Transcript: Genre bending with contemporary cellist James Morley
Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal People, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of gathering and storytelling and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present.
James Morley: I mean, here it's so normal to see musicians around and it's such a part of the kind of European kind of culture that everyone is familiar somewhat with classical music. Whereas in Australia people just come up to you and they're like, What the hell is that? Is that a saxophone? Like, why should they have to know what a cello is?
Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey, I'm Courtney Amenhauser, and this is Up Next: Your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage where I'm going to be chatting to a spectacular line up of artists, up and comers who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. The Opera House is celebrating its first 50 years. So in every episode of this podcast, we showcase someone exciting who we think will transform the next 50 years of arts and culture. Today's guest, Switzerland-based Australian cellist James Morley, has been described as a “new generation virtuoso.” But over on his website, he describes himself as simply “cellist/improviser/etc.” And his Instagram handle is @durrie_butts. That humility really comes through in this episode, especially when James talks about finding new ways to make classical music less elitist. While James works largely as a classical soloist and chamber musician, he frequently finds ways to bring cello music into unexpected spaces and genres. We recorded this episode via video link to Basel, Switzerland, where James carved out space in a very busy schedule ahead of a tour that will see him travel through Europe to Israel and then Australia for a performance at the Opera House in August.
Courtney Amenhauser: Hey, James. How are you doing?
James Morley: Hi, Courtney. I'm good. How are you?
Courtney Ammenhauser: I'm good. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.
James Morley: Pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Was it love at first sight with the cello?
James Morley: Actually, no. So I was quite young when I started. Well, not too young, but I was about, I think, six. I actually would say that I kind of hated it for a few years. I didn't necessarily have an interest in music. I think also because my mum's a music teacher, so there was kind of this parenting style when it came to approaching playing an instrument. And by the way, I actually am happy that it was the way it was now at this point in hindsight, because I wouldn't be doing this now, actually. And then, yeah, I remember practising and, you know, kind of reluctantly practising, this piece from the first solo cello suite by Bach, when I actually liked it. I think anyone who doesn't know this piece by name knows it by ear.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Can you play it for us?
James Morley: Yes, I can.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Why, thank you.
James Morley: And then we take an awkward moment to set up [James plays Bach on his cello].
Courtney Ammenhauser: My jaw's on the floor.
James Morley: No, no, no. I mean, believe me, it sounded way shitier than that at the time.
Courtney Ammenhauser: What does it mean to be an improvisational cellist? Because it's not just freestyling on stage, right?
James Morley: I think people kind of think of improvising as literally just making it up on the spot, which there is definitely an element of this kind of spontaneity. But you do have to prepare, practice, figure out what your sound is. Otherwise, you know, you kind of revert to your instincts. And so if you've done a lot of work on a particular thing, those traits are going to come out in that moment. I mean, you have to be a great listener. You have to be able to engage with other people on the stage and not just be caught up in your own little world. I mean, it helps to know the instrument really well. So the fact that I've been playing for so long means that I should know it pretty well by now. So, yeah, preparation is big. So improvising, I would say.
Courtney Ammenhauser: So you're in Switzerland now and you're studying contemporary musical performance for classical music. What does that mean? How do you explain it to people in a pub?
James Morley: [Laughs] I mean, it's kind of more this sort of art music kind of thing. Kind of contemporary art, sort of a lot of interdisciplinary sort of interaction. And it can be a bit academic, which is not really for me, but there's that side of things as well. Really technical, really interesting, experimental, this kind of thing.
Courtney Ammenhauser: And how is what you're doing in Switzerland different to what you could learn if you'd stayed in Australia?
James Morley: Well, the thing is, in Europe, there's just way more funding for just art and music in general. And in Switzerland especially, there's so much money. And so they have so many grant foundations, even really small random ones. So you can just apply for money and, it's hard to get it, it's much easier than in Australia because the funding and appreciation for it exists. And so Basel, where I am, really is an amazing place I find for contemporary music. So much interesting stuff and variety of opinions here. You go to concerts and it's really acceptable to say, Oh, I didn't like that. And then you just get to talk openly about it with people and discuss the music and it's all part of it. So I think that's really cool.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, cool. I'm keen to hear a bit more about that interdisciplinary side to your course.
James Morley: It entails many different things: commissions, so brand new music, constantly collaborating with composers and electronic musicians. I'm learning much more about electronics now, which I never knew almost anything about before. So for me to do something I'm doing now, it wasn't an option to stay, actually. So yeah, for me, I'm glad that I'm doing this at the moment with my life being here. I mean, that's probably partially why I'm more interested in contemporary music stuff, because I think relevance is important and I always look for ways to help it be more accessible.
Courtney Ammenhauser: I feel not wanting to take yourself too seriously is touted as a virtue in Australia, and in a way it keeps us grounded. But it can also fall into the tall poppy syndrome, which is kind of toxic. Is that something you think about as someone who's moved to Europe for your art?
James Morley: Yeah, I think in Australia it's much more obvious to me that we have this kind of anti-elitist kind of attitude, which I kind of get. I mean, I find this world of music often more accessible than classical music, sometimes, to be honest. Because classical music, I mean, I've always had, you know, friends outside of classical music, and a lot of them have a lot of fear about going to see a classical music performance because they're like, Oh, I wouldn't fit in because everyone there is rich and old and it's in a concert hall and I don't have the right clothes and I can't afford and blah, blah, blah.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.
James Morley: And actually [contemporary music students] do performances in places that make more sense to be doing a performance, and it makes sense to people who want to go and experience it.
Courtney Ammenhauser: You went to a concert series in Melbourne called Play On. That was pretty different from most classical music performances. Can you tell me about it?
James Morley: Yeah, it's a really cool series where I think they wouldn't even announce the program before the performance. You would basically expect a sort of classical act or set and then something more experimental, maybe a contemporary music set and then a DJ set at the end. But these performances would be in carparks and places like this. But then it's appealing to trendy young people because they have the bar and the lights and everything's kind of beautiful and really vibey. The average age is, you know, 30. And so when you have people going to watch a classical music performance in an environment that makes them feel comfortable, then they love it.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Did going to Play On make you think about new ways to present classical music?
James Morley: Of course. I mean, I just see it so often painted in this kind of really formal and a little bit snobby looking kind of way and, you know, there are so many classical musicians my age. And, you know, they still seem to want to go for the suits and this and that instead of just feeling more relaxed if you just dress like a normal person or something. I mean, I'm fine with people dressing like that, but there's this feeling that it's necessary, it's obligatory. If you're performing classical music, just dress how you want. That's a good place to start. If people didn't feel compelled to maybe dress a certain way when they go to watch a performance. And also, just if tickets were cheaper. I mean, in Australia, if the government subsidises this a bit more, I mean, there's student rush and things this, but generally it's not so available or they don't advertise it so that people don't really know that this is an option or whatever. And so I just think the presentation of it is really crucial and no matter how much we try to avoid it, presentation is extremely crucial in this kind of thing.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Is music programming something you'd like to do?
James Morley: Yes. Um, and I've done a bit of it before. I worked at a venue in Melbourne called Tempo Rubato. Really amazing place, actually. So I programmed a bunch of concerts there and I really enjoyed this. I would like to do more in this kind of world actually in future. So I do have my brain kind of mulling over some ideas at the moment. In fact, there are things I'd like to do in Australia, um, in terms of this kind of programming, curating things. So yeah, this does interest me.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Watch this space, hey?
James Morley: Watch this space.
Courtney Ammenhauser: I heard that you did an experimental performance all about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Can you please explain that to me?
James Morley: I don't know if I can explain it, to be honest! I mean, it was something of a composition by this composer, a Belgian guy called Stefan Prince. So there was a small ensemble of us as electric guitar, someone on electronics, cello, double bass, harp, saxophone and drum kit. It was basically all improvised. We rehearsed a decent amount and, as I was talking about before, you really prepare by rehearsing improvised stuff. And so we really had a plan, it's structured improvising, but there was a video, it just kind of used clips from movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There's an interview on one of those late night shows that gets featured; some advertisement for something that he's in. And it all just kind of highlights the absurdity of this guy. But I think one of the kind of musical focuses of the of the performance was you had some of these really sort of beautiful moments, these kind of almost choral kind of lively chords with some really hectic, I don't know, loud something over the top. And so it was really kind of a lot of juxtaposition, I suppose. And so, yeah, not mooth. I guess it was meant to be a very big humorous element in this, in this piece, but also kind of.
Courtney Ammenhauser: And are they representing the multitudes of Arnold, as in, he's been a bodybuilder, an actor, a governor?
James Morley: I guess you could say that. I'm not really someone who's into, um, you know, you get sort of people who say, yeah, with this piece of music really, you need to tell a story or whatever. And it's, well, if there's no lyrics or nothing that's telling me story stories, why? How am I supposed to convey that? It's kind of a silly thing to me. I know it's a kind of satire piece, this whole thing, and you do have, yeah, a lot of this sort of thing going on over here, I think. I don't know.
Courtney Ammenhauser: I imagine as someone trying to take cello beyond classical repertoire, you want to be inspired by the world around you. What inspires you beyond music?
