[From Greg: Introducing another guest blogger, Sally Whitwell, a pianist — and much, much more — from Australia. Her website says she’s a pianist, composer, conductor, and educator. But she’s still more than all of that. An exciting spirit, an innovator, one of the many people who’s reinventing what it means to be a classical performer. While teaching music to kids, with the greatest enthusiasm. I met her when she took one of my branding workshops, in which we had fun strategizing how she should present her portfolio career(s). With great results that she kindly credits to me, but which I credit 100% to her. I could say much, more more about her, but I’ll let her speak for herself, in this post, and future ones. I’m happy to have her here.]
When exactly did classical performers stop being that — i.e. performers? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for some time now. I can’t count how many classical musicians I’ve seen shuffle, wander, or slouch onto stage in an uninspired fashion. Either that or be so tense and uptight and wrapped up in the traditions (or habits) of classical concert etiquette that they stop looking human at all.
At the other end of the scale, there are performers who are beginning to see the value in performing in a rather more informal way, more like pop musicians playing a gig. They include a little chat in their concerts, talking about the music and what it means to them. I perform this way quite often myself and find that audiences are very responsive. They smile more and most seem to come up after the concert to converse with me about the music, and other things too. Maybe that’s just because at the end of those concerts I make a special effort to invite them to share a drink? Probably!
We’re even starting to hear the big opera companies and symphony orchestras talking the talk about ‘informalising’ concerts, which is meeting with various levels of success. There’s English National Opera’s Undress for the Opera initiative, encouraging the young folk to attend in jeans and sneakers. And then there’s Classical Revolution going the classical-music-in-pubs-and-clubs route. This is all well and good. Yes, it serves to make the music “accessible” and “relevant” and any number of other predictable-but-dry descriptors, but as you can probably guess, to me even this kind of talk is becoming just a little clichéd now.
Perhaps it’s already time to up the proverbial ante?
As a way to navigate my own way through to a braver and newer world of classical music performance, I’ve created a new performance genre for myself. With the kind support (and encouragement) of Marshall McGuire from Arts Centre Melbourne, I put together an all-playing-all-singing-dancing-acting-cabaret-piano-recital Ten Tiny Dancers which premiered at The Famous Spiegeltent, a cabaret circus tent on the side of the road in downtown Melbourne. Not your average classical concert venue I concede, but hey, this ain’t no average classical concert! My belief is that by recontextualising classical music, moreover by framing the abstract sounds of instrumental music by giving it a uniquely personal narrative structure, I can invite audiences to listen with fresh ears. Over the course of many years in the performing arts, I’ve picked up enough skills in playing, dancing, singing, acting and writing to be able to put together such a show.
The presenter’s brief for the event was this: I was asked to be part of something called Once Upon a Time, a series of performances by classical musicians where they tell stories about their lives, illustrated musically. I decided to tell a story from my teens, about having to make the choice between ballet (being a fairy princess and always giving some poor bloke a face full of tutu) or music (creating abstract shapes in sound, floating by in ephemeral mystery).
Now in my mind there was no way I could tell this story without actually dancing, so I enlisted a choreographer friend Brett Morgan to help me. The whole world of ballet dancing is also very stylised and incredibly magical and I wanted to reflect my own genuine affection for that not only within my own movement language, but also within the physical world that I inhabit on stage. Enter artist Pamela Lee Brenner who created said magic with a bunch of reclaimed and repurposed objects, plastic bottles, electric fans, flowerpots, a cat bed, acrylic fingernails, Barbie dolls, plastic shopping bags, milk crates and astroturf.
Pamela set about constructing from these disparate elements a magical garden, a kind of externalisation of my own imagination. Into this magical garden, I placed all the toy instruments I play, a sound world representing a distant childhood fantasy of sorts. I wrote a similarly stylised text for myself to speak/act. I chose a program of works by classical composers Prokoviev, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Satie, and contemporary composers Philip Glass, Andrew Ford, and Joseph Twist plus a few pop artists — Blondie, Kate Bush, Elton John — and wove them together in a way that would illustrate my story. Eclectic? I like to call it “La musique sans frontiers.”
The audience response was fantastic, I was so pleased. They were moved (“You made me weep”), impressed (“brilliantly crafted and performed”) and amused (“Loved your minimalist ballet fatality!”). The thing that struck me was that the audience responses were initially all about my story, not about the music per se. People talked about “That severe ballet mistress of yours, Sally, goodness!” or “I get so frustrated by dancers who can’t count, too!”
They couldn’t name the piece of music off the top of their head, because the show brought them rather too completely in my world and not into the composer’s world. You might think this is a bad thing for classical music. In the end, however, it worked out rather well. A number of them felt driven enough to get on my website and find out the details of the music from the part of my story they felt most keenly, and then seek out more of that composer’s work. They also, rather unexpectedly, felt compelled to tell me about their discovery even weeks after the show! If getting people enthused about classical music was the name of the game, then in a roundabout kind of way I really think I achieved that.
Of course, this kind of performance is not something every classical musician is going to want to do and neither should they. We all need to forge our own paths through this world. I would, however, like to encourage my classical musician colleagues to step back from what they’re currently doing, look at all the skills they possess as individuals and think about how they might use said skills to really communicate their passion for their artform. I found my pathway. What’s yours?
Antipodean creative Sally Whitwell is a pianist, composer, conductor and educator whose primary purpose is to Keep Classical Music Friendly. She’s equally happy performing solo recitals on concert platforms as she is playing rhythmic clapping games with rooms full of eight year olds. She and her partner Glennda live happily behind their shopfront studio in Sydney’s Inner West with their four fabulous felines Gandalf, Boudica, Lucky and Dickens. She enjoys cooking, walking and subversive cross stitch. Want more? http://sillywhatwell.weebly.
[Final word from Greg: Among much else, Sally has a fabulous visual sense. As gloriously shown, for instance, by the covers of her two CDs, which you’ll see below.. On the first, Mad Rush, she plays Philip Glass’s piano music. On the second, The Good, the Bad, and the Awkward, she plays a stunning selection of film music, including classical pieces that have been used in films. Twin Peaks (I loved that score, when the show was on), meet Haydn (by way of Interview with the Vampire).
[I should have included these in my post about CD covers I like. How could I have forgotten?]