An interview with Sandy Evans for Jazz Australia, the inspirations for Rockpool

JA: How did your association with photographer Belinda Webster, whose images inspired the ‘rockpoolmirror’ album, begin?
SE: I met Belinda when she was a sound engineer at 2MBS. (I was already aware of her reputation as a classical flautist. I was a classical flute student as a teenager and Belinda was one of the outstanding players my generation looked up to.) Belinda was a pioneer in community radio. She recorded quite a lot of the projects I’ve done with Roger Dean and his ensemble austraLYSIS and has released them on her label Tall Poppies. She also released the GEST8 CD Kaleidoscope.

JA: The photographs come from Belinda’s Shoalhaven Gorge series. What was it about them that particularly struck you?
SE: Belinda invited me to perform at the launch of her photographic exhibition at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney in 2009. I loved the photographs and Belinda kindly gave me one (Rock Warrior) that has been hanging in our hallway ever since. I look at it every day. It struck me that this series of photographs would provide an evocative starting point for the exploration of the intimate relationship in duo improvisation where individual identity is expressed and maintained at the same time as being transformed and mirrored in the voice of one’s musical partner. Many of the photos are of rock formations and their reflections in water. In some of the artworks, Belinda re-oriented the photo disguising the original image; new, surreal, surprisingly life-like figures emerge. I was fascinated by this and could see parallels with improvised music. It highlights the importance of the listener’s perspective. For example, our interpretation of music changes depending whether we listen with the bass in the foreground of or awareness, or the drums, or the saxophone etc. There are of course many other paradigms that affect our aural perception – things such as memory, enculturation, musical training, and emotional state.

JA: Tell us a little bit as to how the funding for this project came about?
SE: The person who funded the project has kindly provided the answer to this. It is an exceptional story of generosity and compassion and I am deeply honoured and humbled to be the recipient of such extraordinary kindness.
‘One Good Turn…
What might seem at the time to be relatively trivial—the germ of an idea, or a small gesture of support—can have unforseen and far-reaching ramifications: Cut back to 2006: I did not know Michael Kieran Harvey personally, but having heard his playing Zappa on the ABC CD release ‘Storm Sight’, and then later the music of Carl Vine on Tall Poppies Records, I contacted Belinda Webster with an idea that had surfaced: of Michael making an album of Zappa’s own piano music. Belinda was supportive of the idea, so I wrote to Michael, floating this proposal, hoping for, but not really expecting a reply. He emailed me back, saying he was somewhat interested, but pointing out that he was busy for the next 12 months. It was not, however, an outright refusal: his email ended with the words “But never say die!”

I waited a year before I re-contacted Belinda to see if she could perhaps now talk him into it. Instead, she called me up (I did not at all expect this) and provided me with Michael’s personal telephone number, encouraging me to call him directly. I plucked up the courage and did so.  He did not at all expect this either! But from this followed our first meeting from where the Zappa project flourished, metamorphosed, and surpassed all expectations: Michael’s composition ‘48 Fugues for Frank’ became the matchless hour-long homage to Zappa, ultimately released (in 2010) on that other noteworthy Australian independent CD label, Move Records. Other joint projects have followed, as has a close and enduring friendship.

For all of this, I felt (& remain) deeply indebted and grateful to Belinda. I was determined that the least I could do was to help support a release on Tall Poppies Records. A couple of early ideas (2011, 2014) were stillborn. But when I re-contacted Belinda in August 2015, something mysteriously—and perfectly—aligned: when I enquired as to what she might have as potential projects she mentioned Sandy Evans’ work. I just so happened to have Sandy’s latest CD ‘Kapture’ playing in my car at that very same time. (I had earlier been floored listening to Bhairavi Tillana on ‘The Edge of Pleasure’ EP, and deeply struck by the Australian Art Orchestra/ Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani/Sruthi Laya Ensemble CDs). I therefore took this as an extremely auspicious sign. When Sandy mentioned her range of possible projects there was one that instantly stood out: musical responses, mainly duos, to Belinda’s own photography. It was abundantly clear to me then (and this wonderful CD is testament to this now) this was the recording project—the embodiment of multiple reciprocities—that was destined for release all along.’

JA: Just how did you go about composing a suite of music that reflects a particular landscape? Is there a narrative that runs through the twelve individual tracks that reflects the spiritual nature of the landscape?
SE: Belinda described a deep sense of calm that pervaded her experience camping at Lake Yarrunga in the Shoalhaven Gorge where she took the photographs. No motorized craft are allowed in this area, so Belinda rowed 25kms up the gorge in a hand-made rowing boat with a friend to reach the camping place. She said it took a whole day of rowing to reach the site. Her and her friend shared the rowing, and they went every year from 2001 to 2006. The only time the water was still enough to take the reflective images was at dawn, so the sense of peace was enhanced by the time of day. I find stillness and water particularly conducive to my own creative process (I have to confess I’m not often awake at dawn though!). It was important to me to have an intimate, reflective calmness as the primary feeling of the overall project. Conversely, some of the photographs capture more active, intriguing, dark, sometimes even violent, aspects of nature. The tracks explore the different feelings, colours, textures, rhythms and architecture that these images evoke.

