For the past three decades, Elektra String Quartet has placed Australian music front and centre. This year, the group releases new album Ebb & Flow featuring a number of major works composed by its founder Romano Crivici.
In the piece Flat Earth, the string quartet is made vibrant through collaboration with Mark Atkins on didgeridoo, as well as percussionists Jess Ciampa and Philip South, all sharing their perspectives on Australia’s rural environments.
This is where we start in this interview with Mark and Romano, who shed light on the story and instrumentation behind their new ABC Classic release Ebb & Flow.
Romano, congratulations on your new release! Tell us about what Flat Earth means to you, and how you’d describe your connection to the Australian landscape.
ROMANO: Though from a Balkan background, I have a deep affinity with the Australian outback. It developed at an early age on my grandfather’s farm near a town called Mooloolah up past Brisbane, where I would spend a lot of time on my own, wandering in the bush. Barefoot, and wearing only a pair of shorts, I would explore the mysterious presence of being in the gullies and swamps, communing with animals and plants for weeks, and sometimes months at a time.
So too as an adult, I explored in different ways, with the Elektra String Quartet as we toured and performed in outback New South Wales, Northern Territory, Central Australia and Northern Queensland, as well as living on an isolated property in Wollombi.
How did you turn these impressions into music?
R: How I turned these impressions into music is not a thing for words; no straightforward ‘let’s do a soundscape, tweet, tweet, whoosh of the wind’. It was, and still is, a mysterious thing. The bush and the spirit have to be absorbed, on a soul level first, then something expresses itself spontaneously. That’s all I can say.
Needless to say, the digde was an integral part of this, not just because it is the Indigenous instrument de rigueur, but its nature in the right hands is radiant drive, both hypnotic and timeless.
Mark, Romano wrote this music to reflect on his impressions of the Australian outback. How does your own connection to country shine through in Flat Earth?
MARK: It’s a culmination of a lot of different things, especially if I’m soloing. What I’m doing there is actually exploring and expressing my own connections. I’ve got a picture of what I’m playing in my mind – maybe an emu in the outback, running, racing, kicking up red desert dust. And emotional things of the animal itself, the storm clouds gathering as we’re going into the bush. It’s quiet, open. I need something to work with. So that’s what I do when I’m working with someone – it’s on an emotional level – and whether I wrote the story myself or not, I try to become part of that.
How did you both collaborate on this track?
R: Working with a didgeridoo is a complex thing. In some ways, it’s like jazz, an essentially improvising instrument. Mark and I go back a long way to the first time we collaborated with the Elektra String Quartet in 1996. At the concert, one of the players had lost a part so we were short of a work. I invited Mark to go out on stage, completely unprepared, and improvise. Just the two of us, no idea of what we would play, on didge and piano. We clicked, and it brought the house down! It was that direct improvisational connection that informed our long-term working relationship.
I learnt something of Mark’s language on the didge and his powerful driving rhythm through our improvising; things which make him, to my mind, utterly unique in Australia.
So, improvising gave you a way of developing a mutual understanding of each other’s language and style?
R: Yes, most definitely! Just prior to touring South America and Europe with Elektra, we recorded the album Timeless, which, apart from works for string quartet, also included five improvisations for didge and piano. These impros featured both Mark and I throwing in ideas and riffs and responding to each other.
In this instance, these works were totally co-compositions. However, I completely composed the score of Flat Earth, but left spaces with instructions for the didge to improvise based on the language and techniques associated with his instrument. The percussion parts were partially improvised in a similar way. Because the score was so clearly structured, I’ve recently arranged it for full orchestra. We’re now looking at getting this version performed.
Mark, how did you find the experience of working with the Elektra String Quartet throughout this music?
M: Yo, what I found was it gave me a lot of room to move. I could be really creative and free to experiment. A lot of people just wanted a drone instrument, but I realised that Romano didn’t simply want me to play the token drones, rather, we had ‘conversations’ as musical equals.
I’m always experimenting – not just a token drone. It’s a conversation coming in and out, talking to the other player.
When you talk about people wanting the didgeridoo to fulfil the function of a “drone instrument”, it sounds like not many listeners or even musicians fully understand what the instrument is capable of.
M: It’s strange the way, when I’ve played Flat Earth to various people, a lot of them don’t even recognise that there actually is a didge in there, doing pretty unique things. They seem to expect me to be just droning in the background. A lot of people don’t even recognise the effects – cough, laughs, screams – and when you try to f*ckin’ explain it to people, they don’t understand what it is that I’m doing.
I’m still trying to develop my technique. I practise an hour a day, blowing the didge into a bucket of water to develop my chops and strength. Spending nearly 40 years trying to turn the instrument into something else that’s more than a drone. You gotta know your instrument: yeah, sure, it’s only a piece of wood, but you gotta get into it, not just play on top of it. It’s part of the music, not just token bullsh*t, which I get a lot. Mate, me and this log – I don’t want it to get the better of me.
How would you describe the interaction between instruments in this album?
M: Working with the particular instruments is really important, and I’m always looking for ways to do that. If somebody gives me a piece, I listen to it to get a sense of where it’s at. Is it slow, warm, hot, or cold? I anticipate the emotions and decide whether to play with, or against, the emotions. They’re the sort of things I like to express.
I can always remember the time I sat down and improvised with Romano, just didge and piano on our Timeless album. Flat Earth incorporates a lot of the things we explored in that album.
We’d go with, or at times against, each other’s ideas, bouncing off each other and creating a conversation, edging each other on – that’s when the creative process flows freely. Much more satisfying than being played over by a lead electric guitar who doesn’t interact at all.
How did working on Flat Earth compare with working on other projects in which you used this instrument?
M: I’ve worked with Philip Glass, and my old mate Peter Sculthorpe, and a few others overseas, and it was great to do that. But in some ways, I was still forced to play within the limits of their understanding of the instrument, which was frustrating. I liked working with that fellow Philip Glass, because he let me have that room to move. But a lot of the others, yeah, some of it was token.
That was the big difference playing with Elektra in Flat Earth; it was a real contrast to a lot of other projects where my involvement seemed to be, well, sort-of, token: ‘Let’s throw in a didge, it looks good’ – no surprise, it’s not very satisfying!
That’s what I’ve liked about working with Romano. The emotions, to be part of that whole journey, not just a token.
Did Mark play over a sound-bed you created, Romano?
R: Again, yes. In this instance, because of the limits of time and funding, let alone finding a rehearsal space to fit the whole ensemble, we could only have a few rehearsals with the quartet. The recording engineer — Philip South, also percussionist — and I decided to record it one part at a time: cello, viola, second violin, first violin, then vibraphone and a percussion bed.
Finally, we recorded the didgeridoo where Mark was free to improvise his own unique sounds and responses.
There are two other major works in this album – Undercurrents and Gregorian Funk. What’s the story behind these?
R: Gregorian Funk, as its name implies, is influenced in parts with heavy metal and jazz rock, both in the writing and in the sections I wrote for improvisation.
Come to think of it, we won the Sydney Fringe Festival Genre Excellence Award for Best Musical Performance a couple of years ago with Gregorian Funk, so it must still be expressing something of the zeitgeist!
Undercurrents is a much more introspective work. Its dreamy and ambient feel seems to have made it a favourite on ABC Classic FM!
How do you feel about this new release in the context of your decades-long career with Elektra, Romano?
R: Funny you should ask this question, because I haven’t really thought about it in that way. The tendency as a composer is just to get on with it, with my head stuck in whatever new score or project I am working on! It certainly is wonderful to stand back and re-experience some of the energy of the core works from the Elektra String Quartet’s touring days; a repertoire that I think I can safely say was original and unique.
Back in the day, it was Elektra’s embrace of improvisation and electronics which allowed it to develop a unique sound and approach to music-making; though not using electronics, this album is a wonderful record of that phase in my creative development.
Listening to the album – both the string quartets and Flat Earth – I am struck by how fresh and timeless they seem. I’ve never worked to a formula of ‘contemporariness’, rather, as in my improvisations, I simply express that which has an emotional meaning and resonance to me at the time.
I have written another five equally powerful works for didgeridoo and string sextet and percussion, including As Old Men See It, After the Haze and The Nameless One. But given the difficult artistic climate in Australia at present, we haven’t been able to record or perform them. They are on our ‘to do’ list!
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Ebb & Flow upon its release?
M: It’s something everybody’s got to listen to and enjoy the journey. Really, it takes you from here to there. And don’t forget the didge is in there, doing more than the f*cking drone! The rest is f*cking hard work!