Internet. Little did I, or any of us in the Turbulence team, know at that time that we would, within just a couple of years, be sitting here—you there—with some concepts, resources and above all, our own experiences of distributing our own opera in several ways, including online.
In the following audio presentation, I will talk about some developments since 2013; both developments in the journey that Turbulence has taken over the past three years, a journey that is continuing, and, also, developments in what we might call “digital/distributed opera formats”. “Agile” you have proposed with this larger collaboration between RMIT and Chamber Made Opera, embracing our hopes of what both live performance and digital media can bring to opera; an art format that itself has always been under redefinition. I will be very happy if what follows can provide some food for thought. And I am very sorry not to be joining you for the following discussion.
So let’s go inside the opera house. Enter the opera house, the big place for big emotions; where art forms come together; writers, composers, directors, technical and production personnel of all kinds try out their intermedia muscles; and enter the Internet, bigger than the opera house; a giant anonymous net falling down all around us, onto our phones, laptops, our wide screens, outdoor public viewing screens, sucking up every new technology, just like opera; but, also, enabling us to go small, to go solo, to stay where we are. At last, all those artists who love artistic experiences tailored to very specific contexts, can make them individually; and all this fixed in an ubiquitous web with us fixed in it. Sitting in between these two paradigms, the opera house and the Internet, we have the present iteration of Turbulence.
In my 2013 article, I considered changes and conflations and the relation between opera stage and auditorium in electronically mediatised opera experiences; acknowledging the evolution of traditional opera stages as a real place for live performances, typically transformed since the very origins of opera by technological illusions and effects in the tradition of the Deus ex Machina trope.
Techne has always been implicit in the opera format, alongside interdisciplinarity; and together, they have always edged opera into new modes of intermediality. But where technological inventiveness has mostly affected scenography, electronic audiovisual media developments have now begun to have an impact that might change our view on what opera is.
There have been radio operas, sure, starting with Brecht, Weil and Hindemith, Der Lindberghflug of 1929; no telephone operas I ever heard of. Stravinsky and Britten both composed teleoperas; The Flood 1962 and Owen Wingrave 1971 respectively. But there have been plenty of teleoperas. The idea of television opera was to replace live theatrical performance with a televisual discourse through home viewing. This shift in discourse might have led to a rejuvenation of opera, if it were not that already at the birth of teleopera in the 1960s, the high production costs associated with producing them meant that creative exploration of TV opera as a new art format, gave way to direct TV broadcasts from opera houses.
Next, electronic media began seeping into live opera; starting with composers like Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros. First, there were video screens on stage; then there was public viewing on the square outside; and now, there is this smartphone app, the Op app. Touch the screen. It wants to be touched; moved; get in touch with the inner dramaturgy, that influence the development of the plot. #feelingtouched #allthatopera.
This seems an opposite situation to the mystic gulf between audience and stage of Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Beyreuth that inserted a physical remodel for added myth/magic and illusion, dreaming from a distance. How can we dream then, in our times of exposed intermediality, when the organs, instruments, devices and personnel of technology are more often than not experienced at close range; obviously integral to artistic experiences?
In composer Michel van der Aa and writer David Mitchell’s, The Book of Sand, a song cycle for soprano lasting 12 minutes, which was released in 2015 as a website and a smartphone app, the viewer is offered a certain amount of interaction. The music is through-composed with three different accompaniments and three different styles; with each accompaniment having, also, its own film.
In all three layers, the vocal line is identical; ranging between pop, electronica and choral music, the change in musical settings are coupled with each of their own post-production filtering of the voice; different reverbs, different equalisations; so that within the small flat screen experience, one still has the sense, as a viewer, of moving between different environments which are somehow immersive.
The user can click at any time to move between the three layers. The vocal line runs on seamlessly between layers, while accompanying sounds and film change abruptly and immediately with each click. When one can touch the building blocks of an opera in this way, with the same well-worn daily gesture as the tap by which we call up emails and messages, the mouse click by which we press “send”, the swipe by which we view photos just taken, will we feel like opera-goers, board commuters, or gaming geeks, when we sit with our opera app?
