When first she called, I was wary, elusive. I was anxious at the thought of another set of notes, another dance to be learnt with a new partner, another relationship. So I contained the terms very carefully.
I have a strong sense of loyalty. If I play something deeply with one person, it feels like a betrayal to play it with someone else. It’s intimate, bringing music to life. So I fenced off whole centuries when we began, terrain that I inhabited with other musicians, and didn’t feel able to share.
Karin was patient with that. She’s generous, and highly intuitive. She makes her guitar sing, with a sound that is unmistakably her own. I can catch a fraction of a phrase, via radio, CD, or over the internet, even in a noisy environment, and know that it’s her. She plays like she is, with passion, sensitivity, and clear-headed intelligence. She’s funny too, able to laugh at herself and the world, and you can hear that in her music. To watch her play is to know that you are in the presence of someone doing what is wholly right. It’s beautiful.
Almost exactly the same age, our lives and careers have many parallels. There was comfort there, and easy, human warmth between us when we met. There was a lot to trust. But I doubted my ability to create the space in an already crowded life to do her justice. She’s intense, demanding, in all the best ways. So am I. We’d be a handful, I thought. Besides, she approached me at an odd stretch in life, when I was clearing hurdles of increasing heights at great pace, driven and twitchy.
Karin’s really persuasive. So we played. “Just once,” I said, to see. Chemistry’s hard to ignore. That inexplicable sense of connection, a spark, a way of bringing the other more fully alive. I couldn’t resist the pull of that.
We read reams of scores, heavy piles that we lugged to her mother’s house from libraries around the country. It would have been logical to play baroque sonatas or renaissance dances, but they felt wrong. We read pretty much every contemporary piece written for our instruments, but not much fired us there either. Day in, day out, we searched for clues, for sounds and forms. We listened, read, played, and still the possibilities felt too slight.
Unexpectedly, we found ourselves in the nineteenth century. That’s a place I almost never go. It suited us. And with the adrenalin rush of another chance to re-make my instrument and my self, I was hooked. Piano music and songs had never been so interesting. Reading tales of an obscure Hungarian folk instrument, the csakan, championed by a couple of pilfering virtuosi active in the early nineteenth century, it felt we had the beginnings of something. Eager to explore this newfound land, I began to loosen, to listen, and to learn.
We rehearsed in Brisbane’s heat and humidity at Karin’s mother’s house. We lived with one another and the music whenever we could, time snatched from our mad, separate concert schedules. Working with Isolde, Karin’s mother, I learnt about rubato. Meaning literally “robbed time,” it’s a way of creating an ebb and flow in music, which heightens emotion and expressivity. I had known this practice as an oboist and pianist, but now, on my own instrument – the other two always felt borrowed – I began to feel it differently.
Third generation musician, Karin comes from a family of formidable women. I thrived in that environment. Isolde has shockingly keen ears. She won’t pretend she thinks something works unless she’s completely convinced. Three obsessives in one room. You’d think that’d spell disaster, and certainly we each had our headstrong moments, but I loved the shared rigor and passion, the intense care for shaping something so that it breathed and danced.
Recordings test relationships in interesting ways. It can be hard to see beyond your own phobias. Accommodating someone else’s can sometimes feel impossible. Recordings are about pacing, learning to peak at the same moment. That’s fragile.
There’s a piece on our first album that still makes my throat catch. It’s a song of parting. Karin’s father and mine share a birthday. When we recorded, her father had not long left this world, and mine was fading fast. With that song, we sank deep into that still very tender place of farewell in our lives. When we listened back, we realised we’d caught a moment of profound, shared vulnerability.
There’s a funny thing about our pre-concert routine. We warm up side by side on stage, happily companionable, playing entirely different music. As Karin says, we don’t need to practise playing together, that’s the easy part. She’s right. We have never had to worry about negotiating different ways of hearing how a phrase arcs. It’s rare to be so intuitively in synch with someone else. It feels like a type of sibling, pre-conscious radar.
On the road, Karin taught me to eat before concerts. Before our tours together, I had insisted that my knotted stomach simply couldn’t manage food before I played. She insisted that my brain and body simply couldn’t play properly without food. So I learnt to share a meal with her before a concert. It’s part of our ritual, and sometimes now in other circumstances, if I can make myself as calm as I feel with her, I can do the same.
Nowadays, our repertoire goes forwards and backwards in time, as I’ve taken down more and more fences. There’s gentleness between us that I love. There is endless trust, and an uncanny ability to sense where the other is going musically, before it happens. Ease is a beautiful thing. We’re strong women, we’ve made our way through the world, and that’s not always easy. In our duo, I feel us both unfurl.