James Morley: I think when we're so caught up in this musical world that we care so much about each other's opinions and everything that we get really trapped in this kind of feedback loop of what's actually important in this world. And if you kind of break that cycle for yourself and just experience other people, then you just kind of remember what their values are and what living means to them and what's important to them. And I live with fashion designers, mostly people who have such a different kind of focus in life, but also this attention to aesthetics and stuff. And I mean, I go to the river here every day and just remember this is the closest thing I have to the ocean right now. Yeah, the Rhine River runs through Basel. It's amazing. It's so beautiful. And so, yeah, I think these big kind of natural forces in the world, as stupid and whatever as it sounds, these things are important to me.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Totally. I don't think that sounds stupid at all. I agree.
James Morley: Okay. Thanks for validating.
Courtney Ammenhauser: You've got your first solo show coming up at the Opera House. You tell me what to expect.
James Morley: We're going to hear a nice mixture of things. We have a brand new commissioned work by Josephine Mackin, who's a great composer based in Sydney, and I performed this work with Jane Sheldon, who is an incredible soprano, singer, based between Australia and the States. So I'm so excited to work with her. Also, I play some solo pieces, a piece by another Australian composer, Brett Dean, which is just really hard. So that's kind of taking up some brain space at the moment, but it's quite cool. It's quite a spectacular kind of piece. So I think, yep, we got some balance going on in the program. And then also a piece that Louisa Lim wrote for me a couple of years ago. She is one of my favourite ever composers. She's Australian, she's big overseas. She's one of the big names of contemporary music composition. She's amazing. And I was so lucky that she wrote me a piece two years ago. So I'll bring this one out again. You get to hear me sing a bit so I know I don't have my sexy radio voice today because I'm a bit sick, but if you want to hear these dulcet tones, that's the opportunity. And then I also play with Erin Helyard, who is one of my favourite musicians in Australia. He's, you know, a favourite of the opera House, I believe he runs Pinchgut Opera and he's one of the best early music keyboard players. So, you know, piano fortepiano harpsichord. In this case we play a Beethoven sonata. So he will be on Fortepiano, which is kind of an earlier version of piano and I find often more beautiful than piano. And I really love this instrument. So it's really nice that we can make this come together. And so, yeah, we play this beautiful Beethoven sonata. So, you know, it sounds this is a very varied program, as you can tell. We've got Beethoven and then we have brand new music.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, sounds like a really nice marrying of the two worlds.
James Morley: Yes. Yeah, I think so.
Courtney Ammenhauser: James, ont this podcast is all about looking ahead and trying to spot who's going to make it. Who do you think is going to make it big in the next decade?
James Morley: Oh my God. That is the impossible question. I mean, I don't even think about this sort of question because… Who’s going to make it big? I don't know. I mean, everyone is kind of obsessed with making it, actually. And, I've been having this discussion a lot with one of my best friends here is someone that's always, Oh, I want to be famous and he's kind of joking, but I know he's not. He's like I want to be famous all the time. And whenever you tell him about something cool that you have coming up, he kind of gets to be, Oh, I wish that was me. And, you know, he's really happy for you or whatever, but he's kind of a bit sort of, obsessed. And so there are some people who are a bit like this. And I also think I look at him and I go, well, you kind of have made it as well many ways, you're doing amazing things. But the thing is for us, there is no that's why you can't have an end goal with all of this being a musician or an artist. If you think that there is a point where you've made it that's just completely wrong. And I realised this a long time ago, which I'm really glad I did, because I think some people still have this idea that there's a point where it's all just, Yep, now I am a god of music. It's like, No, you can't do that. Like , it's a constant. It's a lifelong process, which is a beautiful thing, and I wish to respect that. And so, yeah, saying that anyone is going to make it, of course the names get bigger and people get more attention and more Instagram followers or whatever it is required to become considered, you know, famous. But yeah, I think anyone who's a good musician is valid in their own right. No matter how many people come to their performances, how many people buy the albums? I mean, if you like someone's music, then you should enjoy it and not rely on other people's opinions and reviews about them to decide to inform, you know, your choice to appreciate them.
Courtney Ammenhauser: I love that last line and I agree wholeheartedly. What a place to leave it on. Thank you so much for joining us today, James.
James Morley: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Courtney Ammenhauser: That was cellist James Morley. You can see James Morley and friends in a performance called Beethoven and Beyond on August six at the Opera House, a program that includes a new work commissioned by James and the chance to hear contemporary and classical musicians find common ground in Beethoven's third cello Sonata.
I'm Courtney Amenhauser and this has been up next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House.
From Audiocraft the show is produced by Marcus Costello.
From Sydney Opera House, the Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and the Digital Programming Coordinator is Georgia D'Souza.
The Up Next theme Music is by Milan Ring.
Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.