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 struggle to balance my careers in nursing and music, whether that be screen composing or my Mirla solo project, I do not have a fixed music schedule. Nursing in remote aboriginal communities in Australia provides isolation, which can be helpful. When I’m not on nursing contracts Netflix and the need to eat are the only distractions from my music. My husband occasionally whines for attention but he’s often involved in my work as we discuss projects, listen to other composers, go through my ‘works in progress’.
In the week I’ll knock over a few mundane production matters. Sometimes, I’ll get into a more creative headspace. At weekends, if I’m not responding to emergencies I can be absorbed in music for 8 hours straight. Once I’m immersed in a project, it becomes my entire focus. I long to be back at my workspace, which moves from various tables, to my piano, my bed or the couch. At any one time I may be composing pieces, exploring samples, bouncing files, or creating some promotional video content. The ‘thinking’ about my music and practice never stops: it’s always in my thoughts, in my dreams, sometimes in my nightmares!
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?
In 2018, I won the JD Music Award to develop my concept album Solitaire (The Virtue of Patience) it’s the debut album for my solo project, Mirla. It’s a neo-classical concept album inspired by my grandparent’s wartime diaries and letters: a meditation on love, and the virtues of hope, resilience and patience: remedies for those separated by time, space and circumstance.
The concept came from a devastating except in ‘Arthur’s War’ (John Harman/ Arthur Bancroft) – a biography of my grandparent’s experience of war and their remarkable love story. Pop (Arthur) was a Japanese PoW on the Burma – Thai Railway. Back in Perth, my Nana (Mirla) waited for weeks, then months, for news of Arthur, never knowing he was safe, always waiting, in hope and patience. Solitaire pays homage to Mirla's psychological drama and experience of war, her feminine strengths, her unwavering hope and her capacity to overcome adversity. She waited for over two years, until he was safely returned.
Solitaire's 13 original movements mix contemporary classical composition with electronic elements, to create a dreamscape - journalogue, featuring spoken word (excerpts and original poetry), with field recordings that bring authenticity to an intensely personal work. My long-term goal is to perform the album as an immersive experience: orchestra, dancers, an historical exhibition of the family archive. One can dream. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to performing the music solo or with a supporting string player and the use of electronic soundscapes.
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?
Being stranded in Bali for 3 months during the Pandemic gave me a sense of an ideal state of mind for creativity. It was a blessing. The returning sounds of nature, the smell of food and incense, the chatter of the locals and watching people move about in the world, yet separate: a foreigner observing the bustle of life. The slowing down, that space, the isolation, with limited demands or distraction: it opened a whole new creative world for me.
Much of this album was written in lockdown in Bali and in hotel quarantine. It was an intense time of creative flow. I’m learning now how to access this again, in a more immediate way, without having to spend 3 months in a foreign country on an emergency visa!
I’ve learnt that my creativity is activated when I’m doing mundane activities, like driving, washing the dishes or walking. It seems that when I’m partially focussed on a physical task a different part of my brain opens up and I can daydream myself into musical ideas. The same is true if I listen to inspiring work of other artists. The musical ideas trigger my own ideas and I absorb the mood or melodies, which play out when I’m sitting at the piano.
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’ve reflected on my time in Bali and where my head was at. I arrived in Bali burnt-out. I’d been struggling with an undiagnosed auto-immune illness. I could barely sit at the piano. Looking back, Solitaire was very much about healing and confronting the loss of my mother and Nana. There was an intense creative focus: a ‘going inwards’, a returning to painful memories of my childhood and connecting to the stories of my grandparents. I realise now there was a confluence of a deeper psychological context informing this period of work.
There are some pieces of music that create an intense visceral reaction when I hear them. I can’t listen to ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Don McLean or ‘April Come She Will’ by Simon and Garfunkel, without being profoundly affected. I listened to my dad singing these as I drifted to sleep shortly after my mother died. It’s painful and beautiful at the same time. Music is an important conduit to accessing stuck emotion. Imagine if instead of talk therapy it became the norm to have ‘sound healing’ as a treatment for various forms of trauma.
I had glimpses of it in Bali when indulged in a Light Sound and Vibration Therapy session. The different frequencies and waves can unlock different emotional areas. I had a pretty profound experience. It felt other-worldly, an intense connection to something bigger than what we can’t intellectually understand. We can experience a level of mindfulness to gain new insights and a sense of wellbeing.
