Genevieve Lacey, Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne
Support from the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions enabled me to create this project, inspired by the Pleasure Gardens of Europe’s early modern period. Historically, these gardens were imagined as ‘new Edens’, proffering escape from the cramped and crowded conditions of city life. They were entertainment resorts, where the air was perfumed, paths led promenaders through avenues with magical perspectives and sculptural effects provided highly dramatic spectacles mirroring antiquity, or the Grand Tour. Based on complex theoretical constructs – the choreography of the public and the arousal of the senses – they offered emotionally rich experiences for all. My aim was to create a contemporary Pleasure Garden, allowing an alternative experience to a manically busy, noisy, contemporary life, affording instead an opportunity for repose and delight, for wonder and the contemplation of beauty.
My childhood was spent in stories and gardens.
My mother’s garden held our games and discoveries, adventures real and imagined. We navigated our botanical world by touch and smell, as well as by sight. We came to understand in tangible ways how the rhythms of the seasons, changes in light and temperature, drought, frost and wind, all shaped our landscape, and our lives within it. Everything born in the garden went back into its earth, and we learnt that things die, as well as flourish. The garden taught us to be patient, to wait and observe. How to be still and silent. How it is to be small amid something wildly alive and impersonal.
When I was eight, a gifted teacher introduced me to Jacob van Eyck (1590–1657), the carillonneur, recorder player and composer from Utrecht. She told me the story of him playing his recorder while wandering through a place called a Pleasure Garden. The poetry of that lodged deep, and I felt a strong affinity with Jacob. The fact that he was born in the sixteenth century, on the other side of the world, was of no consequence. His music was real to me, as was he.
We’ve been companions ever since, Jacob and I. He comes with me to weddings and funerals, nursing homes and prisons, impromptu sessions on verandas, and into concert halls too. His melodies fall happily under the pads of my fingers; his phrases measure the span of my breath.
Some of his creations have become dear, trusted friends – Daphne, Amarilli, Marie. I have poured countless versions of myself into them, and they have held me, giving me substance and form.
For decades now, I have lived with Jacob. Sometimes it has felt as though I have lived inside his tunes – they have been the frames through which I have experienced, understood and expressed much of life. Jacob’s are the songs I play in situations of extreme emotional intensity; they are the melodies my fingers find for rituals of grief and joy. They are both sturdy and subtle enough to hold whatever the situation requires, and to give whatever the listener needs.
Not far from my childhood garden is a place I revere: Lambley Garden. Its two inhabitants have moulded their lives around a pursuit of beauty – one through paint, the other through plants. Visiting their earthly paradise some years ago, I found myself thinking of Jacob and his Pleasure Garden, and the way history and emotions can speak to each other across time and place. Suddenly, stories began to converge.
Those early days, when this year and the idea were younger, bunkered down in Circus Oz, we scrawled all over the whiteboard walls trying to refine our frames of reference, and ended up inventing our own dictionary. Jim and Robin programmed, coded, soldered and built; together we drew and distilled diagrams, wrestled with words and ideas, realising that the technical system we were delineating would set the parameters of both the composition and the experience in our Pleasure Garden. At the end of those heady days, we strung up cameras, wired speakers and walked the room, elated when a rudimentary system worked.
On our first trip to Lambley, a magnificent garden in country Victoria, we spent days threading wires through hedges, gently placing cables around delicate plants and climbing trees to position cameras. We discovered that musical ideas we’d thought were strong indoors made less sense in this environment, and that other sounds came to life in startling ways. Listening in that space, it became much clearer what music would work in our Pleasure Garden, and I began to understand what we needed to create.
A couple of months then of intense practice, before a day’s road trip north to a sanctuary: a beautiful community, a simple cabin and a gorgeous hall. Bermagui dawns with bellbirds and wattlebirds pinging and croaking, the bush waking in high-fi, with a smudged sea-drone behind. We took field recordings of daybreak and dusk, as we’d decided that something from each place would become part of our Pleasure Garden.
