Written by: Linsey Pollak
What do a bamboo grove, a broken down VW kombi, a vinyl album of Macedonian folk music and following your lover up to a small country town in Queensland all have in common? They are all fragments of a series of random events that created my diverse musical journey.
When I look back over the years ….there was never an ordered plan or roadmap about what would come next. It seems as if I have just stumbled along, embracing a series of random opportunities as they presented themselves. And maybe ‘embracing’ is not even the right word. Perhaps the opportunities grabbed me. Because at the time I wasn’t even aware of making the choices that have had huge impacts on my path. It feels as though I’ve sort of improvised my way through life and in many ways that is how I approach the music that I make.
Random Event no.1 – the bamboo grove. (How I became an instrument maker)
As a 19 year-old living in Sydney I had taken a year off after leaving high school and before starting a SCIENCE degree (teenage dreams of becoming a neurophysiologist). However, during that year, amongst other things, I discovered a bamboo grove. Not a big deal, but for some reason I decided to cut a length of bamboo and I made my first musical instrument – a bamboo flute. That was it. I was hooked ….I’d totally fallen in love with the process of making a musical instrument. I wasn’t even a flute player. At that stage I’d been playing clarinet for about 8 years (due to another random event – my Mum finding an ad in the local paper for a second hand clarinet selling for twenty pounds when I was in primary school).
Anyway, I taught myself how to play the bamboo flute and started making bamboo flutes in earnest. I researched flute design with various books from Fisher Library (Sydney University) and then sat on the ground outside the library with my flutes spread in front of me on a rug – ‘For Sale $5 – $10’. It was also at this time that my passion for community music was ignited. I started running bamboo flute making workshops with kids in inner city Sydney. Then in 1973 when I travelled to the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin to run flute making workshops and perform with the White Company I decided that it was time to defer my science degree (it’s still deferred) and get into instrument making full time. Now I really had the bug. I wanted to make flutes in timber, so I taught myself wood turning and bought a wood turning lathe and started making renaissance flutes. My instrument making addiction had become even more serious and I wanted to learn more about early wind instrument design and so I travelled to Europe (with the help of an OzCo grant) to measure early wind instruments in museum collections throughout Europe. One of those museums was the Horniman Museum in London.
Random Event no.2 – an old treadle lathe in a watchmaker’s shop in London (why I set up a flute-making workshop in London)
While staying in London I was walking through Clerkenwell with my girlfriend Janet. Looking into a watchmaker’s shop I saw an old cast iron treadle woodturning lathe. (Like the clarinet my Mum had found it was for sale for only 20 pounds). It was a bargain. So without a second thought I bought it. Now what to do? Janet and I were backpacking around so it was totally impractical. We decided to find a workshop space (for both of us – Janet was a double reed maker) and ended up living in London for another 2 years. I set up a renaissance flute making workshop and made three sizes of renaissance flutes mainly supplying The Early Music Shop as well as individual musicians.
But now we need to step back in time a little as there is a parallel story.
Random Event no.3 – sampling Huffy’s record collection. (How I fell in love with Macedonian folk music)
Let’s go back to about 8 months before I travelled to Europe. I was staying with my friend Huffy in Sydney and checking out his record collection (this was still in the days of vinyl) when I came across an album called Macedonian Folk Dances (by Pece Atanasovski). It was ‘love at first listen’. I was completely entranced by the sound of the gaida (Macedonian bagpipe) and knew that one day I would have to play this instrument. I immediately made a cassette copy of the album. This was just before embarking on a three month trip down the Murray River with 13 friends on rafts that we built ourselves. Every day of that rafting river trip I would listen to the Macedonian Folk Dances album at least once until it was in my blood. Eight months later I was in London.
Random Event no.4 – I come across a Macedonian folk band in London that is short of a gaida player
Because of my love affair with Macedonian gaida, soon after arriving in London I looked around for people that were involved in Macedonian dance or music and very soon discovered the Živko Firfov Dance Group who taught and danced dances from all over Yugoslavia. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that attached to this group was a band of musicians playing Macedonian folk music with traditional Macedonian instruments (tamburas, kaval, tapan) except that they were missing a gaida player. Ken who led the group had a gaida I could borrow and now that I had my workshop set up I made a copy of his gaida and completed the group.
Random Event no.5 – Our VW kombi breaks down on the Yugoslav coast (How I find Lazo – my gaida teacher)
After playing gaida for nearly a year I decided that I really needed to spend time in Macedonia, find a gaida teacher and immerse myself in the music and culture of Macedonia if I wanted to continue playing this music. Adam (the kaval player in our Macedonian band) and I decided to travel together and we bought a kombi van so we would have somewhere to live when we arrived in Skopje. Great idea ….except the kombi broke down on the Adriatic coast. We tried unsuccessfully to import a replacement motor and ended up finishing our journey to Skopje by bus. This was the best thing that could have happened. If we had lived in the kombi I would never have found my gaida teacher Lazo Nikolovski. It was because we were looking for accommodation that we met Lazo who had a granny flat in his back garden. On top of that he played gaida and was a great player. He had recently retired, had plenty of time and was willing to teach me. We ended up living in his backyard for 3 ½ months and Lazo would spend three hours every day playing and teaching gaida. It was a dream come true. Thank you Lazo!
