'Everybody goes about it in a different way': An interview with guest artist Nick Harmsen

KP percussionist Angus Wilson caught up with clarinettist Nick Harmsen, who will be performing with the ensemble in Brett Dean's sextet Old Kings in Exile this Friday at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. Here's what he had to say. Angus Wilson: Hi Nick, welcome to your debut performance with Kupka’s Piano! We are thrilled to have you on board for ‘Modern Music in Exile’. What excites you the most about performing in this concert with Kupka’s Piano?

Nick Harmsen: I've been a fan of Brett Dean’s music ever since I first played some of his works for larger orchestral combinations like Beggars and Angels.  Playing new, recently written music by excellent composers is always a thrill but Brett’s Australian connection makes his music even more appealing - he’s a friendly face who’s popped up over the years at concerts where I've been playing his music and he’s always so encouraging and embodies everything that’s good about classical music. One of the great things about playing music is working with different musicians - everybody goes about it in a different way - and watching what certain personalities can create together is always fascinating and sometimes really uplifting.  Other times it doesn't work so well and you learn a lot from that.  And I’ve heard around town that you are bunch of guys who are really passionate about bringing life to new music which is a vital part of keeping music making alive.

AW: The centerpiece of this concert is Dean's Old Kings in Exile. As a musician who’s played several of his works before (including one earlier this year), what interests you about his work and what has been your experience performing it?

NH: Earlier this year I played a trio by Brett Dean for piano, viola and clarinet called Night Window.  As the title suggests it’s all about dreams and nightmares.  It’s extremely difficult to get together.  It is often rhythmically very intricate.  However it also has sections which are slow and expressive.  Contrasting with that it has other sections which are jazz influenced and others have virtuosic cadenzas.  In the orchestral pieces I’ve played of his I’ve noticed too that he's not afraid to push the boundaries of possibilities and experiment whilst importantly keeping a really strong sense of a piece as a whole which I think is very important.

AW: On top of being an awesome Bass Clarinettist with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, word is on the street that you also pursue other musical ventures including composing. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your recent compositions?

NH: I don't really consider myself a composer, but occasionally I have dabbled with it.  The last piece I wrote was for two ocarinas, and before that a piece for bass clarinet, vibraphone, irish whistle, gong and kalimba.  I also play occasionally with a bush band on banjo.

AW: You mentioned during a rehearsal a few weeks ago that you were a part of a charity concert raising funds for the continued relief and support of tsunami affected people in Japan. Could you tell us more about this?

NH: It seemed immediately after the tsunami first hit Japan in 2011 it was constantly in the news.  However now we hear about it very little.  The problem has not just gone away - people are still trying to repair the damage, and to get their lives back on the rails.  And the effects of the leakage of nuclear waste from Fukushima may be felt for many many years to come. I wrote a piece which I performed in this recent benefit concert based on a story of a 93 year old woman who lived in Fukushima with her family.  After the nuclear plant was damaged in the tsunami her family decided to flee Fukushima to find a safer area to live.  The woman decided to stay in Fukushima - she was old and frail and couldn’t fathom the idea of leaving the place she had such a deep connection with.  However eventually she committed suicide because she was so devastated about what had happened to her home town and the break it had caused with her family.

AW: Finally what projects have you got coming up? Any performances with your brilliant significant other percussionist Nozomi Omote? Will the Brahms Quintet get another outing? Will we get to hear a concert of all Harmsen works in the near future? Where can our audience hear you next?

NH: Anyone wanting to hear fairly ordinary renditions of some great Chad Morgan, Paul Kelly and Red Gum classics should camp outside my window in the next week or so.  Failing that, Nozomi is working on the follow up concert to her extremely successful Marimba Galaxy!