What happens when you bring talented musicians together to improvise over one glorious weekend? Julie Hosking talks to two of the curators of a festival where anything goes.
It was 3am when the email lobbed in Izzy French’s inbox. Would she be interested in co-organising an experimental music event involving risky collaborations and with zero funding?
The young trumpeter didn’t hesitate. The email had, after all, come from Josten Myburgh, one of WA’s most experienced curators of improvised and experimental music, and they would also be working with flautist Saskia Willinge.
This weekend, the trio will see their vision come to life as almost 30 artists gather for the inaugural Walyalup Weekend of Improvised Music (WWIM) – a series of musical blind dates, if you like, where WA musicians who have never played together before come together on stage to create something new.
“I believe the first flicker of WWIM comes from a small curating workshop held by Josten,” French recalls. “Both me and Saskia attended a fair few of these, and at the end we talked about what would be cool to see in the Perth scene.”
More broadly, Willinge explains, it was something they wanted to experience themselves. “We knew that so many others making exploratory and improvised sounds in WA felt the same way,” she says. “Josten has also curated an incredible number of events (and other festivals such as Audible Edge), and strongly believes in supporting emerging voices to contribute to our cultural landscape. We are so lucky to have him in WA!”
Even so, Myburgh’s less experienced co-curators were a tad nervous about organising such an event – WA’s first dedicated improvised music festival in decades. “I really thought it’d be extremely overwhelming; I mean a festival organised primarily by three people? Insane,” French says. “But somehow, through being courteous, kind and accommodating, we managed to do it without popping any blood vessels.”
It’s also the culmination of a challenging few years for French, who has been playing the trumpet for about a decade. “I’ve been in the scene since 2020, which is also the year I started at WAAPA, came out as a trans woman, and the pandemic started – a big year,” French says.
Working with her former teacher at WAAPA has been tremendously rewarding. “Not only is he ridiculously knowledgeable on curating independent festivals, but also genuinely kind, patient and grounded,” she says. “I really got into his class at WAAPA and I’ve just kind of followed him, so working on a festival with him is kind of surreal. To have this support from a pillar of Boorloo music feels amazing.”
Willinge, who was awarded the Janet Anderson Prize for Woodwind for her honours recital at the UWA Conservatorium of Music, describes the process as affirming. “As I recover from burnout and learn more about my ADHD, both of which have teamed up to create depression, the ways that I am able to work and collaborate with others are significantly changing,” she says. “I have been accommodated wonderfully and supported by the team with everything.”
Although both are immersed in improvised and exploratory music – French is working towards her honours in composition at WAAPA, studying game pieces and ludology — determining the combinations for the festival wasn’t easy.
Each of the co-curators wrote an imaginary line-up made up of the same people and put them together in different combinations. “We trended towards me generally playing it safe by grouping people together who were likely to have similar aesthetic interests; Izzy going for wacky and excellent combinations; and Josten having a much more sophisticated idea of how each person plays,” Willinge explains.
French says it helped that between the three of them they know how everyone plays. “We had lengthy discussions why we picked what we picked, or more often than not, why the other’s choices were brilliant,” she says. “Then it was a matter of narrowing the choices to the exceptionally good ones, accounting for who is and isn’t available on the weekend, etc.”
Though reluctant to single any of the artists out (you can see the full line-up here), Willinge is looking forward to hearing saxophonist Naoko Uemoto, who will also be performing an improvised recital with Myburgh early next month.
“She is extremely talented and her kindness radiates out of her saxophone in a stunning way,” Willinge says. “E Millar is an incredible artist who rarely performs live. She creates stunning sound sculptures from small electronic components and found materials – her sound worlds are brilliant!”
She also sings the praises of sound magician Sage Pbbt. “Her singing and vocalisation is amazing. Sometimes it’s the most beautiful sounds you’ve ever heard, sometimes it sounds like someone is casting a not-friendly spell on you, and sometimes her sounds evoke how I imagine a pterodactyl might have sounded.”
If the very nature of improvisation means audiences should expect the unexpected, do the organisers have any expectations for the festival? “I have some expectations about the instruments they play and the sounds they typically enjoy making,” Willinge says. “When we were curating the lineup, we had discussions about what ‘good’ outcomes would be, and what we hoped would happen, and it’s hard to know.”
This is where Myburgh’s vast experience comes in, however. “He highlighted how things that are a ‘failure’ or ‘don’t work’ can sometimes be the best improvised sets,” Willinge explains. “Watching people realise their interests don’t gel in real time can be a fascinating and revealing process which provides a big chance for reflection for audience and performers alike.”
Keen to give the event a festival feel, rather than just be a series of concerts, the trio have also programmed workshops. With two days of information and skill sharing, collaborations and what they prefer to call “hanging out” rather than networking, WWIM will be an opportunity to “meet new people and dream big”.
“Eduardo Cossio is an icon for both his organising and playing – you will never see a better harmonica solo. And not least because he is playing autoharp underneath,” Willinge says. “He’ll be interviewed by the wonderful Bec Bowman (of Artbeat) about his concert series Outcome Unknown, which he’s been running monthly for seven years, and his experiences community organising.”
Myburgh will also be sharing his experience organising international tours for exploratory musicians, including a recent 15-concert tour in Europe for Land’s Air. Jim Denley, who has been improvising for more than 50 years, will Zoom in from NSW to talk about his PhD research; while Hannah Reardon-Smith will speak from Queensland about deep listening and responsible approaches to improvised sound making on stolen land. Sound Exploration Fremantle will run a workshop in collaboration with Annika Moses, a prominent figure in the indie and exploratory scenes in WA, with a focus on improvised singing.
“Finally, the WWIM team will be running an open session where anyone can rock up and improvise or have a play – any and all experience levels are welcome for each of these,” Willinge says.
“We hope that this is inspiring, interesting, and gives people ideas for new ways to express themselves through music, and what making music can feel like. We will be stoked if WWIM is a weekend which plants seeds and leads to new projects and ideas in the future. We’ll all be learning and sharing the space together.”
Pictured top: Flautist Saskia Willinge is one of the co-curators of the Walyalup Weekend of Improvised Music. Photo: Eduardo Cossio
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