For Genevieve Lacey, making music come alive also involves deep listening, writes Matthew Westwood
The recorder is a modest instrument — just a simple pipe with a mouthpiece and fingerholes — and yet Genevieve Lacey can conjure whole worlds with it. She recently was a guest at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville and performed in the opening concert there with her collaborator Poul Hoxbro. With Lacey on recorder and Hoxbro playing pipes and a frame drum, the audience was swept back to the 13th and 14th centuries with music that was zesty and fresh — and not at all like something kept in the freezer for 800 years.
The other remarkable thing about their performance is that the music barely exists, at least not in a form that can easily be read off the page and reproduced. Yes, there are antique manuscripts, but all they may show is the outline of a melody. The rhythm, the countermelody and all the other things that make a performance are — as Lacey explains in her upbeat way — all up for grabs. Educated guesswork, knowledge of musical forms and a flair for invention go into the making.
One of the pieces Lacey and Hoxbro played that night had an Arabic inflection: a tang in the wind, blowing from the East rather than the West. The saltarello, or “little jump”, is a spirited Italian dance form, and this one is the oldest example of its kind, springing from a 14th-century Tuscan manuscript held in the British Library. Hoxbro added rhythmic beat and thrum to the melody, and Lacey her ornamental flourishes, gleaned from years of listening and enlivened with a finely tuned instinct that suggests to her, “That’s how they play.”
But this doesn’t quite capture the sweet tone and lively trilling that issues from her pipe, or the charisma on stage of someone doing what, it seems, she was born to do.
Her father, Rod Lacey, was a historian and the family lived during Genevieve’s early years in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. He specialised in medieval history and also oral history, and late in his career he worked on collecting people’s stories about the Stolen Generations. “Growing up in our family,” Lacey says the morning after the Townsville concert, shielding herself from the bright winter sun, “was always about listening to people’s stories, and listening to a place, and listening really hard to all the things that aren’t being said, and not privileging the things that have been written down, because the things that are written down often are tied to the politics of power.”
Lacey applies such thinking to her music. It’s a mistake to perceive the world only through the medium of books or manuscripts, and not through lived experience and the ability, as she says, to “listen really hard”.
She is far too respectful of musicology to be dismissive of academic research and what it may tell us about musical performance from centuries ago. But music must flutter and live in the moment of performance, she believes, not be pinned to a theory — however historically informed — of how it should sound.
“The idea of trying to reconstruct what someone heard 10 centuries ago, that’s not my thing,” she says.
With music of our own time, too, she recognises that performance is so much more than can be written down. Lacey knows from experience that the score is just the starting point, the springboard from which notes are made into music. Composers are “wonderfully obsessive” about their markings on the score, she says, but she has never encountered one who hasn’t made alterations during their work together. “What’s on the page is only a skeleton of what someone’s hearing,” she says. “And to mistake the notation for the thing itself is a really grave error, I think.”
Lacey’s intelligent approach to music and convictions about the responsibilities of musicians have given her an important role in helping shape the musical culture of the nation. She has been a festival director — including of the Four Winds festival on the NSW south coast at Bermagui — and also a guest programmer of concerts. Tomorrow, she curates a concert with William Hennessy’s Melbourne Chamber Orchestra in a program that will span 900 years of music, from 12th-century French polyphony to Ross Edwards’s Tyalgum Mantras from 1999. In the program, called Towards Eternity, Lacey will play two baroque concertos for the recorder, by Vivaldi and Sammartini, the Edwards piece, and variations on a 16th-century madrigal by Cipriano de Rore.
She is also artistic director of an innovative program instigated by chamber music presenter Musica Viva to prepare the next generation of musicians. FutureMakers is an intensive, twoyear mentorship scheme supported by the Berg Family Foundation that aims to address the whole musician: not only their performance but entrepreneurial instincts, advocacy, even their mental resilience. The program has just produced its first graduates, the Arcadia Winds quintet, and the second intake of young musicians will be announced soon.
Lacey’s pleasure is evident when discussing her work as a mentor, and so is the fire of her vocation. Making a beautiful sound is the minimum that musicians should be doing if they are to make a contribution, let alone make a living.
“Rather than be afraid of that, let’s run with it, that’s the reality,” she says. “We’re interested in working with people who are feisty and resourceful, who aren’t waiting for the phone to ring … I love this idea of the artist as citizen, as leader. You have an extraordinary gift — how are you going to use it?”
Lacey doesn’t just say the words: it’s as if she lives and breathes them. How else to explain her own extraordinary gift — a musical intelligence carried on a stream of thin air?
appears at the Melbourne Recital Centre tomorrow; Federation Square, Friday; and Daylesford Town Hall, September 9.
Recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey