Tag Archives: Adam Simmons

THE WORD ON WANG FROM THE BOARD

Miriam Zolin

Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues

Q&A

Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, responds to some questions about the future of this much-loved festival, which has been postponed by a year until 2020 for a “total re-think”:

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle you were quoted as saying it would have been “a huge risk” to go ahead with the festival this year. Clearly the board felt it would be a greater risk than to defer for one year, with all the implications for local businesses and for breaking the continuity of this event. What had changed that made it riskier to go ahead than to defer?

MZ: It wasn’t so much that anything huge had changed, just that we were able to see things that we hadn’t seen before. Prior to our festival managers resigning there was fairly limited transparency to how the festival was run. Boards have a responsibility to make sure they know what’s going on. They have responsibility for their sponsor and donor relationships, for the wellbeing of their volunteers and for strong, healthy community linkages. More than anything, Boards have serious fiscal responsibility right down to the line items on a budget. This is because Directors (Board members) are individually carrying risk and can be held liable if they’re not making it their business to be informed about the organisation’s workings. I joined the Board in April last year along with a couple of other people and we could see that there were lots of questions that needed answering, and the answers were not very forthcoming. The previous Board had either not been asking the questions, or had been asking and not getting answers. There were issues right down to artist contracts and our constitution, which contradicts itself in a couple of places.

Those of us who were new to the Board were good at asking questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons our festival managers resigned! It was probably quite annoying.

Once we had delivered the 2018 festival we knew we needed to hire a new festival manager but we needed to fix up those issues we’d uncovered first, or at least know what they were so we could get a new event manager to fix them. It would have been irresponsible of us not to address the multiple issues. As we started to understand the complexities, we also had a couple of Board members resign, so we were doing it all with a smaller team. We were committed to doing it but there just wasn’t capacity to do it concurrently with the work that had to be done for a 2019 festival.

Ausjazz: Also in that Wangaratta Chronicle article you said that the resignation of Adam Simmons from the festival’s artistic team was a tipping point for the board. Frank Davidson also announced he has retired from his role as co-artistic director. Do these departures signal a significant falling out between the board and its artistic directors?

MZ: Adam’s departure was a tipping point mainly because there was no way we could have programmed a festival that celebrated the 30th adequately in the time remaining to us. Adam worked incredibly hard during his time on the artistic team. He believed in the festival’s potential and really busted a gut to get the most out of the artistic budget and help coordinate a great program. For us to be able to proceed, programming would have needed to be well under way by the date of his departure. However the uncertainty that we’d been dealing with for the previous months meant that he had been unable to commit to a number of key artists. Also with his departure we would have had to recruit a new team member and work at a pace that our depleted Board simply could not have stomached. Honestly, no matter what decision we made at this point there would have been too much work to do, but this way, at the end of that hard work there is a greater chance of a future for the festival.

I know that Adam has spoken publicly on Facebook and elsewhere  about a difference of opinion that you mention below. I think I missed that. We’d told Adam that we had the same budget in 2019 for the program as we did in 2018, and that we were going to make some changes to how things were managed. The Board had agreed, based on our own observations and input from other individuals that far too much of an admin burden had been unfairly placed on the artistic team. We had also told Adam that we wanted the Event Manager – and until they were hired, the Board – to have an overview of all the funding being applied for. Again, it was about transparency and making sure the right processes were in place, with appropriate roles and responsibilities.

We have to remember that Adam was a member of a team so any programming vision was not just Adam’s; it was a shared vision, but I haven’t had any sense of a difference of opinion from other members of the team. Zoe Hauptmann’s contribution to the programming was huge, as was Frank’s dedication to the Blues. And I can’t speak highly enough of local musician and teacher Scott Solimo. He has been involved in the festival for years and in 2017 and 2018 was responsible for programming the community stage, and helped source staging, backline, sound, lighting… not to mention the strong local connections. What a star. Frank’s decision to resign had no relationship to Adam’s decision – though the timing made them seem connected. Frank had always been very clear that 2019 would be his last year. He is enjoying retirement, and being able to focus on his community radio gig and enjoy the surf where he lives. He had committed to three years of programming at Wangaratta. When we told him about our decision, he made the call to hang up his hat.

Ausjazz: Adam Simmons says the festival has a strong future, yet he has stated publically that he stepped down due to “a difference of opinion about the best way to try and achieve the same goal of moving the festival forward”. Can you elaborate on how Simmons’ vision differed from what the board wanted?

MZ: Again, I can’t speak for Adam. I’ve always held him in high esteem and I know that he had a vision that he would have liked to bring about over a number of years.

I’ve not been able to unpack exactly where Adam feels the disconnect between his vision and the Board’s arose. Last time we spoke about it I think I began to understand the extent of his hopes and dreams for the festival, and that’s a great thing to have in a co-artistic director. One thing we did say to him was that we wanted the 30th to celebrate the legacy of the festival as influencer and shaper of Australian jazz. We felt the idea of looking backwards so we can move forward was an important message for this 30 year milestone. He’s never said that this direction from the Board impinged on his vision, and I hope he would have said if it was an issue. It’s the only thing I can think of.

Ausjazz: You mentioned that last year’s festival was well acclaimed and a fantastic board had been in place. If there was not “a problem with money in the kitty”, why not pay for operational assistance to ease the load on board members and allow their role to remain strategic?

MZ: The 2018 festival went over budget, and the Rural City helped us out with some serious underwriting. The overrun happened around travel, accommodation, infrastructure and production – all aspects of the festival that we had to put in place quickly with minimal negotiating power after our event managers resigned 10 weeks out from the festival. Our draft budget for 2019 was showing that we could have pulled a 2019 festival together, but not with any fat. This would have been our fourth year without a significant surplus, and we needed to change that pattern. Running that close to the line, year after year, is just plain irresponsible. Late last year we also lost our major National Jazz Awards sponsor and failed with two Australia Council for the Arts applications. These seemingly disconnected events constituted a huge risk for our volunteer Board when lumped together. As individual Directors, we wear the loss, except when our very good friends the Rural City of Wangaratta step up to assist, and we have agreed that neither organisation has the appetite for that again.

Ausjazz: What aspects of the structure and organisation of the festival were so deficient that it meant taking a year off to fix them?

MZ: I’ve probably said enough about this above, but more will be shared as we progress through the year.

Ausjazz: You’ve flagged that from the festival’s annual general meeting in March there will be “a total re-think”. What does this mean for the music? Will there be an effort to further broaden the appeal of the festival and how far will this involve moving away from the festival programming as it evolved under the artistic direction of Adrian Jackson?

You’ve said this re-think would include whether the festival should continue to be held on the weekend before Melbourne Cup Day. What other options have been suggested, and why?

MZ: In recent years there have been some extreme weather at the festival, such as floods and heatwaves. Locals have been saying that this time of year is no longer as stable as it used to be. We’re not saying there will be a change, but just that there’s an opportunity to check whether there needs to be. We’ll work with the Rural City of Wangaratta on this one.

Regarding any suggestion of a change in music, the festival is famous regionally, nationally and to some extent internationally as a contemporary jazz music that features exciting collaborations and the best of Australian jazz. It’s an arts festival, which is why it attracts arts funding. While I am involved I will keep singing that tune (or maybe I’ll scat a little). We’re a jazz and blues festival, and I don’t see that changing, not least because of the National Jazz Awards. If the Board membership changes significantly and there’s decision to move away from jazz and improvised music in any significant way, I’d probably not want to be involved. Adrian Jackson was and is a gifted curator and programmer. The team that followed brought their own vision and delivered two wonderful festivals. I’m excited to see what a new Board will choose to program the 30th.

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle article, mayor Dean Rees said the council would be staging a music festival in November this year that would be “just as big or better for the community”. Given the difficulty faced by the board in continuing to hold a music festival that has been running for 29 years, how realistic is it for the city to stage a totally new and “better” festival in the time available, starting from scratch?

