"Lurking in the text" | An interview with Helen Howard and Michael Futcher

In a few short days, Kupka’s Piano presents the Australian premiere performance of 'Words and Music', a radio play by Samuel Beckett set to music by Morton Feldman. For this special performance at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, hosted by the Queensland Music Festival, we are very excited to welcome award-winning actress Helen Howard and director Michael Futcher in a rare return to the stage. KP pianist Alex Raineri sits down for a chat with Helen and Michael in between rehearsals.  

Helen Howard

AR: Firstly, welcome! Thank you so much for joining us for this rather dark and mysterious, yet extraordinarily powerful work. To recreate the context of a radio play as best as possible, we’re performing this work out of sight behind a curtain. There’s also some extended song components. I imagine this is quite a bizarre project for you both?  

HH: I do love a challenge! To be out of sight, relying on just one’s voice for a subtle intention in a piece which defies instant interpretation…? Yes, that’s unusual. I will find being out of sight rather freeing, however. If an actor ever wonders “how am I seen” or becomes self-conscious, then he or she is in trouble! At least being screened removes that danger – I’m being tongue in cheek of course!

MF: Yes, it’s quite unusual to do a radio play in front of a live audience, in the dark, but I think it will be a fascinating experience for all. It will certainly make demands on the audience’s imagination and it will be interesting to hear how people interpret the work, having nothing more than sound to convey the themes and characters (notice I didn’t mention “meaning” as this can only be suggested in a Beckett production – never made explicit!).

AR: It’s also very exciting and rare for us to be collaborating with practitioners of other artforms. In relation to working with Beckett’s narrative (one that is albeit quite abstract), it has been fascinating for us to step outside of the conceptuality inherent in purely instrumental music into a space which is driven by dialogue that alludes to a more concrete meaning. This juxtaposition of ‘words’ and/versus ‘music’ is in itself a fundamental notion of what is explored in this work. How does this manifest for you both in this iteration of Beckett’s radio play with Morton Feldman’s setting of the musical score?  

HH: This collaboration across disciplines is exciting for us too – we have begun associations with Anna Goldsworthy and Karin Schaupp too. Music and words have long been old and addicted lovers – in this piece perhaps they are more like old enemies, or competitors! But that old association we all have with both elements allows for a natural connection to the meaning, as long as we listen with open ears. Feldman has been as articulate in the music as Beckett in the words; rather than being obscure, we are beginning to hear very clear, distilled intentions in the piece. There are technical requirements from words and music, but when we get past those we enter a shared world of the relationship, the dialogue going on between them.

AR: Despite the complexity of Words and Music, there are some fairly notable narrative turning points that serve as structural pillars within the broad arc of the work. Bookending the work we have a prelude and postlude. In-between, the themes of love, age, and face (alluding to a past lover) are discussed. For me, there’s a very nice clarity within these themes. Even if the listener misses some of the detail in the text, these thematic components bear a lovely resonance and lends a sense of continuity to the work. Michael, I am particularly interested in your thoughts as a director, whether this has any immediate parallels with Beckett’s other works? 

MF: Yes, definitely. Apart from the familiar bleakness, which runs as a tone throughout Beckett’s oeuvre, perhaps one of the closest parallels that comes to mind is with my favourite play of his, Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an old man looks back on the key moments of his life by listening to tapes he had made during his late twenties and thirties. All three of the themes that Croak proposes in Words and Music get explored in this wonderful play. In Krapp’s Last Tape, the old Krapp is obsessed with the memory of a sexual encounter on a punt, experienced many years ago, which takes on an almost metaphysical significance for him – a kind of “totem” moment which puts into shadow all other experiences he has recorded. In Words and Music, written a few years after Krapp, Beckett has played with a sparser, more enigmatic variation on this theme, where another old man, Croak, aided by Words and Music, similarly seems to relive a significant moment of sexual union (“the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural…aperture”) which, one suspects, has embedded itself in Croak’s psyche in an unending “loop” of pleasure and pain! The brilliant interweaving of the themes of age, time and love makes these two works definitely feel like companion pieces.

