Tag Archives: fortyfivedownstairs



The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2: Final moment


The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2, performed by the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, August 24, 2017

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since this opening night performance, but vivid recollections remain. I recall thinking as the music faded to silence and a single spotlight played on a suspended “cloud”, that once again Adam Simmons and his crew had demonstrated the power and value of art.

Mundane matters — a computer failure and the need to find a replacement before packing for an imminent flight to Canada — brought me down the many stairs of this wonderful, hidden away venue in an unsettled state of mind.

Yet the sense of excitement and expectation engendered by the colourful Concert 1 of this series, with its streamers, balloons and joie de vivre, was heightened on this occasion by the imaginative set — devised by Diokno Pasilan and Christine Crawshaw — with suspended chairs and clumps of fluffy clouds.

Adam Simmons has recently written about his long preoccupation with Auguste Rodin’s views on The Usefulness of the Artist.

Rodin’s definition of the artist as “the man who takes pleasure in what he does” is immediately appealing — artists in all trades forming part of “an admirable society”. As someone who has come to love beekeeping — not just for the acquisition of honey, but for the deep pleasure it brings — I can identify closely with this concept.

But Rodin’s view is much more expansive than individual fulfilment: “I call useful all that gives us happiness.” And over many years Simmons — an energetic, creative and inspiring multi-instrumentalist and composer — has delved deeply into what art can offer.

“Beyond the more utilitarian nature of art being for economic or personal development, it is also how art can build community,” Adam Simmons has written. “Through performances with my ensembles … I have seen firsthand how music and art can bring disparate people together in shared and transformative experiences. Social connectedness has been identified as an important factor for health and wellbeing. I believe art is fundamental in helping us communicate and connect which other.

Simmons continues: “Artistic expression manages to convey understanding and insight via means other than language. The things that make art so powerful in this regard are the intangibles – the way it helps inspire, question, empathise and unite us, helping create stronger communities. I think that’s useful!”

That unity and sense of community is what has lingered in my mind so long after this second concert in a series of five that will stretch into 2018. The sense of fun and joy was still evident among the ensemble members, although the set and costumes conveyed a darker mood. As collective voices joined Pete Lawler’s distinctive and arresting solo vocals at the culmination of this concert, drawing the audience into their harmonic spell, I felt that we were indeed united and there was much power and benefit in that.

With any offering inspired by Adam Simmons there is going to be more than merely music. But additional elements — in this case the darkly Gothic costumes by Christine Crawshaw — are always beautifully integrated. As Simmons breathed gently and circularly into his bass clarinet to begin the Creative Music Ensemble’s journey through music originally conceived to highlight qualities that art engenders — acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith — we were enfolded in a sense of mystery.

The pieces, named for those qualities, were familiar. Origami’s album The Usefulness of Art was released in 2013. But this rendition, with 13 ensemble members (unfortunately some others were unavailable on opening night), was dramatically different. Simmons has assembled this ensemble with care and utilises their skills imaginatively. Each piece segued into the next in gradual transformations, swelling and receding as Simmons conducted from within, directing the gestation.

This was very much an ensemble work rather than an airing of solos, but there were highlights. Diokno Pasilan on gamelan instruments, Niko Schauble and Hugh Harvey on drums, Peter Lawler on a hand drum and Nat Grant on Marimba provided a rich feast of varied percussion that was at times an underlay and at others more prominent.

Most effective and affecting duos came from Paul Simmons (sax) and Gemma Horbury (trumpet), and Bryn Hills (trombone) with Adam Simmons (bass clarinet). Miranda Hill, with and without bow, was a ball of creative energy on double bass. David Brown, on guitar, not unexpectedly made deft and entirely apposite interventions. Cara Taber and Gideon Brazil on reeds enjoyed making great lamentations. Peter Lawler made fiendishly superb contributions on his mini synth and left a lingering impact with vocals that called to mind the Korean p’ansori singer Bae Il Dong.