Cr Rees also suggested this new festival would perhaps involve “a new genre of music” and said “it may be time to steer away from jazz”. Does this mean the end of council’s support and effectively the end of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues?

MZ: I can’t speak for the Rural City of Wangaratta and I guess they can’t speak for the festival. I’m not privy to their plans for the weekend and we’ve offered to assist in any way we can, when they start to put some ideas together. We may be able to leverage our significant connections in live music, to attract and support some kind of a placeholder for the festival in 2019.

Although intertwined, we are separate organisations. There’s no doubt that we each provide significant benefit to each other and we’re receiving no indication that the Rural City no longer supports the festival. We’re in discussions with them about what their support will look like and we’re committed to an ongoing partnership. I guess Cr Rees’ response to the news supports the information we’re receiving that this decision was an unwelcome shock to many locals, which tells us we probably should have shared more of what we were going through with the local community so they understood what we were dealing with.

Last year RCoW underwrote the festival, as we ran at a significant loss. Linked with that, we have been really transparent with the Rural City and we want to make sure we work together to minimise the effect of this decision on the local community.

Ausjazz: Finally, a lot of regular patrons have an annual booking with accommodation providers in Wangaratta because they come every year. What do you advise people in this situation to do now that there will not be jazz or blues happening in November and the future of the festival is uncertain?

MZ: I can’t see into the future but I think that if people can wait a couple of weeks to decide, they should – at least until after the AGM on 4 March and until we’ve managed to figure out how we can support the Rural City with whatever they decide to do with that weekend. The accommodation providers will take a hit from this, and I know we’d like to find a way to make sure that’s minimised.

ROGER MITCHELL appreciates the effort by Miriam Zolin to respond so promptly to these questions. Her replies have been published in full.

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WIND AS BREATH, BREATH AS LIFE

Wang Zheng-Ting

Wang Zheng-Ting on sheng in The Kites of Tianjing    Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

The Kites of Tianjin, Concert 5 in The Usefulness of Art series, fortyfive downstairs, Thursday 26 July, 730pm. Further performances 27, 28 and 29 July.

It would be fitting to describe The Kites of Tianjin as breathtaking, yet the reverse is true.

The fifth in a series of concerts collectively entitled The Usefulness of Art, first performed at fortyfive downstairs on Thursday night by Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble with guest Wang Zheng-Ting on sheng (a polyphonic Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument), is breathtakingly beautiful. But rather than taking breath away, it fills the audience with life-giving breath.

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Simmons has become known in this concert series for creating many moving and energising musical moments, especially at the beginnings and endings of his works. At the end of Concert 2, in August 2017, audience members were drawn to add their voices to the powerful vocals of Pete Lawler to powerful effect.

The Kites of Tianjin ending also draws the audience in to share and engage with the ensemble, but in a totally different way. We gradually become aware that the music is becoming breath-like and, in an utterly magic experience, realise as the music fades that all that remains is the breathing. Like gentle waves washing on a sea shore the breathing takes us to an utterly restful and peaceful place. Instead of our breath being taken, we are filled with and enlivened by our own breathing.

Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble with guest Wang Zheng-Ting

Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble with guest Wang Zheng-Ting   Image: Roger Mitchell

Inspired by a visit by Ting and Simmons to Shanghai and Tianjin in April, where they meet Wei Guoqiu, who is from a famed kite-making family, The Kites of Tianjin is really all about how wind gives life to kites, as breath does to much music and to us as breathing beings.

In composing the work, Simmons does not presume to be able to write Chinese music, but uses notes that are familiar to Ting and yet will allow him to improvise. The result is wonderfully cohesive.

Simmons opens the concert with breathy shakuhachi, his notes powerfully pushing skywards in the darkened space, conveying urgency and then calm, seeming to celebrate breath as a life force. The effect of Niko Schauble’s glowering cymbals and delicate brush work, along with slow swells of sound from flutes, is ethereal.

Kites by Rachaeldaisy form a colourful backdrop for the performers, who are clad in hues of blue.

Carmen Chan

Carmen Chan on marimba in The Kites of Tianjin.    Image: Roger Mitchell

Carmen Chan on her magnificent marimba paves the way for the first sounds from the bamboo pipes of Ting’s sheng, his watery vibrato shimmering then evolving into slow and surreal organ-like chords. This is electrifyingly atmospheric.

No concert performed by this ensemble would be without some clutter and clash, but Ting shows he can match it with the drums behind and dancing horns up front in a long percussive piece. This is followed by a lively and melodic period of busyness and bustle with, to me, the feel of a Chinese opera. It could also suggest the frenzied flying of kites in all directions, sharply tugged by a vigorous wind. Eventually the whole band unites to deliver chant-like and almost martial patterns.

One of many highlights comes when Simmons on tenor sax and Ting on sheng join in a playful and engaging duet, chasing each other’s contributions with notes — Ting’s at times vibrato and at others startlingly high and fragile — that could represent the kites of Wei Guoqiu darting across the sky over Tianjin. The duet draws applause.

Niko Schauble at the drum kit and Wang Zheng-Ting on flute.

Niko Schauble at the drum kit and Wang Zheng-Ting on flute.   Image: Roger Mitchell

Marimba and drums open a layered piece that is grounded in complexity and topped with dancing high, agile notes from Ting on a small flute. I love the way the melody rises out of the melee and stray notes seem to fly out of the mix before a sense of unity gradually develops, the horns resplendent over a glorious mayhem of percussion before it all dies away in a weirdly evocative chatter.

At one point Gideon Brazil and Gemma Horbury fly small hand kites around the stage, but they are not often caught by the light.

Penultimately, Schauble’s cymbal rumble and Nat Grant on glockenspiel, backed by Howard Cairns on bowed bass, usher in Ting back on sheng for an interlude I could listen to forever, it is so fragile, peaceful and floating on air. Flutes join in, well spaced, as the music takes us seamlessly into the final breath-filling finale.

The Kites of Tianjin seems short at not quite an hour, and less of a journey than the previous concert, The Calling. It has much complexity at times and yet the overall effect is conveyed with potent simplicity. We breathe. We live.

Don’t miss the chance to hear this concert.

ROGER MITCHELL

WELCOME TO COUNTRY

Adam Simmons and Vikram Iyengar

Adam Simmons and Vikram Iyengar in The Calling.

REVIEW

The Calling — Adam Simmons, Concert 4 in The Usefulness of Art series, 7.30pm 4 May 2018, fortyfive downstairs

Coming to a performance without baggage is impossible, just as leaving that behind when writing a review can’t be done. But one way to judge any work of art is surely to ask whether and where it has taken us; down which paths, if any, has it prompted us to explore.

I came to The Calling having watched all except one of Adam Simmons’ short, explanatory videos prefacing this concert he describes as being “in four parts, with little bits in between”. As these videos explain, in this work he— with significant help from his Creative Music Ensemble and the Afrolankan Drumming System duo — explores themes of identity and belonging by drawing on his first visit to his mother’s homeland, Sri Lanka.

My parents were not born overseas. But I can identify a little with Simmons’ search for identity — he was born in Chelsea and grew up in a mix of Ballarat, Upwey and Westall before making Melbourne his home; I was born in Bairnsdale and grew up in Clayton, Orbost, Berwick and Horsham before moving to the city. It is quite a different experience from living only in one place. You tear up roots and move on, from security briefly fashioned to its absence.

Simmons clearly felt a more profound absence that drew him to Sri Lanka in 2016, a connection that he felt drawn to make with part of his cultural heritage.

The most affecting part of these prefatory videos, I felt, came in Simmons’ account of his experience at the temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Amid the populous bustle and noise of this place where people queued to see the site of the tooth of Buddha, he found a connection with his mother’s birthplace — a gentle smile that conveyed love, acceptance and welcome.