Windsong Pavilion is ringed by spotted gums, and overlooks an amphitheatre unfolding down to a billabong. Kangaroos graze outside the wall-length windows. Secluded and idyllic, it’s the perfect spot for a recording. Jim spent a patient six days listening and supporting from our makeshift control room, leaving me alone in the hall with Jacob and my ghosts, trying not to get obsessed with destructive ideas of perfection. Barefoot, pacing laps of the room to try to break mental blocks, running back and forth to the control room to listen to what we’d caught, there were wretched times when nothing flowed and all that the microphones captured were phrases stunted with fear. Peaceful hours too, time and place falling away, blissfully at ease in sound. Editing as we went, we were determined to come out of this phase with 60 minutes of Jacob’s music, CD ready. Little sleep. Long runs on the beach. Kind friends cooking meals, distracting us in the evenings with warm conversations before I’d return to the cabin to listen fanatically to the day’s recordings.
Landing in Utrecht a few weeks later after months coiled like a spring, I eased myself into a new rhythm of walking and listening. Ascending the stone staircase to Jacob’s Dom Tower, still standing despite a devastating 1674 tornado that destroyed much of the cathedral, I wondered how it was for him to climb those 465 steps each day. They were uneven, narrow, winding at precarious angles, and he had been blind from birth.
Up there, 112 metres above the ground, earthly concerns slipped away. Sounds from below distorted in strange ways or disappeared entirely, and when the carillon played, it was not possible to hold any other thought or sound in your head apart from the ones entering your body via your feet as you stood within an immense resonating chamber.
I sat beside Malgosia, the current Utrecht City Carillonneur, watching and hearing an entire concert less than a metre from her hands. A warm, generous woman and beautiful musician, she played a program designed in part for us, and I found myself in tears, hearing Jacob’s melodies still alive on his instrument, hundreds of years later.
Back down on the ground, the bells carved time into 15-minute portions, audible from every position in the old city. Sitting in the cloisters of the cathedral while Malgosia played another concert from the tower, every composition was overlaid with the sounds of fountains and children playing, bicycle bells, footsteps on cobblestones and fragments of conversations.
A visit to the city’s mechanical musical instruments museum taught us more about carillons and the instruments they begat, from music boxes to player pianos. This helped us understand that our Pleasure Garden was its own kind of mechanical musical instrument, another version of Jacob’s carillon.
Walking through Jacob’s woods and sitting in his gardens, we recorded birds in duet with the city bells. Intuitively following our senses and imaginations, chains of connection led to unexpected discoveries. My mind was moving slowly but surely into the clear, dream space of creativity, looping increasingly freely, ideas quietly gestating in the back of my head.
From Utrecht, we travelled further north to Kristiansand, to work with our collaborator, Jan. His studio is an eyrie on an island: a simple, lovely room on the top floor of a wooden house, where from one vantage point the windows frame only Scandinavian woods, soft skies and the sea.
Norwegian summer: pale blue evenings, eternal twilights with dawn creeping not long after midnight. Sweet, clear air. Running each morning in the woods, sharing daybreak with new birds. Feeling giddy with ideas, entranced by the light, unable to sleep more than a few hours. Studio times: phone and computer off, all senses absorbed in sound. Night-times: emails crisscrossing the world to collaborators at home.
There are probably few more succinct ways of giving someone access to your musical soul than to step into their studio and improvise, laying yourself bare as an instrument that they can sculpt. It is hard to describe the intensity of that, the terror and the liberation that comes with surrendering to that kind of process. Jan’s worked with samples for years, and in Kristiansand he turned me into a kind of human sampler. I loved the way that we quickly agreed, without really talking about it, that the sounds we might make together would be organic, not pristine, and that while we would use studio techniques and technology to create music that I couldn’t play live as a single person, phrases would be as they fell out of my hands and breath.
It was a month since Jim and I had done our primary source recording of Jacob’s music in Bermagui. I had since played a million other notes, and hadn’t touched those intricate variations, so they weren’t in my hands in an impeccably polished, classical music way. They were still very alive in my imagination; I was just feeling and hearing them differently now, and the fragments I found myself improvising around, or that suddenly came out of my fingers often surprised me. I didn’t look at scores or listen to recordings – anything that happened in Jan’s studio emerged from imperfect memory, unpractised phrases, dredged up from my imagination. But mostly, I improvised, tracing ideas that appeared in dreams, on waking or walking, caught out of the corner of an eye or sparked by a memory of another sound, somehow related.
