Easter 2012, I bid farewell to a community that shaped me. Four years, we had together. Four crammed years. It could have been a lifetime.
It took me a good six months to recover. Recovery was not just about learning not to wake often and early, and plummet straight into a million tasks. It was not just about starting to uncoil the tight, taut spring that had wound itself deep inside me, or gradually weaning myself off the adrenalin addiction. It was also about beginning to unfold memories and experiences, giving myself time to re-live, reflect, and try to understand what might have happened between us.
I spent those four years in and out of a fishing village of 1300 on the south coast of New South Wales. Bermagui, Yuin country.
Yuin country is like my imaginings of paradise. Cathedrals of bush: corymbia maculata, smooth-barked eucalypt giants, with burrawangs nestling below, reaching down to beaches where you might be the only person on earth.
And the people. Extraordinary. A bunch of wildly different, hugely talented, gob-smackingly generous, loveable mavericks.
Whenever I could, and often when I really couldn’t, I headed up to see them. Tossed about in a tiny plane, I landed green and seedy, straight into the hour-long drive along a windy road, and from there, headlong into whatever needed doing.
Together, we made music. And together, it felt as though we created space and time for people to exhale and listen. Officially, my job for those years was Artistic Director of the Four Winds Festival. Together with a team of hard-working visionaries, we poured ourselves into creating an ever-expanding reality of a place alive with music. I was laughingly, passionately embraced by a whole community, and the love affair felt mutual. It was intoxicating, our joyful noise, spreading across the region in a mad crescendo.
During those manic years, I also ran a freelance concert life, doing laps of our continent on planes, darting back and forth to the other hemisphere. I created en masse, my first large-scale, multi-artform work. I inhabited the intense world of Namatjira, making a theatre piece and so much more besides. I slept little. People often characterise me as serene, centred. Perhaps that’s because generally, I am very present in whatever I do. Those years, under the calm exterior, I felt tight chested, wild eyed, shallow breathed, flushed and high, gloriously high.
There are people from that chapter in my life who adopted me, who gave me shelter, who fed and listened, soothed and solved, inspired and made me laugh. I miss them. I’ll visit. So many lovely, slow things I never did there, burned up with the go go go of it all. But so many wondrous things we did do there too.
Two years in, at the end of the first festival, I realised how singular my taste is, how distant from what most people define as classical music. I had no idea how far I had strayed from the flock. I had no intention of returning, but I learnt that if I wanted to take an audience with me, I’d have to communicate better. The liberal, loyal festival audience met me with great warmth and encouragement, with patience, with a real desire to understand my ideas, but also a sense of bewilderment. What was I trying to do, transforming their beloved festival into something with so many unknown sounds? I needed to learn to articulate why, in clear, true, human terms. And, we needed to work together on some broad projects about music and meaning: mischievous, whimsical, subversive ones.
In our western world, the practice of culture as a normal part of our daily lives has eroded. In many indigenous cultures, that connectedness still exists – life and culture are one and the same. The last one hundred years or so in the history of western art music have been a strange anomaly. During this time, the artform has become one primarily of re-creation and preservation, where the roles of player, maker, listener, professional, amateur, critic, improviser, composer and interpreter have fractured into individual activities, separate from one another, and cordoned off from daily life. This makes the artform very vulnerable.
I hoped that what we were doing in Bermagui might begin to heal the fissures of recent history. I hoped it allowed classical music to be less a series of enshrined and humidi-controlled objects, and more a connecting activity, essential to daily life. I dearly wished that culture could be alive between us, strong in our lives, and that we could embrace new ideas, sounds, and people. Grand ideas. I was possessed by them, and alarmingly persuasive with it.
