Reuben Derrick: “I came here expecting to find a thriving scene, to meet dedicated practitioners”

Christchurch-based saxophonist, clarinetist, improviser, composer and sound artist Reuben Derrick, who has been staying in Ljubljana for three months, is one of the leading artists working in the field of improvised music in New Zealand. Regular concert goers could necessarily meet him at related events, and lately also see him playing his instruments in various contexts. Before his departure from Slovenia we talked with him about his first expressions and observations on the local music scene, his collaborations during his stay, about the New Zealandian cultural policy and funding system, the recent tragic mosque massacre in his hometown, and about the philosophical aspects of silence. Interview.

Nataša Serec: In New Zealand you are based in Christchurch, the town that got into the centre of world-attention in March due to the shocking mosque shootings. Can we start with your short comment on this tragic event?

Reuben Derrick: “Of course this was extremely shocking and disturbing for everybody, because such a massacre has not occurred in New Zealand’s recent history. We are a small country of less than five million and so far away from the rest of the world, and I think that we have been somewhat naive to believe that we were insulated from such events – we have lost our innocence. I think that this will bring particular previously suppressed issues around racism into our national discourse. And more recently the violence in Sri Lanka was equally disturbing because I have spent a lot of time there and I am part of a Sri Lankan ritual drum/dance-free jazz fusion group.”

Nataša Serec: You are a saxophonist, clarinetist, improviser, composer and sound artist active in New Zealand and Australia’s exploratory music communities. You completed DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in composition at the University of Canterbury in 2014, and received for your doctoral research the Fulbright Program’s grant in 2015. Can you explain what was the topic of your research and what the Fulbright-grant brought to you?

Reuben Derrick: “My DMA, ‘Acoustic illuminations: recorded space as soundscape composition’, was practice based and included a composition portfolio of acousmatic sound works together with a dissertation. These works focused on locations in New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka, by exploring them as an active listener using various field recording and editing techniques, and sometimes on-location improvisational performances. In 2015 I was a resident at the Art Omi: Music program in New York, with thirteen other musicians from around the world. I was very lucky to be awarded a Fulbright-New Zealand fellowship to cover my travel expenses. During this residency of two and-a-half weeks, we collaborated and explored compositional and improvisational ideas. I hope to reconnect with some of these people, as I have done with Austrian violinist Irene Kepl several times since, in Christchurch, Vienna, Zagreb and now again in Ljubljana.”

Nataša Serec: The reason of your three-month residency in Ljubljana is the guest appearance of your partner, Dr. Cindy Zeiher at the philosophical module at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, but let’s talk about your very first impressions about the Slovenian improvised music scene.

Reuben Derrick: “Well I came here expecting to find a thriving scene and to meet dedicated practitioners, as I had been advised by several connections. So it was exciting arriving here at a time when several events were taking place each week, which were often very well attended and provoked open critical discussion. Slovenia has been particularly welcoming and friendly, so I quickly met people who were interested to talk and who invited me to play.”

Reuben Derrick: “When meeting another musician for the first time, I prefer the intimacy of a duo because it’s possible to experiment and take risks without getting too lost; I think it often takes more time for a larger group to negotiate musical spaces in a way that allows the playing can be really open.” Photo: Centralala.si

Nataša Serec: Your partner Cindy gave seminars at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in the last couple of weeks, and was also working on a publication discussing ‘silence’. Although she is working in a philosophical context, I cannot think about ‘silence’ without connoting sound. Is her book may be interesting for those who are involved in theory on sound art or experimental music?

Reuben Derrick: “Definitely! She co-authored the book with her friend and colleague in the States. While they consider silence as a theoretical impossibility – that is, absolute silence is always preconceived by sound and/or language, they spend time thinking about Cage’s famous silent composition, 4’33” – and even then contend that silence is a compositional structure reliant upon incidental sound… While the book is theoretical and employs thinkers such as Lacan, Pascal and Hegel, it is also intended for anyone who is interested in thinking about silence as a life condition and is written in a way to reach out to potential readership.”

Nataša Serec: In the past two months, we could see you rather often at various music events in Ljubljana. Do you remember which concerts, which musicians took you the most?

Reuben Derrick: “The first Slovenian artist I saw perform here was Irena Z. Tomažin, at Confine Aperto – she was really amazing, opening up a thoroughly engaging world of sound in space. I think the Sound Disobedience festival was a huge musical success – I think I heard all of it and many of the concerts were stunning. Other highlights were great free jazz from the Acamar and TiTiTi trios as well as a reductionist duo performance by Tilen Lebar and Domen Gnezda. I find the work of Samo Kutin, a true experimentalist, exciting as he draws out beautiful, complex textures and voices from a very old instrument. Of course there are many great local musicians who I have not yet heard in concert.”

Nataša Serec: In addition to your active attendance at concerts, you also got involved in conversations with performers, organizers and various participants of the local music scene, what’s more, we could see you with your instruments in many different contexts: you participated in Michael Zerang’s workshop at Sound Disobedience, you played in duo with double bassists Boris Janje and Tomaž Grom, you performed twice in Bistrica ob Sotli at the Sunday Noise weekend residencies, organized by Mitja Hlupič, and most recently you played at Confine Aperto with Austrian violinist Irene Kepl. In which collaborations you felt at home completely?

