Keeping Classical Music Friendly

Contrary to what some people may think, we can interview classical musicians for an inside scoop. Classical music is not dead!
I started this blog to focus on careers in music. All of the options! And you know what genre is left in a corner far too often these days? Classical.
Right? I know there are tons of you who enjoy classical, whether it be film scores, modern, or Mozart. To others…you may ask…’what exactly is classical? Why are we still talking about it? Isn’t it boring?’
Well, everyone is different, but read this first and you be the judge. If you’re ready to dismiss classical music, then it is my challenge for you to check this out. If you already dig it, prepare to meet Sally Whitwell.
Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell. Credit Rhydian Lewis.

Keeping classical music friendly. This is how you describe yourself in the first line of your ‘about’ section. Why do you think people feel it is ‘unfriendly’? How are you changing this?
I’ve talked at length about this to friends of mine who are not classical music people.   Of course this is purely anecdotal evidence and should be understood as such, but so many of the people I’ve asked simply feel that classical musicians are very far away from them.  Far away in terms of the way they have been trained to do an extraordinary thing, in terms of the kind of life they lead, often even in terms of the way they present on stage.  Essentially, it seems to me therefore that it’s all about communication.  I try to show that we classical musos can be friendly and immediate and upfront and real, too.  I play concerts as much as I can in intimate venues where I can see everyone’s face and share a beer with them afterwards.  I chat very happily directly with anyone on social media, not through an agent or manager or other minion.  When I organize a concert out of town, I directly involve some local musicians so that we’re all making music together.  Real contact.  This must be the future of classical music.
Is there a classical piece that you think people are familiar with, but not for their original use. I know that each piece can mean something different to any person, and at least it is being heard, but…for instance, Ride of the Valkyries?
Something like how the opening minutes of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss were used at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001?  The mighty expansiveness of that music, I can’t think of a better piece for that moment in the film!
I did a study on film score during my last semester of college and was very interested to find how many pieces of music are referenced in film scores. Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, Holst’s ‘Planets’, Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’–all compelling pieces on their own. Do you have any thoughts on the evolution of film music? Especially with electronic music now-Trent Reznor’s Oscar winning score for The Social Network, for example.
The use of music in film is such an enormous topic, I hardly know where to start.  There are two film soundtracks in particular that leap out at me simply because of the way the combination of music/image/narrative made me feel.  One was Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack to There Will Be Blood which had me feeling this constant uneasiness.  I wouldn’t say I identified with the greedy oil barons of the film, but I certainly felt what it was like to have a desperate greed so strong you could almost call it addiction.  The other soundtrack is Michael Nyman’s music for Jane Campion’s film The Piano.  Because the central character Ada was mute, the only way she could communicate her emotions was through the abstract form of piano music.  I can’t recall any other film in which music and characterization were so closely woven together.  Extraordinary artwork.
What was the first piece you ever wrote?
It was a setting of the Byron poem She walks in beauty like the night.  It was inspired by my beautiful partner Glennda, the light of my life.  Actually, I wrote a little story about it too, you can read it here.


You say the piano chose you, but you dabbled in other instruments. When did you first play the piano?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play.  My lovely grandmother Beryl lived in the house with us and brought her giant monster of a steel framed upright into the house.  She taught me to play quite a few things, my favorites being Cockels and Mussels and The Wedding of the Painted Doll.  As soon as they realized I was interested, I got sent off to piano lessons.  It was a revelation to me!
This quote in your bio, regarding composing and performing, is so lovely: “I even help them to manifest their own imaginations in sound”. Growing up, I got lost in sound. We didn’t have cable, and I lived on 5 acres in the middle of the woods, so we couldn’t just walk to a gathering place that wasn’t a pond or something (because the pond was a gathering place!). I would sit in my room and listen to music, and that was enough a lot of the time. Music is so important for brain development and memory…could you elaborate on what you hope to accomplish with the imagination?
Everyone has a voice, but to express yourself creatively you need to feel that it’s safe to do so.  I try to create that safe space for people, whether it be a private composition lesson or a group writing session with 10 year olds (I’ve done a fair few of those).  I’ve been moving into new territory lately by workshopping composition with teens through improvisation.  It’s all still a bit of an experiment, but I was pretty pleased with the 2 minute opera that a bunch of kids and I created at the Perth International Arts festival early in 2013.  They inspired me! It was magical.
Was there a turning point for you deciding you wanted to be a professional musician?
I did always know that music would be in my life.  For a while there, I did think that ballet was going to be my future, but I realized was actually the music that drew me in to that in the first place, so music won.  Also, I like my body too much to subject it to the kind of punishment that dancing requires.  I’m not built for that.
Working in a creative field can be a constant struggle, as these jobs are usually first to be cut or to lack funding. What is the oddest job you’ve ever done while pursuing music, if you had another job?
I played a really silly gig once as an accordionist.  These rich housewives were having a lingerie party (kinda like a tupperware party, but selling each other very fancy expensive French designer lingerie).  Anyway, they wanted live music so my friend and I went to this enormous harbourside residence and whilst I performed Sous le ciel de Paris as she danced around pegging little lacy numbers onto washing lines strung up about the room.  The money was excellent and we got fed and watered and supplied with other, um, party favors. It turned into a bit of a wild night actually.
Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell. Credit John Fick.