Random Event no.6 – Meeting Destan Destanovski and Romani hospitality (my introduction to Romani brass band music)
I returned to London for another six months and then the whole Živko Firfov Dance Group and band were invited to perform at Macedonia’s major folkoric festival ‘Ilindenski Denovi’ in Bitola. At this festival I met Destan Destanovski who was an incredible Romani (Gypsy) zurla player from the town of Berovo. He invited us to visit and stay with his family which we did on a number of occasions and we became very close friends. It was during these visits to his town of Berovo (near the Bulgarian border) that I first discovered Macedonian Romani brass band music. This was music that was quite different to the traditional Macedonian folk music that I had been learning on gaida even though some of the traditional melodies were reinterpreted and played by these bands of magnificent improvisors. Over the years this music has influenced my playing, improvising and composing greatly and I have run many community music workshops in this style of music. More recently I organised and composed for a community street band in Maleny, Qld called The Unusual Suspects, using arrangements and compositions of mine that have been inspired and influenced by Macedonian Romani brass band music.
Once back in Australia I lost contact with the Destanovski family. However decades later with the advent of the internet I would randomly Google ‘Destanovski Berovo’. I finally got a hit and connected with Milo Destanovski, Destan’s son (who also played zurla). After a break of over 30 years I finally returned to Berovo in 2013 and found the connection just as strong and the music better than ever. Two years later in 2015 I managed to bring 19 of these wonderful musicians (three different bands – Uskar Kan Orkestar, Etno Maleš, Maleševski Zurli) to Australia for two weeks of incredible concerts thanks to the Woodford Folk Festival.
Here is the Uska Kan Orkestar playing in my studio the night after arriving in Australia
And here’s a track called Banjski Čoček from our own Unusual Suspects:
Random Event no.7 – Busking outside Hoyts (connection to the Macedonian Community and my eyes are opened)
On returning to Australia at the end of 1978 I wondered how relevant my newly acquired skill of playing gaida would be. I had no idea really about an Australian context for this music. Also I had no money, and so, as I had done in London, I went busking. I busked outside the Hoyts Cinema Complex in George St, Sydney and late one night while I was playing the gaida a group of pretty tough looking guys surrounded me and formed a circle and …suddenly started dancing to my music. When I finished the piece they bombarded me with questions “How do you know our music?”, “How did you learn?”, “How come you speak Macedonian?” etc etc. Through talking with them I learnt that there were dozens of Macedonian bands in Sydney, dozens of Macedonian dance groups and they invited me to come along to one of their Macedonian cultural organisations. When I left Australia I had already fallen in love with the music, but I was ignorant of the cultural context and had no idea of the Macedonian community in Australia. Over the next months that totally changed and as I was wholeheartedly welcomed into the community. I also learnt a lot about the community itself.
Also (once again with the help of a small OzCo grant) I was able to bring Lazo (my gaida teacher), Mile Kolarov ( a wonderful 73 year old kaval player who played with Lazo) and Chris Gunstone (a part Macedonian tambura player I had played with in London and had travelled with me in Macedonia) to Australia. They lived with me for two months while we played concerts and ran workshops in Sydney and Wollongong. We created a traditional Macedonian band called Orkestar Grupa Pečalbari and recorded an album through radio 2MBS.
During this time (1979 – 1983) I connected and played with many Sydney based musicians who were also attracted to Macedonian and other Eastern European music, especially Kim Sanders, Winsome Evans, Doug Kelly, Mara and Llew Kiek, Rigel Bass and many musicians from the Macedonian, Persian and Turkish communities such as Risto Todoroski and Davood Tabrizi. These connections resulted in forming bands such as Rabadaki and Strantsi – influencing the repertoire of The Renaissance Players and Tansey’s Fancy (of which I became a member). I also connected up again with Gary Dawson, a wonderful vibrant and enthusiastic international dance teacher who I had met before going to Macedonia and who had been part of my journey into Macedonian music through the dances that he taught us. Now collaborating with Gary we ran monthly Eastern European dances in Newtown with live music. Just around the corner from where we ran those dances was a park where I sometimes practiced my gaida along with my girlfriend Christine Evans playing tapan (Macedonian drum).
Random event no. 8
On one occasion, a group of Macedonian men approached us and once again, like my experience busking outside Hoyts, asked “How do you know our music?”, “How did you learn?”, “How come you speak Macedonian?” etc etc. They also asked if we would come again the following Sunday. We said we would, and this time about 20 Macedonians turned up. The following week more than 50, but this time dancing to our music for over two hours. This grew into a fantastic weekly Sunday afternoon occurrence for the rest of that summer (about four months) with often over 200 people dancing and picnicking and as many as 15 musicians playing various styles of Macedonian music for the dances. This was one of the community arts highlights of my life.
