Pleasure Garden

Support from the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions and Australia Council for the Arts enabled me to create this project, inspired by the Pleasure Gardens of Europe’s Early Modern period. Historically, these gardens were imagined as ‘new Edens’, offering escape from the cramped and crowded conditions of city life. They were entertainment resorts, where the air was perfumed, paths led promenaders through avenues with magical perspectives, and sculptural effects provided highly dramatic spectacles mirroring antiquity, or the Grand Tour. Based on complex theoretical constructs – the choreography of the public, and the arousal of the senses – they offered emotionally rich experiences for all. My aim was to create a contemporary Pleasure Garden, allowing an alternative experience to a manically busy, noisy, contemporary life, affording instead an opportunity for repose and delight, for wonder and the contemplation of beauty.

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My childhood was spent in stories and gardens.

My mother’s garden held our games and discoveries, adventures real and imagined. We navigated our botanical world by touch and smell, as well as by sight. We came to understand in tangible ways how the rhythms of the seasons, changes in light and temperature, drought, frost and wind, all shaped our landscape, and our lives within it. Everything born in the garden went back into its earth, and we learnt that things die, as well as flourish. The garden taught us to be patient, to wait and observe. How to be still and silent. How it is to be small amid something wildly alive and impersonal.

When I was eight, a gifted teacher introduced me to Jacob van Eyck, the carillonneur, recorder player and composer from Utrecht. She told me the story of him playing his recorder while wandering through a place called a Pleasure Garden. The poetry of that lodged deep, and I felt a strong affinity with Jacob. The fact that he was born in the sixteenth century, on the other side of the world, was of no consequence. His music was real to me, as was he.

We’ve been companions ever since, Jacob and I. He comes with me to weddings and funerals, nursing homes and prisons, impromptu sessions on verandas, and into concert halls too. His melodies fall happily under the pads of my fingers; his phrases measure the span of my breath.

Some of his creations have become dear, trusted friends – Daphne, Amarilli, Marie. I have poured countless versions of myself into them, and they have held me, giving me substance and form.

For decades now, I have lived with Jacob. Sometimes it has felt as though I have lived inside his tunes – they have been the frames through which I have experienced, understood and expressed much of life. Jacob’s are the songs I play in situations of extreme emotional intensity; they are the melodies my fingers find for rituals of grief and joy. They are both sturdy and subtle enough to hold whatever the situation requires, and to give whatever the listener needs.

Not far from my childhood garden is a place I revere: Lambley Garden. Its two inhabitants have moulded their lives around a pursuit of beauty – one through paint, the other through plants. Visiting their earthly paradise some years ago, I found myself thinking of Jacob and his Pleasure Garden, and the way history and emotions can speak to each other across time and place. Suddenly, stories began to converge.

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Those early days, when the year and idea were young, bunkered down in Circus Oz, we scrawled all over the whiteboard walls trying to refine our frames of reference, and ended up inventing our own dictionary. Jim and Robin programmed, coded, soldered and built; together we drew and distilled diagrams, wrestled with words and ideas, realising that the technical system we were delineating would set the parameters of both the composition and the experience in our Pleasure Garden. At the end of those heady days, we strung up cameras, wired speakers and walked the room, elated when a rudimentary system worked.

Our first trip to Lambley, we spent days threading wires through hedges, gently placing cables around delicate plants and climbing trees to position cameras. We discovered that musical ideas we’d thought strong indoors made less sense in this environment, and that other sounds came to life in startling ways. Listening in that space, it became much clearer what music would work in our Pleasure Garden, and I began to understand what we needed to create.

A couple of months then of intense practice, before a day’s road trip north to a sanctuary: a beautiful community, a simple cabin and a gorgeous hall. Bermagui dawns with bellbirds and wattlebirds pinging and croaking, the bush waking in high-fi, with a smudged sea-drone behind. We took field recordings of daybreak and dusk, as we’d decided that something from each place we worked would become part of our Pleasure Garden.

Windsong Pavilion is ringed by spotted gums, and overlooks an amphitheatre unfolding down to a billabong. Kangaroos graze outside the wall-length windows. Secluded and idyllic, it’s the perfect spot for a recording. Jim spent a patient six days listening and supporting from our makeshift control room, leaving me alone in the hall with Jacob and my ghosts, trying not to get obsessed with destructive ideas of perfection. Barefoot, pacing laps of the room to try to break mental blocks, running back and forth to the control room to listen to what we’d caught, there were wretched times when nothing flowed and all that the microphones captured were phrases stunted with fear. Peaceful hours too, time and place falling away, blissfully at ease in sound. Editing as we went, we were determined to come out of this phase with sixty minutes of Jacob’s music, CD ready. Little sleep. Long runs on the beach. Kind friends cooking meals, distracting us in the evenings with warm conversations before I’d return to the cabin to listen fanatically to the day’s recordings.