This performance lasted 50 minutes, yet it seemed to flash past. Clearly the musicians enjoyed their outing greatly, yet there was a sombre feel in the music that went beyond the mood created by set and costumes. I felt this concert invited the audience to become deeply immersed in the work of creativity and, ultimately, to join in a shared experience.

Art had indeed opened a window on our raison d’être, as Rodin might have put it.


Here’s a gallery of images from opening night:


Cara Taber Gideon Brazil

Cara Taber and Gideon Brazil fill the air with colour during Adam Simmons’ Concerto For Piano and Toy Band


Concert 1: Concerto for Piano and Toy Band
Michael Kieran Harvey with Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble
Composed by Adam Simmons

Thursday 2 March 2017, fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

By the time this post appears the second performance of this concerto will be over, but there will be two more chances to join the audience — on Saturday at 7.30pm and on Sunday at 3pm.

I loved this work. One of the performers, alto saxophonist Cara Taber, described this as “beautiful, thought-provoking, and strong original music by Adam Simmons” and that fits.

The concerto, which has three parts surrounded by a prologue, two interludes and an epilogue, is at times frenzied and at others meditative. Bursts of sudden energy come from the powerful piano of classical musician Michael Kieran Harvey as well as from the Toy Band.

As is always the case with Simmons’ art, we are encouraged to enjoy as well as to reflect on what we are seeing and hearing, what the performers are bringing to us beyond their facility with a range of instruments.

Confucius, a great lover of music, is part of this work, introduced in lines spoken by Simmons as he turns the handles on music boxes, propelling paper tapes into which the words are punched as holes. My googling suggests that Confucius gave ideas on how music should follow the ideal of the ancient pattern and then allow for improvisation while maintaining harmony.

This is the context for the brief spoken passages in Simmons’ concerto, in that Confucius, when talking to the Grand Master of Lu (who had been given the task of teaching music) about the Ancients’ Music, said, “Their music began with a strict unison. Soon the musicians were given more liberty; but the tone remained harmonious, brilliant, consistent, right on ’til the close.”

The spoken passages provide a framework in which the musicians work. The whole work — Simmons’ first long-form composition — is part of his exploration this year of The Usefulness of Art, inspired by French Impressionist sculptor Auguste Rodin‘s view that “I call useful anything that gives us happiness”. Simmons wants us to reflect on art as connection, sharing experience and encouraging understanding between people.

The influences he cites for this effort to highlight the contrast between soloist and ensemble include the words of Confucius, Werner Herzog films he watched when composing the piece in Wye River some years back and John Zorn’s books of interviews, essays and commentaries by musicians.

All this, while interesting as a background to the performance, is not required as a prelude to its enjoyment. There are startling moments in the concerto, there are periods in which Harvey thrills at the piano and there is a time when Taber’s saxophone solo is accompanied by musicians moving quietly and percussively through the audience and performance space.

It is best not to tell that story beforehand, but to experience it. I would thoroughly recommend that you find the time to catch the remaining two performances of Concerto for Piano and Toy Band.


The Toy Band: Adam Simmons sopranino, baritone saxophones, shakuhachi; Cara Taber alto saxophone; Gideon Brazil tenor saxophone; Gemma Horbury trumpet; Gavin Cornish trumpet; Bryn Hills trombone; Howard Cairns double bass; Hugh Harvey drums

Below are some images, which are in black and white. The performance certainly is not.

Adam Simmons solo at fortyfivedownstairs

Monday, June 1, 2009

Adam Simmons on clarinet
Adam Simmons on clarinet

It was the second night of Adam Simmons’s first solo Australian tour and my train was late — 15 minutes late. At the Old Drouin Butter Factory two nights earlier, Simmons had launched his month-long tour, fielding questions from the audience as he took them on a tour of instruments selected from a grab-bag so extensive it would have been impossible for him to take the show overseas. I arrived in time to hear him play the clarinet, which in grade 3 he recalled was referred to as a licorice stick. During the evening I had a few questions in my mind, but was not bold enough to ask, despite the relaxed mood of the gig. I reckon the Drouin crowd had the right idea.

