In our occasional interview series for 2021, classikON Ambassador Alan Holley discusses music, the Arts and the future with composer Tina Stefanou.
Alan Holley: One of the advantages of writing for classikON is that I sometimes attend music events/concerts that otherwise might go under my radar and one such event introduced me to the artistry of Tina Stefanou. I went to ‘Shallow Listening’ performed by the Music Box Project in May, 2021 and was left with musical and visual memories that lingered on.
Over the last 40 or so years we have seen the emergence of composers who are not part of the performance process. Indeed, many seem to have very limited skills as a performer. Tina, you seem to be most comfortable as a performer and as a creative artist. Do you see a great difference between these two components of music/music-theatre?
Tina Stefanou: I am not really thinking in disciplinary modes, I see composition as acts of presence that spills into all sorts of thinking-making. I felt ostracized by disciplined music education, so I moved into other spaces including singing in pop-rock bands, learning Turkish singing, and then eventually finding greater freedom in visual art. The polite order of conservative approaches to creativity in ‘Conservatorium-land’ didn’t fit. I consider myself an undisciplined artist with little interest in creating distinctions or hierarchies between this output or another. Improvisation-is-the-stuff-of-life and I serve the idea and context of the creative act. I am interested in the ‘performativity’ of ideas, beings, and places – how information sings.
AH: I was struck with the versatility of your vocal technique and I wondered if as a developing young musician you had artists you admired?
Tina Stefanou: I grew up listening to modern and folk Greek music and there is lots of colour and pathos in the vocals. Of course, I was also listening to pop music and R&B imitating all those running belting lines. I would take the piss out of Opera, because when I first heard it sounded soooo crazy funny to me. The dramatic vibrato, the costumes – I thought it was Play School on steroids. It sounded like upper class British people elongating their sentences in distress. After lots of playful imitations across styles as a kid and living in a vocal house made of all sorts of vernaculars and accents, it became clear to me that the voice is an empowering and expressive medium with a great responsibility to communicate – a way to respond to the world around me. My auntie pushed me to audition for VCASS – a free government funded school for gifted dancers and musicians. I couldn’t read music, but I rocked up to the audition, sung a Greek song and jammed on the piano. I was surprised they let me in really. I was 12 years old. It wasn’t until much later in my adult learnings that I really began letting go of the identities I learnt and constructed around singing. This meant that animal murmurings interrupted melodies, crying sounds extended into harmonics and yelling became a new register. This approach I later found out is called extended vocal techniques and that was exciting but also a little like ‘da!, my mum does that anyway everyday, haha’. I am looking at different thresholds and how far I can push voice beyond genre, music contexts and into other materials, events and poetics.
I don’t have a clear answer about influences as I didn’t study voice in that way. My reference points have never been famous singers or composers but are more of a reaction to the atmospheres of the communities I belong to and the sounds of commoning including all sorts of activities that are full of artful gestures and inspiration.
AH: Where do you see your work fitting in the music landscape of Australia? Much of the music emerging here lately seems to be made with commercial success in mind. Your thoughts?
Tina Stefanou: Honestly, I have no idea, I don’t really think about that stuff anymore. It used to be important to me when I was in my 20’s in bands…to be popular. I find the need to always self-promote and construct an identity that people will monetise, weird and very little to do with the act of art. I also am not so much into art as outcome based. I am happy for my contribution in music making and art to be an amorphous force that has longevity and moves across multiple platforms with many collaborators. If practice translates as money and artists are organising themselves around dominating markets that seems pretty depressing to me and not sustainable. In saying this, artists also need to feed themselves and have shelter, and everything is affected by the market – so there is lots of things we have to juggle to understand how to sell what we do but not to be led by it. Not become scarcity monsters of competition. I’d like the Arts to be more like the bonobos. I am in the middle of writing an experimental pop album and perhaps people will like that but I’m not about to get a PR campaign happening around it or an expensive haircut. Plus you have the have the capital in the first place to get those types of commerciality’s. Does the world really need more things sold to them? Maybe what I do doesn’t sit in the music scene in that sense, and that is OK. There are multiple ways to share yourself out there! If you have community to try things out with, I think that’s the best place to be in terms of sharing. I also don’t think music making should equate to fame, power, or notoriety it shouldn’t also make you powerless. It’s not mystical or special even though the experience of listening and making elicits all sorts of magic, including forms powerful forms of togetherness, however music is a common expression and that’s why I love it.