So gradually (or maybe not so gradually) I was finding a place for this new music that I had fallen in love with, and more importantly, that music took me on a further journey that opened my eyes to the extraordinary wealth of diverse musical talent hidden away in the margins of Australian society, not just in the Macedonian community, but in so many different non-Anglo communities. I wanted to open other people’s eyes and ears to this music and thought of setting up a multicultural music café venue. In a city the size of Sydney that idea seemed a bit overwhelming for someone with no experience. However during a trip to Perth I attended a multicultural music concert presented by Radio 6NR and was blown away by the diverse music talent in Perth. Perth somehow seemed more accessible and the idea of a ‘café folklorico’ or a centre for multicultural music seemed more feasible.
So, towards the end of 1982, I approached Ali Sumner (Community Arts Officer – Perth City Council), enquiring about a possible venue for such a centre. Ali became just as enthralled with the idea and decided to incorporate it into her Community Arts Programme. The Music Board and Community Arts Board of the Australia Council were approached for funding. The application was successful, and in October 1983 I opened the Perth Ethnic Music Centre (later known as The Multicultural Arts Centre of WA and finally KULCHA) and started my job as ethnic music co-ordinator working through Perth City Council. The Centre itself was opened with a big party for a whole variety of people involved and interested in multicultural music. There were about 150 people present, who feasted, played, danced and listened to music coming from Egypt, India, Australia, Macedonia, Spain, Indonesia, America and Italy. 15 months later we ran a free Multicultural Music Festival in North Perth that attracted 35,000 people. Not a bad measure of the growth of awareness for multicultural music.
There were so many wonderful experiences during this time, and I felt so privileged to be constantly spending time with so many inspiring people from many diverse communities. I spent 16 months with the Centre and then moved on as I had promised myself to work as an administrator for just one year and then move back into playing music. Not that I had totally stopped playing, as during that time I played with Philip Griffin in the band ‘Makedonski Bop’, with Jaider D’Oliviera in Brazilian band ‘Baté pra tu’ and with Christine Evans in the street band ‘Tea Break’. It was indeed a wonderfully inspiring time and although I was only there for a fantastic 16 months, the North Perth Ethnic Music Centre / KULCHA lasted 30 years until funding was finally cut in 2014!
But HEY! …WHOA! Let’s STOP for a moment. This seems to have turned into a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane. I didn’t plan for this to be a life story ….but it’s sort of turned into one. I guess my article writing approach is like my life journey and like my music improvising / composing style. Often not a plan in sight, no map, no obvious structure …..so the journey can take you to some great places, but not always where you expected. And you know what? ….I like that! Not all the paths may take you to where you want to go, but overall I reckon that it’s often a more interesting journey, even if you don’t always end up at beautiful destinations. It’s about saying ‘Yes’ when something new is offered, it’s opening a different gate when you can see a beautiful pathway stretching out beyond on the other side. And, so it is with this article. I’ve taken it in a different direction to that which I expected. It’s a bit like the latest piece of music that I’ve recorded (August 2020) called ‘WhaleSong 4 Phil’.
Link to ‘WhaleSong 4 Phil’: https://linseypollak.bandcamp.com/track/whalesong-4-for-phil
‘WhaleSong 4 Phil’ sounds composed ….as if I had some sort of plan, but I didn’t, really it’s just an improvisation that started with three simple ideas: 1. It’ll be in 13/8 2. I’ll play the sounds of Beluga and Humpback whales with my digital wind instrument ‘Lyrebird’ 3. I’ll play the Cylisax (a new wind instrument that I’ve designed and built). I started by improvising (on ‘Lyrebird’) a 16 bar sequence in 13/8 with the sound of the Beluga Whale. Next step was improvising another Beluga Whale line under the first. Then I added the same Humpback bassline an octave lower. This was all ‘on the fly’. Then I added a counter bassline using another Humpback Whale call. I did this again in more or less the same sequence of events, building the piece just using Whale sounds. Then it was time to add the Cylisax (see photo below). The first pass with the Cylisax was totally improvised. The harmony Cylisax lines were played over sections that I selected after careful listening. The rest of the process involved tweaking certain lines and then mixing the complete track ….and Bob’s your Auntie. Not all my compositions are approached like this but it is a process I use often, where improvisation is the key driver.
So where were we? Oh yeah – 1985.
The first project after my time in Perth was ‘Tall Stories’, touring communities in the Kimberleys, WA with a combination of performance and music workshops. For me this was a natural follow on from other aspects of my musical life in Sydney (after Macedonia and before Perth). As well as my focus on Macedonian music this had involved once again setting up my instrument making workshop and working on new woodwind designs and also working as part of ‘Pipi Storm’ which had now grown from a group of friends on a Murray River raft trip to a hard working, Sydney based 25-person community arts and theatre in education collective which had an important role in the growth of community arts practice in Australia. One of the three strands of this collective created a schools touring performance called ‘Brigadier Blimp’s Big Elastic Band’ and that was one of the first projects I was involved in that was a group devised combination of music and theatre.
