Fran Swinn’s Inform – MJFF Commission Concert

Article by Alice Body

Fran Swinn Trio photo © Laki SiderisFran Swinn is walking a metaphorical tightrope as she prepares to present her APRA-commissioned piece at this year’s Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival. Inform integrates live jazz with live circus and is performed by Swinn’s quartet with special guest aerial artist and acrobat Rockie Stone.

‘We’re still discovering how loose it’s going to be, because the things I’ve written so far have been quite structured – almost maybe too structured’, Swinn muses. For a piece entitled Inform, receptiveness to new ideas and methods – by all participants – is necessary part of their approach. Their ability to find the right balance will shape the show on the night.

Swinn, a Melbourne-based jazz guitarist, has past experience integrating the work of physical performers with the work of jazz musicians. In 2009, she ran away with Circus Oz for three months as they toured Australia, playing music for the different circus acts alongside trombonist Shannon Barnett. Then last year she performed in Nexus as part of a trio: guitarist, dancer and acrobat/aerialist (Stone).

For her part, Stone uses a variety of circus acts to interact with Swinn’s quartet in Inform, namely: the corde lisse [vertical rope work], chair stack and clowning. ‘Inform is about exploring the form and the language we have in common, as well as “form” in a broad sense,’ Swinn explains, referring to those features that both identify circus and jazz as discrete entities and allow crossover between the two.

There’s certainly integrative potential in the similarities between jazz and circus. The main similarity Swinn identifies is risk: ‘The risk element’s really pertinent for both’, she says. ‘When you see jazz or improvised music, it’s so different from hearing a recording because you can sort of get a sense of that risk element, because you’re aware that it’s happening live. And that edgy line that people walk is of course really important to a circus performer who deals with risk – real risk – and then perceived risk as well. Although,’ she adds dryly, ‘obviously the risk is much greater for her [Rockie] than it is for us. If we make a mistake, no one’s going to get hurt.’

Swinn is finding the concept of risk is somewhat a double-edged sword for Inform. The way in which circus performers engage with risk is inherently different from the way jazz musicians do. Circus performers wow audiences as they toe the line between what is possible and impossible, while confident in the knowledge that they have practiced a trick until they know it inside out. The line they toe is therefore, for them, relatively firm. Accordingly, while there is some scope for rhythm and timing, each trick is essentially the same. Jazz musicians on the other hand, especially in a live context, have much greater scope to toy with the unknown, thereby making the impossible possible, ‘We’re all really keen to explore the improvisational side of it, but we’ve got different parameters,’ Swinn says. ‘There’ll be a degree of improvisation on Rockie’s part, but it’ll be much more limited than what it is for us.’

Rockie Stone photo © Peter LeslieThe differing parameters frame the artists’ technical approach to Inform and also influence how it will be expressed. The piece cannot be so structured that it requires the musicians to stick to their charts, unaffected by Stone’s movements. Simultaneously however, the music cannot be so open to improvisation that Stone is left unsupported. Inform is thus constrained by the patterns of a solo circus performance – it can neither demand constant, high-energy physical exertion from Stone, nor can it push away from those acts she necessarily needs to know intimately. Currently Swinn is proposing to bridge the divide by constructing Inform out of short composed pieces that may then be interconnected. Evidently, the process of integrating the separate artforms has begun before the show has even started.

While Inform is still a work in progress, Swinn is hesitant to describe or predict in any great detail what it will be like on the night. One thing is certain however; Inform is an exciting and intriguing experiment. This is a concert not to be missed.

The show features Fran Swinn (guitar), Tamara Murphy (double bass), Ben Hendry (drums), Eugene Ball (trumpet), and Rockie Stone (chair stack and corde lisse)

Article © Alice Body

Fran Swinn Trio photo © Laki Sideris
Rockie Stone photo © Peter Leslie

Alice Body is a young freelance writer getting by in Melbourne. Since graduating from a Philosophy Major in 2009, Alice decided to shake things up by squeezing everything she owned into her Corolla hatchback and moving the hell out of Sydney. Since then her writing has struck a balance between exploring Melbourne’s vibrant arts and cultural scene, and promoting renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, largely through volunteering at think tank Beyond Zero Emissions. Alice has been published in Inpress, ThreeThousand, PBS FM’s Easey Magazine, Crikey.com, On Line Opinion and The Punch. See more at alicebody.com