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?
Context and authenticity of the subject matter is everything. There are times when I would like to incorporate musical heritages into my work, such as the didgeridoo or other cultural instruments, but unless the context is ‘right’, I don’t feel it’s appropriate.
For a film composition, I worked on a project that was promoting child health and nutrition for in the south pacific islands. I was careful with the choice of instruments. I ended up subtly referencing the culture with ambient textures, rather than place cultural instruments front-and-centre. I mainly used western instruments, but hinted at the pacific landscapes and culture by incorporating a few choice sounds.
In Solitaire, there are geographic references to my Pop’s experience as a Japanese Prisoner of War on the Burma – Thai Railway. On the album’s piece ‘Work on Konyu Cutting’ I achieve this with Taiko drum rhythms, a Shakuhachi flute riff and clanging, metallic ambient sounds to express the toil of the forced labour on the railway line. These cultural motifs are interwoven as threads within a larger tapestry of my authentic aesthetic for this album.
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?
In Solitaire I’ve attempted to achieve an immersive listening experience. I explore the psychological drama of a young woman waiting for her sailor, absent at war – lost at sea. I try to express the emotions of love, loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety and trauma. I try to create a time machine to 1942 and the settings of a suburban house in Perth, the Pacific war and Allied prison camps. It’s a lot to convey through the hearing sense alone. I’m relying on sound to stimulate others senses, to achieve an emotional response in the listener, to transport them between the home of a lonely, young woman, then into the eye of a storm and the desperate prisoner camps in Burma.
To do this I use actual field recordings of the ocean, wind, rain, bird song, insects and street sounds and compose with select ethnic instruments. I chose to retain various creaks from the piano recording. I added footsteps, cicadas, a ticking clock, crackles, hisses and ambient sound design in an effort to create atmospheres that stimulate the other senses by the associations of particularly evocative sounds. When we hear a crackling fireplace, we can also ‘see’ the flames, ‘feel’ its warmth and ‘smell’ the burning fuel. As a film composer, I’ve experienced the revelatory moment of adding music or sound to a particular scene.
Although the isolated moving images make ‘sense’ it’s only when adding music that the full impact and depth of the scene is realised. The impact of a horror scene is vastly heightened when we hear the ‘scary’ music. The emotional scene lacks authenticity until the melancholic piano is introduced. It’s like magic to observe the power of music and sound to deepen our understanding and experience of a film scene.
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?
When the biography of my grandparents was first pitched, the publisher was against including my Nana’s story, preferring to focus on the battle and survival narrative of my Pop’. The author John Harman fought for the inclusion of Mirla’s story. Since publication, he recently told me that it was the book’s passages of Mirla’s story that most resonated with the readership.
To me, that anecdote is indicative of our patriarchal society where our cultural infrastructures tend to overlook, neglect or under-value the experiences of women and their contributions to society. The bravery and qualities of women during war are necessarily different to that of men – but are no less relevant in our understanding of humanity.
In Solitaire (and throughout my work) I want to elevate the female story, often underrepresented in storytelling, by placing Mirla’s story centre stage. The lessons of those times of war are relevant today, as families experience separation and disruption from the current Pandemic. The virtue and character modelled in stories of strong women can inspire women of today, by demonstrating that patience, stoicism and hope are antidotes to anxiety and fear.
As a female composer, I want to advocate for women’s contribution to culture, in music or film, and to bring an underrepresented female perspective to subjects (and an industry) traditionally dominated by men. For the millions of women that are affected by violence and acts of war, Mirla’s story is an example of the female qualities that hold societies together.
What can music express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
All art and creative expression have potential to bring understanding to our lives but music has an immediacy and primal energy to cut through our ego and intellectual processes. It seems that music is hard wired into our psychology and human experience. The songs of our early childhood are carried to our graves, providing a retrospective roadmap of our existence. When words are forgotten and sense turns to nonsense by Alzheimer and dementia, music memory is the last thing to go. The language of religious sermons, political speeches and in the stories of theatre and drama, can move us to action or to absorb new ideas, yet it is music that reaches our intuitive and natural states. The images in photography, film and visual arts will make us pause and ponder but it is music we turn to in times of
celebration and ritual. When we hear music we’re propelled to move, to respond and engage in life. Like the Indian pipe player, using music to charm the snake to leave its confined basket, music helps bring us from darkness and into light.