Over the years Sally Whitwell has strayed, trying out other instruments but she always comes home to her first love, piano. Sally has answered some questions for classikON about her love of classical music and what inspires her.
How did your love affair with classical music begin?
I cannot remember a time when music was not central to my existence. I was very lucky to have non stop music happening in my childhood home – both my parents listened to a wide variety of recorded music. There were all genres from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to Glenn Miller, The Beatles and Pink Floyd. I grew up loving it all equally. My grandmother was always playing piano and sent me to my first piano lessons. The piano and I just clicked and it’s an enduring relationship.
Has interacting with your fanbase via social media affected your music choices and development as an artist?
I do ask my little interweb tribe for their opinions on occasion, so in that way they do literally affect my choices! For example, in advance of my last solo concert, I asked them for an opinion as to what I should play for an encore; a musical interpretation of the Higgs Boson God Particle by Domenico Vicinanza or a 3 minute free improvisation. By a very narrow margin, the improvisation won the vote and I abided by that decision. Whilst I am well aware that the best artists do not just pander to public opinion to shape every artistic decision they make, every now and then I do like my public to feel, well, close to me.
Who is your favourite composer: Living and no longer with us?
What a difficult question! I’m just going to answer with the favourite composers that I’m listening to now. I’m currently enjoying quite a lot of Steve Reich (2×5 and Double Sextet), some Jonny Greenwood (especially his soundtrack to the film There Will Be Blood) and also a whole lot of Maurice Ravel (in particular his Violin Sonata and his Daphnis and Chloe ballet music).
Why the toy piano? What other unconventional instruments are in your repertoire?
The toy piano initially appeared in my life as a vehicle to pay tribute to one of my favourite musicians Yann Tiersen. He makes extensive use of the instrument and as I was recording several of his pieces for my second album The Good, the Bad and the Awkward, I thought it would be a fitting tribute of sorts to employ them somewhere on the album. I also have toyed with the accordion a little, played some pipe organ during my teens, and I majored on bassoon for my honours degree at Canberra School of Music in the 90s. I’ve found the experience of engaging in a variety different music making contexts was one of the most valuable learning opportunities I’ve ever had.
You have a unique personal style, what are your stylistic influences?
I’m influenced by what makes me happy, that is to say I just wear colours that make me smile and shapes that suit my body type. The hair colour is a recent thing, just an extension of the joy I find in colour. My tattoos have very personal meanings for me, but I also love them purely for aesthetic reasons. Maybe the shoal ‘style’ thing is something to do with the time I’ve spent involved in various groups in the GLBTQ community? i.e. visibility is a key element of my own queer politic, and presenting an honest personal look/identity is very important to me, to who I am. What you see is what you get!
How do you have the time to write music with so many projects on the go? Do you have a time machine?
A time machine would be nice! I always carry around a little manuscript book and write down ideas as soon as I have them. Then it’s just a matter of choosing which ideas to use for particular projects. I find that ideas tend to arrive at odd moments, mostly when there is some kind of movement or flow around me in the world, in the shower or washing the dishes, walking down a busy street or sitting on a train. I like the stimulation of lots of stuff going on around me, being bombarded with imagery, and then sorting out which ones to lift from this vast array of sights and sounds. So much to explore in this world.
What piece of music inspires you the most?
Lots of music inspires me, but particularly works that are well structured dramatically. Right at this very moment I’m thinking that Rufus Wainright’s song Tower of Learning is such a work, as is Massive Attack’s Pray for Rain and Philip Glass’s Wichita Vortex Sutra. I can really feel that I’ve been changed upon listening to or playing/singing through these works, and if that feeling happens every single time, well, that’s what music is all about. I’m also getting into quite a bit of Mauricio Kagel’s instrumental theatre at the moment, as inspiration for a solo ‘show’ I’m writing. His Ludwig van is providing me with much food for theatrical thought.
If you could record a collaboration with anyone, who would it be and why?
The Bang on a Can All Stars, because of their consistent track record of pushing the boundaries of what classical music actually is and how it is presented. Plus, they’ve worked with so many of my heroes, Brian Eno, Thurston Moore, DJ Spooky, even Louis Andriessen – the idea of working with people who dwell at the intersection of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art is something that holds great appeal for me.
What is the next big thing for Sally Whitwell?
I’m going out bush next week as composer/performer at the Moorambilla Festival, then a solo concert in Canberra (my home town) in October and a guest soloist/composer spot in Gondwana Choirs’ Voices of Angels in December. February 2013 will see some major appearances in Melbourne and Perth (stay tuned for the official announcement for those, coming very soon).