This portion of my blog aims to profile as many different professions in music and sound as I can. I was led to focus my blog on this mainly due to two thing: 1) being laid off twice and finding, while networking, lots of interesting people and careers and 2) receiving questions from students and wanting to get the info out there. I think starting a discussion is important for the arts community, and I’d like students-or anyone-to be able to relate and learn from one another. I can relate on your ‘shared‘ page of your site. That being said, if you were to make a sort of bullet list of the things that were crucial to you getting your career off the ground, what would that be?
1.  Theory and Aural skills – even more important than mastering the technique of your instrument, learning how music actually works is the most important skill you will ever learn.  You can apply that knowledge to every single thing you do.  if you’re just really good at your instrument, you’re basically, um, a jock.
2.  Be yourself – find the thing for which your desire burns hotter than the sun and do that thing.  Let lots of people know you’re doing it.  Be seen doing it as much as possible.  It builds you a kind of accidental brand.  I got known for doing lots of contemporary music cos I just did it, said yes to all the ensuing opportunities and suddenly found myself in a bit of a niche.
Out of those, what was the most challenging? Did you ever feel like giving up? What kept you going?
It’s a constant challenge to live like this, juggling the different facets of my musical existence.  Time management is the hardest thing, especially finding time out for non-musical pursuits.  When your work and your play are so inextricably linked, it can be difficult.  Also when I see my friends with ordinary day jobs and how they get to have this thing called a weekend, it’s occasionally tempting to think I could just chuck this in and get a real job.  But then I’d be miserable and unfulfilled.  Music is the only thing for me.
Of course, you have some pretty impressive collaborations. Philip Glass and Steve Reich stand out to me. How did you meet and build your work relationship?
I made my first album at the request of the ABC Classics producers, they came to me saying rather enigmatically “We’d like you to make a solo piano album of approachable contemporary music.”  We met in their offices and the “approachable contemporary” meant Philip Glass.  I made the album and it led to an invitation from Perth International Arts Festival to perform Glass’s complete Piano Etudes with the man himself!  What a wonderful experience to meet and work with such a unique and driven artist.  I’ll be performing some of the Etudes with him again in Los Angeles and New York in 2014. Can’t wait!
Amazing, and congrats on your ARIA award! Can you explain the experience, in your own words?
It was of course a great honor to win the ARIA Award, because it’s a peer voted award and to know that your colleagues support your work is a lovely thing.  There is only one award for classical music though, and it’s hard to compare what I do to an opera recording or a string quartet or a period instrument band.  I felt like I was accepting on behalf of the entire classical music community.  In a sea of pop music, it’s the only mainstream recognition we get!
Speaking of Aria, slight digression here. My cat’s name is Aria, and I see you have cats with very interesting names. Did you choose those? I love it!
Our cats, or ‘fur babies’ as we like to call them, are our pride and joy. I’m a stepmother to Gandalf, named for the character in Lord of the Rings.  Lucky was so named because she’s lucky to be alive, having been rescued from a rubbish bin.  Boudica is our posh fluffy Selkirk Rex and is a bit of a princess so it seemed appropriate to name her for the Iceni queen.  And Dickens is named after the great British author who hails from my partner’s hometown, Rochester, Kent, UK.
You also have a really awesome style and flair. Is this part of keeping classical music friendly?
It’s just who I am!  And I feel that keeping classical music friendly is not about how cool or up to date you are, it’s just about how you share your passion with the world.
The unanswered question (pun intended har har)…how do Charles Ives and The Muppets fit together? 
He wrote a splendid song called The Circus Band which I did in a concert with my cabaret soprano friend Nadia Piave and a bunch of friends, choristers from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir.  It was called The Children’s Hour (after another Ives song!) and we made little mini operas out of all these art songs strung together into a loose kind of narrative.  After The Circus Band had come over the hill and disappeared again, we were left alone on our dreamy lily pad to sing The Rainbow Connection.  Maybe you had to be there to understand? Trust me, it worked.
I love it!
Are you drawn to minimalists? 
I have at times in my life been very drawn to different types of meditation practice.  Through the process of learning a whole lot of minimalist music over the years, I came to the realization that performing, listening to or experiencing this music is a kind of meditative practice for me.  Life imitates art imitates life.
What are your thoughts on John Cage? I find musicians tend to have very torn opinions on pieces such as 4’33”.
4’33” still totally works for me.  I went to see Bang on a Can All Stars the last time they came to Australia.  They performed in a John Cage anniversary festival here at Sydney Opera House.  4’33” was the first piece on the program and the audience, fully aware of what was about to come, dutifully sat in complete silence for the length of the piece.  This was interesting in itself.  I wondered if there was anyone there at all who’d never heard of it? And what were they thinking? As you can see, this piece still causes me to question and that, after all, was it’s purpose.
If you could pick four words to describe your songwriting process…?
Text, understanding, communication, layers.
And your post modern pop minimalist baroque’n’roll project?
I’ve recorded an album of solo piano music by Michael Nyman called All Imperfect Things.  We’ve already talked about Nyman’s unique contribution to film music.  I’ve just posted a copy of the album to him; I hope he likes it.
How has technology impacted your career over the years?
It’s had a huge impact on the music industry as a whole, I think.  Through the development of all manner of instruments of course.  Then there is the way technology helps us to disseminate what we do.  Finding the audience is another matter altogether.
Do you think there is going to be a change in music education at the university level, due to the economy and rising costs of tuition? 
I think there’s a bit of fear surrounding future careers in music, which has a flow on effect.  Music is not seen to be useful, so it’s a low priority.  I am reminded of a quote from Winston Churchill when the finance minister suggested cutting arts funding in order to fund the war effort.  Churchill said “Then what are we fighting for?”
What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind when working in music?
Say something.  Your musical voice is unique and important.
All Imperfect Things is now available on iTunes. For more info, you can check out Whitwell’s work at her site,, and on Facebook.

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