That experience inspired Part 4 of The Calling, entitled Connection: The Tooth of Buddha.

It resonated with me before I heard the music. Many years back when visiting that temple in Kandy I had a totally different, yet moving experience. Early on a still, cool morning, I wandered in those spaces free of people, absorbing the place in a kind of meditative exploration. My reverie then was broken only when a resident monk offered me a leaf-wrapped packet of sticky rice. The warmth and kindness of that simple act has remained with me.

There is not so much of a quietly meditative nature in the performance of The Calling. This work bristles with percussive variety, conveying the vibrancy, life and vitality found often in Sri Lanka.

Three transitional interludes employ imaginatively different approaches to bring train journeys into sharp relief, conveying via sounds and visuals the urgency of getting somewhere, the insistent patterns of wheels in motion, resonant whistles wailing into the distance and the colour and busyness of passenger interactions.

Of the four main compositional offerings, three offer a richly percussive mix of energy and intensity — the rhythms of life writ large. In the opening piece, The Calling, Ray Pereira (djembe, conga, dundun) and Kanchana Karuntaratna (gata bera, thammattama) provide a virtuosic spectacle that varies in tempo and intensity, competition and congruence. These two musicians who form The Afro-Lankan Drumming System are serious and exuberant as they converse via their instruments, displaying lightness and rapidity, dexterity and finesse. It is hard not to be mesmerised.

Eventually Niko Schauble and Hugh Harvey add their drums to the mix before wailing horns build the feel of a street parade or the madness of traffic. It develops into an occasionally discordant melee of resplendent mayhem.

In Part 3, Living: The Dance of Kottu Roti, an array of instruments combines to convey an unsettling but glorious cacophony of hammering, knocking and tinkling —bustle and chatter, colour and movement. So much is happening that we can only let it wash over us like a carnival, tasting and savouring flavours and smells.

Part 4 brings us to that Kandi temple, drums and cymbals signalling drama, helped by horns. On soprano saxophone, Simmons becomes the focus in a riveting solo, grabbing deep gasps of air to power sighs, wails and sonorous, almost plaintive notes. It is as if making a connection to deep cultural roots is not easy. It may require effort, perhaps anguish.

Gradually we become aware that only one instrument is playing, that the mayhem has subsided. A dancer, Vikram Iyengar, moves slowly and purposefully among the musicians to connect with and ultimately support Simmons in his soliloquy. Yet this is a relationship of mutuality — the player and the dancer lean on, and gain support from, each other. Almost too starkly lit, it is a most powerful image.

Three sharp drum beats bring us back to what must be the crowded, noise-filled temple.

The only portion of this work that offers a less frenetic perspective is Part 2 – Place: The Pearl. Here Nat Grant and Carmen Chan on vibes draw us deep into the landscape, into ancient history and into the luxuriant humidity of a fecund rainforest. Eventually a slow melody delivered by the horns takes on a hymn-like feel, solemn and a little wistful. Deep notes draw us to the earth. There is a feeling that we are touching the heart of this land.

The strongest image of The Calling, for me, was that of Simmons supported wholly by Iyengar, symbolising his finding of a connection. The richest listening experience I found in Part 2, when place was tangible.

It is impossible, and unnecessary, to compare The Calling with other concerts in The Usefulness of Art series. But this work of art well and truly passed the test of taking us somewhere, of prompting exploration.

A few days after the performance I was reading Khaleed Hosseini’s novel And the Mountains Echoed. A remark by one of the characters seemed to fit Simmons’ mission:
“You are lucky to know where you came from. It is important to know this, to know your roots. … If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like a puzzle. Like you have missed the beginning of a story …”

In The Calling, Adam Simmons shows that he found a significant part of his story. Yet, as he said while introducing the performance, it is worth asking how the treatment of disconnected people who have come to this nation may have been affected by our own displacements.

ROGER MITCHELL