So ‘Tall Stories’ was a natural development of this approach and also included a touring theatre set that was musical. It could be played! (see photo below). It was the first combination of my instrument making and design with performance, and this was to become a real feature of my work in the years to come. After the ‘Tall Stories’ tour I stayed on in Broome for a number of months and along with Mark Cain played and performed with local musician Wayne Barker. I also recorded some of the songs that indigenous kids had written as part of the songwriting workshops I’d run on the Tall Stories tour.
On returning to Sydney the following year I was involved a project started by Doug Kelly (who I’d previously played with in Tansey’s Fancy). This was the band ‘Churinga’ which played Macedonian and Turkish influenced music. We toured to Darwin and Tasmania and it was on the Tassie tour playing at the Longford Folk Festival that one of the most important events in my life occurred – I met my lover and partner Jessica Ainsworth. I was very tanned from my time in Broome and so she thought I was Macedonian and introduced herself in very loud, very slow, simple English, saying “Hello, my name is Jessica” (and yes – we are still happily together 34 years later).
It was also during this time in Sydney that we further developed the ‘Paranormal Music Society’ (with my closest and dearest friend and musical colleague Romano Crivici and percussionist Blair Greenberg). This performance project was all about improvisation and taking risks, as most of the music was based on spontaneously named fictional song titles suggested by the audience and also musical themes determined by the roll of a giant dice. It was also a great performance platform for me to include some of my more wacky found object instruments such as the rubber glove single reed plunger, the drilled out tree root and the watering can clarinet (see the clips below).
Paranormal Music Society Tribute to Hendrix for SBS TV
Paranormal Music Society – audience request for ‘Flowerpots on the Moon’:
The next years rushed by in a blur of activity starting with 1½ years in Adelaide concentrating on my work as an instrument maker particularly developing a wind instrument called a Saxillo which was a keyless version of the Hungarian tarogato (sounding like a mellow soprano sax). During this time I also followed on with my interest in multicultural music and was involved in setting up a multicultural music venue as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival and also co-ordinating a cross-cultural music ensemble. I moved my instrument making workshop back to Sydney in 1988 and then briefly to Brisbane for an extensive community arts instrument making project. Then three months in Europe which included exhibiting my instruments and Jess’s beautiful leather instrument cases in London and France, busking in Sweden, Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Austria and living for six weeks in Northern Greece studying klarino (Greek clarinet) with Stavros Vastekis.
Random Event no.9 (or maybe ‘random side effect’) – we move to Queensland and I discover live looping
After the three months in Europe we returned to Australia and for family reasons decided to move to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland, first near Gympie and then nearby in the small town of Kin Kin (pop – 300). I once again set up my instrument making workshop, but suddenly I was at a loss as to how to continue as a musician. Macedonian gaida and Greek klarino seemed irrelevant, and I did not want to play Macedonian music as some sort of exotic musical wallpaper divorced from the community that it was part of. Yes, I definitely had a dose of culture shock moving to an area that was much less culturally diverse. Also, I’d left all my musical friends and colleagues behind, and at that time (in 1990) there did not seem to be much going on musically on the Sunshine Coast that aligned with my musical interests and there were no musicians with whom I could play in the music genres that I had been exploring (though this has certainly changed to a huge extent over the last 30 years). It was due to this situation that I tried a different approach. I decided to develop a solo performance using live looping.
Now, live looping was very much in its infancy at that time. Very few people were performing in this way and the technology was in its infancy. In fact my first solo show ‘Bang it with a fork’ used a Boss delay pedal which had a 1.8 second ‘hold function’. That is, all my loops were 1.8 seconds long. Somehow it worked and I ended up touring that show all over Qld, NSW and Victoria. Today (30 years later) I can’t imagine holding an audience with those short 1.8 second loops. Already my second show ‘Knocking on Kevin’s Door’ was performed using a looper with a 30 second maximum loop length, and today I use a looper with five independent tracks, hours of memory and a huge range of effects and adjustable track parameters.
‘Bang it with a fork’ was the first in a series of eleven different solo shows that I have created over a period of 30 years. The common thread has been that I use live looping and musical instruments made from found objects. I love the combination of these two approaches! Live looping allows me to deconstruct the process of music making in a very clear and accessible way. The audience can see the music being composed and built step by step right before their very eyes and ears. Instruments from found objects (watering cans, carrots, rubber gloves, garden hose, bicycles etc) demystify how musical instruments work as well as creating an element of humour and fun! This has opened up my music to a very broad audience and I have toured these shows all over Australia, Europe, Japan, Korea and Canada from 1991 – 2020). As well as being fun and accessible these performances have a very definite agenda of demystifying the process of music making and encouraging the idea that we can all be involved in the process of creating (rather than just consuming) music.