Landing in Utrecht a few weeks later after months coiled like a spring, I eased myself into a new rhythm of walking and listening. Ascending the stone staircase to Jacob’s tower, still standing despite a devastating 1674 tornado that destroyed much of the cathedral, I wondered how it was for him to climb those 465 steps each day. They were uneven, narrow, winding at precarious angles, and he was blind from birth.

Up there, 112 metres above the ground, earthly concerns slipped away. Sounds from below distorted in strange ways or disappeared entirely, and when the carillon played, it was not possible to hold any other thought or sound in your head apart from the ones entering your body via your feet as you stood within an immense resonating chamber.

I sat beside Malgosia, the current Utrecht City Carillonneur, watching and hearing an entire concert less than a metre from her hands. A warm, generous woman and beautiful musician, she played a program designed in part for us, and I found myself in tears, hearing Jacob’s melodies still alive on his instrument, hundreds of years later.

Back down on the ground, the bells carved time into fifteen-minute portions, audible from every position in the old city. Sitting in the cloisters of the cathedral while Malgosia played another concert from the tower, every composition was overlaid with the sounds of fountains and children playing, bicycle bells, footsteps on cobblestones and fragments of conversations.

A visit to the city’s mechanical musical instruments museum taught us more about carillons and the instruments they begat, from music boxes to player pianos. This helped us understood that our Pleasure Garden was its own kind of mechanical musical instrument, another version of Jacob’s carillon.

Walking through Jacob’s woods and sitting in his gardens, we recorded birds in duet with the city bells. Intuitively following our senses and imaginations, chains of connection led to unexpected discoveries. My mind was moving slowly but surely into the clear, dream space of creativity, looping increasingly freely, ideas quietly gestating in the back of my head.

From Utrecht, further north to Kristiansand, to work with our collaborator Jan. His studio’s an eyrie on an island: a simple, lovely room on the top floor of a wooden house, where from one vantage point, the windows frame only Scandinavian woods, soft skies and the sea.

Norwegian summer: pale blue evenings, eternal twilights, with dawn creeping not long after midnight. Sweet, clear air. Running each morning in the woods, sharing daybreak with new birds. Feeling giddy with ideas, entranced by the light, unable to sleep more than a few hours. Studio times: phone and computer off, all senses absorbed in sound. Night-times: emails crisscrossing the world to collaborators at home.

There are probably few more succinct ways of giving someone access to your musical soul than to step into their studio and improvise, laying yourself bare as an instrument that they can sculpt. Hard to describe the intensity of that, the terror and the liberation that comes with surrendering to that kind of process. Jan’s worked with samples for years, and in Kristiansand, he turned me into a kind of human sampler. I loved the way that we quickly agreed, without really talking about it, that the sounds we might make together would be organic, not pristine, and that while we would use studio techniques and technology to create music that I couldn’t play live as a single person, phrases would be as they fell out of my hands and breath.

It was a month since Jim and I had done our primary source recording of Jacob’s music in Bermagui. I had since played a million other notes, and hadn’t touched those intricate variations, so they weren’t in my hands in an impeccably polished, classical music way. They were still very alive in my imagination; I was just feeling and hearing them differently now, and the fragments I found myself improvising around, or that suddenly came out of my fingers, often surprised me. I didn’t look at scores or listen to recordings – anything that happened in Jan’s studio emerged from imperfect memory, unpractised phrases, dredged up from my imagination. But mostly, I improvised, tracing ideas that appeared in dreams, on waking or walking, caught out of the corner of an eye, or sparked by a memory of another sound, somehow related.

Jan was adamant about an incredibly closely miked sound in his studio: absolutely no reverb, a completely dry acoustic, every breath, finger, tone and thought utterly exposed. He said that by increasing proximity, you increase intimacy, and give people an unguarded, close up experience of a sound and its maker. The reality was confronting, but the notion compelling, so I tried to go with it – I could hear what he meant.

He fell in love with the bass recorder. It’s beautiful the way different musicians gravitate towards particular sounds, and bring different parts of you to light, if you’re willing to be open to whatever emerges between you. So the bass recorder became our protagonist. Its voice and language came out of the woods of Utrecht and Kristiansand, and my feeling in that Utrecht carillon tower of Jacob being a man beautifully, impossibly alone.

