Photo: Nico Keenan

On this episode of the podcast, Daryl Buckley, the artistic director of ELISION ensemble joins Paul Kildea. The pair start by talking about the uncommon achievement of creating an ensemble that isn't constrained by its location and the challenges of keeping together active contributing members from across the world. Daryl Buckley continues by speaking on how great it is that the arts don't have to recognize geographic borders and what a big advantage that is in addressing the limited resources in Australia.

They segue into then discussing the cultural nation-building that was implicit in the more mainstream approaches in Australian music. Paul also gets Daryl to talk about some of ELISION Ensemble’s works, including the new piano concerto by Liza Lim as well the opera The Navigator, which includes, amongst others, Andrew Watts and Genevieve Lacey.

Listen to the full episode below.

Paul Kildea: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm here with Daryl Buckley, who's the Director of ELISION, the contemporary music ensemble that I've encountered, funnily enough, more outside Australia than inside, but that speaks a little bit to me living away from this country for 25 years, Daryl, it's great to be here with you. I want to start with a quote because as you know, whenever we meet, we're always quoting things. And it's from Aaron Cassidy who said the thing I love most about ELISION, and there's a lot to love, is that it's an ensemble that's not primarily about instruments or even about projects, but instead about people. I'd love you to talk about that because it seems that when you look at photographs of ELISION, you see some amazing faces from contemporary music around the world. People such as Tristram Williams, Peter Neville, Richard Haynes, Liza Lim, Ben Marks, Graeme Jennings, I'd love to know how all these people came to be in your orbit.

Daryl Buckley: Wow! Well, I think the answer partly addresses your introductory comments, Paul, which is an ensemble is building a family. And you keep your family and you keep your expertise. So very, very early on, from the beginning of ELISION when we were challenged by people, musicians in the ensemble having to relocate, I think specifically that was the case with Bergsma who was moving from Melbourne, I think to Sydney sometime in the early 90s, or you know late 80s. We were faced with the decision, do we keep that incredible talent and fly them in? Or do we define ourselves as a sort of very local entity? And the answer was, you keep your talent, you keep your expertise. And so as years have gone by and as the members of the ensemble have relocated to many parts of the world, that has also meant that the ensemble has been able to be active in very many different parts of the world. Ergo, your opening statement, that ELISION as a performing force is something that can be encountered in, at times, in London, in Berlin, at Harvard University and as much as it can in Melbourne or elsewhere in Australia.

Paul: So, that speaks to something rather wonderful then about the projects. Part say, of what Aaron Cassidy said, you know, there have been some pretty amazing projects, but we're almost talking about the geographic location of some of your players and the concert halls, the other existing ensembles, the interested parties in different parts of the world, dictating to an extent, the work that you undertake.

Daryl: Yeah, we have to express who we are and not be necessarily defined by our circumstances. And that was again a lesson going back to the very, very early days of ELISION when we formed in Melbourne and there was something like, I don't know, 30 or 40 new music ensembles active in Melbourne. And so what became very readily apparent to me was that being active in that environment meant that from a very, very short space of time, you became defined by it. No, that shaped how you think and, and thought. And you had three or four significant others. You know, your mom who came to the concerts, the local State Arts bureaucrat, the critic, one or two composers, you know, who bothered to speak to you or whatever, but a small number of significant others. There's a small number of resources. It was very exciting in the sense that you were addressing quite directly and very personally a community where you knew everyone. But on the other hand, you're like a goldfish in a goldfish bowl and you

pretty much pollute the waters you're swimming in rather quickly and stagnate. And so for me, the question in that time was a strategic and artistic question. The strategic question was something that, the answer was something that drew me outwards internationally as was the artistic response. And I'll start with the artistic response, being that arts don't have to recognize geographic borders. That's where they're particularly dangerous and particularly compelling is that they can lead you to a view of whoever you are or your identity or your possibility or exchange, they lead you, lead you somewhere else. The strategic question was, in order to be able to face and address the limited resources that we have in Australia. You secure them from elsewhere. And so very quickly, you know, I was writing grant applications to the Arts Council of England for a CD of, so for instance, Richard Barrett that was released on a Dutch boutique label, etcetera, that was funded by the Gustav Holst Foundation as well. And then was reviewed in Diapason, one of the leading French reviewers. And so it was just that ability, just like bang, you can make these amazing connections really, really, really quickly and you don't have to define yourself as a Melbourne ensemble or belonging to a particular place. So there was a number of real, there was a number of huge positives to me that lay within the internationalism.

Paul: Yeah, and it seems to me that there's been an aesthetic benefit in the kind of music that interests you and, and the collaborations that you undertake but an opportunity cost in Australia because of course, the music that you program and perform is outside kind of the mainstream of classical music in Australia, which of course is what interests me about what you do. It seems to be so original. But there is a sense that you are so international, that it's somehow not the cozy approach that many people think of when they think of Australian contemporary music.

Daryl: Yeah. And that's deliberately, so I've never embraced the cozy-wozy, nicey-wicey approach Paul. But, you know, for me, you know, to be very direct, a lot of the sort of cultural nation building that was implicit in, in the more mainstream approaches in Australian music. It was something that I've never found satisfying, you know, and there's something that's very, I don't know. For White Australia, it's never been comfortable seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. And for me, that's been a really important thing that is embedded in how to score. So I remember very early on when we had some rather amazing conductors coming out of Paris and Milan, so Denis Cohen and Sandro Gorli and they were going up to the Australian Music Center and looking at scores of, you know, the quite noted mainstream composers, many of whom I might have found their way into Musica Viva programs over the years. And I'm looking at that and remember Denis saying to me, well look, you know, uh Stravinsky sat at a cafe near where I lived and I take my coffee there and Ravel walked these streets and I don't really need to travel from Paris to Australia to find a third rate copy of Ravel or Stravinsky. And the word he used was epigone, and it was really, really damning. And I remember also Sandro being equally disappointed, in fact, Sandro Gorli, we have worked with on a number of occasions, think about 11 times we brought him to Australia. I think the most excitement, I saw his reaction to an artist that was kind of wearing that, that's a nation building project was, not to a composer, but to a visual artist who was not wearing that nation building project and that was when he went to an exhibition of Emily Kngwarreye, and yeah, so it's been often a quite painful thing and we tend to

operate a sort of, okay, you know, from my point of view, sort of low level, unfiltered sort of set of John Cleese prejudices about how often we look at Europe or different parts of the world. And so we become the weird, the white Australia. We become Australian by distinguishing ourselves against other places. So we're not Germans or we're not this because, you know, you can put a t-shirt on. So we addressed landscape, but there's something very externalistic about that. And I think ultimately there could be something really quite shallow. It's like opening up a wardrobe and putting on a shirt and saying I'm Australian, mate, because, you know, my music's about the bloody landscape that's big, there's lots of it, you know, as if there aren't big landscapes anywhere else. And what does it say about you, that sort of operating in that, that mythology, what does it say that you, you know, that you need to distinguish yourself in a way, that way against somebody else. It's a bit like a footy team, you know, I'm from this footy team, not the other one.

Paul: Well talk a little bit about that cultural nation building, because, I mean, you're incredibly old, let's start there. So you were around particularly in the, in the late seventies, the eighties, when some of this was playing out. So how do you think it played out in music-making in Australia? And also how did, how did it affect the young politics and history student at Melbourne University at that time?