Often, going home on the plane after a trip up north, I’d hit the crash after the high. Exhausted and teary, I’d wonder how on earth I’d swayed a whole community into yet another madcap venture. I felt as though I had no qualifications for the job – I was making it up as I went along, fired by my very particular experience of the world. Once, strangely clear headed up in that floating capsule, I realised that my skills as a musician were my best attributes. My decades of listening deeply, of playing in groups where the sole purpose is to make something bigger than you, my obsession with intricate detail, and my dreaming, questing brain were all directly relevant. This whole endeavour was about intense, soul-gripping connections with people, through music. It was another form of chamber music. It was a relief to work that out – I knew something about that.
One of my favourite weeks came in the last six months. We’d been working on a project for a couple of years, swaddling it, watching it learn to toddle, tumble and walk. That week, it didn’t just run, it flew. Local children sang, alongside other children from the city. They sang a song especially written for us, about our place. And they were guided by a host of singing angels from up north, so strong and inspired I couldn’t believe our luck. It was an ecstatic week. A not sleeping, crying with the wonder of it, smiling at every waking hour, seeing the world scream into life through song week. I wrote to a friend from the plane on the way to the next project, needing as I often did, to pour it out.
“I thought a lot of you in Bermi. I’m still not sure that I know how to do this job. People seem to think that I do, and there’s this great flurry of growth and opening out, and trust, and life springing up, and people I don’t know giving me hugs, and joyful children singing, and stunned parents who didn’t know that kind of beauty even existed as a possibility, and sensitive music teachers who have been neglected coming into their power, just because someone sees them and helps them dare, and halls with gorgeous acoustics that have been silent, suddenly ringing with sound again, and on and on. But so much more is needed here than I can ever give, that I haven’t seen, or respond to clumsily, and some days it really hurts, the want and the longing of it all. It’s lovely to be able to see potential and possibilities everywhere, and there’s a strange intimacy with people or a place, when you feel you can perceive their desires, even some they don’t know yet, and somehow respond, help them take them tentatively into the light and give them a chance. And I know it’s delusional and self important to think that that I can change this part of the world even a tiny bit, help people to see and feel the glory around them, between them, in them, and get them hooked on holding one another dear, but I can’t help but try. And then I’m horrified at my own inadequacies in the face of work that’s so life giving, wrecked and wiped out by what it takes. But there’s no time for tiredness. So I pick myself up and try again, and again and then again. You know Keats – “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” And good old EM Forster. ‘Only connect.’ That’s all we need, really.”
He understood. He does that kind of work all the time.
I wouldn’t for an instant say that everything I did there was a raging success. But I can say that between us, we couldn’t have given more. Sometimes we wanted different things, or had diverse ways of realising them. We wore our stresses and our insecurities in our own idiosyncratic ways. And the number of ways I failed that community in those years is at least equal to the number of ways I took good care. Towards the end, the enormity of that came in great, crashing waves. I had chosen to leave, before my expected time. Over those four intense years, I had buried the artist in me deeper and deeper in this mountain of work, and I knew urgently that if I didn’t excavate, I’d be no use to anyone.
At the end of the second festival, I heard and felt a 1500-strong audience embrace new works and sounds as “our music,” rather than as something remote or alienating. Four Winds was now synonymous with experimentation and discovery. I can’t tell you how that moved me.
We had tried to create a home for musicians, a place where they could be unguardedly themselves. We hoped to plant sensitive artists into a beautiful environment, and let them grow. We used our resources to nurture. In our ecosystem, artists tentatively tried things that were not possible anywhere else. Their explorations were made in conversation with a community, and were greatly enhanced by that exchange. The community, and the artworks emerging from it, were rich.
When I left our festival, I went back out into the world as a freelance musician. For the first time in years, I had the time and space in my head to start generating my own artistic projects again, and I was alight with ideas. I went to my first meeting, unconsciously imagining that I would be meeting a version of the Four Winds community and ethos. I came out shell-shocked. I had forgotten our place was unlike any other.
I hope that beautiful corner of Yuin country can always be a home for laughing and singing, dreaming and trying new things together. Maybe one day, other parts of the world can be too.