Solo well-read – stark worlds and beautiful soundscapes

“Kynan Robinson’s new piece ‘Solo in Red’ is both astoundingly beautiful and original. Setting out to capture the atmospheres of a Cormac McCarthy novel it does all that and more.” – Vierre Magazine 2011

Steve Grimwade, outgoing Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival
Steve Grimwade, outgoing Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival

As a composer and improvising musician, collaboration is at the core of what Kynan Robinson does when he creates and plays music. This year, he takes his experience of collaborating to a new level when the improvising ensemble Collider (co-led by Robinson and Adam Simmons) performs ‘Solo in Red’ at Melbourne Writers Festival.

Robinson wrote the work in response to Cormac McCarthy’s writing, drawing on his personal response to McCarthy’s stark, sparse worlds to answer his own creative questions, as a composer. The work was premiered in its original form in late 2011. The focus then was on the music and McCarthy’s text as inspiration was discussed but remained in the background.

Yet simply by having been created in response to a literary work, the piece has links to writing that piqued the interest of MWF Director Steve Grimwade when the idea was first pitched to him. When he heard the music, he was keen to start working with Robinson to see if they could bring an event about. ‘You open yourself up to opportunity and things happen,’ he says.

Grimwade has explored the idea of music at the MWF before. At the 2011 MWF Shaun Tan’s award-winning graphic novel The Arrival was brought to life by Ben Walsh’s Orkestra of the Underground. The Orkestra had already performed the piece at the Sydney Opera House but bringing it into MWF was an inspired idea. The combination of Tan’s graphic narrative and the music of some of Australia’s best jazz and improvising musicians received a standing ovation; there was barely a dry eye in the house and it was a festival highlight for those who were lucky enough to get a ticket. ‘That event,’ says Grimwade, ‘was one of the most powerful writers festival events I’ve ever attended.’

View video excerpts from The Arrival at the 2011 MWF

In an article in The Age in May announcing his departure as Director of MWF, Grimwade also referred to the festival Liner Notes events, which invite literary responses to a classic album. His interest in introducing a little music to the MWF program has stemmed from his sense that music and text fit very well together. ‘I don’t understand the strict delineations that many people put in place around different art forms; or the idea that stepping between forms muddies that art.’

In the jazz world there have been a number of recent conversations about the dilution of some idea of ‘pure jazz’ festivals by including guests and acts from the edges of jazz, for example pop, folk and ‘new music’. Is a writer’s festival taking risks by stepping to the edges of ‘what writing is’ to include a musical response such as ‘Solo in Red’, or an orchestrated soundtrack like the one presented with The Arrival in 2011?

Grimwade doesn’t believe so. ‘The marriage between music and text has been taking place for thousands of years,’ he says.

When it came to ‘Solo in Red’, Grimwade says he was as much convinced by the approach to the project as he was by the music itself. ‘Kynan has a strong affinity and love for Cormac McCarthy’s work. Intellectually it seemed very well grounded, in that he had looked at McCarthy’s creative process and then took that into his own creative space. It wasn’t just that “this chapter made me feel this one thing” it was also about the act o f creativity.’

View excerpts from the development performance of ‘Solo in Red’, from 2011

When he saw video footage of the work’s development performance and heard the music, Grimwade saw possibilities for the project to morph into something that would fit into a writers festival program – including text as accompaniment to the music, a shift from a more usual approach when combining these art forms, which would usually see music as accompaniment to text.

Robinson was keen to be involved in the writers festival, but didn’t want to compromise his original ideas. ‘I don’t want people to think they’re going to come and hear a Cormac McCarthy work translated into music,’ he says. ‘I wanted to write something that reflected, or responded to how McCarthy’s writing made me feel and I didn’t want to lose that intent in this process.’

Read our November 2011 interview with Kynan Robinson ‘Cognitive dissonance: Kynan Robinson finds musical ideas in the works of Cormac McCarthy

Grimwade, Robinson and Collider co-leader Adam Simmons have collaborated to put together an event that now ties in more closely to the writing that inspired it, without compromising Robinson’s compositional ideas. This was made possible by plenty of lead time and a commitment to make it happen. For Robinson, the lead time was important. ‘Steve is a great ideas man,’ he says. ‘I enjoy working with people like that but my own internal processes require time. We’d discuss something and it would take me a while to work through it internally and be happy with it.

Audiences can expect to hear original music and excerpts from Cormac McCarthy’s work, with multimedia components that complement the aural experience.

This is Grimwade’s last year with the MWF. He hopes that his programming of musical events will be one of his legacies. ‘When music and text inhabit the same space you can often create more opportunities for both of them.’

View the event and purchase tickets on the Melbourne Writers Festival website

Purchase tickets for Collider at the Melbourne Recital Centre

Contribute to the Multimedia component of Solo in Red – as part of their effort to raise funds for this component, Robinson has set up a crowd funding project on Pozible. Some great rewards so if you’d like to help bring this event to life, take a look here >

See Collider’s page on Facebook

Event details

Solo in Red – based on the writings of Cormac McCarthy

Presented by Melbourne Recital Centre and Collider, in association with Melbourne Writers Festival


Kynan Robinson – composer

Words by Cormac McCarthy


Adam Simmons – tenor saxophone
Kynan Robinson – trombone
Ronnie Ferrella – drums
Anita Hustas – bass
Jason Bunn – viola
Andrea Keeble – violin

Visual artists

Michelle Robinson
Dotahn Caspi
Sean Kelly

Event dates

Friday 24 August 2012 at 6:00 pm
Friday 24 August 2012 at 8:00 pm
Saturday 25 August 2012 at 8:00 pm

Ticket price – Tickets $40 ($30 concession)

View the event and purchase tickets on the Melbourne Writers Festival website

Purchase tickets for Collider at the Melbourne Recital Centre