Daryl: Well, I never started out with a passion for music Paul, I just sort of wound up in it through being involved in, paradoxically folk music and going to folk music clubs. How that led to contemporary classical music, I have no idea. But certainly, you know, initially, I like many others off the back of the Whitman era, there was this excitement about, and sense of exploration for many people who lived here, that things were happening, inverted commas that we inverted commas again, were creating and there was some sort of ownership. So I think there was an Australian nationalism that fed through literature and visual arts in many, many areas of cultural activity. In the end. I've once I got involved in organising and playing new music. And you can look at the starting point of ELISION programs that we were all Australian going to 86, 87, 88, we would play any composer as long as they were Australian and we weren't interested in anyone from anywhere else. And so we walked in that those shoes for a couple of years and I just found it deeply problematic and, you know, for all the reasons given before I found that that would be a path to stagnation and that, particularly for ensembles, you know, that model of a service organization, which is not only popular here, it's popular in many places around the world, it doesn't quite have enough going for in a country that while big has limited resources. So you have to really think very carefully about what you want to do, you know? And particularly at that time when we were in Melbourne, we could do say six or seven concerts a year and you're comparing yourself against European ensembles that had subsidies of millions of day marks and you know, Euro wasn't even in yet and could do 72 concerts a year and they would be really, really well paid and you're in a blue stone church. So if you're going to enter that territory, you're in a blue stone church for $500, that had my photocopied poster. So you have to really think about how are you going to enter that space and make everything count and that, I guess maybe that was it. I'm trying to work out what

made the break for me, but you can see the difference. And Aaron and many others have noted this when they attended an exhibition of the history of ELISION at RMIT in 2016 and they're looking at all the decades of work. And I'm trying to work out how the ensemble of 1986 to round about 1988, matched up with the absolute radical change that you see by 1991. And they couldn't.

Paul: They couldn't see the connecting tissue.

Daryl: No. And it was, it was a break.

Paul: One of the great privileges I have as artistic director of Musica Viva is to talk to composers, a lot of composers of very different styles and read a lot of scores. And recently I had the privilege of reading the score of a new piano concerto and was just amazed with this low piano writing and like, really the extremes of the instrument and then just this amazing kinetic energy. And of course, it was the new piece by Liza Lim someone you know very well because she's your partner. Apart from someone you have championed for a long time. And the score is so exciting. It's such a major piece of music. And I saw a tweet from the dedicatee and the person who is about to perform it, which is Tamara Stefanovic, where she wrote, nothing beats this moment, holding a completely new score, holding someone's music baby, preparing the birth and being amazed at creation. Thank you immensely Liza for entrusting me with this jewel. I think that's just the most beautiful sentiment of the responsibility that performers feel for a major new work. And you have been certainly right there in the conception of works like this. I'd love you to talk a little bit about this piece as much as you know, and also just your relationship with Liza that's seen the birth of works like the Navigator, which I remember seeing excerpts from in Berlin, years and years ago, before it became a production directed by Barrie Kosky. So there's a few things for you to chew on their Daryl.

Daryl: Well, yeah, that's um quite meaningful. Well, look, I go to when I first met Liza she was and still is, I mean, just absolutely amazing. There was always an incredible intensity, aliveness about her that was both intimidating and compelling. And also just in a way that you immediately, you know, I always thought, okay, this is a composer, this is going to be somebody of huge significance and you need to invest and commit to this person. And I've always found it to be like this clear shining river, that there's no discontinuity in her work, in the sense that the piano concerto that you're talking about, the physicality that's evident in that and in the score, goes right back to the very, very first pieces I saw her writing. So there's a sense of just continual articulation, development, investigation and that when you're dealing with Liza, you're not dealing with somebody that's, and this is what I love about the best composers, you're not getting a work that scored for - okay, this is a piano concerto, it's got a big bloody piano here and we've got, we've got a couple of string players here and a bit of low something or rather and off we go. It's really about something that's really quite personal, both coming from her and to the people that she's engaged with. And I've never really, I believe, I think spoken about Liza on a, either a podcast or much before in an interview, but really, I - she's one of the most amazing composers of our time.