On the other hand, when you say “tap, double tap, drag, drop, flick, touch down, hold, slide, spin, fling, pinch, spread, swipe”, it sounds almost more physical than the generalised theatrical poses adopted over the centuries by singers for long operatic durations; all the way from the Baroque’s codified repertoire of effective gestures, as a physical extension of the art of rhetoric, through to the largely static figures of grand opera weighed down by heavy costumes, set like small jewels against the backdrop of dominating set design.
The formal dimensions of opera, as a generic term of broad consensus, include vocal music, narrativity and mise-en-scène but, also, a physical co-presence between performers and audience. Pre-recording some or all of the performers might seem to undermine this, but adding scope for the viewer to have physical interaction with key elements of the dramaturgy, music or staging, might restore this relation in new and interesting ways.
I wondered in my article how the schizophonic disembodiment of the pre-recorded singing opera figure, combined with growing opportunities for some level of participation and interaction by the viewer, might introduce concepts of distributed agency into opera and music drama experiences. That is to say, “How might a singer sing, if released from the boards of the opera stage, with its constraints of stage, costume and the need to project acoustically to hundreds, possibly thousands of people?”
Cynthia Troup’s libretto for Turbulence proposed turning a living room not only into a performance space for opera but into an immersive sonic environment; in which traditional dividing lines between music and sound design, as we know them from film; between song and spoken word, between prerecorded and live iterations; between sonic and visual scene setters, were already up for question and possibly for dismissal.
There was already, in the libretto, a demand for a progressive audio design which necessarily would span the composition process; including decisions such as the choice of whether to use instruments at all, in a situation which had no space physically or conceptually for pit musicians and decisions about amplification and diffusion.
I made my decisions and went for using an electronic pocket piano as the only musical instrument; alongside amplified airconditioning fans and audio playback of prerecorded samples. Despite the musical foregrounding of instruments and sonic objects, such as this pocket piano, the samples, microphone as noisemaker against the body hair or clothes, none of these are realised fully; none approach the fullness of an orchestra.
Turbulence was not originally commissioned or conceived as a media opera, an internet opera, but it definitely was designed to leave the conventionally established opera house, and the director that took it there was a composer, David Young. Electronic media were a part of the dramaturgical and compositional conception and all were deeply integrated into one another.
I opted to mobilise both vibrato as a metaphor and as musical material that manifests an oscillation between two states, normally pitches, as a fluctuating glide between them. An unstable element problematised as expressive excess during the 20th century’s vibrato wars on performance practice; and all but banned in contemporary instrumental and vocal music, except when explicitly notated. Vibrato has been marginalised in favour of pure tone, in considerations of tone production and effect, in contemporary music.
I began writing a score incorporating the libretto’s several levels of text; and made Foley pre-recordings performing myself by rattling audio flight cases to suggest overhead cabin lockers, ripping velcro to stand in for an electronic storm; while finally, at the end of an exhausting studio afternoon, sound engineer Peter Weinsheimer recorded the voice, also, of our one-year-old daughter in a range of vocal expressions; corresponding serendipitously with the part prescribed for “baby” in Cynthia Troup’s libretto. The separation of musical production and reception in electronically mediatised or remediatised opera and the opportunity for disembodying voices, has consequences for new conceptions of role and figure. The perfectly pitched, perfectly timed cueing of a baby’s voice were exactly the right expressive content, is just one example.
In Ashley Miller’s pop musical Echosis, in 2016, the story of Echo and Narcissus is retold using metaphors and prosthetics of cyber games, exhibiting what the composer describes as the “toxic masculinity of contemporary gaming culture.” While in Colleen Keogh’s electronic media opera Ether and The Voice from 2010, technology is mobilised explicitly in order to explore the female voice as a performing figure. Its archetypal and operatic reputation as siren, sorceress, hysteric and cyborg, embodied in Keogh’s work were three singing roles; “the dreamer”, siren; “the vegan”, sorceress; and “the blonde”, hysteric. In Ether and The Voice, the composer, herself, performs with a specially designed crystal ball, magic box which is, in fact, an interactive video controller; where several separate crystal balls individually control the speed of the audio or video; the keying of the video and colour saturation.
