Tilman Robinson – ‘A Winter’s Night’ on an autumn afternoon

Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival logoTilman Robinson has been awarded the 2012 APRA Commission for the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival. His piece If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, framed around the Italo Calvino novel of the same name, will be premiered at the MJFF concert on Sunday afternoon 13 May. The book is a post modern novel with an interesting nested style – a main narrative that is broken regularly by the first chapters of other books. There’s information going back and forth between the sections, with the seemingly random ‘first chapters’ having an impact on the main narrative.

We asked Robinson first about his composition, including whether (if at all) any of that unique structure found its way into the music he’s composed and what inspired him to choose this work by Italo Calvino as the starting point for his composition…

Tilman Robinson: It was by chance, really, that Calvino’s text became the focus of the commission. As typically happens, I had left my application to the commission fairly late and was looking for ideas. I had just begun reading If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller at the time and was mesmerised by its unique structure. It was the form you mention more than the content that spoke to me (in a musical sense). This idea of ‘first chapters’, of short little narrative gestures that leave you hanging for more, ties in nicely with a recent resolution (almost the New Year’s kind) to write shorter pieces. With this in mind I was able to create ten short unrelated pieces corresponding to each of what I call the ‘narrative chapters’.

Linking them in the novel, however, are these amazing sections where Calvino speaks to you directly as a reader, inviting you to question the novel you are reading and indeed the way you read novels. I like to call these the ‘conversational chapters’. I decided to link my ten short pieces with a series of solo, duo, trio or group improvisations in which the musicians performing the work can speak directly to their audience. The juxtaposition between the through-composed ‘narrative movements’ and the loosely controlled ‘conversational movements’ became the main focus of the piece. As such, the suite is both a suite of small pieces and one long piece, much in the same way that the novel is both a collection of short stories and one long novel.

Jazz-planet: Do you find much of your inspiration in literature? Is this a new thing, or specifically about this book?

Robinson: I have used text for inspiration before but in the past it has been primarily poetry. One of the first pieces I ever wrote in my undergrad was a setting of Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘And death shall have no dominion’ for big band and a vocalist. I also wrote a piece for eight voices last year based on Bertold Brecht’s Obituary for XX. These are both settings of texts but this the first time I have used the form of a novel to dictate the form of my work.

In 2009 I was commissioned to write a series of works by JazzWA. Similarly to this work for the MJFF, I decided to write a suite and two other pieces in response to the photography of Gregory Crewdson. I tried to draw inspiration from the form and composition of his highly staged photography as well as the themes of his work. Form is a constant source of frustration for me so to be able to outsource thinking about it is great 🙂

Jazz-planet: You’ve recently come over from WA. Is it a permanent move? What’s the reason for the journey?

Robinson: My decision to move to Melbourne from Perth was primarily for a change of scenery and scene. The Perth music scene is fantastically vibrant and continues to produce amazing musicians (some of whom are playing in my ensemble) but I found some of the limiting factors such as distance and isolation a little frustrating. I’m not saying you can’t build a wonderful career in Perth but I just wanted to try it elsewhere. When my sister, Melanie, who lives in Melbourne, announced she was pregnant I decided to move over to be closer to my first niece. It tipped the scales on a question I had been pondering for years.

Tilman Robinson. Source: supplied

Robinson: Network of Lines is a new ensemble I have put together specifically for the performance of this commission and includes some of my favourite musicians. In choosing the instrumentation, I decided to remove woodwinds from the equation. I have nothing against woodwind instruments and their players but I wanted to challenge myself by writing for an ensemble that doesn’t too closely resemble a big band; my primary ensemble in the past. Having recently relocated from Perth, it was difficult to put together an ensemble of people I knew and trusted.

