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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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Politics, Detention and Dance - Michael Mathieson-Sandars discusses 'For Reza Berati'

Jodie, Courtney, and Alethea Below is a little piece about a new collaborative work I've been part of as part of The Human Detained, a project by Kupka's Piano and MakeShift Dance Collective, which will be given its full showing at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane at 7:30pm on October 30th. You can get tickets here.

Reading back into my emails, it seems like it was some time mid last year that, in discussions between KP and MakeShift, we settled on The Human Detained as a theme which could unite our collaborative project. We felt it was open and deep enough for our collaborative sub-groups to determine their own interpretative paths. It was bubbling with possibilities; both abstract enough to approach musically and visceral enough to explore in movement. Part of the reason we settled on The Human Detained above other themes, however, was that we felt it would be particularly pertinent and socially resonant given Australia's policy to imprison asylum seekers in offshore detention camps. While the other groups have taken this theme in a number of exciting directions to create a fascinating array of unique works, I was always enthusiastic to explore the The Human Detained as an explicitly political topic.

In the past twelve to eighteen months, it has been greatly saddening that the situation for refugees has only intensified, with further abuses coming to light at home and anti-refugee rhetoric escalating abroad. In the face of this, however, it has been greatly encouraging to see that the spirit of protest is alive and well, and even more so when considering that the tone of protest has been an uncompromising demand for compassion. It is in this spirit that my group's new work for The Human Detained, For Reza Berati, was first conceived.

Reza Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker, was twenty-three years old when he was killed during an attack on the Australian-operated detention centre on Manus Island in February last year. But how has this translated to music and choreography? Such a tragic death - the result of such arbitrary cruelty designed to divide us as much at home as it is to separate 'us' from 'them' - could certainly lead to a negative artworld. Modern art can often be permitted only to say what is lost or what is alienated; a kind of anguish that what we once had is gone, and we can never have it back. With this work, and in deference to this topic, however, it seemed appropriate to aim for something a little different. Since his death, Berati's image has become a symbol in protest movements around the country: in this context his death has become a demand for all to be treated with dignity and justice, with an absolute respect for life. This is the approach we have tried to take with the piece; we wanted to explore the oppression, alienation, and violence in this situation, but to also demonstrate that there is, in resistance to the situation, long-reaching solidarity and a vision for real and positive change.

Reza Berati

The basic structure of the work reflects the process of coming together. For the two musicians, violinist Alethea Coombe and flautist Jodie Rottle, this happens in a couple of ways. Firstly, there is their physical orientation: the performers begin facing away from one another, but across the work they come to face one another in order to play “together.” Secondly, there is a progression in what is musically asked of the performers. There are three broad sections in the work: in the first Alethea and Jodie are improvising with very limited specific musical direction; the second they perform notated excerpts and are asked to improvise from one to the next so that each player maintains a loose relation with the other; the third section is fully notated and detailed in what they must perform. The aim is to represent a change from alienated individuals, playing at the same time but not together, to two individuals who must work together as chamber musicians, in communication with one another to organise towards a common goal; a coming together to play music as a coming together to protest.

The notated music, meanwhile, can be seen as a “working through” of the tension between the lines towards an arrival point. Each line of musical material is based, very abstractly, on repetitions of the chant “No prisons! No Fear! Refugees are welcome here!” in varied tempos and interpretations. Spoken (whispered and yelled) excerpts of the text are also drawn into the music, transforming from an isolated “prison!” or “no!” to the whole chant. Apart from the symbolism of this linguistic inversion, the chant is included along with marching stomps to capture some of the essence of a refugee rally; a certain kind of sadness turned into positively-charged anger and loud defiance. It can also be seen as the process of being drawn from a situation of turmoil into action to make a change.

The role of our wonderful dancer/choreographer, Courtney Scheu, is perhaps a little more complicated, especially in her relationship with the musicians. At times, Courtney represents the oppressed, and the musicians the oppressors; at the other times her actions are more abstract and allusive, or more reinforcing the music. We were particularly careful to explore possible readings of Courtney's and the musicians' movement. Because of the explicit political content in the work, we wanted to avoid creating a reading where Courtney would be seen as an asylum seeker, with Jodie and Alethea as both the oppressors and the (western, imperial) saviours – a misleading idea given how active asylum seekers have been in organising resistance to their incarceration. We have aimed instead for the choreography of the work (especially Courtney's movements, but those of Alethea and Jodie, too) to depict the oppressive framework that's been established, offer solidarity to those who are detained, reinforce the overall narrative of isolation to collective engagement, and provide a direct human connection to the work itself. While that seems like a very difficult line to tread, I  hope we have been successful in this!

For me personally, it has been a great pleasure to work towards this piece with Alethea, Jodie, and Courtney (who's also put in a great deal of work on co-ordinating the rest of the show!), and quite an eye-opening experience for me as a composer. It has been at times difficult to engage with such a heavy topic, but I am extremely proud of what we have managed to accomplish. I look forward to coming up to Brisbane to finish the work off and (lucky me as a composer) getting to see the whole show. Hope to see you there!

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!