Michael Futcher

AR: Beckett was famously hesitant about what kind of music was set to accompany his works. Despite having collaborated with Morton Feldman on the opera Neither (1977), it’s nevertheless quite strange that that ten years later, Beckett consented to Feldman writing a score for Words and Music (1987) without any involvement whatsoever. Another oddity is the level of interpretative decision making left open to the performers, particularly in the interaction between the ensembles commenting and quasi-directing the stilted ‘aria’ which emerges within the age and face sections. Helen, I’m interested in your thoughts. How do you define the performers responsibility in making these kinds of interpretative decisions within the framework of a writer, and composer, who are usually extremely clear in their intentions? 

HH: If we take the work on face value, there are some instructions as to tone for the word actors playing Joe and Croak. For instance, one tone is “orotund”, another “cold”, and many within sentences “How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing) With you!” – where is here? Why dark? Why confined? Why loathing? Why no sense of an ending to it? All those questions get the mind moving. What is interesting is the exploration amongst the clues we are given as to what inspired them, what lies beneath them, unsaid. As a young actor I’d have lost confidence in the search for meaning, to which I was so wedded then! But as a mature actor, I trust my instincts more, and no longer fight for an impossible “perfection” or certainty as to the writer’s intentions. As soon as you stop being concerned with the lack of clear instructions, you find them lurking in the text. The more familiar you become with the whole, the more the words seem to be connected to a story of sorts, or an experience. When I read Beckett I always get flashes of connection - he evokes sensations, or dream-like knowledge that you suspect we all feel intuitively, and which connect us in this human experience, reduced to an essence. It can be bleak, living. I think even the most optimistic, cheerful people recognise that. Beckett articulates it idiosyncratically, and I’m grateful for his assumption that artists will embrace what he gives them. As for the music – well, it seems Beckett trusted the composer to speak for “Music”, and leave Words and Music to slug it out. Oddly, Beckett’s “composing” in words is more like music to me – suggestive, rhythmic, sometimes exultant, sometimes a flatline – than most other writers. I love the growing partnership with the ensemble in finding out who’s leading whom and when, and why! Who’s winning, who’s losing – who’s above all that?!

AR: Ending on a different note, I’m sure readers would love to know what other projects you both have cooking at the moment?! 

HH: I’m looking forward to playing Mrs Sivan in Anna Goldsworthy’s dramatized memoir Piano Lessons – that’s in September and October down in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Fairy. I love that character – she’s a Russian, she’s an inspiring teacher, and she’s a vivid character to portray. My own teaching has been enriched by her influence since first I directed the piece, with our dear, much-missed Carol Burns in 2014. I was honoured to play the role next time the piece was revived in 2015, and to revisit it this year is wonderful. Carol and I agreed with Anna’s frequent exclamations of delight at the commonality in our art forms. I’m also deeply involved in a second draft, for Sam Strong at Queensland Theatre, of my own play – a dramatization of the last months of Jane Austen’s life, which encompasses an adaptation of her last, almost finished, novel, Persuasion. A quarter of the piece is my own original writing, and I’ll admit that setting it alongside Austen’s awe-inspiring prose is daunting. I hope audiences will see the play produced at QT before too long.

MF: I’m directing Helen in Piano Lessons, as well as being her dramaturg on Persuasion so we’re fortunate to be working alongside each other a lot at the moment, which we both enjoy very much. For our theatre company, Matrix Theatre, we’re also working as artists in residence for Clayfield College and producing a play called Over the Moon and Far Away, which goes on at the Roundhouse Theatre in August. Following that we both work with the 2nd Year Bachelor of Fine Arts Acting students at QUT, on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is a wonderfully challenging piece. I also have a couple of projects in development.

Tickets are available here for concert 2 of the "Words Fail" series: the Australian premiere performance of Words and Music.

Kupka's PianoComment
"Some kind of a kaleidoscope" | An interview with Jessica Aszodi

The first Kupka's Piano performance for 2017 is rapidly approaching, on May 11th (yes, the Thursday night) at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. We'll be featuring the spectacular vocals of Chicago-based soprano Jessica Aszodi in performance of works by Beat Furrer, Patricia Alessandrini, and Anton Webern, as well as a new piece by KP members Jodie Rottle and Hannah Reardon-Smith. Before Jessica hopped on a plane headed for Australia, Hannah managed to catch up with her for a quick skype about the upcoming concert.

Jessica Aszodi

HRS: Hi Jess, we’re really looking forward to concerting with you in a few short weeks’ time!

JA: I’m very excited to come and perform with you guys! I’ve known [KP pianist] Alex for a little while now, and have various links to your ensemble. I have been spending quite a bit of time in Brisbane over the last few years, but it will be the first time that I’ve performed in Brisbane off the campus of Griffith University. It’s timely, because I just graduated [with a Doctor of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University]!

HRS: Exactly! I think congratulations are in order on several counts, seeings as you are now Dr Jessica Aszodi, and you’re shortly to be launching your new LP in Sydney, and you’ve just had an article in New Music Box come out that I read only this morning.

JA: You know, it’s a strange thing when you spend a lot of time working on projects that require a long, quiet fermentation – the doctorate and the album took four and seven years respectively, and, you know, the article took a few months – but I had no control whatsoever on the fact that they were finalised within about 30 hours of one another! So it feels odd, because I’ve spent years working on all of these things and now they’re out in the world and I have to figure out what I’m doing with my life in the aftermath.

HRS: Yeah, amazing, also because it’s this kind of wrapping up feeling – the end of an era.

JA: Yes, so I’m excited to be doing some new projects like this one with Kupka’s, which is a different way of thinking than just lots and lots of writing. Because it’s lots and lots of notes! With new people! And building a new relationship, with new repertoire and a new audience.

HRS: The major piece in the concert that we’re going to be doing with you is Beat Furrer’s Aria for soprano and six instruments. I believe this is the first time that you’ve performed this particular piece?

JA: It is. I’ve sung a couple of pieces of Furrer’s before, one of which I believe – auf tönernen füssen – you’re going to hear performed by members of Kupka’s, and the other one is Invocation VI, which I worked on with Beat Furrer, and that was really useful for Aria, as it uses a lot of the same techniques. What took me months of hair-pulling-out when I first looked at them in Invocation, now make sense within his language, given that I’ve had a bit of time to digest it.

HRS: How would you describe that language, in Furrer's writing for the voice?

JA: I think that he breaks down the vocal performer into lots of small parts, and it’s as though he’s put the singing subject through some kind of a kaleidoscope. Most of the time the little wheel is turning but it’s turning really fast and the singer does not come into focus – you have a sense of a person in there but it’s these sort of shards of ideas, and flecks, and moments of breath, and phonemes that pop out. [In Aria] she’s never really intelligible, until – and this is very characteristic of Furrer – there are these sort of expressive break outs, where the singer addresses the audience in a more direct manner. He said himself that the piece is based on this movement towards revealing the voice, so in the beginning the singer is part of the ensemble and the ensemble is part of the singer, and they’re all living in this kaleidoscope together, circulating very very fast, with all of these breaths and sounds and phonemes, and then by the end the singer reveals herself, and together with the clarinettist walks away from the ensemble and the voice is left alone. Which makes sense, given the subject matter of the text: a goodbye letter, albeit an angry one, shouted through the window at an ex-lover by a woman going through a break-up.

HRS: And that original text is from, as I understand, a radio play, so in a way in this piece you’re giving a body to the voice. I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve thought about specifically in this piece, but given that you’ve done a lot of work on embodiment as a performer, as a vocalist, I wonder if you might share some thoughts on that?

JA: I think that Furrer, like some other European avant-garde composers of his generation and a little bit older, has a very careful approach to the way that he presents the subject and the body of the subject that is quite philosophical, and then deconstruct it. So in this piece a lot of that work has been done by the composer for me. I don’t think that I need to do very much, other than perform what’s on the page to the best of my ability, in order to convey the ideas that are present in it because he writes in this deconstruction of the body. In practicing it, I feel as if I’m constantly hyperventilating, but at the same time I’m instructed to be quiet and subdued. The cognitive dissonance of performing this very difficult but very quiet kind of vocality I think – if I can do it correctly – conveys the composers intentions without me needing to do anything too actively expressive.

HRS: Yeah, the sheer physicality of being there and going through these phonemes and the stuttering rhythmic material that he uses, before you can get the words out, before you can eventually reveal the voice, it already creates that for you. On that, the theme of Kupka’s concert series at the Judith Wright Centre this year is “Words Fail”. Given that this is taken from a radio play, which is just the sound, the words, and placed in this context to try to go further – do you think that the way that he’s set this text reveals something new about it?

JA: I think that his approach to timbre and his approach to texture, and to rhythm and metre, they do things that words can’t do in terms of their immediacy. The experiencing of it by the listener is very different to trying to follow a line of syllables that are supposed to make sense to us. I think it’s immediately apparent listening to this music that we are not expected to understand what’s going on in a logical sense, in an ordered sense, but we need to listen generously with our attention in order to make out these small patterns and these moments of expressivity to construct a constellation of meaning for ourselves that isn’t as obvious as words placed in an intelligible order may be.

HRS: You also contributed quite a bit of thought to program as a whole for this concert. We’re covering a lot of ground, from Webern’s Drei Lieder of 1934 to a brand new work.

JA: I think that there’s a nice line to be painted between Webern and his approach to poetry and his approach to texture and rhythm that is kind of a proto-influence to what we end up with in Furrer. And we nicely leap generationally across that by programming Patricia Alessandrini’s companion piece to the Webern, Wie bin ich froh, which uses the same text as the first song of Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Hildegard Jone. I think it’s a nice journey through the twentieth century for the audience, to hear these different approaches to text and different ways of listening to the sound of text and the messier parts of the timbre of the voice as they relate to the meanings inside texts.

HRS: Before I let you go – you’re a successful Australian artist, and you do perform fairly regularly here in Australia, but you’re based in Chicago. Can you shed any light on the experience of being an Australian performer in America?

JA: I have to say, I don’t have an in-a-nutshell answer. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially with regards to current politics, both in Australia and in the US – it’s a strange thing to be a foreigner right now, anywhere in the world. I love that I can come back to Australia and that there is such a strong community that I get to work with over there. And I also love my community here in Chicago, so I feel not uncomplicated about being a foreigner in America right now.

You can find out more about Jess on her website, and don't forget to book tickets for "Words Fail" concert 1: Aria!

Bundanon

Kupka's Piano has just spent a week  the artist residency at the Bundanon Trust's incredible Riversdale property – a property once belonging to artist Arthur Boyd that has been turned into a beautiful retreat for all kinds of artists to delve deeply into their work away from the commitments and distractions of modern city life. There we rehearsed intensively in preparation for our debut studio recording project, which we're diving into today (back in Brisbane)! The residency was made possible thanks to support from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Bundanon Trust, and our recording is officially funded by all of YOU, thanks to our successful Australian Cultural Fund crowdfunding campaign. We are so terribly grateful to each and every one of you who has contributed, as well as to these major supporters. Thanks to your generosity we have been able to take on this very ambitious project, one that will have a lasting output that we will share and cherish for many years to come. Before we lock ourselves in the studio for three days of recording funtimes, Hannah hounded everyone to give a brief reflection on our week at Riversdale. Below are quotes from all of us and photos of the incredible building, landscape, Boyd paintings, and our rehearsals.