Paul: I'm sorry if you were keeping your relationship on the down low and I've blown -

Daryl: Our relationship developed after I met her as a composer and that's been, you know, the most wonderful thing obviously in my life.

Paul: Yeah, talk then if you wouldn't mind, and it's another Liza project, but it was very much your project, about The Navigator. How that came about and the different threads that were drawn together. Andrew Watts, the countertenor, Genevieve Lacey. It was all an amazing, amazing project.

Daryl: Yeah, again, that riff, it's this notion of not abandoning anything. So, The Navigator, in many ways, to my mind, references the Oresteia, the very first opera that Liza wrote which was also directed by Barrie Kosky and also had some of the same instrumental forces in it. Not, not completely, but there's an aspect that's a little bit continuous through. So it this a sense that you're both drawing on your history and projecting something forward into a future possibility that is behind The Navigator. Another thing that's behind The Navigator is this constant commitment to having the most amazing team. So you mentioned Genevieve Lacey who was on the Ganassi and Paetzold recorders, but it's also Marshall McGuire, triple baroque harp, there's Graham Jennings, he mentioned earlier, Ben Marx and trombone, Tristram Williams, Peter Neville, I was in that on the electric guitar. There's just so many beautifully talented people. And then on top of that, just the amazing voices. Deborah Kayser, who went to school with Liza and there's just a long, long, long history in there and then new friends, which were Omar Ebrahim, Andrew Watts, Talise Trevigne, Philip Larson. You know, my god, this six-foot something tenor from the U.S. who's in his seventies has just killed it. Yeah. So it's putting together the, constantly putting together the A+ team, the A triple plus team and looking at okay, where are we're going to take this. And how far.

Paul: Well, where did you take it? And how far? And I'm thinking physically at this stage because as I say, I encountered some of it in Berlin. It ends up I think in the Queensland, in the Brisbane Festival. What else did you do with it?

Daryl: Well, it's quite controversial in Queensland which is really funny. It was particularly funny at the time because you know, Barrie was investigating aged bodies and gender fluidity which were themes very alive within the text and, and substance of the opera and I think that was very confronting, You know, for people to witness, not, not a beautiful sort of sanitised 20 plus body on stage, but people who are elderly or you know obese and to look at people sort of differently than what might have been presented on stage. At the same time, I think in Sydney there was a conference of Catholic Church and congregation, people flew in from all over the world and what was enacted publicly was the Stations of the Cross, basically where a young man is kind of enacting, being tortured around the streets of Sydney. Whipped, flogged, having an eye poked out with crown of thorns and then slung off a helicopter on a crucifix and carted around Sydney Harbour. I found that as a piece of theater more bizarre personally and just more kind of like, really? what's going on here? than anything Barrie Kosky was doing on our stage in Queensland but the, but to go the heart of your question, from Brisbane it went to Melbourne, the Melbourne Festival and then we performed a chamber music version of it in Paris at the amphitheater in Bastille and I think that was the first Australian opera ever to be present there. And then we also went to the Fomenko theater in the Chekhov International Festival in Moscow. So again, I believe it's the first major Australian project in the arts ever to be in, first or second, to be in Moscow. Certainly the first Australian opera.

Paul: And it's about to be reunited with the Oresteia on a CD set I gather.

