En Masse

In London, after a dawn arrival from Melbourne, I was battling gravity. There’s an appalling weight to my head, fifteen hours after a long-haul flight.

But that night, Marc kept me awake. He was VJing, floating subtle, poetic responses to sound across a screen. I almost forgot to listen as I watched his dreamscapes slide past.

We talked. Years later, we found ourselves in the bush, by the sea. Walking each day in mountain ash, swimming in the salt, reading politics and philosophy, we spun a world. I had been feeling like an athlete, caged by the rigor of training and performance. I was steely fit with my instruments, but my heart and imagination were out of sorts. I was dying for a bout of dreaming.

Breathing into our time together, Marc and I abandoned the way we normally define ourselves. High as kites, we conceived an outlandish plan, free of our normal disciplines: we’d create something together where he didn’t have to make a film, and I didn’t have to play my recorders. I still love that brainchild of ours. It was profoundly impractical. But it was the seed for the work that eventually emerged, and at its heart was a need for freedom.

Towards the end of our days in the rainforest, we saw a family of birds wheeling and playing over the sea. Marc dreamt aloud of filming light on water, or birds in flight. My instrument has been playing bird for centuries. Quickly, simply, the weeklong conversation took form. We saw another way of realising our first idea, and in its second iteration, we felt excited about using film and music.

I’ll always be grateful to the people who created the space for Marc and me to work, who trusted the alchemy between us, even though it was untried. Theirs was a rare gift, the gift of confidence, funding, time, support, and infrastructure. It was the first time in my life I’d been paid to develop a new piece. It was dizzying. As a concert artist, I get paid for what I deliver, not for the decades that go into preparing those fifteen hyper-coloured minutes you hear me play on a stage. This felt like an entirely new realm, where my mind and spirit were being valued, not just my fingers.

I learnt a lot, making en masse. That’s a euphemistic way of saying that I failed and hurt and was clumsy, as well as sometimes inspired and generous and enabling. Some of those scars are still tender to touch, but they’re an important part of me.

Late in the day, we lost key collaborators on our project, through differences in vision, in process, in something fundamental. We got to a point where people needed to go their own ways. Looking back, the rifts had been there a long time. I had tried to heal them, but couldn’t. I hated that.

The work took years. It wasn’t helped by the fact that we lived on opposite sides of the world. We each came back and forth, the piece becoming a crisscrossing of planes, emails, phone and Skype calls.

Sitting on the floor with old-fashioned pen and paper, trawling the internet, collecting gorgeous visual references, raiding our own libraries and others for music, talking, writing, reading all the while, we were like bower birds, collecting treasures and then making them into a home. We talked a lot about architecture, how to make a form that would hold our ideas. We talked of poetry, diamond-cut language where silence is crucial. We returned always to nature, to that week of walking and watching, being still, then caught in a surge. We talked most about the audience experience, the world that we wanted people to inhabit with us, and how we could make that real.

Before this project, I had never seen myself as a composer. I had been quietly cultivating skills as an improviser for years. But my years of classical training made me wary about stepping outside the domains I feel I’ve earned the right to inhabit. Prohibitive thinking, I know, often not helpful. But something deep in me felt like composers were another species, their ears and brains wired in ways that were foreign.

en masse was built around me as player, and in that sense, I knew we could call on my strengths. But it was also built around me as improviser, and critically, around my ability to devise, make, create a piece of music. People tossed the word “composer” around the room with great ease, and attached my name to it. The enormity of that thundered in me.

So I did what I always do when I’m at my wits’ end. I called on friends to help me. This time, I roped in friends who are composers. And what we made together felt like me, gloriously augmented.

The music was born of a series of improvisations, collected one day in a studio. My friends Jim and John were there with me, John to coax the sounds out of me, Jim to catch them.

As someone who plays a simple, spare instrument, the vast landscapes that sound art can conjure are alluring. And the epic quality of an electroacoustic score seemed to suit our visual material.

We sent the recording session out to six sound artists. They remixed the sounds of me messing around into a microphone, and morphed them in miraculous ways. They created enough material for a lifetime’s worth of pieces. Lawrence, who was my liberal guide and host in this new world, remixed a work from this vast sound catalogue with me: the electroacoustic track that plays in duo with the footage.

The footage of en masse is entirely of flocking birds. The images were shot over a period of two weeks, at sunrise and sunset, in two different locations in Denmark. They’re inexplicable shapes, infinitely shifting across grainy, grey skies. Marc and I both were wondering how people find peace in a world of apparent chaos. We wondered whether the behaviour of the birds might hint at solutions.

We wanted there to be a human presence in what could otherwise have been an ethereal, disembodied work. So in performance, I improvise live over the top of the pre-recorded score, in the space with the audience. When I play live with those computer-altered versions of myself, you hear both the transformation and the source. My voice is a way of making the electroacoustic world mortal. And when you see a human shape against a vast sky of flocking birds, you remember how small we are.

We wanted to make a world that would hold anyone that entered it. So the physical space that housed us, the birds and the music, was as important as the sound and image. We wanted it to be comfortable rather than rigid, we wanted it to be a refuge from the world outside. Our months of grappling with technology were focussed on creating something that seemed effortless, where the systems were invisible. The piece is the space, the sound, the image, all the collaborators and all the audience members, working en masse.

As the piece developed, it became clear that I needed not just to play in performance, but also to move through our space. So I worked with a choreographer. Helen’s wise, uncannily so. It felt like she could see me. And she insisted, gently but firmly, that I make myself seen. That was redeeming. In en masse, more than any piece I’ve performed, I felt whole.

At critical points, I missed Marc. There’s no substitute for someone’s eyes and awareness in a room with you, especially when you trust them deeply. I remember right towards the end, when things were fraught, and he’d had to return to London. He’d given me his blessing to do whatever was needed to get us across the line for the first season. Our faith in one another was mutual, and there was comfort in that. But I recall sitting in a hall that contained our universe, watching our birds circling, feeling intolerably alone in those final decisions. It felt like looking down into an abyss of terror, knowing that I needed to jump.

It was unshackling, that fall. I’d do it again. There’s something fundamentally liberating about hurling yourself down, feeling yourself at the mercy of gravity, knowing there will be wreckage.

And then, piecing yourself together afterwards, believing you can leave bits of yourself behind, to re-make yourself as someone truer, at least for a little while.

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