Here are video links from some of those solo shows:
The Art of Food (1999 – 2002)
Live and Loopy (2011 – 2016)
Paper Scissors Rock (2019 – 2020)
Cycology (2007 – 2009)
The Carrot Clarinet (1992 – 2020)
Using musical instruments from found objects in my solo live looping shows enabled me to combine my instrument making and my music making into one hugely satisfying activity. One of those instruments that seems to have made the biggest impact is the Carrot Clarinet. Of all the dozens of different instruments that I’ve created this one seems to ‘tickle people’s fancy’ to the greatest degree. It screams out “Don’t take anything for granted”. We often make assumptions about the world around us. We have certain expectations that sometimes close us off to various other possibilities that exist. The carrot clarinet embodies this. People do not expect carrots to make music.
Also things often seem much more complex than they really are, and we need to strip back the confounding layers that sometimes hide simple principles about how things work, or why they don’t work, or why they are failing. We become intimidated about trying to create things ourselves, or fix things ourselves, or to try to solve problems ourselves, because the underlying principle of how something works or why something is not working is hidden from us. Music for me has always been a wonderful analogy for the world around us, and as an instrument maker I take great pleasure in stripping back the design of wind instruments to their simplest form and at the same time expanding people’s expectations about what is possible. The Carrot Clarinet is one such example. I ended up doing 3 TED talks / performances in Sydney, Vancouver and Mumbai with the Carrot Clarinet as the centrepiece. Here is a video clip from the Sydney Opera House TEDx presentation.
Community Music, humarimbas and Big Marimba (1995)
While living in Kin Kin (1992 – 2011) I started to focus more on the use of marimbas as a tool for community music. I had run many community music workshops since 1972 (bamboo flute making, song writing, marimba making etc) and I found that marimbas were a fantastic instrument for very quickly getting total beginners with no musical experience to play music as part of a group. I had developed an instrument called a humarimba during the eighties (instructions to make one here: https://www.linseypollak.com/pdfs/humarimba-making.pdf ).
This is a marimba played by three people with one of the players at each end with the humarimba attached to belts (no need for a stand). They are simple to make and I ran community music workshops in various parts of Australia where participants learnt to make and play the humarimba. Once in Kin Kin I ran more and more workshops on making and playing the humarimba and in 1995 I was asked by The Brisbane Biennial Festival of Music (now the Queensland Music Festival) to create a big marimba across the Brisbane River, and so ‘The Big Marimba’ was born.
The Big Marimba was a huge community music project that involved 400 people making a 320 metre long marimba. The 2400 marimba bars were made and tuned over a 10 week period and the 320 metres of marimba was then put in place for nine days crossing the Brisbane River attached to the Victoria Bridge so that passers-by could play it. To launch the Big Marimba in Brisbane, 100 of the people from the community who had made the marimbas came down to perform in The Big Marimba band with 30 marimbas and percussion. This project had many long-term spin-offs with many people continuing to play marimbas and a number of marimba ensembles springing up with people who had never played music before not only keeping on playing but teaching others. The Sunshine Coast became a world hotspot for marimba playing.
The Big Marimba (1995 Brisbane Biennial Festival of Music)
During this time I had also taught my lover/partner Jess and our two closest friends Mik and Ali to play the humarimba, meeting every Tuesday night, and we ended up forming the band ‘Xylosax’ which toured all over Australia and Europe. “But it all started in Kin Kin”.
Because I had spent so much time running various community music workshops all around Australia and never getting to have long term follow-up I decided to set up a long term local humarimba-based community music project. I was approached by some local mums to see if I would teach their children marimba. I declined politely and suggested that maybe a better approach would be for me to teach the parents so that their kids could first see it as something that was part of their community. Amazingly 25 people turned up to learn humarimba (the town population was only 300) and so the community marimba band KKarimba was born and continued for seven years. Within the year one of the Kin Kin kids came to me and asked “Why can’t we kids play marimba too?”. I replied to her “You can. Find 10 kids that want to learn and I’ll teach you”. She came back the next day and gleefully reported that she had 12 kids all keen and ready to go, and so ‘The Nightmares’ kids humarimba band was born.
Back into Macedonian inspired music in a community setting.
Years later when we moved from Kin Kin to Maleny (also in the Sunshine Coast hinterland) I wanted to start another ongoing Community Music project, but rather than using Marimbas I wanted to create a Macedonian Roma music inspired street band. I had been running Macedonian Brass street band workshops in various Music Festivals for years. Maleny had a very high percentage of experienced musicians, so I put the word out hoping to attract at least 12 players. We started with more than that and the number rose to 24 in no time. So, in 2012 the ‘Unusual Suspects’ were born – A street band with 6 drummers, 4 saxes, 3 trumpets, a clarinet, 2 trombones, a sousaphone, an ipad, a cittern and a rezouki. Unusual music in unusual times and in unusual clothes. Balkan, funky dance music for dancing in the streets (or anywhere really). Our repertoire began with my arrangements of Balkan Roma (Gypsy) Brass style as well as original pieces exploring dance grooves in varied time signatures. There is a link to an Unusual Suspects video earlier in this article and here is a link to an audio recording of Sao Roma: https://www.linseypollak.com/past-projects/the-unusual-suspects/
Although I was focussing on instrument making, community music workshops, creating solo live looping shows after my move to Queensland, there was also opportunity to follow on with my interest in cross–cultural music. Soon after arriving on the Sunshine Coast I connected with BEMAC (Brisbane Ethnic Music and Arts Centre). This Centre had been inspired by the North Perth Ethnic Music Centre that I had established in Perth in 1983. Over the next few years I did a few projects and residencies with them that included workshopping a cross-cultural band called Selengi. This led on to another major project – a national cross-cultural music ensemble called Slivanje (meaning “meeting of waters” in Macedonian) which created new Australian music based on the traditions that each musician brought to the group, ranging from Macedonian, African and Latin American, to Indian classical and Japanese contemporary music. Slivanje included: Linsey Pollak – bagpipes, clarinet, saxophones and tarogato; Hernan Flores – vocals, guitar, Latin string and wind instruments; Blair Greenberg – percussion; Dorinda Hafner – vocals, hand percussion; Satsuki Odamura – koto; Ashok Roy – sarod. We were one of the earlier experimenters in cross-cultural music in Australia and we performed at the first WOMADELAIDE Festival releasing the CD “Where Waters meet”.