In the studio, patterns emerged. A lovely sense of trust, felt early, developing with each day. Diving into ideas early in the day, swimming through sound until suddenly, we were both spent. Cups of tea, more walks in the wood. Shared meals and stories, and each day, ideas tumbling out, a little world appearing remarkably quickly between us. Jan and I had met only once, briefly, before beginning this project. It was a huge risk, attempting to create almost an hour’s worth of new music with a stranger, over such a short period of time. But we’d been introduced by a dear friend who we both trusted, so from the first day, it felt possible. A couple of times, we ran as far as we could with an idea, and decided it had come to nothing. Apart from that, we used everything we made.

Meanwhile, Jim was making increasingly sophisticated diagrams of the system, refining complex conceptual and practical solutions of how this music would translate into the garden. Towards the end of our time with Jan, we compiled elaborate tables and maps of the way we imagined we’d spacialise the sound in the garden. We left elated and utterly exhausted, and it took weeks to unwind.

A couple of months later, multiple other lives lived in the meantime, we revisited what we’d made. Our job now was to tidy everything up and prepare it in quite a different way for our first public showing of the idea, to an invited audience of friends and supporters at Lambley Garden. I was terribly nervous about hearing the material once more. Most things held. The two tracks that had made me apprehensive in Norway still did so in Melbourne. But the process of mocking up the garden space in Jim’s studio and painstakingly assigning each phrase or thought to a different speaker gave us a glimpse of how our composition might sound, mixed across sixteen channels in a large outdoor space.

At Lambley, it was inspiring to be in the presence of David and Criss, the property owners. One a gardener, the other a still life painter, their lives are a luminous testament to much that I hold dear. Those were ten days of racing-against-the-clock work. It often felt as though we wouldn’t make it in time for our first guests. Unseasonably warm, the sun beat down on the garden as we walked its paths hundreds of times, listening to every line, every phrase. Reconfiguring where each sound was heard made huge differences to the composition. It was fragile to balance, and each decision had considerable consequences. Jim was extraordinarily patient as the days disappeared and Jan and I were still making changes.

We learnt so much from Jan, his record producer’s ears spectacularly attuned to nuance, and his sensibilities beautifully in synch with the emotional qualities of sound. It was exhilarating and hugely challenging to be mixing thirty-two speakers and sixteen tracks of sound across this large space. Listening intently, and thinking always about the experience we wanted visitors to have, we decided to balance all levels to the birdsong in the garden. Nothing in our Pleasure Garden would be louder than the local environmental sounds.

Calibrating our ears and the piece that way was wonderful. We worked to create a kind of radiance in the garden: sound gently emanating from plants, rather than dominating the natural world. The extreme subtlety and spaciousness of some of the music spooked me. I was worried about older visitors whose hearing might be challenged by this. And I fretted that the amount of space in some of the piece might make people think we’d created an emperor’s new clothes. But Jan and Jim held fast despite my nerves, and they were absolutely right.

So we planted our music in bird boxes and flowerpots, nested in trees and dug into the soil. And our visitors came. Sweet, spring days of people gently ebbing and flowing through a magical place, listening intently to very soft, delicate sounds. Something in the combined spirit of music and place seemed to encourage people to be quiet, move slowly, look deeply, and then to leave with a little glow of contemplative beauty.

Some weeks later, we faced the challenge of taking this finely tuned, sixteen-channel work, and transforming it into a stereo mix for a CD. I was frightened that we would be shrinking the work, diminishing it from being a gorgeously humming, gently immersive environmental sculpture into a much flatter CD. Fortunately, we discovered that while the sense of literal space and wonder was hard to translate, there were a million details in timbre and sound definition that were infinitely clearer and more nuanced in this medium, and Jim had miraculous ways of creating depth and perspective in each track.

Technically, it took quite some wrestling until we worked through a method to translate from one world to the next. Back and forth overnight to Jan in Norway with draft mixes, we received immaculate, incredibly perceptive notes in response. We refined and remade many times. Alongside this, commissioning the essays for the CD booklet, finalising artwork, consulting with collaborators and funders, working on the first stage of the website and promo film, each opinion carefully balanced and negotiated.