AH: I see from your CV that in recent times you have spent time in both Melbourne and Sydney. Do you find any cultural differences between these two cities?
Tina Stefanou: When I was living in Sydney, I was in the inner suburbs and now in Melbourne I am about an hour outside of the city, living on my grandmother’s farm. This is a very different experience. The arts are vibrant in Melbourne however I am much more interested in the spaces that are artful but not necessarily confined to urban cultural contexts. For instance, I am working with a group of teenage horse riders and elderly horses out here and there are so many creative acts taking place.
Sydney was bloody expensive to live in and I am not sure how artists sustain themselves under such high rental conditions without working a lot of other jobs. I worked a few jobs to live in Sydney and was exhausted, however the improvisation scene was really nourishing and there are so many great people and players. I made lots of friends in Sydney with many nights of creative experimentation and sonic chaos. Some of these experiences have shaped into collectives and micro movements of resistance to the commercialised space of art and music. It is so important to have the time and space to build meaningful friendships and play together without an outcome in sight.
Melbourne has this cool edge which isn’t really my jive – someone once said to me, “If you can’t be a dag then you can’t be creative.” That really stuck with me. At times the inner urban spaces of Melbourne feel a little exclusive but like how I felt about aspects of Sydney. Too much politeness and high living aesthetics can kill emergent creative possibilities. Although the improvisation scene again in Melbourne is also great – there is a socialist undertone and lots of music makers whom I admire and learn from. I am also part of a Greek community and in Sydney I didn’t really connect with that in the art/music scenes, in Melbourne that is happening more, and I am grateful to find more intergenerational non-Anglo dominant ways of thinking about music and art.
AH: Will there be a reinvigorating event for you this year? The event that tells you things might just return to some sense of normalcy and can you share details for the readers?
Tina Stefanou: I am not sure what normalcy is or will be, but I am working hard to think and feel through possibilities during this time. I am creating the longest hum in the universe for Cementa, a regional contemporary art festival in Kandos, NSW.
They have moved their prolific festival to the online space. So, I pulled up my boots, connected with new collaborators and reconfigured what was going to be a live human and animal humming chain into the digital space. The longest hum is a participatory action where people upload a hum or hums to the website www.thelongesthum.world which then stretches over time for 21 years. It is always a hum in process and the artwork will change and crystalise over time with the changing conditions of technology. It also connects the locations of the hums, building a resonating connective tissue. It is the first time I have done something like this and it’s interesting to see how new conditions of being generate new aesthetic and ethical responses. This will be launched on the 16th of October via cementa.com.au and I would love the readers to be part of it. I also looking forward to getting in a room with Chamber Made for the development of a new work – addressing the fragmentation of self through technology and we will be incorporating all sorts of methods to work with our covid artscape.
Tina Stefanou is an Australian-Greek artist based on Wurundjeri country in Wattle Glen, Victoria. With a background as a vocalist, she works undisciplined, with and across a diverse range of mediums, practices, approaches and labours: an embodied practice that she calls voice in the expanded field. As a means to seek more inclusive ways of making and to frame tangled relationships, she engages in multispecies performance with a family of local others, friends not-yet-made, and poet(h)ic meetings of matter. Informed by diasporic experiences, Stefanou engages in sound as social practice and explores with and beyond the all-too-human and more-than-human voice. This manifests through moving images, performances, multi-species cinemas, installations, improvisations, live actions, artist-as-avatar-as-ape, bus tours, vocal encounters, research, workshops, feasts, gatherings, ensoundings, experimental writings and sculptural invitations.
Read Alan’s review of Shallow Listening, the concert that inspired this interview.