Daryl: Yeah. And again, this addresses this whole strategic impulse to making everything count. So now at this point, more than three decades on from her beginnings, we have materials from three operas and a major song cycle of Liza that we can release on a CD on a British label, again NMC, supported by HCR, Huddersfield Contemporary Records from CeReNem, Huddersfield University UK. So all of those strands are very, very present within that CD release. It's, you know, more than three decades of work in history and energies, you know. That's what it actually takes from my point of view to get a career for a composer who operates out of Australia. There's no question in my mind, Liza it's just going to be a major fear and kill it internationally. But what would have happened was, I think without ELISION, she would have left Australia and going to Europe. It's always far more challenging to sort of somehow operate, at least in that period of time, operate internationally out of Australia. And even, even without that challenge, you know, to get a trajectory for a composer, even of amazing, great ability to get, secure that trajectory so their work has impact. It's constant, programming, commitment, revisiting things, going to the next adventure. It's a very, very highly focused narrative. And I think you can see the way ELISION has operated that within the career of Liza. And then behind that, there's all the stories, you know, there's the stories of Marshall McGuire's triple harp being split open like a watermelon upon arrival in Moscow. You know, I think Genevieve Lacey on the exit from Moscow got stung by somebody at customs for a small inappropriate fine where somebody was just, you know, there's a whole thing in Russia about instrument passports, you know. In the second opera, there's a container of the sets being stolen in Penang in Malaysia and then there's all the work behind that I'm doing, getting these containers exported around the world and then filling them up with sets and then trying to find where the hell have they gone in Malaysia and then sending, flying people over to get new materials. And then there's a barge on the river, so with the second opera, Yuè Lìng Jié, it's a barge on the river in Torrens. And then young Simon Hewett who is conducting during rehearsal, of course, sort of accidentally knocks it and the score goes in the river into the Torrens and it wasn't much of a river at that stage, I don't think it still is, but so he hopped inside the river, with live electricity and everyone in the cast and around just looking aghast, at horror, have we just got a fried conductor. But you know, I came, singers and Deborah and all the other singers just spent, I think Melissa Madden Gray spent a very long time with hairdryers, drying off the score and cleaning it as best they could from the scum and creatures that are inhabiting the river. So that's now made, but anyway, so it's very funny is that's now made its way into the National Library and they preserved that score. Uh, and there's a little note on it. So that's in their records.

Paul: That's funny. I've known, I've known Simon Hewett for 20 years and he's drawn a discreet veil over that story it has to be said.

Daryl: You know, all these commitments from so, so, so many people over so many years to put together the story of Liza Lim if you like. And that's what it takes.

Paul: It is the story of Liza and of the ensemble and really speaks to the lovely Cassidy quote with which I started our conversation and I'm delighted to say also that Musica Viva is collaborating with Liza on, on a project that we'll announce sometime in the future. That to me is kind of a real badge of honor that we get to

work with her. And uh, hopefully with you one day. Why not wind it all up by talking a little bit about the future and some of the things that, you have one of the most inventive and, and busy minds that, that I know. So there are always ideas. There are always projects and schemes. I say that in the nicest possible way um what, what are some of those schemes and projects and ideas that are keeping you awake at night at the moment?

Daryl: Oh wow. Well, you know, I never sleep well. Uh there are many. Again, it's telling the story of the people that we’re committed to, such as Liza and Richard Barrett and Aaron Cassidy and we have sort of major projects, although the one with Liza, the CD recording about to be realised quite soon with major projects before. I think the thing that sort of, if you like keeping me up at the moment, is trying to bring in new voices into the ensemble and from Australia and from many, many, many different parts in the world. And this is a constant search to both keep alive and animate the space that we live in at the highest possible level. That's always the thing that keeps me awake. It's this sense of many, many, many years ago, I used to talk about the Calvino story from Invisible Cities where very roughly, you know, Kublai Khan says to Marco Polo, well you've seen the world, is that it? And the answer translated probably really badly in English could run something like, well there are two ways to escape the inferno, one is to become part of it, to be absorbed by it. The other is to find that which is not of it and to make that a space to make that possible. And that for me is at the heart of the ELISION mission. So that's actually what keeps me up at night. Is that specific principle rather than a particular project as such that is actually, in reality, the formulation or the expression of that principle. So it's, it's the principle which is, you know, how do we constantly animate and enliven this space so that we're making a place for things which would not otherwise happen possible. The fragile, the rare, the very, very particular special things which would otherwise disappear. And that's where I want us to be.

Paul: Daryl. It's always a delight to talk to you and today has been no different.

Daryl: Thank you, Paul.