Name: Megan Alice Clune
Occupation: Musician, composer, artist
Current release: Megan Alice Clune’s If You Do is out September 6th via Room40.
Recommendations: Two dance works – Sky Blue Mythic by Angela Goh and Explicit Contents by Rhiannon Newtown. While they are both very different, they both premiered in 2021 and have left a memorable impression. They’re also close friends too!
If you enjoyed this interview with Megan Alice Clune, visit her website. Or stay up to date on her work via Instagram, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I began making music when I was 2 years old. A family friend, who was also our neighbour, held piano lessons in her house for local kids. I began playing the clarinet when I was 10 years old and went on to study it at university later.
My Dad was always playing jazz records throughout my childhood, a lot of classical music too. Sometimes some pop or rock from when he was a record reviewer for Rolling Stone Australia in the 60s. I remember being captivated by Vaughn William’s The Lark Ascending on the car radio as a small child – feeling the sound while looking out the car window. Later, I can remember overhearing John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme while trying to do my homework at the dining room table.
My clarinet teacher made me a mixtape when I was around 14 or 15, and it had Steve Reich’s "New York Counterpoint" on it. I decided I was going to be a musician when I heard that piece for the first time.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I made a music zine called World’s Only for several years – this was really the gateway to writing my own music and becoming an artist. A lot of the artists I was able to talk with under the guise of an interview really formulated my later work as an artist, showing me how it was done in a more practical sense: how they lived their lives. Many of these people I went on to work with later, which was really nice.
I was very influenced by conceptualism and artists like La Monte Young, John Cage, Richard Serra, Walter de Maria in the early years of my creative practice. I was more interested in adapting and applying processes and ideas used by these artists in my own work than a kind of aesthetic imitation – that was my intention at least.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My own identity is not position I am consciously working from as I write music, though I am very aware of how this plays out in the dissemination of the work. A lot of the scores I use when working with other artists are quite open, and ideally create a framework of freedom to work from regardless of who they are.
A score I was commissioned to make in 2021, A Body of Time, worked with this idea. It uses video instead of traditional notation to allow the performer to respond in their own temporality - the score is a body of time and the performer is too. I’m interested in making scores where there is no right or wrong. A kind of radical inclusivity.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Something about working so hard as a classical musician made me mistrust the ease of improvisation, of creative flow. It took a long time to trust my intuition.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
As mentioned above, I studied the piano and then the clarinet quite intensely until my early 20s. Leaving school, I wanted to be a clarinettist in an orchestra. There were a lot of red flags that I probably should have taken note of, it was competitive and actually not that creative. I went to New York City around 2012 and felt a lot of possibilities open up. I was exposed to a lot of artists for the first time and went to the MoMA PS1 Art Book Fair, which inspired me to make a music zine.
I made World’s Only when I got home and, when I completed it, I looked for a space to hold a launch party and came across Alaska Projects, an art gallery in Kings Cross. This became a monthly music night and the birthplace of my band Alaska Orchestra. In running these nights, I met a lot of artists and began going to a lot of exhibitions. I started collaborating with friends, creating music for their work, before eventually making my own. It took me several years to actually begin writing my own music and making art, I think I was doing many things around it before I actually got my hands dirty.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Moving from away from the clarinet was probably the biggest shift. I began using a small electronic organ I found in the basement of my house around 2016, then I bought an analog synthesiser, and then began using Ableton. This was a big change – I was interested in drone music and extended durations so clarinet didn’t work well here (there is only so long you can hold a note for before you have to breathe). Those beginning days of using Ableton were the most interesting, I think.
My sessions were very simple and I didn’t really know how to use it, so I would discover all these weird workarounds. I still think I use it in a fairly idiosyncratic manner, but I’m always thinking of changing my set up and becoming a beginner again.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
This album If You Do is one of the only projects I’ve written entirely by myself. I’ve collaborated a lot – creating music for artists like Kieran Bryant, Agatha Gothe-Snape and Lauren Brincat and working with dancers Alice Weber, Angela Goh and Rhiannon Newtown. I’m currently working on a soundtrack for a film by Jen Atherton and André Shannon, which has been fun.
Alaska Orchestra, my band, has always been a collaborative project too – the way I lead this group is reminiscent of the ‘composition as gardening’ process Brian Eno describes, where I lay the groundwork for things to happen opposed to dictating any musical outcomes. There are elements of this that I love and some I still find difficult. But when I began writing If You Do in 2019, I wanted to do it on my own.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have a lot of different jobs, and generally don’t like routine very much, so I don’t really do the same thing each day.
I wake up around 8am, try and meditate, have a coffee, answer some emails and move on to whatever work I might have, be it academic, teaching clarinet or writing music. I tend to write music quickly in short, very intense bursts and usually in the afternoon/evening. I try and use the rest of my time to lay the ground work for this to flow easily, making sure I’m healthy and happy in other ways.
This intensity can be a bit destructive at times, so I try not to allow this to take over. I wrote most of If You Do at home quite late at night - I inevitably took up other work outside of being a musician during the pandemic which didn’t leave much time for writing during the day. I think this took it in another direction, particularly how the voice sounded. I had to sing really softly so I wouldn’t annoy my neighbours, and a lot of the processing was done afterwards, wearing headphones.
The track "So Bored" is an example of this. I liked the way my voice sounded despite the imperfections that arose from singing so quietly; amplified against these big, epic synth lines. I really summed up a lot of my pandemic experience in that track.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Each work feels like a kind of breakthrough, in its own way.
My first exhibition, Relating to Deep Inward Thought Rather Than Intellect at Firstdraft in 2015 was memorable; working with Agatha Gothe-Snape to create Rhetorical Chorus for Performa15 in New York City and again in 2017 back in Sydney was also huge. Rhetorical Chorus was the first time I’d called myself a composer, and enabled me to put a lot of ideas I had been thinking about into practice. Using improvisation within a framework instead of notation was a key part of my compositional process here, instead focusing on fostering group positive group dynamics to create music from. Stepping into that role for the first time and working alongside Agatha taught me a great deal.
Later, being commissioned to re-make Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports for VividLIVE at the Sydney Opera House and performing it with my band Alaska Orchestra (Heather Shannon and Mara Schwerdtfeger) feels like a milestone too. It was a big challenge, re-creating this much loved album for performance. I spent hours listening and transcribing it, but ended up staying true to my process: the album was broken down into its core melodic / harmonic elements, which we improvise to, making choices along the way.
The shows sold out and I was terrified the Eno fans would hate how I fucked with this album. But my friend told me it sounded like falling in love feels - the nicest compliment I’ve ever been given, I think.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I try and get into a place where things flow. My mind will click into place and I just work. It happens really quickly and I don’t think I can explain it. I try and lay the groundwork for myself to go there, forcing is never successful. Instead, I’ll just go onto something else and trust that I can get it done quickly when I’m in the right frame of mind.
My friend Kynan Tan, who is also a sound artist, has recently begun teaching meditation. His classes have been really influential in creating this space for myself. I try and approach my internal battles with lightness and curiosity. But in general, I do find performing a lot more difficult than writing music.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I lived opposite a demolition site throughout the first lockdown in 2020. It became so stressful living next to these sounds for months – jackhammers on concrete for 8 hours a day. The body is programmed to react to loud banging sounds so my adrenaline system was totally worn out; I was so stressed my hair fell out. I didn’t listen to much music at this time, or write any. Before that, I saw Merzbow play in a small venue in Tokyo in 2019. I’d never really got his music before, but seeing it live, it made sense - complete physical immersion in sound. Arguably, these two things didn’t sound drastically different!
There is definitely a trend of comfort listening in pop music recently – I think albums like Taylor Swift’s Folklore, as well as artists like Olivia Rodrigo and even Dua Lipa, are relying on creating a sense of familiar cosiness in their music. It’s designed for streaming and speaks greatly to where we’re at as a society, I believe.
I think one of the best things about music is that it allows the listener to project themselves into the music, and in that process, it can be a healing experience.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think artists need to be hyper aware of their position within society when creating music in this way, and step back from the work to deeply consider how it is operating, who is benefitting. It can be a complex issue, but in stepping back and considering these things broadly and unselfishly, and in dialogue with the original creators, it can become less so.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Witnessing La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s installation Dream House for the first time in 2014 was a huge inspiration for me. Here, there are 32 sine waves played simultaneously and continuously, that are matched to the frequency of the light. The Dream House really shifted my perception of what a piece of music could be, what it could feel like.
Moving beyond cognition, it’s completely physical and even though the sounds don't move, you begin to hear, imagine, melodies ... it’s magical. I went back multiple times, and ended up having lessons with La Monte and Marian and their collaborator Jung-Hee Choi that trip too. It was a very special time.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I don’t think art exists in a vacuum. I’m always trying to go beyond the sounds themselves in my music-making, by appealing to the physical and/or commenting or critiquing various structures within music as a whole.
When making If You Do I was thinking a lot about how the voice is so frequently mediated by technology, working with and against that at different times. Pieces of music like Eric Satie’s Furniture Music or Ambient 1: Music for Airports are particularly interesting to me as they set out to shape the everyday, enmeshed in the listeners life. In my scores and collaborative projects, I’m trying to model a kind of utopian social construct, a way of being together where people can express themselves.
Of course, this is not always successful and in many ways I think it's a bit futile – maybe music isn’t the best medium for this – but I hope it offers something in trying.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Feel don’t think.