The day is just turning as I make my way through Fitzroy Gardens to meet musician Genevieve Lacey. Unwrapping my woollen scarf as I walk, I spot her standing by our meeting place: the dolphin fountain. She fits right in next to the fairytale statues. She’s a petite woman, saddled with bags for her upcoming rehearsal, her red hair glowing in the burgeoning sunshine, her face opening into a warm smile when she sees me.
We wander around the gardens for a while, looking for a bench in the sun and chatting about family, art and vulnerability. Lacey is the kind of person who feels like an old friend after just a few minutes. The rehearsal that afternoon is of Consort of the Moon – her show for Melbourne’s Rising festival – which she has created with collaborator Erkki Veltheim. We reach the spot where her performance will take place: a circle of grass slightly separated from the rest of the park by trees.
“We’re going to create an experience where people are held by a sound,” Lacey tells me, describing how the audience will be in the centre of the space and the 26 vocalists will surround them. “Gradually, throughout the experience, the sound world tips from being human to being inspired by the natural world, as though we’ve created an invisible cathedral and gradually the walls dissolve. We collectively melt into our ears and into the sounds.”
Lacey has worked with composer and performer Veltheim many times in different contexts over the past 20 years, but they have never created something together. When they started discussing ideas, they realised they were both infatuated with the porous edges between the human and non-human worlds. They wanted to combine this preoccupation of mixing human-made music with sounds from the environment with ideas of ritual.
“What is a contemporary nondenominational ritual? A ritual that can be infused with whatever meaning people need to bring to it?” Lacey says. “Erkki and I have spoken a lot about that and how you create it in a way that collectively we all recognise.”
“I guess rituals are repeated,” I say, “but it’s not exactly the same every time.”
She nods. “Depends on the people, depends on the light, depends on the weather, depends on those bodies, those voices, and then the collective mood as well.”
I try to imagine it. “And even, you know, if a plane goes overhead,” I say, “and things like that, which are completely out of your control.”
“Yes, like if the birds are having a particularly raucous night or the possums have got a lot to say.”
We stop talking for a few moments, listening to the birdsong, the ding of a tram we can’t see from here, the school group being told off for climbing a tree.
Consort of the Moon is a celebration of communal listening. Lacey is passionate about taking high art from rarefied cultural spaces, which come with hierarchies and etiquettes, to natural places that are accessible for everyone. She sees participating in arts and culture as a human right and describes music as being akin to breathing. “It’s something that is so fundamentally good for us and gives us life.”
Her descriptions of the performance intentionally conjure ancient approaches to storytelling. One of the inspirations for this piece is a fractured clay tablet, the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, which was found in the 1950s in modern-day Syria at an archaeological site of the ruined Amorite-Canaanite city of Ugarit. This tablet was one of a series of Hurrian songs inscribed on clay that are the oldest surviving records of notated music, dating from about 1400BC. Since the language is lost, musicologist historians have spent decades working on reconstructing the piece. There is a series of interpretations of what the melody might have been. It is believed it is a song accompanied by a plucked string instrument and that it is an ode to Nikkal, the goddess of fertility and consort of the moon.
“In Western culture we are obsessed with writing things down,” Lacey says. “This is a beautiful example of how if you write something down but don’t keep living culture alive, then it gives you licence to forget. Now we literally don’t know what it sounded like. Whereas if you look at oral traditions around the world, where the cultural memory is through passing things down by listening and repeating, you find stories and songs much older than this are still completely intact. We only need to look at First Nations peoples here in Australia to even begin to discover the power of that sort of idea.
“Erkki and I are really interested in ideas of cultural memory. Collectively we need to actively keep it, make it and constantly feed it, which people do in so many different ways. This is just one way to gather and share. It’s tapping into the ancient human need to sit around a fire and share something.”
Preoccupations with this kind of storytelling have long shaped Lacey’s life. Her father was an oral historian, and through this work he ended up raising his family in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Lacey was born there and lived in PNG with her three siblings until she was eight. I ask if she remembers that time well and she hesitates. “My senses remember it very well. Whenever I go to the north of Australia, once I cross a certain point, when I’m in the feel of that air and the smells and the sounds, it’s just like, Oh, I know this. So well.”
A lot of her other recollections are informed by stories, told and retold, and photographs. Lacey has striking childhood memories of attending sing-sings, traditional Papua New Guinean annual gatherings dedicated to dance and culture, however she isn’t sure how many of these memories are genuine and how many come from the images her father captured of the events.
“My dad was a keen photographer. And we have amazing photos that sync with my sound memories of singing scenes, of people gathering and drums and dancing and the most elaborate and exquisite ceremonial headdresses and garb. And they could go for days and nights. I just remember this sense of being outdoors all the time. The freedom that went with living in a warm climate and not being in the city.”
It was while she was still living in Papua New Guinea that Lacey first began playing the recorder. Her brother wanted to learn an instrument and recorders were the easiest for her parents to get hold of. She remembers the connection to the instrument being instant but again wonders about the influence of stories on the validity of this memory.
“I feel like it was immediate but you know, again, you just wonder: is this a story you tell yourself because of what happened subsequently? Certainly there are many family stories about it. I never had to be told to practise,” she says.
“It’s one of those instruments that if you play it well, it’s beautiful,” I say, picking my words carefully. “But I guess it’s got a bad reputation because it’s often given to kids to play en masse.”
“Yes, you can get quite a long way quite quickly, so there’s a lot of satisfaction for a little one. Recorders are light and they’re not expensive, so there’s a lot to recommend.”
We’ve found a sunny bench now, where we shed layers and enjoy the warmth on our faces. I share my recollections of playing the recorder in school, and how once you reached grade 5 and wanted to continue with music you were expected to graduate to a clarinet or flute. She tells me she felt that pressure, and when she returned to Australia and made her way through high school to the University of Melbourne and then to the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, a music academy in Switzerland, and the Danish National Academy of Music, she also became an oboist and pianist. “There’s very much that gravitational pull that the recorder is just a bridge to a proper instrument.”
However, the recorder was always part of her heart, so Lacey went all-in, becoming a recorder virtuoso and spending the next 15 years performing around Europe. She racked up an impressive résumé, including playing at the Lindau International Convention of Nobel Laureates, for Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, as a concerto soloist in the Royal Albert Hall for BBC Proms and with the City of London Sinfonia, Tapiola Sinfonietta and Concerto Copenhagen.
“Adrenaline is a really powerful drug. And as someone who’s driven, that’s a pattern that I’m always conscious of. Whenever you’re creating something, you make yourself unbelievably vulnerable. For me, there’s some kind of self-protection in perpetual motion and it’s a hard cycle to break, but there comes a time where I just have to breathe a minute. The idea of perfection for most artists can be both the ultimate motivator, because you’re always striving, but it’s also quite a cruel taskmaster.”
Lacey found that, along with the rich cultural traditions around music in Europe, there were also a lot of expectations. “It was harder to be exploratory and harder to be free. Whereas here in Australia, yes, you do have to create your own space, and very often defend why you think it’s important, but nobody’s going to stop you from doing anything, so you can completely create your own artistic universes.”
Slowly, Lacey began transitioning back to living predominantly in Australia and to becoming a composer. She started working with Big hART on Namatjira Project, a community cultural development project focusing on the life and work of Albert Namatjira, the Arrernte watercolour artist. The project was developing a touring theatre show, Namatjira, and Lacey was invited to join as a composer. She was uncomfortable with the title, overwhelmed with the pressure to get it right.
The project is based in the Aboriginal communities of Mparntwe and Ntaria in the Northern Territory. Lacey spent a lot of time living in these communities while working on the piece and she describes the moment when her feelings of pressure abated: “I felt like I didn’t know what to do, like I didn’t have the skills and I wasn’t the right person and it was too important. But then one night we were sitting around the fire, and people started telling stories and I was able to calm my panic. I realised all I had to do was listen and then I’d work out a way to respond. It was a big moment for me. It was when I understood that being a musician is actually just being a really skilled listener. You think of yourself initially as a sound-maker, but actually you spend your whole life learning how to listen.”
There’s much scientific research about what happens to human brains and bodies when they listen to music, how certain parts of the rational brain are bypassed. It does something on a neurological level that is unlike anything else. “When I’m playing, I feel simultaneously most present and most absent. I’m right inside sound,” Lacey tells me. “As a thinking, neurotic person, that part of me just goes away. If you’ve got a brain that’s busy, to be able to find such a beautiful way to quiet it is incredible. When I’m making things, it’s in part an attempt to share what that feels like. Imagine if a whole lot of people could dive into sound and feel their shoulders drop, their chattering minds quiet and become completely absorbed in their ears and their imagination. It’s miraculous.
“The work that I make is slow-moving, it’s gentle, it’s very porous, there’s a lot of space in it. And it’s set up to help people just to be still and to dream, because I think collectively we all could do a bit more of that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Recordering angel".
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