Slivanje playing ‘Autumn’
Dva (with Tunji Beier)
This leads me to another cross-cultural music project of a different sort, the longest lasting project of my life – a wonderful collaboration which has lasted 22 years called ‘Dva’ (the Macedonian word for ‘two’). This collaboration is with the extraordinary percussionist Tunji Beier. Tunji and I first performed together at the Border Crossings Festival in Bayreuth, Germany in 1996 which Tunji was directing. It was a cross-cultural project that he ran yearly, bringing together musicians from diverse cultural background from around the world to live and rehearse together for a week before performing at the Bayreuth Opera House. Not long after that Tunji moved back to Australia and we started playing together. Although we have travelled very diverse paths and studied different musical traditions, we found that our playing was extremely compatible. We create improvisations and compositions that draw on the traditions of Macedonia and South India, our greatest musical influences. My various wind instruments are combined with Tunji’s Mridangam (South Indian Carnatic drum), Kanjira (South Indian tambourine with a lizard skin), jaw harps and other percussion instruments that Tunji has mastered while living in India, Nigeria and Europe. We have taken Dva all over Australia and the world and recorded five albums. Many of our performances have been completely improvised as was our fourth album ‘Anticipation’. Often we just nominate a key and ‘GO’.
Link to audio recordings: https://www.linseypollak.com/current-projects/dva-with-tunji-beier/
Another project which took improvisation to another level was the trio QWERTY.
When qwerty walked onto stage we had no idea where the performance would go, no idea of the song content, the sounds to be used or the musical style, let alone such details as key or time signature. Audiences were taken on a journey; sometimes emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes philosophical, often intense and always musically eclectic. It was performance and musical risk taking in the extreme. The lyricist, Peter Rowe, who has Downs Syndrome and autism cannot speak. He can’t communicate by speech and instead uses facilitated communication (FC) which is a mode of assisted communication using a board with letters, numbers and some words on it. Peter improvised a whole concert of completely new songs by tapping out words on the board. These words were read and simultaneously sung by Delany. (Think about it a bit – Peter is totally improvising a complete concert of song text, and, as Delany sings the words that Peter writes she is simultaneously reading the next ones). Her melodies were totally improvised in response to the music that I created by improvising and live looping using my WX5 midi windsynth. All three of us agreed that this was one of the most extraordinary projects that we had ever worked on. The sense of self became blurred. The ego was consumed by the necessity of absolute group focus. It was improvisation in its purist form, where each performer had to let go of any expectations or preconceptions. There had to be no fear when stepping off the edge. It was a process that was undeniably liberating.
‘With sublime aesthetic, playful dynamic and infinite imagination, this ever-ready team of improvisers challenge the moment, themselves and their audience on the threshold between necessary thought provocation and pure raw emotion. They have been a catalyst for more tears, laughter, hope and inspiration than I’ve ever seen in an audience. The reason is because their work is disarmingly real in every sense of our perception and its reflection on our existence. It is quite simply evolutionary art.’ – Carl Panuzzo
Link to qwerty video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsqoaBVOrGc&t=49s
Larger scale music projects
I must make mention of two larger scale music projects – BimBamBoo!! (1997/98) and The Dream of Zedkat Nabu (2012). Both of these works were premiered at The Woodford Folk Festival which has been a huge supporter of my work over 30 years. It is I believe one of the most significant festivals in Australia for a myriad of reasons. It has had a significant impact on the development of music generally in Australia through its support of emerging artists, Indigenous performers, multicultural music and it has a very deep understanding of what makes up the culture of a nation. They even have a 500 Year Plan.
The first of these performances was BimBamBoo!! (1997/98)
….a sensual and magical world constructed entirely from bamboo. Six performers musically explored this new world in which they lived as sisters, as lovers, as twins. As family and alone they existed in a world of surreal beauty, creating music from and within that world. The music sprang from the bamboo itself and from their very breath. Bim…BamBoo!! was designed to give a strong visual basis to the music. The show was site specific and the set built from bamboo was actually the source of much of the music. For example,
24 tall bamboo poles are triggered percussively to become a giant keyboard played by up to five performers at once. There are other natural sounds created from bamboo (both wind and percussion). And of course the magic of the human voice is the essential ingredient.
