Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO
To mark the Australian Art Orchestra’s 25th anniversary, we're presenting the Solo Series: a monthly video release that puts the spotlight on one of the twelve selected members from our pool of incredible AAO collaborators. In August we feature musician and composer Andrea Keller, along with liner notes by AAO Artistic Director Peter Knight.
Solo Series #8 - Andrea Keller (watch video here) - piano
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Watching and listening to this solo performance by Andrea Keller feels to me as if I have stumbled upon something intimate and quite private. To listen seems almost like an intrusion. Like I have wandered back stage late at night after a concert, after the audience has gone home, after the lights have been turned out, and happened upon Andrea playing what she didn’t play at the concert but might have wanted to.
It strikes me that she is expressing something from a space of deep meditation focussed on the sonorities that roll through the opening moments of the work, gradually building as gentle alpha waves. Her focus is inward and yet the physicality of the piece, the way she holds her body and the way her hands move are transfixing, as is the music itself. This doesn’t feel like a ‘performance’ but more like something utterly true to the artist. And for the listener - at least for this listener - there is nothing more compelling than this truth.
Andrea tells me that she begins each day with a solo ‘free’ improvisation, which makes total sense in the context of what I have just heard - except that now I am imagining the darkness of the video setting is pre-dawn rather than post concert. This is a space she visits and practises from every day, and for this video recording she has invited us into that quiet, contemplative moment. “Sometimes I empty my mind”, she says, “but of late I’ve mostly been working to concepts that are generally focussed on stripping everything back to a nucleus and exercising patience.”
The opening chords of the piece reflect this focus as they toll, perfectly weighted, moving in slow cadences that gradually rise and fall in the manner of a tone poem. After a time, a melodic phrase splinters from these densely textured chords and slowly gains energy.
Andrea tells me during our conversation that she began this piece with a structural arc to work with instead of beginning with an ‘empty’ mind. “The concept… was to have two ideas, and to begin by giving more weight to the first idea, and end by giving more weight to the second idea.” It made me smile – such a simply expressed concept - such a nuanced and refined outcome.
As the piece progresses the structure she describes is evident but no less satisfying for having its mysteries revealed. The two ideas move slowly around one another and the splinters of melody gradually fragment further into tiny shards before subsiding into silence. I am left imagining the early morning sunshine streaming in through a window at raked angles. Motes of dust caught hovering in the still morning light as if taken by surprise.
AAO’s 25th Anniversary
This year the Australian Art Orchestra celebrates its 25th anniversary. I remember when the group was formed and the impact it had on me as an aspiring jazz musician - the first show I heard at The Continental in Prahran in Melbourne, with 20 of the most talented musicians on the scene. Bristling energy, barely tamed. It was exciting, and it reconfigured the idea I had for what a jazz musician could aspire to. There followed collaborations with musicians from Indonesia, Arnhem Land, and India, and performances of music written by the most challenging contemporary western composers. It was a long way from what I had experienced as a music student, and opened in my mind a world of possibility that was expansive and exciting and that was directly connected to the here and now.
The Australian Art Orchestra changed things for me, and I think it changed things for a lot of musicians and listeners. The vision of its founding artistic director, Paul Grabowsky, recognised that we live in a place of abundance and as ‘jazz’ musicians and artists that we need to respond to what’s around us rather than look primarily to America and Europe for inspiration. A quarter of a century on, I believe that vision is perhaps more relevant than ever.
In 2013 I was appointed the Orchestra’s second artistic director and have since tried to carry on this vision in my own way. The group certainly sounds very different now, and there are new faces, but I believe there is a thread we have woven through each of our projects that traces back to those first performances of Ringing the Bell Backwards in Melbourne in 1994.
This history is important. Understanding where we have come from as a group is crucial to building a vibrant future. As we celebrate 25 years we want to look forward while at the same time reaffirming our commitment to a set of core values that are centred on deep music practice and community building, and that also give space for the kind of individual creativity that made the first performance of the Orchestra I heard at The Continental in 1994 so exciting.
This individuality and anarchic spirit is somewhat at odds with a more traditional idea of an Orchestra, which is generally associated with blend and seamless integration. But this is a contradiction that the Australian Art Orchestra has always embraced, and it’s one of the things that sets this strange and wonderful organism apart from other musical groups. It’s also the defining aspect that I have focussed on to celebrate this 25th anniversary.
Each of the musicians we work with is an improviser, but more than that each has a highly refined, idiosyncratic, and personal language on their instrument. When we come together as a group, these voices are the starting point for our sound. The composers we commission listen to recordings made by our musicians to inform their compositional processes, and when we rehearse we spend time improvising together and workshopping ideas towards the creation of a collective language.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of this ‘orchestra of individuals’ we have chosen 12 musicians from our large pool of players to record solo improvisations that will form a portrait of the Australian Art Orchestra in 2019. Each of these recordings will also be captured on in high resolution video by innovative Melbourne company, Digital Pill. These videos will be released monthly with an accompanying photographic portrait by Sarah Walker, and a written response to the music.
Peter Knight, Artistic Director
* Andrea Keller is a Lecturer in Music (Jazz & Improvisation) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the University of Melbourne.