It’s worth saying at this point that in all these productions, there’s relatively little fire or smoke. Ships do not sink upon the stage; the earth rarely opens; no erupting volcanoes or crumbling palaces. Rather, discrete shifts of attention performed by a performer or user activation with an electronic interface of one kind to another, are more likely to take centre stage; offering students for looping, changing, viewing choices, following multilinear narratives or altering the order of events by “pause, replay” or “jumping back or forwards”.
In Turbulence, the idea of instrument and device has moved the idea of pit music to cockpit music; having a singer halt and trigger the film at will, which necessarily implies subjecting decisions about the timing and pace of such interventions, to a musical sensitivity, brings the visual image under the finger of the song.
One of the mother soprano’s primary musical tasks has changed, from the live/live iteration to the hybrid iteration; from tracking her vibrato against an unreliable synthetic electronic vibrato, an issue that is settled in pre-recording by the fact that it is always the same and thus the soprano’s relation to the soundtrack can be learned and rehearsed instead of quasi-improvised at every performance; from that situation, to deciding the balance of live and pre-recorded singing and to taking on some responsibility for the visual progression.
Let us follow this consideration of the mother as subject, a singing figure. In the Design Hub iteration, attention is focussed on the mother through her presence. The role of the daughter is literally diminished to a 10 centimetre high figure held in the palm of the mother’s hand. But despite dominating and controlling tendencies, the part of the mother offers relatively little room for the kind of emotional intensity and heroic self-realisation upon which modernist and romantic opera figures have depended. Opera has traditionally focussed on the psycho-sexual human subject. Even when that subject is under threat of collapse, a trajectory is set off by Strauss’s Elecktra and Schoenberg’s Erwartung.
Other kinds of knowledge, aesthetic form and experience, are important when we separate ourselves from this narrow view of an operatic performing subject. If only she were present, the daughter of Turbulence would be more clearly seen to be struggling to realise herself, even while having apparently, no musical means to do this in an operatic context. In short, her role is closer to that of the familiar operatic hysteric, but her vocal enunciation is almost entirely separated from that.
In the versionisation of Turbulence for internet, with the initial creation of Peter Humble’s film, the film takes the stereo mix-down from two successive recordings during the first performance season of the live living room opera, as a fixed narrative or “the work”; and it works in counterpoint to that. Both with the addition of cuts in time and space or location, augmenting the near chaotic fractionated temporal experience, and the curve of an all-embracing temporal trajectory.
So where mother and daughter have a dysfunctional exchange with both an implication of nonlinearity between them, but strong individual trajectories, the film works with double screen width images superimposed over mother/daughter images on each of their screen, or on each of their side of the full-width screen.
The image in Turbulence contains actions and objects in the visual field of the viewer, including the auditorium and of the film screen. The viewer’s perspective in this iteration is different, both from traditional opera situations; where the stage and pit are vertically arranged more or less in front of the viewer, with some side or height angling depending on the individual seat. The side and auditorium are mixed with audience seating providing both a social setting similar to the rows of a passenger aircraft, as well as forming a Greek chorus around the protagonist; Deborah Kayser the mother who sits amongst the audience and, also, is in dialogue with the film.
In fact, the relationship between mother and daughter is in this iteration partly shifted to relationship between singer and filmmaker. Himself a percussionist, the filmmaker (Peter Humble) is well-suited to this kind of duo. And if we would take the consequences of the dissolution of various hierarchies, between instrument and sound design, instrument and electronic media that we have adopted media, we would conclude that this week’s iteration of Turbulence has brought us back full circle, to an exercise in chamber music; with simply an expanded understanding of the overlap between voice, instrument, media and technology, and some added agility.
Thank you for listening.
FACILITATOR: Thank you, Juliana. Okay, we will go to the second part of today’s lunchtime talk and Margaret and I have prepared some questions for Tim. We would like to start, first of all, Tim, by maybe pulling back from a specific work and maybe if you could briefly describe the artistic associate’s model that you introduced, when you took up your position at CMO [Chamber Made Opera].
TIM: I don’t know how to follow what Juliana just said (laughs), because it’s just brought up so much of what this research project is addressing; what we as a company are trying to address. It’s so wonderful to have her voice so present in this space; even though she’s not here. So I just want to acknowledge I would love for her to be here, so that we could have some of that further discussion with her.
I also want to acknowledge David Young, who is the former Artistic Director, and, also, director of Turbulence as Juliana mentioned. And, also, the fact that we have one of our Artistic Associates, Erkki Veltheim here in the audience. So, yeah, I will probably reference them or elements of their involvement in the company, as I talk today.
The artistic associate model came out of David Young leaving the company; announcing that he was ending his time with us; although not ending his artistic collaboration with us, because that’s continued. And it was…the way it all happened was quite strange and unexpected, in a way; because the company had interviewed for a new Artistic Director and they couldn’t find one that they were happy with, to cut a longer story short. And they said, “What other models are out there for us to look at?” And I said, “Well, I am happy to sort of come up with some possibilities.” I went away for a night and thought about it and put down some things in writing and brought it to the Board and they said, “Yes, that’s fantastic. Let’s do that.”
Obviously, I developed a level of trust with them, that they felt that they would back this vision. But I have to forefront, that I had never seen myself as an artistic director or director of a company; and that it was an opera company as well, was quite surprising. It is certainly not my background. But I have come to…I love what position the company holds and what it’s exploring.
The artistic associate model came out of me believing—and that is all a by-product of discussions with David over the time that I worked with him as producer—that it is an interdisciplinary concern; that opera is constantly being contested and reimagined; and that this seemed like the only natural way to go, in my mind. As a sort of creative producer, it is probably my role. I’m not responsible for the actual artmaking but sort of supporting, curating, helping resource it and supporting at every turn.
We also did joke at the time, though, that there was no-one that we could find to replace David; so we found four people to replace David (laughs). So it came out of that interdisciplinary explanation.
MARGARET: And how does it work? You have described in an earlier interview, you used the image of the satellite; that the artistic associates work as satellites. Practically, how do you work together and apart?
TIM: I think it is fair to say that the model has some advantages and disadvantages, like any model does. I suppose there is a satellite nature to some of the associates because they are employed one day a week; and obviously more so, when projects come into fruition. But it means that they are also doing other things. So I think that’s a very obvious by-product of a part-time role.
But it sort of has also meant that at times there’s been feverish concentration of all four of us—all four of them and me—so the five of us; or other times, there’s very feverish concentration of just one/two, or three of them; and that is usually around thinking about overall company’s strategic place and direction. It is about often grant writing. Like, when we have got a strategic plan to write or multiyear funding application to do, I sort of pull everyone in to that conversation. And it made it, at times, decisions or discovery through committee; again, which has its advantages or disadvantages, because it would have been much easier to say, “Here’s one artistic director. What’s your vision? Great, let’s write that up and let’s submit that.”
But I think where we have arrived at over the three years since the start of the associate model, which was at the start of 2014 really—we had done some work before that, but that was when everyone started—we did want to review the place the company sits within the art psychology in Australia and internationally. And then look at how we set about actually making it all work.
TIM: I don’t know if I have answered your “satellite” question satisfactorily?
MARGARET: No, I think you do. The artistic associates are not just brought in to make art; it is a distributed leadership model as well; so operationally, they are deeply connected to that.
TIM: Absolutely. That’s why they are “artistic associates”, as opposed to “associate artists”, in my mind; that they have a role in the artistic visioning of the company and the artistic positioning of the company. There is that dual responsibility.
One of the things that has been challenging at times is; because it is parttime, how much responsibility can you realistically have all the time, when you are doing lots of other things? At the end of the day, as a full-time position for me, I was the one sort of continuing to keep the mantle going; but through a very collaborative, open/consultative process.
FACILITATOR: In that model and those processes, could you imagine that the model could be translated to a larger organisation; a CircusOz or MTC [Melbourne Theatre Company] scale organisation?
TIM: Yes, absolutely. In fact, it would probably suit a large organisation, because you could potentially have the resources to pay multiple key artistic leaders to work together.
I think, actually, the MTC is doing it to some extent at the moment; because they have an artistic director who is a producer/curator and he’s not responsible for directing or making any of the artistic work but he has associate directors/artists, or artistic associates, working with him to literally make the work; and they direct multiple things per year.
I would probably like in a theatre company to see it happen. I know up in Belvoir in Sydney, the whole industry was a bit aghast that a designer became the artistic director in Ralph Myers; but I see there’s no reason why a theatre company shouldn’t just be led by a theatre director. It could be led by a group of theatre artists, whether they be designers, playwrights, directors, actors. And there’s precedent for it but there isn’t a lot of precedent of … I think we still have this mythology of the “artistic director” in a lot of those companies; because it is quite a hard thing to shift from the top and below as well. But I can definitely see it. And I think all power to them; they should do it.
Because I think if we have been able to employ our artistic associates more, we may not have run into some of the challenges of just part-time workforce and capacity; which any small arts organisation will face. But I think that was one of the intended or unintended consequences of the model.
I was aware of other models such as this, like the company Aphids which David Young started had a number of artistic associates involved with the company; and they worked project to project. But I was keen, and this is something that I put to the Board, “I think if you want real commitment and you really want to engage those artists in the life and operations/management of the company, you need to put them on a retainer, an ongoing part-time role” and I found that good because it meant that I could email Erkki or Tam (Tamara Saulwick). Even if they are at other gigs and say, “I just need to get your input on this; or can you write this for me; or can you help me with this?”, or, “Can we all meet next week to talk through these multiple issues?”
MARGARET: And they do; they respond.
TIM: Of course they responded because they are aware of that ongoing commitment.
MARGARET: Yeah, yeah, really good. Can we speak a bit about the work that the company is doing at the moment; in particular, about the decision to produce both live versions and digital versions of all work? Because I am correct, aren’t I, in thinking that is a decision the company’s made? So there is a Digiwork of each which relates to an originary live project. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
TIM: Yes. It is certainly an ambition to do it for every single work. It hasn’t quite, necessarily, worked out with every work; because sometimes, it’s like anything. It is like, well, you create a thematic or a conceptual space for a work and fitting it into a digital space, it may be impossible. I know with Captives of the City, that is something that we have been over a few different ideas for that as a Digiwork. And what we have come to for this project, this week, has been sort of exhibiting the wrap-up of it as one offer; but I don’t know if that is a Digiwork because it’s still one element of the live performance.
But going forward, that is definitely something the company is questing for. Within that, the Digiworks program is still quite an emergent thing for us. That’s why it’s wonderful having this project to help support some of the thinking and the resourcing; the questions of platform, the questions of distribution; the questions of “How do we have to restaff the company?”, or, “What other additional support do we need to make those?” Because a lot of the artists that we traditionally work with don’t necessarily have that experience in digital production. And even digital production within that, I recognise there is a huge plethora of different practices.
So we have sort of opened a can of worms; and it might have been a bit naive but I feel like, I am glad that we are attempting it in the society that we are living in today, which is such a continuum of analogue and digital experience.
FACILITATOR: Shifting tack slightly; earlier this year, you were in China for the Chengdu Teahouse Project. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
TIM: Yes, this is a new project that I have really pushed a lot myself. It did involve Christie Stott, who is one of our artistic associates; but she’s sort of stepped away from that project at this point. And it’s because of my own interests/background, learning Chinese and studying Chinese at university; but I never sort of put them together, you know, in terms of my art life and high school/tertiary life.
And I also just feel like that you can’t help but acknowledge China’s great influence in our lives; particularly Asia. The fact that as an arts company in Australia, we need to be looking at not only traditionally Europe or America; we need to be thinking about that region very close to us; and engaging in an intercultural way.
So the project has begun. It’s having two seasons next year in Victoria; one in Castlemaine and one in Melbourne. But it’s come out of an artistic, creative exchange between four artists in Melbourne and four artists from China, from Chengdu Sichuan province. And now there are other artists involved in working on that piece; more from here at this point who have Chinese/Australian backgrounds.
It is interesting because that project, we have talked a lot about—just bringing it back to the Digiworks question—we have talked about conceptually where it might sit at this point; but we are focussing on resolving the inherent content and the—it is not really dramaturgy but it probably is—dramaturgy of the live work, to start off with, or even the musical composition of the live work. And from there, “Is it going to be malleable enough to sit in a digital space?”
With other works, we are very conscious of prescriptives, like, “Do you want to create the Digiwork? Would that come first; before the live work?” In the China example, it feels like the “live” has to come first; but as a way of maybe taking it back to China, the Digiwork might be the best solution. It is just that we haven’t really hit upon it yet, of what form it might take.
FACILITATOR: Thinking about the idea of the travelling work and the digital, in particular these relationships; last time we spoke, a little over a year ago, you were talking about the importance for you of the voice. If there was a constant core to all the work, that, in fact, it is the presence of the voice in these works and CMO productions. What’s your position on that now?
TIM: I still think—and maybe it is a personal—it is certainly a personal preference or area of interest/inquiry. And it’s also something that came out, that resonated within the artistic associate discussions as well. Yeah, I think it is something that I am still interested in; and something that… I think it’s where composition and sort of dramaturgy is to performance and music and sound. Working in a parallel force, ‘the voice’ is often—whether it is sung, spoken or sounded voice—it is often where there is intersection. Maybe it is also my limited definition of ‘opera’, even though my definition is pretty open compared to others in the community, but I do feel like ‘the voice’ has a role to play. But even that’s contested. And I think it should be contested, as the original definition and construct of that term.
FACILITATOR: And certainly the notion of ‘intimacy’, which is underwriting most of the research, in that it is probably one of the most intimate contacts we have with somebody who is not physically present, is ‘the voice’; in many ways that we have just had with Juliana today, that she chose to give her voice; we didn’t necessarily need the image on top of that.
TIM: Yeah, I absolutely agree. For me, that is in performance; any form of performance, whether it is between music or theatre, which is probably more squarely my background, where I have had the most profound experience as an audience member; and sometimes even as an artist involved in the work, where I have seen the experience. It often does come down to that purity or that authenticity of voice. But you could also extrapolate that out to the voice of instrumentation or instrument; the voice of composer, the voice of player, singing out with a need to express/connect.
FACILITATOR: Or even to take it out further into contemporary politics and you used the word ‘authentic’ and ‘the voice’, in the same one… and think how questionable the authentic voice is now, particularly in politics as well…
FACILITATOR: “Do we actually hear it or not?”
TIM: No, you have to wait for people to stop being politicians, to get their authentic voice, I think.
FACILITATOR: Well, very true. In our Soundscape course, I give a talk about the voice and use some excerpts of both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard and how their voice shifted, depending on the context that they were working in; and they spoke very slowly, to a point where it was painful, compared to when they…well, certainly when Julia Gillard gave her leaving speech, incredibly snappy, beautiful phrasing, et cetera. “If you had just spoken like that for the last year, I’m sure your political fortunes may have been quite different.”
TIM: Yeah, I agree.
MARGARET: Well, speaking of “political fortunes”, it’s been a tumultuous period the last 18 months in the local and national art worlds. How has all of that impacted Chamber Made; or how do you feel at the moment about the broader political environment that you are part of?
TIM: I have concern for it, for sure. I think it is a wider question of the presence of the arts and culture, in general, as part of the wider political discourse; or its absence in that wider political discourse. Maybe that is just me or any of us, expecting something that, you know… But I still think, when you look at research around people’s participation in art and coming to places like this, or learning instruments or singing in choirs. I mean, it is not the case, actually; so the fact that it’s not part of the discourse or widely as it should be. I think the arts, though, in the last few years, particularly in Federal/Australian situation have got much better at calling for…well, we have become activated in a way that we weren’t. We realised that we were not doing things that we needed to be doing to advocate for our position and the importance of a rigorous artistic, you know, culturally ambitious nation; all those weasel words. But it is true; I really think it is true.
To bring it back to our context at Chamber Made Opera is, in some ways, the timing. A lot of companies were put on notice because of the new Australia Council model. It wasn’t good fortune, but we used to have Australian Council funding in multi-years but that exited the company just before David joined. So he had the unenviable task of resurrecting or trying to find other modes of operating and surviving. And it is entirely testament to him, that it is in its place now. But we still rely on Federal funding. So we have been using project funding as a way to resource individual projects or series of projects or programs; and that’s worked quite well for us. And that was one of the other—to go back to the associate model—reasons for thinking about this model; is multi artform, or having artists with multi artform experience; not only brings amazing expertise and experience, but it also brings familiarity in music. Erkki is incredibly well-regarded in the music fraternity and that’s amongst other players and makers, but, also, funders and peers who help him make those decisions.
So I think that was…it wasn’t the first one and only strategic thing that I had in the forefront of my mind, but it was certainly part of going, “Well, I want to choose artists that are going to be the right fit; but I am also going to be pragmatic,” and trying to engage them to help me but really the company in its survival to make art.