At fortyfivedownstairs, the evening was a tour rather than a concert, with some toys and “special effects” thrown in. Simmons improvised in his choice, picking instruments as they suited his feeling on the night and showing us what each could do. To do this well, he had not only to display facility with an array of instruments, but the ability to engage and entertain the audience. What stood out to me, apart from the musicianship, was that Adam Simmons is simply a really appealing and genuinely nice guy, and that comes across in his performance. He is entertaining because it is clear that he is having fun, and we are taken along on the ride, without having to share the stage with a huge ego.

Contra alto clarinet
Simmons on contra alto clarinet

A yo-yo demonstration — the first of many — preceded Picnic With a Whale, a song from the new, solo album Adam Simmons, played on the contra alto clarinet. It plumbed the depths as well as the heights at the same time. I would like to know how he achieved that.

Alto flute
Alto flute

The alto flute came next, followed by a 2.55 length Japanese flute, known as shakahuchi, which translates as “1.8 foot” (there are a variety of lengths).


Adam Simmons said the instrument was able to produce changes in tone colour or timbre and these were inherent in music notation for the instrument. He said different qualities of sound could be produced at the same pitch and that his playing of the shakuhachi for almost seven years had affected the way he played other instruments.


Next he took up Europe’s answer to the shakuhachi — the Slovakian fujara, typically played by shepherds to their sheep. By contrast to the Japanese instrument, the associated tradition of which he had made an effort to learn from teachers and a grand master, the fujara was apparently not an instrument that could be taught. “I can’t teach it, you just play it,” was a comment made to Adam when he travelled to obtain the fujara. He played a lullaby he used to sing to his son and Alak ala.

Simmons sings
Simmons in song

Travel with his son, Noah, had inspired this tour, Adam said. They had taken a trip to see Aunty Pam at a pub south of Mt Isa and had enjoyed singing folk songs from places along the way. At fortyfivedownstairs we were offered the choice of a song about a bushranger or “a happy singalong one”. The vote was overwhelmingly for Ben Hall, which Adam sang unaccompanied. That song seemed to encapsulate the spirit of this solo tour and the gigs, which are planned for towns as diverse as Wye River Beach, Deans Marsh, Ballarat, Corindhap, Wangaratta, Canberra, Wollongong, Katoomba and Byron Bay. The fact that the audience could enjoy the simple pleasure of a folk song sung by a fellow known not for his voice but for his ability to enjoy and communicate the joy in music seemed to sum up the idea of the tour: Adam Simmons, with instruments, will travel — no entourage, no crew, no fancy stuff. Just Adam bringing us the music.


A short oboe piece that had a Middle Eastern feel preceded the next yo-yo trick, around the world. (Not the best photograph ever taken, but well timed).

Around the world by yo-yo
Around the world by yo-yo

It was followed by “a distraction with lots of noise” and more yo-yo trickery.

Time for some sax

Then, with the gig threatening to run over time, Adam handed out toys and bubble-makers before disappearing into the crowd for a rendition of The Ryebuck Shearer.

Fun with bubbles
Fun with bubbles

That was a lot of fun, but the next bit was unusual and intriguing.

A top story
Spinning a top yarn

Adam brought out a table with a series of singing tops and activated them in turn to build a soundscape. It was a boy and his toys indeed.

Contra bass clarinet
Contra bass clarinet

To close the evening we were treated to one of his father’s pieces, Hubbard’s Cupboard, which Adam played as his first tenor sax solo at age 12 or 13, on the contra bass clarinet.

Adam Simmons’s solo tour runs until Sunday, June 28, at Monkey in North Fitzroy. His limited release tour CD, with three different cover designs, can be obtained online at Adam’s website.