Reuben Derrick: “When meeting another musician for the first time, I prefer the intimacy of a duo because it’s possible to experiment and take risks without getting too lost; I think it often takes more time for a larger group to negotiate musical spaces in a way that allows the playing can be really open. Michael Zerang’s workshop experimented with creating such spaces by configuring simple strategies in different combinations, which was an interesting process in itself, but also a compelling way to listen to and play with new people for the first time. More recently I played with Boris for the first time, who is a fantastic musician, but only for fifteen minutes at an exhibition opening at Metelkova. I hope that we can play together again. I had a longer rehearsal with the wonderful Tomaž, which was also a first encounter. This felt like exploring a series of rooms together and I enjoyed it very much. The scene in Bistrica ob Sotli provides an open, relaxed and fun environment for visitors to share their work in an intimate setting and to encounter the resident artists, and also a lovely space to talk and listen. Such thriving rural cultural communities are special and probably rare. I have met Irene Kepl several times during the past few years and I was delighted to be able to play with her again. She is such a strong and playful musician who gets right down to business. I find that recurring musical relationships, when people are growing in between, especially exciting because there is always a degree of familiarity together with a feeling of freshness.”

Reuben Derrick: “The culture in New Zealand is noticeably more parochial than in Slovenia, where I have observed that more value is placed on critical thinking and openness to ideas. Artists from other countries seem to think very highly of the creative music scene here.” Photo: Centralala.si

Nataša Serec: Is it possible to compare the Slovenian improvised music scene with the one in New Zealand? You mentioned that one is smaller, less funded, but please tell us more about the Nowhere! festival. Is it comparable with the Sound Disobedience festival in Ljubljana?

Reuben Derrick: “The culture in New Zealand is noticeably more parochial than in Slovenia, where I have observed that more value is placed on critical thinking and openness to ideas. Artists from other countries seem to think very highly of the creative music scene here. In New Zealand there are some wonderful improvisers, from different backgrounds, spread across the four main cities. Auckland and Wellington have small but well-established organisations that run venues and present regular concerts and events. Most of the foreign artists who visit New Zealand come from parts of Europe that have funded them to do so. Because they have to come so far, they sometimes stay for a bit longer in order to enjoy themselves and to collaborate with local artists, which is always very nice. The Nowhere! festival is part of the festival series produced by The Audio Foundation, an Auckland-based organisation which is now run by the brilliant musician Jeff Henderson. Henderson has been one of the main people responsible for cultivating the scene in New Zealand for the past twenty or so years. Festivals like Nowhere!, and before that others such as Bomb the Space and Fredstock, usually feature not only non-idiomatic improvised music but also other highly marginalised genres such as noise, experimental electronica, free jazz and eccentric singer-songwriters – perhaps with a political message. These festivals bring together artists from all over New Zealand and usually several overseas visitors. The performances often occur at different venues, in order to accommodate the range of performers. Some are more formal concerts, others occur in underground bars or even at outdoor locations. By contrast Sound Disobedience is more particular – focussing mostly it seems on acoustic, non-idiomatic improvised music.”

Nataša Serec: If so, how musicians can economically survive in New Zealand? How is the local funding system, cultural policy there?

Reuben Derrick: “Organisations like The Audio Foundation receive limited funding but still achieve so much. They present several festivals and performance series, which sometimes coincide with visiting overseas artists, as well as workshops, lectures and exhibitions. In Christchurch where I live we had a funded organisation for about three years, until about two years ago, which ran a venue The Auricle, where members could organise performances at any time, and which also produced several festivals and many exhibitions. There is no local funding at the moment so the scene in Christchurch often feels dormant – but there are two or three venues that are happy to host experimental musical events. So, most local improvised music performances necessarily work on a ‘no-budget’ basis. Some participants work as musicians in other fields or find a lifestyle that allows them time to prioritise their creative work. There is also a weekly new music concert series at the university during the semester, which occasionally features non-idiomatic improvisation. The distance between the cities means that it can be difficult for improvisers to travel in order to do a concert for only door money or a very modest fee – and when they do it can end up costing them to play. But there are several short bursts of excitement throughout the year. Occasionally it is possible for individuals to secure funding to travel overseas for performances, produce a record, undertake research/professional development or attend residencies.”

Nataša Serec: After your three-month stay, soon you and your family are leaving Ljubljana, but what is next? On your way back home you are travelling to Austria via Croatia having some more concerts to play on. What projects are you working on in the next couple of months?

Reuben Derrick: “We have a couple of days in Vienna where I’m doing something with Irene Kepl and the painter Wolfgang Dokulil on 16 May. When I get back to New Zealand I am sharing a concert with some other local artists and a visiting duo from Berlin. Then in the local jazz festival with a couple of trad groups. I enjoy playing in these groups because the music needs to be gritty and dirty. It needs a particular feeling, which is why I can relate it to improvised music a lot better than I can to contemporary mainstream jazz, which often feels so clinical to me. Then there is the newly re-booted Christchurch Arts Festival, in which I am playing with the Aotearoa Snuff Jazz Sextet – it will be noisy! And also a production with the avant-garde theatre company Free Theatre – which I expect to be challenging and astonishing. Then later in the year, during the southern hemisphere springtime, there is probably a short experimental music residency on a wildlife sanctuary island. But I love it here and hope I can come back to Europe, particularly Slovenia, again before too long and be prepared to do as much as possible.”