CD delivered, we made one last attempt at creating another layer for the installation that had eluded us. We were determined to finesse the final strand of the interactive material that in Lambley had been more at ‘proof of concept’ stage than refined. At the end of such an intense year, I worried that we might not have the energy or clarity of mind to crack this code. There was a despairing day, getting tangled in words and misunderstandings, and then a breakthrough, as system and method were clarified. Clear now on what we needed and how to make it, the final sliver of creative content came all in a rush.

We let the entire system run on Jim’s back deck for a month, determined to give it uninterrupted playing time, to make sure it would hold up without any technical glitches for our official world premiere of the project in Sydney Festival. Subliminally soft, I wondered what the local birds heard, and what they made of the intruders.

A day into the New Year, we began to install it in Vaucluse House gardens: exhilaratingly pressured work, remaking the piece for that beautiful site. After two mercifully clear days where we religiously waterproofed everything, nervous about the forecasts, the rain came down in sheets. Huddled in our little control tent between dousings, we were drenched to the skin for days, and my ankles are still wearing scars from their gumboot chafing! Most of the time, it was funny – in such great company, why not laugh and make the best of it – and it was certainly miraculous to see the creek swell to a torrent, and to witness the garden limp with relief at all that precious water. Every now and then, especially the final night, our humour deserted us, and we longed to hear the piece without the constant percussion of rain, worrying about whether the balance would work in a quieter environment, and how the cameras would track in sunshine.

Jan arrived from Norway, his usual charming self, magnificently attentive and good humoured for someone just emerging from a 30-hour journey, luggage stranded somewhere along the way. I had been listening for some days before he came, and felt strongly that the balance in this place needed to be substantially different from our Lambley piece. Vaucluse House gardens are dramatic, subtropical, nestled in hills and clothed with the lush, deep greens of palms, magnolia grandiflora and frangipani. The landscape dips and swells. It’s overwhelmingly fecund. In my imagination and ears, the piece needed to be more overt here, more flamboyant in its use of space and dynamics. Thankfully, Jan came to the same conclusion immediately.

And so we balanced and rebalanced, re-assigned parts of the composition to different sections of the garden, and tried to make it sound as though it issued naturally from this terrain. I thought back to our discovery at Lambley, of balancing to the local environment. There, the dominant birdsong was the sound of tiny wrens – a sweet, high, chattering and twittering. Here, the birds defining the soundscape were currawongs with their haunted flying calls and antiphonal choruses, sounding across the property. This garden needed a rich, embodied voice.

Our Sydney Festival and Vaucluse House hosts were exemplary. They couldn’t have been kinder, more skilled and amenable, more welcoming of us, and the project. We came in at dawn the morning it was to open to the public, to remove our tent and evidence of our workings, completely dazed with exhaustion and the beginnings of relief. As the tent came down, the weather began to clear – a quiet miracle after those days of biblical rain. And as the sun emerged, people came. Thousands upon thousands over the next weeks, lightly milling through the grounds, picnicking on the lawns, children playing in the shade, people wandering with beautifully dreamy eyes and quiet intent.

That night, in a garden still and sated, we formally launched the project. The landscape felt subversive – silent, but with every plant vehemently alive and growing. I played two beloved Van Eyck tunes and two of our own, mellifluous and quietly ardent. At a perfect point, a kookaburra joined me, everyone laughing in response.

Nervous and pacing in the house before I played that night, through a slit in the blinds I watched dear people assembling from around the country and across the globe, quietly walking and listening their way through the garden. I had an uncanny sensation that my soul had been made tangible in that place, and they were wandering the contours of my spirit.

The next morning, we greeted daybreak with another performance. I walked onto the veranda expecting to see a couple of dozen people, most of whom I’d know. Bewildered and delighted, I gazed out to hundreds of listeners, and after the steely calm I’d talked myself into for the previous night, the enormity of this project and all that it held for me took hold of my heart and hands, and both shook almost uncontrollably. Currawongs came to my aid, and I played into their spectral cries, trying to express in music what I couldn’t in words.

I returned a week later. I’d been working on another project in a different city: a consuming time, and incomparably different. I wondered whether perhaps I’d imagined Vaucluse. Beautiful to come down the hill and meet the wise paperbarks sentries once more, to see the garden unfurl in front of me, to breathe into the view through the archway up to the house, to sit on the veranda, swap stories with Simeon and Ed, wander the perimeters, lie on the grass and trace my thoughts in clouds.

Pleasure Garden’s been in my mind for more than a decade, and it’s come to life around the imaginations and intellects of the people who made it with me. Inspired originally by my old friend Jacob, his tunes, his bells, and the idea of him walking through a garden and playing, it’s become its own landscape now, a place where these many worlds overlap.