And we couldn’t have made particularly Another Other without that support. Turbulence, we have been incredibly lucky and resourceful in its trajectory, I think, to get the support that was needed to make it.
TIM: And now it’s still being supported, to uncover its new potentials or its future.
MARGARET: Mmm. They are examples of agility, aren’t they; whether it’s agility in relation to an economic environment or an economic catastrophe—losing funding—or aesthetic agility; the kind of responses to provocations that Juliana is describing or that your artistic associate model allows? It does seem that this company has a feeling for, historically built, a kind of agile operation; would you agree?
TIM: Yes, I think so. Maybe not at all times, its history has had that absolute level of agility. I think artistically, when I think and look back at all the archives of all of Douglas Horton’s works, the first 21 years of the company; his aesthetics and practice is incredibly agile; and it obviously followed his own developments of interest. It may have—and this is again, I don’t know quite enough about it; it is only looking at the archive—that it probably did actually have a bit in terms of going to a quite traditional model of how the organisation is structured.
But I think that’s what I mean, I am the kind of person that always thinks, “How could we be doing things better? How could we be more efficient? And how, particularly with such limited resource, could we be doing all those things?” Because the equivalent full-time of the organisation is about 2.7 employees; and we employ more than those 2.7. So there’s a lot of part-time roles.
At the moment, we are going through that process with the Board, which we will announce soon, actually, around what the evolution of this model is. Because it can’t stay the same. We have learnt an awful lot through the process of the last three years. And from that, it comes back to wanting to ensure the longevity of the company and the survival of the company.
FACILITATOR: Just on that note of “agility verse stability”, you might call it, there was an article in the Daily Review during the week, from Yaron Lifschitz reporting on the challenge to the major organisations; that, in fact, their funding should be contested, as it is in other sectors of the arts as well.
FACILITATOR: Because their argument was, “But, no, we have stability. This is what we need.” As if somehow they need it and no-one else did.
TIM: And he’s bang on. And absolutely right, I would say. And from the moment that whole Brandis raid or moment came in the Australian political discourse, it was sort of like, “Well, why isn’t the cut applying to everybody? Why is there a ring fence around majors?” I mean, quite apart from how you look at merit-based funding, he’s right, I think.
Of course, you need some stability of funding to do anything to get momentum. And the fact that we had ongoing support from Creative Victoria and City of Melbourne, allowed us a bit of breathing space, actually; because it did take a little while to get the next number of works out there and to get our, “What are the goal posts?” And then, “What are the works that come within those goal posts?”
We had a couple that were already existing or ready. Like, Captives of the City was about to roll out; Turbulence was still having some of its exploration and has continued its life. But some of the others—and I think of Tamara’s new piece [Permission to Speak] that’s just come out—that was in planning from mid-2013 and it’s only just premiered. But that’s a by-product of many, many things; but that’s how long it can take.
FACILITATOR: We have got a few minutes left. Any questions or comments at all from the floor?
PARTICIPANT: I am interested in your description of this notion of “agility”. When I hear you say that, particularly when you are talking about the artistic model, director’s models, that is decentralisation; and “agility, decentralisation and stability”, you know, that kind of nexus. And I am kind of wondering whether you are using the word “agility” for a particular reason, because it expresses something in particular; or whether it’s really about, instead of having a single, stable, central core, that you are sort of off-siting that singleness and almost fragmenting it in order to survive? I was wondering about those tensions.
TIM: Yes, they are tensions. It’s that thing about, uhm, I don’t know if we have certainly, probably, described ourselves as ‘agile’ in funding applications. I don’t know if it’s something that I would necessarily say externally, outwardly about ourselves. It is something more that’s been taken up as a key concern to the research project, in terms of agility of a company, and a small company. I don’t think we are alone. Small to medium organisations, arts organisations anywhere, and independent artists for that matter even more, have to be agile. They have to look and move and be responsive in so many different ways all the time.
I think it’s a decentralised model. Your question made me think of fact that at times, though, as the centre of the model, I felt like I was sometimes the bottleneck for decisions; and, also, some decisions take time through that decentralised model. Other times it is very, very rapid and fast. But my experience, the more frustrating moments in the model is just like, “Oh, okay, I will get everyone together.” Of course we can by email, but it doesn’t allow conversation or live interaction which I really think is the only way of sort of going ahead and progressing. I don’t know if I have answered your question very well.
PARTICIPANT: I just have a very quick comment, which is: Chamber Made Opera still has a very deeply radical programming ethos which is very, very unusual; and there are very, very few companies in Australia generally that dare to be so flexible or agile with the nature and format of the programming. The fact is that most companies do present an annual season or biennial biannual season pretty much to the same format, in the same genre, almost with the same marketing template and Chamber Made Opera hasn’t done that for a long time and continues to radicalise the programming format as much as the actual content within the program. And I think that is about survival as much as artistic exploration.
FACILITATOR: In one of the essays that I have been working on with Margaret and Greg…and David Forrest, the other Chief Investigators on the project, they actually looked at—it is called Rhythm of the Year—and we looked at annual reports. And through conversations, grant applications and other data that we have managed to get from Creative Victoria, what actually is involved in what you are talking about, David, in terms of those productions.
In a meeting, we have got a photo of a sketch that Tim did, almost like a braindump mind map of what he saw as the relationships at that point. And he said it’s probably about between 30 and 40 relationships or people that he was in contact with at any point in time. But when you go through the annual reports, it is actually about 60, which is why, in Paul Gough’s speech the other night, I gave him the line, “We often talk about large and complex; but, in fact, it is small and sophisticated.” You are right, you are carrying a lot and to then mould and morph that at any particular point in time, it does take incredible agility; which has now come into politics and the arts. When we originally did the grant application, it came from Andrew Borough, a programming colleague of ours; and it is actually to do with agile programming; it’s where that came from. But it’s filtered back through now into other areas. So more of a comment, I think, than an actual question, too.
PARTICIPANT: When you are talking about “agile”, and talking about change and things like that, what do you see as the main continuities that have happened across that period?
TIM: I was thinking about actually a continuity that had started almost from the beginning of Chamber Made Opera’s life, that being that there has been no fixed performance space; and certainly in more recent times, no fixed mode of delivery, the form of work; and this is where the Digiworks has sort of blown that apart in its own direction as well.
But when we did the 25-year interview project that Cynthia Troup helped us with, we interviewed Steven Armstrong and he was talking about, I think the reference in other parts of the research is “The Chamber. It is not an existing space; it is the conceptual space; and you ask and you interrogate for every single new work, ‘what is the chamber for this work?’”
So I would say, yeah, that probably is the radical thing. We have never been known to always do our work at the Playhouse, Art Centre or, okay, this year, we did two weeks in North Melbourne, which is a little bit unusual; that’s where we are based. But, you know, hey. Next year, it will be very different; we will be at the MRC [Melbourne Recital Centre] and then up in Castlemaine and then who knows where after that. And then which digital spaces will we be occupying? I don’t know.
So that’s, to me, the long view of consistency. I would say the consistency in the more recent time has probably been from, I think, my operational colleagues, actually; just the people that I see every week, which is probably the more formal structure or support network of the company. In the last 12/18 months, or even the three years; having had my colleague Imbi who was working away (laughs) sort of having that rhythm of every week to sort of come back to that structure. Even if I am out of the office, overseas or whatever, there is that consistency; of knowing that I can rely on those people. And by a wider expanse, I can rely on those artistic associates, wherever they are being, to be able to call on them or that they will be talking about the work of the company in mix of what they are doing generally. That’s probably, yeah, and that remains still complex. The biggest or hardest thing for us to crack is the communications and the updating and the management and flow of information; because what happens with a fantastically decentralised model was that we found that it does rely still on a central point/place, to have everything updated. So that’s why, you know, at times I felt like the Kevin Rudd, everything is flying back. It’s like, “Come on, Tim, you need to run faster to get everything going.” I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know if that’s possible, actually; or there’s going to come a point where it is not possible.”
TIM: So, yeah.
FACILITATOR: On that note, because some of us need to have lunch and get ready for the Microlab this afternoon, I would like to thank Tim for today’s interview. Thanks, Tim.
TIM: Pleasure, thank you.
FACILITATOR: And, also, thank you to the audience as well. And that’s all. Thank you.