Another important theme in the composition and conception of the music came from considering the symmetry and asymmetry created by the reflective images. I used numerous musical devices to control pitch, rhythm, structure and dynamics in symmetrical and asymmetrical ways pertaining to the photographs. I endeavoured to create compositional frameworks that were relatively open for the improvisers to interpret, but still established a strong sense of mood and structure.

As usual, my husband Tony was an important sounding board for me throughout the process. He puts up with me ignoring him for long periods of time while I work out my ideas; then I ask him impossibly difficult questions about music, sound and aesthetics. He always manages to give a helpful and wise answer while cooking delicious dinners!

JA: When composing the various pieces on the album did you have particular photographs in mind, from which you drew inspiration?
SE: Yes, almost every track was composed in response to a particular photograph. There were also a couple of tracks where, as the music evolved, I felt the piece was more related to a different photograph, so I wasn’t strict about this in relation to every image.

JA: You gathered together a diverse range of musicians for this project. How did you all come together?
SE: Yes, it is a diverse range of musicians from one perspective, but I’m fortunate to have all of these musicians as long-term friends and collaborators. To me, this diversity encompasses some of the things I love about being a contemporary Australian improvising musician. Although each of these musicians has a deep knowledge and training in at least one tradition (and in many cases more than one), they all share a desire to make music of our time and place with as much integrity as possible.

All of them are wonderful friends who I have been fortunate to collaborate with in other contexts. I have known most of them for a long time and they are like family to me. Bass player Steve Elphick has been a friend and colleague since the beginning of my musical career, when we toured Australia for 7 months with Women and Children First in a Toyota Coaster called Bertha. Bobby Singh and Adrian Sherriff are 2 incredible artists who are largely responsible for my love of Indian classical music. Steve, Bobby and I also built a close musical relationship working with Kim Sanders; Adrian and I in many Australian Art Orchestra projects, especially collaborations with South Indian mridangam maestro Guru Karaaikkudi Mani and the Balinese collaboration, ‘The Theft of Sita’. I have collaborated with Satsuki Odamura many times in groups such as Waratah, GEST8 and with her koto ensemble. Her beautiful koto playing made me fall in love with this amazing instrument. I first worked with Alon in Ellen Kirkwood’s fantastic ‘Mieville Project’. Alon and I have had the pleasure of performing duo several times since then. As well as being a wonderful drummer, his improvisatory approach to electro-acoustic music with the airsticks, really appeals to me. I’ve been interested in electro-acoustic improvised music throughout my career and Alon’s work is opening so many new possibilities in this field.

In this recording, although I was conscious of the particular background and interests of each individual musician, the photographs, and the way we play together are the main drivers for the musical outcomes, rather than notions about genre. This was very liberating.

JA: Tell us a little about the actual recording and mixing of the album.
SE: All the acoustic tracks were recorded at Richie B’s Free Energy Device Studio in Camperdown with Richie as the engineer and Belinda and me as the co-producers. I particularly enjoyed working with Richie and Belinda on this project. Richie’s studio was perfect for the project. He has 2 beautiful recording rooms that have a great sound and a warm atmosphere that suited the feeling of the music and the duo context. He has a keen interest in recording acoustic improvised music and was an important contributor to the creative process. Belinda has many years experience as a producer and engineer and her guidance was invaluable.

The collaborative process with Alon on the electro-acoustic tracks was exploratory and rewarding. Alon was living in New York while most of the recording took place. To communicate my ideas about the tracks to him I prepared crude guide versions on Garage Band. I edited samples from some of the material Richie had recorded and applied very basic processing to give Alon some idea about the vibe and structure of each track. He worked on the tracks in New York and we collaborated on the internet, but it wasn’t until he returned to Australia in January this year that we were able to complete the tracks in person. He did a wonderful job of creating unique, nuanced, beautifully crafted improvisations and compositions in response to my rather crude suggestions!

JA: What can the audience expect when you launch the CD at the Sound Lounge on Saturday 15 July?
SE: In the first set, there will be 3 duo performances:
Satsuki and Sandy
Sandy and Adrian
Adrian and Satsuki: They are 2 parts of the trio Primm (with Tunji Bieir) who have also recently released a CD on Tall Poppies. Their duo performance will be a wonderful treat I’m sure.
In the second set, we will perform the music from the CD, sometimes in duo format, but also sometimes rearranged for different combinations of instrumentalists. I am really looking forward to this! Audiences will experience both the reflective calm and the energetic virtuosity this group of musicians can create. I performed a version of the project at the Melbourne Recital Salon recently with Paul Grabowsky, Adrian Sherriff and Niko Schauble. The photographs and the compositional frameworks seemed to provide a potent stimulus for live improvisation and I’m sure this will be the case at the Sound Lounge.
Belinda will be projecting her photographs throughout, so the audience can experience the relationship between the musical and visual elements.
Steve Elphick is unable to play at the concert, but we are fortunate to have Jessica Dunn on bass.

A huge thank you to SIMA for presenting the launch of this CD which has a very special place in my heart. Please come along if you can.

Premiere performance, SIMA’s Winter Jazz Season