Funnily, a lot of the people in the ensemble are people I have played with previously in Perth such as Callum G’Froerer (trumpet) and Brett Thompson (guitar) who have both recently moved over. We have played together for years so to be able to include them is very special to me. Berish Bilander (piano) and I studied at the WA Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and last year we were both invited to the Banff Centre in Canada to take part in a workshop which rekindled our musical relationship. I had heard Hugh Harvey (drums) and Sam Pankhurst (bass) in a variety of different ensembles over the years and have always enjoyed the openness and interaction in their playing. This will be the first time I work with them and I am very excited.

I have been trying to find a way to work with my sister Melanie (cello) for a long time. Unfortunately we have been separated by distance but now that we are finally in the same city again that dream has become a reality. I was looking for a violinist and Melanie recommended Xani Kolac whose work in her group The Twoks I have always admired. Both Melanie and Xani have a unique and improvisatory approach to their instruments making them great choices for this project.

Finally, I have been trying to find a way to work with Peter Knight for almost a year now. I am very glad that he agreed to bring his wealth of experience to this project. To work with such fantastic musicians is a real honour and hopefully the ensemble will continue into the future. Who knows? This could be start of a beautiful friendship.

Jazz-planet: What other projects are you currently working on?

Robinson: At the moment I’m just trying to find my feet playing and writing in Melbourne. I have only been here two months so this commission is the first major work I have undertaken as a resident. I am also currently mixing down a recording I did of my music with the Mace Francis Orchestra (MFO) before I left Perth. I had been a member of that amazing big band for almost seven years before I left and they agreed to record some of the pieces I had written for the band over the years. Unfortunately, the album won’t be ready in time for the performance of the commission.

Jazz-planet: What music are you listening to now that’s really catching your interest?

Robinson: This is always such a difficult question because there is so much catching my interest all the time! I’m going to try to limit myself to five albums here because otherwise I’ll talk about it all day.

One album I have been listening to consistently for over a year now is bass saxophonist Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. Colin is an exceptional musician who has been a great inspiration for me. He is equally at home playing his extremely physically demanding solo work and lending his voice to contemporary bands such as Bon Iver, Arcade Fire and Feist.

I have also been listening to a couple of great contemporary song cycles; AnaĂŻs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope. The two are very different musically but capture a wonderful sense of narrative in recreating the Greek myths of Orpheus and The Odyssey respectively.

‘Progressive bluegrass’ (I hate genre names) band the Punch Brothers are a new discovery for me but I haven’t been able to stop listening to their impeccably written and performed music.

It’d be hard for me not to mention the entire Bedroom Community label and its releases at this point because it includes some of my absolute favourite composers and musicians in the forms of Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, Ben Frost and Valgeir SigurĂ°sson. Each is extremely different but they are able to collaborate beautifully in creating the music of the others. The four have the kind of musical relationship that all other musicians envy. Well, at least I do. (I have to admit I’m a bit of a Bedcom fanboy).

For the past 3 years I have been coming back to two amazing ECM albums, Christian Wallumrød’s The Zoo is Far and Nik Bärtsch’s Holon. Any time I am doing any significant travel these are the first two albums I turn to. There’s something calming about their simplistic minimal intricacy.

Finally, closer to home, Peter Knight’s two most recent releases, Fish Boast of Fishing and Residual have really interested me. They are part of the reason I am so excited to be working with him! The other being that he’s such a nice guy.

That’s way more than five albums but hey, there’s a lot I could add to the list…

Jazz Planet: What are you reading now?

Tilman: I’m not really getting a chance to read too much right now but there are a few things on my list to get started on once I finish writing this commission. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is the first and only Calvino I have read and I am really looking forward to sinking my teeth into some of his other novels, starting with Invisible Cities. Also on my list is the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Actually, it’s been on my list for years but now that there’s a copy of Titus Groan sitting on my bedside table I think it will become a reality. One of these days I really have to sit down and finish Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise too. It’s one of the most engaging histories of modern music I’ve ever read. So engaging I don’t seem to be able to finish it!

Find Tilman Robinson on the web:


Twitter @tilmanr

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