Andrea Keller talks about her new album, Family Portraits, which she launches on Friday 24 May at The Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
The lives of those who we have loved and lost return to us in fragments.
A photograph, a smell or a familiar location may bring to mind a parent or grandparent. Unconsciously we may pay homage in our sayings, our favourite recipes or our ways of behaving.
But can we recall the sound of their voices? And what if we never had the opportunity to hear the voices of those who have gone before?
When pianist and composer Andrea Keller remembers her father and the one grandparent she knew, she hears “the sounds of their voices in my head: the timbre, the pitch, certain pronunciations and sounds of words they repeatedly used”.
“It’s part of how I feel connected to them,” says Keller, who refers to her latest album, Family Portraits, as an aural family tree. It is a collection of 11 pieces dedicated to her ancestors and loved ones.
Without Voice is dedicated to Jan and Ruzena Werner, and Vladimir Keller, who she did not have the chance to meet. Keller says it conveys “a sense of absence” rather than regret: “I miss knowing what their voices sounded like.”
Andrea Keller’s parents, both World War II babies, escaped from former Czechoslovakia to Australia in 1968. As children they were forced to leave their homes with no more than 50kg per family, escaping camps and living in hiding. They both lost their fathers at young ages and knew little if anything about their families beyond parents and siblings.
“I grew up loving hearing their stories, but had a sense that there was so much about me entwined in the history of my ancestors that I knew nothing about, and so I felt large pieces of me were missing,” Keller recalls.
“As kids we weren’t allowed to visit Czechoslovakia because of the political situation and the fact that our parents had escaped. So I had no chance to meet the few living relatives I had over there. There were efforts at contact through gifts and photos sent in the mail, and broken, difficult and brief phone calls once a year. I was envious of my friends who had large extended families, with enormous support networks and opportunities for connecting with cousins and grandparents.
In 2002, after winning the inaugural Freedman Foundation Jazz Fellowship enabled her to live in Prague for six months, Keller met and had regular contact with her paternal grandmother, Zdenjka Kellerova.
“That was a really priceless experience for me. I loved simply hanging out with her at her flat. We had some trouble communicating, but that was half the fun! We both really cherished the opportunities to be together.”
Keller’s longing to know more about her heritage led her to ask her grandmother to share all she knew about her past.
But the idea of Family Portraits came much later, in February 2010, when Keller and husband Michael Meagher took their children to the Czech Republic to see Zdenjka Kellerova .
“At the time there were a lot of things that seemed to be telling us not to go, but somehow we made the trip happen. Fortune was truly smiling on us, because as we flew back home to Australia, my grandmother passed away in her sleep.
“Instantly I knew I wanted to write music that could somehow keep her spirit alive for my children and theirs. It saddened me to think that after the deaths of all of us who knew her, there would be no memory of her left in this world, bar a few unnamed photographs. The writing of the music is my small offering of gratitude to her and an acknowledgement of her contribution to my life.”
Liner notes on Family Portraits tell a little about the origin of each of the pieces, which are dedicated to Zdenjka, daughter Eve, father Erik, brother Peter, sons Jim and Luc, husband Michael, mother Rita, grandfather Jan and to the three grandparents never met. Paper Sandals, written for Keller’s mother, is as delicate as the footwear Rita Keller spent days constructing with cardboard, needle and thread after being deported to Germany.
Keller describes Belonging, written as part of a larger work entitled Place, as “a self portrait … that embodies my own sense of identity and belonging”.
Keller says her musical portraits are ethereal representations of the person or of a memory.
“In some pieces I focused on depicting a specific story and the music is … a musical representation of actual events, but in others it’s a mirror of the person’s general character — the qualities that define them to me. In others still, it’s more about my feelings towards the person. These pieces are generally an enormous mish-mash of emotions.”
The composer finds communicating through music “extremely freeing” and offering “an unending horizon of possibilities” limited only by her music vocabulary and skills, which she is always working to expand.
“I think I’m drawn to communicate through music because I don’t feel I’m that good at communicating with people through words and dialogue. I get a greater sense of satisfaction communicating through music. I have freedom to express myself however I wish and, yes, it seems more private because of the personal nature of musical language. People can draw their own conclusions based on their own experiences in life, and I like this element to it.
“In conversation I feel frustrated if I’m misunderstood, if someone has a contrary interpretation of what I’ve tried to express, but in music, I celebrate the different interpretations. My hope is to make people feel; feel something the music has given them an opportunity to experience; feel something they’d like to feel more of. The specifics aren’t that important to me.”
Asked how the recollection of love, humour and sadness is translated into music, Keller says that most of the time music and all art is expressing these sorts of emotions, which are imbued through the process of creation.
“I don’t know how to explain the translation except that it’s through intention. There is an element of magic and there are quite possibly involuntary effects, but most importantly there is the intention for expression.”
In Family Portraits, Keller performs solo, but uses a Boss RC50 loop station, Line 6 delay pedal and minimal preparations (temporary alterations) to the piano to broaden her musical palette.
“At times, the music I’m striving to create can’t be realised on an acoustic piano alone. With Incomparable (the tune I use the Line 6 delay pedal on), I had in my mind a sound from the piano that I could not find a way to make with my hands, feet and the acoustic instrument alone.
“I am drawn to texture in music, art and life. In the context of solo piano, texture has definite limits. So the use of the loop station was purely a way of reaching a musical vision I had in terms of playing ‘solo’.”
The mechanics of how Keller uses these devices may not be important to an audience or listeners to the album. At times she improvises over pre-composed lines that loop; at others loops are improvised from the start.
“I may just have a key centre, a general sequence of events preplanned, and perhaps a mood I’m aiming to convey. So in many ways the music can be unpredictable.”
The effect of listening to Family Portraits is unpredictable. It could take you anywhere, possibly on a journey that loops back into the lives of people you knew and those you have yet to discover. Privileged to be invited to share in Keller’s family, we may be drawn to explore our own family trees.
Andrea Keller’s album launch is at 7pm Friday 24 May at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon
Family Portraits is released on Jazzhead Records