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Alex (piano):

I find that it’s often tricky to blend productivity and calmness when you’re in the midst of preparations for an ambitious and challenging project, such as the upcoming KP recording. Having the luxury of spending a whole week of music-making at a rehearsal retreat such the Bundanon Trust was a really magical way to make it seem as easy as it can be!

Liam (guitar, composer, conductor!):

We don’t live in a society that encourages concentration, and certainly not one that encourages a high degree of concentration on artistic creation. Usually Kupka’s Piano steals time where we can to rehearse for upcoming concerts, each member making sacrifices here and there and often racing between various commitments—teaching, other gigs, night shifts, family—and we manage to pull off some amazing stuff, despite the constraints.

At Bundanon, however, we really got the chance to let the music sink into our minds and bodies a little more. We had the time to see past the dizzying rush of notes in many of the works we have performed and draw out more defined shapes, characters, and concepts. This was particularly obvious to me in Chris Dench’s flux, which at first seemed like a series of impenetrable musical blocks, but as we rehearsed across the week, turned into a subtle conversation of instrumental lines, with perfectly-hewn gem-like moments emerging fleetingly from dense walls of sound. That’s what a week of rehearsals will do.

There were of course shenanigans of all sorts, appalling karaoke (ask Mac for a rendition of ‘Ridin Dirty’ next time you see him), wombat hunts (no wombats were injured), purge towns (we all survived), a creek walk that had no creek (I think we went the wrong way), and others which I won’t go into, but we also did a huge amount of planning for 2017 and dreaming and scheming for 2018. Something about the country around the Bundanon Trust and the company of great musicians for a week inspires you to want to go on, despite the difficulties that inevitably emerge along the way.

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Jodie (flute):

It took returning to city life to fully realise the importance of a place like Bundanon. The dull and annoying buzz of the city, people scurrying around in cars, and the distractions of everyday life seemed so far away during our residency. We only had to worry ourselves with rehearsals, musical details, and wombat spotting.

Mac (clarinet):

Bundanon was certainly an artistically rewarding experience for me. Aside from being a fantastic opportunity to rehearse, it also gave our group the chance to develop closer bonds with each other, which made the residency that little bit more fulfilling.

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Angus (percussion):

The epic task of getting all the percussion gear to Bundanon was dwarfed by the company, food, scenery, and happy times!

Hannah (flute, conductor, composer):

What a week! Perfect in almost every way, with the possible exception of the temperature (one day got to 37ºC, two days later it was a top of 18ºC), and the sighting of a (presumed) funnel web spider in the toilet by Lachlan. But rehearsing under the shadow of a huge Arthur Boyd masterpiece, in the magnificent Boyd Education Centre overlooking the Shoalhaven river, to the sounds of bellbirds (which sounded suspiciously like a clicktrack on occasion), kookaburras and galahs, was such an awe-inspiring experience that we could just wipe the sweat away, close the toilet door, and get to work.

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Katherine (cello):

A whole week for all of the things I never get the time to do: I did lots of admin, lots of practice and detailed rehearsing, plus it was so nice to hang out as a group, the wombats were cute, and we saw a lyrebird!

Lachlan (guest violin):

It was an incredible privilege to be invited to tag along with Kupka’s Piano for their residency at the Bundanon estate last week — what a special, awe-inspiring place! It’s not often that I’m given an opportunity to spend a whole week working intensively on a single project like this, let alone in such a beautiful, peaceful setting. It’s quite amazing how productive one can be when the circumstances are just right! As a guest musician who doesn’t regularly perform with Kupka’s Piano, this residency was a wonderful way for me to get to know everyone in the ensemble and find out what makes them tick. These guys are all super passionate about their work and it has been such a pleasure to collaborate and share musical ideas with them. I’ve come away from the residency feeling confident that this recording is going to be something very special and I can’t wait to share it with everyone in 2017! Big thanks must go to the Bundanon Trust for hosting us, the Australia Council for the Arts for supporting the residency, and to the whole KP crew for having me on board for this project!

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