Mixed feelings: returning home

Hannah, far left, working with Belgian group Ensemble Fractales and English composer Olly Sellwood ahead of a concert in Brussels. Flutist and co-founder of Kupka's Piano, Hannah Reardon-Smith, has been living in Brussels for the past year while undertaking an Advanced Masters in Contemporary Music Performance Practice. She returns to Australia just for the month of July this year, and will join KP in their Wynnum concert at the Imperial Room.

I've got mixed feelings about coming back to Australia.

That said, I've had mixed feelings about living and studying in Belgium too. I've had (and in the next year will have) some incredible opportunities, learning with and playing alongside some of my heroes, making contact with many of the composers whose work I'm most interested in, and realising how small (if widely spread) the global community of musicians playing la musique contemporaine really is. I've been mentored by members of Ictus and Ensemble musikFabrik, two of Europe's leading new music ensembles, and have performed extensively in Belgium, England, Germany and Austria. I've met peers from all over the world who are studying and performing here. But being over here has made clear to me just how incredible a group Kupka's Piano really is, and I miss them like crazy!

So coming home to KP is something I am really looking forward to, not to mention catching up with friends and family and enjoying a bit of Brisbane winter (not all that different to the Belgian summer I'm leaving ... only Brisbane will probably have a bit more sun).

But I can't help but feel how bittersweet it is. The current Australian government is taking a swipe at independent and emerging artists and small to medium arts organisations by quarantining funding previously available to them through a rigorous system of grant application and peer review, putting it instead into a fund that will in all likelihood support only conservative classical institutions handpicked by the arts minister George Brandis himself.

Kupka's Piano is one of a select group of Australian ensembles dedicated to playing newer art music, which by definition makes it one of the few ensembles in the country with a strong focus on Australian composition (Australian works are included in every program). Not only that, but KP plays a vital role bringing the new music of Europe, the Americas, and Asia to Australian shores, offering audiences in Brisbane the opportunity to hear music to which they otherwise have no access. Kupka's has a special focus on young composers at home and abroad, and it's rare to see a program without a world premiere (or two, or three...). Several young composers are directly tied to the ensemble, allowing the performers and composers to develop in tandem - a fascinating process for an audience to witness!

Furthermore, I believe KP to be quite unique in an international context. Due to limitations on touring (in comparison to Australia, European cities are really close together, and also very well connected by affordable and high-speed rail travel), Kupka's plays a great many concerts in their home city, which has also forced them to learn great swathes of repertoire from the beginning. The identity of the ensemble has developed without restriction to a single style, something that has been possible due the small number of ensembles playing similar repertoire, which is unlike Europe where young ensembles often feel the need to carve out a niche before they really know what they want to do, in order to set themselves apart and avoid treading on others' toes.

The result is that Kupka's Piano has developed an excellent rapport, a very high standard of performance, and a loyal following*, something I've watched with increasing admiration from afar (it's always so gratifying to see others step into your empty shoes, and at this point I have to offer the highest praise especially to flutist Jodie Rottle, pianist Alex Raineri, and percussionist Angus Wilson for all their incredible hard work). Such a following is rare in Europe, and difficult to cultivate.

There are two particular sources of outside support which need to be mentioned when discussing KP's success: the Judith Wright Centre, which has given the ensemble a home and extensive marketing support, and the Australia Council for the Arts, which recognised very early on the potential of this ensemble, and supported us through a series of small grant programs from emerging artists through to young professionals. Without both of these government funded institutions, Kupka's Piano would likely not exist, and certainly would not be as strong as it is today.

The ramifications of the changes to arts funding in Australia not only endanger ensembles like Kupka's, they rule out the opportunity for younger groups of similarly adventurous musicians to emerge. The JUMP mentorship program and the ArtStart program, two important grants for emerging artists from which our ensemble members have benefitted, have been completely scrapped. The funding available in future to KP and other groups will be greatly reduced. Particularly in Queensland, where arts funding is yet to recover from the previous LNP government's brutal attacks, there are few alternatives to turn to when it comes to paying the basic expenses that make a concert possible.

I'm really looking forward to coming home to play with Kupka's Piano. But I also hope that when I finish my degree this time next year I can return to continuing opportunity for my ensemble in Australia. And I hope that other young musicians can afford to be adventurous in the future.

*I'm not the only one saying this!