ANAM: The new Melbourne festival challenging you to broaden your musical horizons

ANAM: The new Melbourne festival challenging you to broaden your musical horizons

Abbotsford Convent - photo by Charlie Kinross
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Words by Bridget McArthur

What’s your favourite genre of music?

If you’re like me (and every single person on any dating app ever), your answer might be “I listen to a little a bit of everything”, followed by a sheepish caveat: “except, y’know, classical music and opera”.

Sure, I listened to the odd Chopin track back when I was studying, but I can count the number of composers I know on one hand.

The Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) is here to change that with an upcoming festival – the ANAM Set Festival (May 13-15) – showcasing over eight hours of work by 67 Australian composers, produced last year in collaboration with 67 ANAM performers.

Stay up to date with what’s happening in and around Melbourne here.

The festival hopes to bring in audiences from all walks of life, and challenge traditional conceptions of composition and ‘classical music’ – beginning with the notion that, just because a piece includes acoustic instruments and is in notational format, it must belong strictly to the genre.

We spoke to one of the composers, Kitty Xiao, last week, and she laid it out for us: “Yes, I would tell someone that I wrote classical music – it’s an easy way to explain to someone what you do – but, really, the term ‘classical composer’ isn’t a good enough label. It’s a very shallow representation of what it is that we’re trying to do. It’s something that exists in the past. I’d like to hope that the language can kind of keep up with the interesting things that people are doing.”

Listening to Xiao’s piece, In Flesh – performed by cellist Hamish Jamieson – you’d have to agree. There’s zero digital analogue synthesis involved, but you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking twice; at times the cello’s fractured noises barely resemble its acoustic origins, leaning deep into Xiao’s performance background in electronic and techno music. Its cinematic soundscape conveys viscerally everything from the beauty to the discomfort and grotesqueness of life inside the fleshy prison that is the human body. Try sticking that in a genre.

It’s no wonder it’s so hard to pin down. While drawing on her own personal experiences of being a woman and an immigrant as inspiration, she has left ample space for interpretation, including by Jamieson. “Even with the way the score is notated… it’s very free. Hopefully every time Hamish performs it, there is that kind of fluidity in the time, and in the way he executes each of the gestures…

“I wanted the audience to feel like they were getting taken into the mental state of a performer, being trapped inside someone’s body.”

Xiao, who, like many Aussies, found herself stuck overseas during the pandemic, collaborated with Jamieson on the piece via Zoom, throwing inspirations (composers like George Lewis and Sara Nemtsov), motifs and samples back and forth – and generally just getting to know each other. “Not to sound cheesy, but Hamish’s existence kind of started the piece. Even though, technically, I’m composing the piece, it didn’t really feel like that… He would do step one and then I did step two, then he did step three. It was kind of like passing the note at school.”

ANAM’s new Artistic Director, Paavali Jumppanen, says such collaboration was integral to the ANAM Set Project. In addition to providing students with real-world experience working one-on-one with some of Australia’s best composers, the project aspired to show the public that classical music is something born out of connection – to the world, our peers and ourselves.

“There is this reputation for classical music composers to be these lonesome geniuses, tucked away from society, creating masterpieces,” Jumppanen explains. “In some very rare cases certain personalities have been like that – but, in most cases, composers have always been collaborators with performers… These days, the idea of collaboration and performer personality is at the centre of the creation of new work.”

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In the spirit of collaboration, Jamieson will be joined on stage by dancer Pia Lauritz. Her performance will add another layer of interpretation to the piece, playing with the texture and general physicality of sound.

When we spoke with Jamieson, he was just about to have his first practice run with Lauritz. “I think it’s going to be a lot about exploration and responding to each other.” A Jazz saxophonist and improviser on the side, Jamieson is more than happy to push beyond the boundaries of his classical training. “The biggest challenge has been getting myself off the score and off the piece of paper, so that I’m just interacting the track. When you train classically, you have to build up all these shells of technique and ideas about how to go about things. But then you get here, it’s like you’re trying to rip them back off… We’re trying, in some ways, to turn off [our technical training] so people can actually see the core of what we’re playing, and feel connected.”

The idea of getting to the core emotion of a piece and connecting with people is a thread that runs through the festival and its proponents. All 67 works have been divided up into programs based on the central themes explored; from political dissent and climate change, to loss and resilience. Formal talks have been kept to a minimum over the three days to allow the music to speak for itself.


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“The intellectualisation of music does have a place, but we want to leave it up to the public to interpret,” says Jumppanen. Which got me thinking… Are genres too quick to tell us what to think? How to feel? Do I only not listen to classical music because of historic associations with a mistakenly wide grouping of compositions?

Maybe. Maybe it’s time we give up the genre labels altogether, and instead class things, as ANAM has done, based on how they make us feel, or the key message they are trying to get across.

Jamieson puts it best: “When it comes to new types of music, it’s such an easy trap you can fall into of disregarding it, not really accepting it in the same way you accept other music. Then you have this moment of reassessment, like: this is real, this is valid. This is the product of what’s happening here right now.”

I don’t know about you but I personally would very much like to know what’s happening here right now. And with Australia rediscovering a ravenous enthusiasm for live music, there’s no better time to broaden your musical horizons.

Tickets for the ANAM Set Festival can be found here. You can claim 25% back through the Victorian Dining and Entertainment Program. Can’t make it? Tune in to Radio National, who will be broadcasting live from the Convent on Saturday (May 14). Visit the ANAM website here.

In partnership with ANAM.