Jan was adamant about an incredibly closely miked sound in his studio: absolutely no reverb, a completely dry acoustic, every breath, finger, tone and thought utterly exposed. He said that by increasing proximity you increase intimacy, and give people an unguarded, close up experience of a sound and its maker. The reality was confronting, but the notion compelling, so I tried to go with it – I could hear what he meant.
He fell in love with the bass recorder. It’s beautiful the way different musicians gravitate towards particular sounds, and bring different parts of you to light, if you’re willing to be open to whatever emerges between you. So the bass recorder became our protagonist. Its voice and language came out of the woods of Utrecht and Kristiansand, and my feeling in that Utrecht carillon tower of Jacob being a man beautifully, impossibly alone.
In the studio, patterns emerged. A lovely sense of trust, felt early, developing with each day. Diving into ideas early in the day, swimming through sound until suddenly, we were both spent. Cups of tea, more walks in the wood. Shared meals and stories, and each day, ideas tumbling out, a little world appearing remarkably quickly between us. Jan and I had met only once, briefly, before beginning this project. It was a huge risk, attempting to create almost an hour’s worth of new music with a stranger, over such a short period of time. But we’d been introduced by a dear friend who we both trusted, so from the first day, it felt possible. A couple of times, we ran as far as we could with an idea and decided it had come to nothing. Apart from that, we used everything we made.
Meanwhile, Jim was making increasingly sophisticated diagrams of the system, refining complex conceptual and practical solutions of how this music would translate into the garden. Towards the end of our time with Jan, we compiled elaborate tables and maps of the way we imagined we’d spacialise the sound in the garden. We left elated and utterly exhausted, and it took weeks to unwind.
A couple of months later, multiple other lives lived in the meantime, we revisited what we’d made. Our job now was to tidy everything up and prepare it in quite a different way for our first public showing of the idea, to an invited audience of friends and supporters at Lambley Garden. I was terribly nervous about hearing the material once more. Most things held. The two tracks that had made me apprehensive in Norway still did so in Melbourne. But the process of mocking up the garden space in Jim’s studio and painstakingly assigning each phrase or thought to a different speaker gave us a glimpse of how our composition might sound, mixed across 16 channels in a large outdoor space.
At Lambley, it was inspiring to be in the presence of David and Criss, the property owners. One a gardener, the other a still life painter, their lives are a luminous testament to much that I hold dear. Those were 10 days of racing-against-the-clock work. It often felt as though we wouldn’t make it in time for our first guests. Unseasonably warm, the sun beat down on the garden as we walked its paths hundreds of times, listening to every line, every phrase. Reconfiguring where each sound was heard made huge differences to the composition. It was fragile to balance, and each decision had considerable consequences. Jim was extraordinarily patient as the days disappeared and Jan and I were still making changes.
We learnt so much from Jan, his record producer’s ears spectacularly attuned to nuance, and his sensibilities beautifully in sync with the emotional qualities of sound. It was exhilarating and hugely challenging to be mixing 32 speakers and 16 tracks of sound across this large space. Listening intently, and thinking always about the experience we wanted visitors to have, we decided to balance all levels to the birdsong in the garden. Nothing in our Pleasure Garden would be louder than the local environmental sounds.
Calibrating our ears and the piece that way was wonderful. We worked to create a kind of radiance in the garden: sound gently emanating from plants, rather than dominating the natural world. The extreme subtlety and spaciousness of some of the music spooked me. I was worried about older visitors whose hearing might be challenged by this. And I fretted that the amount of space in some of the piece might make people think we’d created an emperor’s new clothes. But Jan and Jim held fast despite my nerves, and they were absolutely right.
So we planted our music in bird boxes and flowerpots, nested in trees and dug into the soil. And our visitors came. Sweet, spring days of people gently ebbing and flowing through a magical place, listening intently to very soft, delicate sounds. Something in the combined spirit of music and place seemed to encourage people to be quiet, move slowly, look deeply, and then to leave with a little glow of contemplative beauty.
Some weeks later, we faced the challenge of taking this finely tuned, 16-channel work, and transforming it into a stereo mix for a CD. I was frightened that we would be shrinking the work, diminishing it from being a gorgeously humming, gently immersive environmental sculpture into a much flatter CD. Fortunately, we discovered that while the sense of literal space and wonder was hard to translate, there were a million details in timbre and sound definition that were infinitely clearer and more nuanced in this medium, and Jim had miraculous ways of creating depth and perspective in each track.
Technically, it took quite some wrestling until we worked through a method to translate from one world to the next. Back and forth overnight to Jan in Norway with draft mixes, we received immaculate, incredibly perceptive notes in response. We refined and remade many times. Alongside this, we were commissioning the essays for the CD booklet, finalising artwork, consulting with collaborators and funders, working on the first stage of the website and little promo film, each opinion carefully balanced and negotiated.
With the CD delivered, we made one last attempt at creating another layer for the installation that had eluded us. We were determined to finesse the final strand of the interactive material that in Lambley had been more at ‘proof of concept’ stage than refined. At the end of such an intense year, I worried that we might not have the energy or clarity of mind to crack this code. There was a despairing day, getting tangled in words and misunderstandings, and then a breakthrough, as system and method were clarified. Clear now on what we needed and how to make it, the final sliver of creative content came all in a rush.
The entire system has been running on Jim’s back deck the last few weeks. We were determined to give it uninterrupted playing time, to make sure it would hold up without any technical glitches for our official world premiere of the project at Sydney Festival. Come New Year, we’ll install it in Vaucluse House’s garden, and that will entail five days and nights of exhilaratingly pressured work – remaking, rebalancing, refining, reconfiguring, recalibrating for that beautiful space.
Pleasure Garden’s been in my mind for more than a decade. I’ve been working on it in a front-of-the-mind way for a couple of years, and the core creative team have spent a year on it. Our garden is built around the intellects and imaginations of the people who made it. Inspired originally by my old friend Jacob, his tunes, his bells and the idea of him walking through a garden and playing, it’s become its own landscape now, the place where these many worlds overlap. We’d love you to visit.
Genevieve Lacey is a recorder player, gardener, reader and occasional writer. She has a substantial recording catalogue (ABC Classics) and a high-profile career as a soloist with orchestras and ensembles around the world. She has won multiple awards, including two ARIAs, a Helpmann award, Australia Council, Freedman and Churchill Fellowships and Outstanding Musician, Melbourne Prize for Music. She holds academic and performance degrees (including a doctorate) in music and English literature. In 2015, Genevieve became inaugural Artistic Director of FutureMakers, Musica Viva’s artist development program, designing and directing a holistic professional development program for Australia’s leading young artists. For more on Genevieve and her career, see: http://genevievelacey.com/.
Sydney Festival World Premiere Season
Vaucluse House Gardens
7–26 January 2016
20-minute performance by Genevieve Lacey on 9 January 2016 at 6.30am
Genevieve Lacey – concept and direction, co-composer
Jan Bang – co-composer
Jim Atkins – sound designer
Robin Fox – system designer
Pete Brundle – web designer
Sera Davies – filmmaker
Stephen Goddard – graphic designer
Pleasure Garden thanks Jane Davidson and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Australia Council for the Arts, Fiona Winning, Lieven Bertels and Sydney Festival, Ed Champion and staff at Vaucluse House, Sydney Living Museums, Criss Canning and David Glenn of Lambley Garden, Malgosia Fiebig, City Carillonneur of Utrecht, Toby Chadd and ABC Classics, Sheena Boughen and the Four Winds community, Music Norway, Lou Oppenheim and Circus Oz, Henk Heuvelmans and Martijn Buser of Gaudeamus, Graham Pushee and Arts Management, Martel Ollerenshaw, Atticus Bastow, Nick Roux, Ann Lacey, Francine Tanner, Jude Gun, Steven Richardson, John Davis, Fiona Blair, Damon Young, Pat Hockey, Greg Lyons, Adam Gibson and Joseph Browning.
Supported by: ARC Centre for Excellence for the History of Emotions, Australia Council for the Arts, Lambley Garden, Four Winds Festival, ABC Classics, Music Norway, Sydney Festival, Vaucluse House and Sydney Living Museums.
Pleasure Garden CD release 8 January 2016: