I remember hearing an interview with a blues singer and they were explaining a phenomenon that often happens to musicians in concert. There are times when you feel like you’re really putting yourself on the line emotionally and it seems to have no effect on the audience. Other times, you may be battling flu/migraine/stomach upset but somehow you get through the performance in a daze and the audience are in raptures saying it was one of the most moving experiences they’ve had.
Finding the right amount of emotional intent to match the music whilst one is playing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn. I’m a bit of an “all or nothing” kind of person so finding those half way points has been one of my greatest challenges.
The main thing that has taught me how much of “me” to inject into a piece has been recording and listening back (as painful as it is.) I always remember what one of my dear friends from my quartet would say. “There’s just too much makeup on the music.” Such a great visual image to go with going away from what is organic to the music.
So what to do when a piece means so much to you and it affects you so deeply emotionally that it almost makes it difficult to play? There is a saying when going on stage. “Warm heart, cool head.”
In actual fact, as musicians, it is important to know how to get the sounds that are going to elicit an emotional responses. Is it necessary to feel them ourselves or does that just get in the way? Do we need to feel something emotionally ourselves to get through to an audience? It certainly feels more satisfying to play like that, but it’s not necessarily effective.
In preparing Lifecycle, I have been dealing with precisely that dilemma. It is one of those pieces that is so strong in emotional intent already, to add anything extra is just “too much makeup”. It’s a little like one of those plates of food that has been so carefully designed (with not much on it). Too much sauce and the balance of flavours is totally lost. Emily Hall is a master composer in this regard.
It tracks the intense anticipation and anxiety of pregnancy through to those glorious first sleep deprived weeks. We start with “stillborn” which has a soft devastation, through the hopeful “I test myself” and onwards to the endless “We are counting” which plays like a child’s counting game in rhythmical games. After the incredibly simple “Hello” as we meet the child for the first time, we experience “Hushabye” and a mothers’ anxiety and guilt over willing a child to sleep. The cycle ends with “fields of snow” and a glorious image of mother and child lying in the snow.
When I first heard “I am alone” (lyrics are listed below) it hit me right in the solar plexus emotionally. Probably because I had just had my first child, and to have a piece of music that articulated every one of my feelings at that moment was, to be honest, a little disturbing.
In their third collaboration, Toby Litt’s gut-wrenchingly honest lyrics have been set to music by Emily hall in “Lifecycle”. In composing a work It would be so easy to over emotionalise this content and make it overly saccharine, but Emily’s music is gently touching and very simple, but with a hidden complexity that lends itself to much investigation. Each of the poems has a little twist which is kind of like parenthood – one always expect the unexpected. As a musician, there are definitely certain pieces that force oneself to reassess one’s approach to music-making and for me, this is one of those pieces. It has changed me as a musician.
Interestingly, I have always imagined Gian’s voice when these songs would enter my head so it was a complete thrill when she agreed to join myself and Sonya for this project. There is an intense clarity and purity to Gian’s voice which highlights every nuance of the text. She is an astounding musician for highlighting the music over false artistry every time.
Lifecycle is being performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre in the lead up to Mothers’ Day as a celebration of everything to do with motherhood.
Saturday May 12 at 3pm in the salon for one show only
CD Now available on the MOVE label
Excerpts of Toby’s lyrics are below (they should come with a warning … have a box of tissues at the ready.)
I am alone
no longer only one
I do not want to be alone
I want you, but not too soon
I am alone
but they say I can eat for two –
this cake’s for you
and this cake’s for you, too
We are alone
I know I should not speak for you
‘We’ is not me
I am no longer simply ‘I’
I sing a song my mother sang
I sing to you
in case you do become our other one
Come, baby, soon but not too soon
Come when you want, be what you are
Only do… Please do be.
I heard about a woman who…
..at thirty-seven weeks…
..the cord was wrapped around…
and all these stories come my way.
Our home is now a ghostly home
We haunt ourselves in every room
I catch a ball
I sing a tender little lullaby
This room is haunted by distress
This room, so full of emptiness,
that might just be the baby’s room,
can only be
a grief or joy
The baby’s room – go to the baby’s room –
which isn’t yet the baby’s room
Inside the baby’s room I sing a lullaby
a lullaby my mother sang to me
I throw a ball
I stitch a hem
I sing the ghost a tender little lullaby