Bianca Gannon is making ‘ombak’

The word ‘explorer’ might be a bit overused to describe artists who defy genres and push boundaries, but I can think of no better word to describe Bianca Gannon and her music, breaking the barriers between traditional gamelan, contemporary composition, improvisation and more. All this will be displayed on Tuesday, when she will team up with Elliott Hughes at Fourtyfivedownstairs for a performance titled ‘That Which Resonates, That Which Decays’. This is her take on this project, as well as her musical journey in general.

What is ‘That Which Resonates, That Which Decays’?

‘That Which Resonates, That Which Decays’ is a concert led by myself (composer, pianist, gamelan musician) and Elliott Hughes (composer, trumpeter and creator of motion-sensored augmented trumpet). It’s a culmination of what we’ve been working on for the past year or so – focusing on long form improvisations with live electronics and more recently bringing each other into our composition worlds as well as as bringing in guest musicians Josh Holt (double bass), Sophie Covey-Crump (gamelan) and Jenny Barnes (vocals) to realise that. Elliott and I have both penned two new compositions especially for this concert and we’ll also be playing two of my tunes from late last year as we really believe in giving new music compositions a life after a premiere – all too often a rare thing. There’s a lot of influences at play in our music.

Our aesthetic is informed by our love of french art music (particularly Messiaen), other twentieth century art music (Bartok), Minimalism (Glass), Jazz (Vijay Iyer), gamelan music from across Indonesia (I’m getting deeper and deeper into endangered forms) and new and experimental music generally (for me particularly Arlene Sierra). We’ve come to realise that what we do is probably most comparable to the Australian Art Orchestra, but on a smaller scale and more focused on blending one particular culture (Indonesia) with the classical/jazz mix. We’re all about the collaborative spaces between notated and improvised music, in blending the Western Canon with our current environment and influences from our nearest neighbours (Indonesia as well Korea in smaller yet important ways) and in breaking down barriers.

How would you describe your collaboration with Elliott Hughes?

We met at the Australian Art Orchestra’s Creative Music Intensive in 2016 where we happened to be put in an ensemble together. We loved this experience and found we had a really similar aesthetic so slowly but surely we continued doing improvised gigs together from Tilde New Music Festival to Lebowski’s Development Residency.

More recently we’ve added our compositions to the mix. It’s been amazing to workshop the pieces a lot with each other and the ensemble, seeing what works and what doesn’t. This is of course much more effective, however luxurious, way to work rather than handing a finished score to an ensemble and hoping for the best. As we’re both performing our own compositions too it’s great that we can lead the performance from within the group and not just from the page. We’re both musician-composers and same-age friends, so it’s no surprise that it’s an equal partnership between us – we both write the music, bring ideas to the table, offer each other feedback, split the admin. Elliott is very organised, yet chilled, patient and encouraging so I’m very fortunate and grateful that this collaboration has allowed me to grow more into myself as an artist in terms of composition and improvisation but even in pursuing this crazy thing where I play piano and gamelan simultaneously, as well as with loop pedal.

What does improvisation mean to you?

Honesty, listening, engaging and responding, conversation ,risk taking, discovering something new, being truly present and I suppose drawing upon the wealth of knowledge from all previous experiences. It’s where the magic happens!

How has your journey in music been so far?

The journey has not been linear and it wasn’t something I truly believed I could pursue until recent years. Most of my training has been classical; I majored in Composition and Twentieth Century Music Analysis. I’ve also dabbled in jazz and applied myself to various forms of gamelan. I’ve come to believe that it’s ok not to relentlessly pursue one musical avenue, it can be a good thing to be a jack of all trades, especially when creating your own music and own opportunities, and that for me the right thing is to pursue a multi-faceted career. I’m very fulfilled working as a musician-composer, curator and educator. Like most artists I face many challenges – financial, being under-resourced and over-subscribed, sexism, rejection but probably the most crippling is self-doubt. I don’t own it every day but the most important thing I’ve discovered is that I’m only really limited by own beliefs.

What is the most important thing anyone has ever said to you?

I truly believe actions, not words, is where it’s at. That being said, there’s been some nuggets of wisdom along the way. Musically it’s hard to choose but a couple of years go Jen Shyu said to me when referring to gigs, creating new music, life stuff etc.- “the only way to be ready is to do it, you become ready through the action of doing it”. After that I just started doing the musical stuff I wanted to do without agonising over if I was ready or not, and I really learnt through doing.

This week the most important thing I heard was an interview with Philip Glass where he said “art is seeing, dance is movement, poetry is writing and music is listening” and he talked about the importance for composers to be engaged as performers too, as performers listen in a different but important way and that should shape compositons. This was a well-timed reminder for me to both listen more deeply to my fellow ensemble mates and to listen more deeply within and let that guide my playing.

How did you get into gamelan?

My first encounter with gamelan came through studying recordings and journal articles for the ethnomusicology module that was a small part of my BMus degree in Wales. I was already somewhat into minimalism and rhythmically persistent music but in gamelan the ostinati are much more interesting, largely due to incredible tempo fluctuations within sections – which can be realised by an orchestra of 40 with awesome swagger. By that point perhaps my ears were a little tired of equal temperament so I was really awestruck by the new tunings and scales I was hearing, particularly theOmbakin Balinese gamelan where paired instruments are tuned 8Hz apart to create a shimmering, warbling effect which is beautifully and hauntingly resonant and lingering. So for me gamelan had most of the ingredients of my favourite music – rhythmically complex and trance-inducing, incredibly meditative, celestial and otherworldly resonances; and also that, as it is mainly used in beautiful rituals, as well as to accompany dance and shadow puppetry, it is quite an immersive form of music. In more recent years another appeal has been in witnessing world class musicians playing music without any ego, performing it simply as a gift to give and showing love through laughter when musical ‘imperfections’ occur and everyone in the group taking responsibility for that. That way of playing music is so far from what I had experienced up until that point that it has brought me tears of joy. Though totally letting go of ego in music still eludes me somewhat, the powerful experience of witnessing entire gamelan orchestras embody it brings me endless motivation.

Your approach to gamelan is far from traditional; how deliberate is this?

Interesting perspective! I do perform traditional repertoire with Gamelan DanAnda, but in my own music I am really instinctively drawing on everything that has had a profound impact on me, both musical and extra-musical. Gamelan is a huge part of that, both in terms of the beautiful resonant instruments themselves and compositionally. Many of my musical choices these days are directly influenced by gamelan composition but slightly innovated – for example I might give a classic gong cycle to the double bass and have the piano perform interlockingkotekanstyle syncopated rhythms but with a somewhat dissonant or extended harmony. A lot of this is intuitive, but perhaps moving away from pentatonic harmony is a more deliberate intention. I do use extended techniques, and loop pedal but to some extent in my own mind I am still referencing my gamelan training and experiences in Indonesia. In my multidisciplinary immersive projects such at The Colour Series and The Sund of Shadows series I’m really drawing on immersive ritualistic gamelan experiences I’ve had across Indonesia.

What inspires you?

Often very specific perspectives or insights in very specific moments. Some general themes though are music of course, immersive experiences, synaesthesia, spaces, the beach, visual art, gastronomy.

What is your favourite sound in the world?

Both waves at the beach andombak(literally ‘waves’) in Balinese gamelan.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Brad Mehldau – Free Willy