The six performers were: Linsey Pollak, Annie Lee, Christine Johnston, Josh Burnet, Andy Arthurs and Jessica Ainsworth.
Although Bim…BamBoo!! had a very natural look, and many of the sounds emanated from breath, voice and bamboo, there was also a very contemporary hi-tech edge in which digital technology was used in new and creative ways. Bim…BamBoo!! was music theatre that was music driven rather than theatre driven. There was no obvious narrative, no text dialogue, and the audience themselves created the relationships between the performers. It was an aural and visual feast!
Video excerpts from BimBamBoo!! (Woodford Folk Festival 1997/98):
The second was The Dream of Zedkat Nabu (2012/13)
Zedkat Nabu dreamt that she was baking bread, and as she baked, water suddenly poured forth from her oven forming a great sea. As the sea rose, many and various animals tried to escape the growing deluge of water, crying out with their strange and exotic calls and cries. And on that sea, she came to see herself and her three sisters floating ……singing and floating ………..their voices joining those of the animals in a great chorus ……..a chorus of distress, but also of hope ……hope for survival. A chorus so haunting and beautiful that even the deluge of water paused to listen ………”
The Dream of Zedkat Nabu is a universal story, both ancient and contemporary. It is a story of a world in peril, of species doomed for extinction. We join her dream at the moment of “the Great Chorus” …the moment when the Great Flood pauses to listen ….”and know this ….we are also in that story, and it is no dream. For it is time to sing together to create a Great Chorus that will for us too, turn back the waters of impending extinction”.
The Dream of Zedkat Nabu was a work devised by Linsey Pollak and performed by four wonderful singers – Kacey Patrick, Velvet Pesu, Jeunae Rogers and Nadia Sunde and four musicians triggering the calls of endangered animals by striking bamboo poles – Jessica Ainsworth, Donna Miller, Zaia Kendall and Linsey Pollak.
This was a musical work with strong visuals – lighting design by Andrew Meadows and costume design by Velvet Pesu. The core of the piece was the sounds of the animals themselves. Evocative calls of endangered species that speak directly to us in a way that words cannot. It was a call to action. A call to save this planet from the impending crisis. This is The Dream of Zedkat Nabu.
The Dream of Zedkat Nabu was directly related to (and an extension of) an earlier solo performance project called ‘The Extinction Room’ which was a sound piece creating music from the sounds of endangered and extinct animals. In this performance the audience wore headphones and blindfolds and were taken on a journey into The Extinction Room, a sound archive of endangered and extinct species. These sounds cry out to us in perhaps a more immediate and emotive way than words can describe. They are a cry from the animals that share and have shared this planet with us. This was an audio library of loss. A solo performance, live looping sound samples of animal calls. The next project that followed this line of work using sounds of endangered species was ‘Dangerous Song’ and Dangerous Song was created as the result of another random event.
Random event no. 10 – Jimmy suggests getting Lizzie up to sing and Dangerous Song is born.
This random event was another connection to the Woodford Folk Festival. It was New Years Eve (2014/15) and The Unusual Suspects (see earlier) were continuing their tradition of playing in the street outside Spaghetti Junction (at WFF). While we were playing, Jimmy (one of our trumpeters) said to me “Why don’t you get Lizzie up to sing a solo”. Now, I had only met Lizzie O’Keefe once (at Jimmy’s wedding) and so didn’t really know her. Also, we were playing a Macedonian song in 7/8, in the Hijaz mode, and she would have to sing with a microphone going through a lo-fi underpowered speaker up against a 24-piece street band made up of six drummers and a huge bunch of brass and reeds. But what the hell …it was New Years Eve, so I invited her and she accepted. AND ….she nailed it! I was blown away ….what an incredible voice!
At that time I had been thinking of doing a follow up project to The Dream of Zedkat Nabu but one that was easier to tour (i.e. didn’t have the four singers floating on water and 12 x 4m bamboo poles etc). I was planning to invite three or four singers to experiment on some ideas. When I heard Lizzie I knew she could possibly be one of those voices. A few weeks later we bumped into each other in a local café and I asked her if she would be interested to have a jam with animal sounds. She was. We had a jam, and the result was magic. I realised that I only wanted one singer for this project; and so Dangerous Song was born.
Dangerous Song (Linsey Pollak and Lizzie O’Keefe)
At the time of writing this, Lizzie O’Keefe and I have been working together for five and a half years as ‘Dangerous Song’ and it was been our main project over that time. We have recorded three albums and created three multimedia performances. I was about to try and describe Dangerous Song and what we do and why we do it. However instead I am going to include an excerpt from a review that describes what we are trying to achieve far more succinctly that I can. You can also get more info from our website (see below). Here is the review by S Sorrensen:
Echo NetDaily – Review by S Sorrensen – “Here & Now: Good Grief” (Nimbin performance 28/4/18)
The woman’s hand, subtly lit and just visible through the semi-transparent screen, dances with her voice, rising and falling. Her face is also lit and floats, luminescent, about the microphone, but it is her hand that fascinates me – now ascending like a jellyfish pulsing upwards, now hovering like a gull on a shoreside thermal, now diving like a gannet fishing. Movement and sound are so intimately entwined, I’m seeing the melody. It’s an elegant synaesthesia.
