BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
During a pandemic, the word “escapism” sounds particularly sweet, doesn’t it?
This is how Alicia Crossley describes her newest album Bass Instincts. The award-winning recorder virtuoso started work on this release before Covid-19, and continued through the outbreaks. Now, its release comes at a time when music lovers need — really need — some soundworlds to sink into.
In order to craft these soundworlds, Alicia teamed up with seven Australian composers, commissioning them to write new music for an unusual instrument: the bass recorder. In this interview, we ask Alicia all about her new release — including why the bass recorder is the star of the show.
Alicia, congratulations on your newest album Bass Instincts. Why did you want to release music that focused on one of the far-lesser-heard instruments: bass recorder?
The bass recorder is an exquisite instrument that deserves to have its moment in the spotlight.
Traditionally, smaller recorder sizes, such as the soprano or alto recorder, were utilised for solo repertoire while the bass recorder was relegated to bass lines in recorder ensembles. But contemporary performers and composers alike are embracing the bass recorder’s unique musical qualities, and creating highly virtuosic solo works.
The bass recorder possesses a beautifully deep earthy tone, and sings with a natural lyricism that can effortlessly morph into agitated and textural soundscapes. It is these unique musical qualities that I wanted to highlight and showcase in Bass Instincts.
Still, the bass recorder is rare. Like, quite rare. Yet you commissioned new compositions for the instrument. What was it like to approach seven Australian composers and tell them: “Hey, can you please write some music for an instrument you’ve rarely approached, if at all?”
It is always a little daunting approaching composers about a new commission, particularly for an instrument that isn’t very well known. But everyone was overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic about the project, and excited to explore the potential of the bass recorder.
How did you choose the composers who you felt would be perfect for this project?
One thing that is important to me when selecting composers for projects such as Bass Instincts is to have a diversity of compositional styles that will showcase both the versatility and virtuosity of the recorder.
There was a lot of research involved when I first embarked on this project, familiarising myself with a number of composers and their writing styles, and deciding which combination of composers could make a cohesive program.
The composers selected for Bass Instincts — Anne Boyd, Alice Chance, Fiona Hill, Holly Harrison, Lisa Cheney, Jessica Wells, and Amanda Cole — represent a broad range of compositional styles that highlight and showcase the many unique musical qualities of the bass recorder.
So, for this project, you specifically wanted to work with women who have established some incredible careers in Australian composition.
The representation of women composers in the classical music industry has been a major issue that has been highlighted over the past few years. Concert programs and recordings overwhelmingly favour male composers. It is up to performers, broadcasters, and concert curators to start making a more concerted effort to include female composers — myself included.
When I began planning Bass Instincts, I was also considering my own commissioning output with my previous recording projects Muse and Addicted to Bass. While Muse has an equal representation of male and female composers, my first album Addicted to Bass does not. For Bass Instincts, I wanted to make a concerted effort to promote female composers, and therefore made the decision to exclusively commission women for this recording project.
So tell us about the music!
There’s a wonderful array of musical genres and compositional styles featured on Bass Instincts which beautifully showcases the versatility and virtuosity of the bass recorder. From sultry blues-inspired compositions to minimalistic meditative musings, Bass Instincts explores the full gamut of timbres and extended techniques possible on this unique instrument.
Audiences will hear works that transport them to ancient cultures, become immersed in a fantastical steampunk world, and have their heartstrings pulled.
Having worked so closely with the composers, what do you like to make of this relationship between performer-composer?
I always feel so honoured and privileged to collaborate with composers on new compositions. As a performer, I have learnt so much about my instrument and my performing style through the collaborative process, with composers presenting new compositional ideas that often force me to think outside the box, and experiment with performing techniques.
No two collaborations are ever the same since each composer has their own process to creating a new work. Some composers give you a final draft score with minimal workshopping, while others will have regular workshops where we experiment with extended techniques, discuss phrasing, and look at a variety of articulations to fine-tune their composition.
I like to give each composer the freedom to write whatever they want, and act more as a guide or advisor when technique/instrument specific questions arise.
This is your fourth solo album, and I’d love to know what you most love about recording solo — especially considering the fact that you so often collaborate with Australian artists, albeit behind the scenes of the recording studio.
The thing I love about recording projects isn’t the recording process itself — the recording process can be incredibly exhausting — but rather the end result, and being able to present audiences with repertoire they have never heard before.
All of my recording projects have had the aim of presenting audiences with new music for the recorder, either specially composed works (Addicted to Bass, Muse, and Bass Instincts) or newly transcribed compositions (Alchemy). Being able to share new repertoire — and demonstrate the versatility and vibrancy of the recorder with an international audience, in addition to promoting Australian compositions — is incredibly rewarding for me.
There are certainly pros and cons to recording solo albums. Things such as artistic decisions, repertoire choices, and scheduling are arguably much easier when working on solo projects. However, not having other musicians to bounce ideas off, or to keep things in perspective, can result in a soloist becoming fixated on minute recording details. I am well aware how easy it is to get obsessed with minute editing details, and getting stuck on ‘hair-splitting’ elements.
If you have a clear artistic goal for the recording project, and have a sound engineer and recording producer that you trust to advise you during the recording process, then any recording project can be a rewarding experience.
What does it mean to you to be releasing new music during the pandemic? And how do you see this album working its way into the Australian music landscape during this time?
Releasing Bass Instinct during the pandemic — and while many people are is still in lockdown — seems slightly surreal, and I feel honoured and privileged to be able to bring new music to audiences at this time.
This pandemic has proven how essential the arts are to our society, and for our nation’s well-being, with many people turning to their favourite music to provide comfort and solace.
I hope that Bass Instincts will provide audiences with some escapism from the grinds of daily life as they become immersed in the unique soundworlds feature on this album.
The composers and I began working on Bass Instincts in 2019, well before any of us knew about Covid-19 or experienced lockdowns. With the exception of a few editing session, we were very fortunate that the pandemic didn’t have too much of an effect on our planned schedule. However, Bass Instincts proved to be an essential project for me during the turbulence of 2020-2021, providing a much needed artistic outlet while many concerts ground to a halt.
And on that note, well done Alicia! Before we go, let’s leave you with a fun one. What’s your favourite unusual fact about the bass recorder?
Composers featuring the bass recorder as a solo instrument before the 20th Century are extremely rare. In fact, the only surviving score is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Trio in F Major for bass recorder, viola, and basso continuo!
Bass Instincts will be available via priority release on 30 September, exclusively through Alicia’s website.
General release will see the album available through Move Records and distributors, as well as to stream and for digital download, on 1 November.