On the screen, colourful fish dart and flit (like her hand) among the living coral. A strange long fish swims by, and a turtle glides past…
Also lit behind the screen is a man playing a wind instrument. He plays the sampled calls of endangered species through a wind instrument, creating notes from those sounds, constructing melody from those notes, layering those melodies one upon the other with live looping until an endangered symphony is built, into which the woman’s voice swims like a sinewy eel into a coral high-rise.
A tear rolls down my cheek. That’s embarrassing, but my fellow audience members are so engrossed in the performance no-one notices. This is a show about extinction, but I’m enjoying it… and I’m crying. How can this be?
Inside me is grief. A lot of it, I think. I keep it repressed, though. The grief of a lost father, a lost love, a lost planet… It’s many griefs but one grief, and it’s buried deep, denied and ignored, because I don’t know how to let it out.
As we tumble into the sixth great extinction, as we watch the miracle of life become a horror of extermination, as the human legacy toxifies the ecosystems that sustain us, annihilates our companion species, and condemns our grandchildren, grief grows like a tumour inside me.
This performance, Dangerous Song Blue, shows what we are losing. I know this stuff already. It’s terrible. It’s so crushingly sad I can’t bear to think about it. But tonight this awful knowledge is transformed. Art can do that. This performance about what is being lost is not a dark requiem, but a colourful embracing.
If there’s a crack in everything where the light gets in, that crack can also let the grief out. That crack is art.
This art, here and now, does not deny the awful consequences of human ignorance, but rejoices in the wonder of what is. These artists have allowed my grief out, not as rage or depression, but as an exquisite melancholy expressed as a song, as a smile, as a tear.
This performance honours ecosystems and species, gone and going, with a visual and sonic testimony to the glory of life. And it honours humanity, because humans can create art. It is the best thing we do. Without art, we are lost.
No, it is not a perfect world. Far from it. But I can no longer hold onto the idea that it should be. We can only do what we can do.
Dangerous Song links
Songs of Emzara album: https://dangeroussong.bandcamp.com/album/songs-of-emzara
Video – excerpts from Dangerous Song Blue
Video – Indri Indri from Songs of Emzara
The photo below is from our 2nd multimedia show ‘Dangerous Song – BLUE’ which combined the human voice with the sounds of endangered animals which are from the IUCN Red List and include a diverse range of species including whales, seals, walrus, fish and sea birds. This takes us to a world of sound where the human and the animal combine into a kind of sonic morphing. This sonic world is mirrored by the visual superimposition of the natural world onto the human performers using projection. To do this, Linsey and Lizzie perform from within a 3D scrim (semi- transparent screen) with the shape of a giant aquarium. Underwater moving images are then projected onto the scrim giving the impression that the musicians are performing underwater. Renowned underwater cinematographer David Hannan provided the stunning moving images. Dangerous Song – Blue was the second in our series of multimedia performances. The first being Dangerous Song -Black and the third being ‘Songs of Emzara’.
Our current project with Dangerous Song is a collaboration with Sydney based Mongolian singer Bukhchuluun Ganburged, resulting in the formation of the trio AYA. We performed at the 2019 WOMADelaide and were just about to record an album earlier this year when COVID struck. All 3 of us are excited by this project.
TODAY (September 2020) …in the time of COVID
So what am I up to today? How am I navigating this very changed global environment? How has it affected me as a musician?
Actually there have been a lot of positives. With no gigs, a huge percentage of my time was freed up. Time that was previously spent organising gigs etc and generally being the personal assistant to Linsey Pollak musician. So there is much more creative time. What has that meant? What am I doing? Well, I’ve written and recorded three albums:
I’ve been designing and making new wind instruments (especially the Cylisax and the chromatic duduk)
I’ve been playing and recording music with the birds in our small local rainforest:
I’ve done a few online performances and even starting to perform a few live ones, and am currently collaborating with a woodwind music store in America to create an online beginners’ course for learning clarinet based around people first making their own paper clarinet.
We have resumed regular rehearsals with Dangerous Song, working on new material and will soon resume rehearsals with The Balkanics for gigs coming up in the next 2 months.
The Balkanics: https://thebalkanics.bandcamp.com/album/balkanics
I have also been uploading more videos on how to make your own wind instruments. For example a polypipe duduk.
There has definitely been a shift back to more instrument making!
And so we come back to Random Event no.1 – the bamboo grove. (How I became an instrument maker) where it all started.
And you too can make your own clarinet: https://www.linseypollak.com/product/make-your-own-mr-curly-other-clarinets/