Iolini: more than a composer

Robert Iolini talks to Keith Gallasch

Robert Iolini

Robert Iolini

Robert Iolini’s on a high, if quietly so. When we meet he’s just couriered off a new work which draws on his Maltese heritage for broadcast on Netherlands radio. He’s working on a commercial production with long-time collaborator, the writer (and Big hART leader) Scott Rankin and performer Glynn Nicholas, a theatre work with a substantial video component and an integrated soundscore. As well, he and Rankin are creating a new work for Robyn Archer’s Melbourne Festival this year. There’s a new ABC radio piece on the back burner and the UK’s ReR Megacorp has just released a CD compilation of his electroacoustic, chamber ensemble, soundscapes and works for radio. Iolini’s idiosyncratic compositions are musical in the broad sense but they carry whole sound worlds with them often built from fragments of events or speech, not in an old avant garde discontinuous sense but with great fluency.

Goddesses and Rabbits

There weren’t so many Maltese in Matraville where I grew up and the ones that were there were immigrants from Egypt and they were more sophisticated people. When I was 12 we moved out to Pendle Hill. This was the place that Sydney’s Maltese went to from the inner city round Darlinghurst and East Sydney—that was like Little Malta in the 50s. They bought land out at Greystanes and started farms. My Mum is from Malta and my Dad is from Italy. So it was all very rustic and I think I just blocked out a bit of my Malta side.

When I was about 14, there was a group of musicians that played at the local festival. I’d forgotten about them and then recently I met a British musician, Mike Cooper, and he mentioned them. They’re called Ghana (pronounced ‘arna’). I thought this might be an interesting way to get back into some sort of connection with Malta. So I put a proposal in to Supplement, a new music program based in Holland. They commissioned me to do a piece about Maltese traditional folk singing, music and poetry, and successfully applied to the Australia Council for some extra funding through the commissions grants. This meant I was properly funded to go to Malta for 2 weeks. It turned out to be a difficult work because I felt obliged to tell the story of Ghana. At the same time I wanted to fulfil the brief to create an artwork. So I had to negotiate this territory between documentary journalism, soundscape and musical composition. It’s a place I love to work anyway. But this particular one was so narrow because I felt indebted to the people. I’d spoken to supposedly some of the best folk musicians in Malta. They’re sort of gods in their own genre. Anyway I finally created a 21 minute piece.

My parents took me to Malta when I was 17 but this time I found it slightly disturbing. We travelled inland and it was this barren place, really bad roads, like a poor, third world environment. I didn’t remember it like that. Then we got to this weird tourist place with English pubs on the coast, like some kind of Maltese Blackpool.

The Maltese Consulate lined me up with a scholar called George Mifsud-Chircop, basically a one man operation, trying to keep folklore alive. For 2 weeks he took me round and he knew all the musicians. As I try to show in the piece, the social structure there is very class focussed. These musicians were classed as “vulgar”, unsophisticated. Only now, and probably a lot of it to do with the efforts of George Mifsud-Chircop, the government is starting to see what a resource the musicians are. That’s why they were enthusiastic about this piece I was doing.

I’m preparing a piece for The Listening Room about the whole experience of going to Malta. It’ll be longer and looking at more aspects of Maltese culture. I discovered it’s quite a rich culture. The Neolithic temples go back to 7000 BC and the oldest goddess cult worship. The piece is going to be called Goddesses and Rabbits. It’s bizarre: it’s 2 islands but rabbit, not seafood, is the national dish and many people keep rabbits. I’ve also got a lot of video material so I’m actually going to try some experimental image work to go with it.

Black Sheep

I went with Scott Rankin to Darwin in 2000 to create a theatre piece with boys and young men in Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre [on the Big hArt Wrong way Go back project]. We were working with people at risk of becoming offenders and some who were in detention already. Most of them had Indigenous backgrounds and a lot were in there as a result of the mandatory sentencing laws that applied then for stealing pens and blotters and stupid things like that. I was interviewing boys in the centre as well as people outside it. We did workshops to generate music and sound. At the same time, Scott and I were running another project at the council library with people who use it. It’s a good example of how you can get multiple outcomes using the same material. I’ve learned a lot from Scott about that. You can work on an installation piece and a video work and combine all your work. It allows me to move out of the strict area of composition. In fact I don’t think of myself as a straight music composer.

Scott would generate text with young people in the library and then he’d send the same people to me and I’d get them to speak or improvise on the work that they’d generated with him. Then they’d go home and write more stuff and Scott would analyse it with them. They’d talk about their dreams, experiences—maybe the worst they’d ever had and the best, experiences with fire for example, with water—elemental things. Then Scott would try to bring out text that would be poetic in some way. They’d come to me and we would speak the text, and sing parts of it. Then we’d create the music for it. Out of that I also made these almost song or spoken word pieces purely from the material that these young people generated and JJJ broadcast 3 of them in their morning show. We used some of the work in the theatre piece because some of the same people worked on both projects and we added the texts and interviews that I’d worked on with the boys. So we had this whole mass of material. There were some really beautiful photographs by Randy Larkin, and Patrick Burns went out with the boys and did short film shoots. [Iolini’s radio work based on his Darwin experience has the working title Black Sheep.]

Putting it together

I was obsessed with music from about 9 years of age. I can remember seeing Jimi Hendrix on TV and I got Led Zeppelin’s first album when I was 10. I was a bit ahead of my peers, probably from having an older brother who was introducing me to new music. I was lucky. I was always finding mentors along the way from when I was quite young. At about 14 or 15 I was forming my own bands and I’d write all the music and we’d collaborate, based on that King Crimson kind of thing. So when I say “rock”, it wasn’t really rock ‘n roll but it was about improvisation and experimentation. So where I am now is logical I suppose. I meandered for a while but when I reached my mid-20s that’s when I had to really make a decision and that’s when I found [composer] Richard Vella.

I was doing a courseand I’d dropped out because it wasn’t really happening for me there. My friend [composer, sound artist] Ion Pearce said Richard Vella’s doing these lectures at the Conservatorium and he’s so cool, he just lets you drop in. So I did and I introduced myself and he listened to some of the work I was composing. By then I was getting into some “serious” composition, you know writing down notes, and he liked what I was doing and he just took me on as a pupil. So, basically he nurtured me on through the years and gave me connections like Sandy Evans and Roger Dean—the people who played in some of the early pieces that I wrote with Richard’s guidance. So I feel really indebted to him. [See the review of Vella’s Tales of Love on www.realtimearts.net]

About 1993 David Nerlich and I were at The Performance Space doing a live performance with 2 computers, way before computer jamming was the big hit thing to do. Ros Cheney, sadly now no longer with The Listening Room, saw us and said “You guys should put in a proposal.” So we came up with this radiophonic opera called Vanunu.[Mordecai Vanuna was imprisoned for divulging information about Israel’s nuclear weaponry capacity].

From there it just kept going and that relationship with radio has really focused me. I think it was the launching pad to go into writing…Jean-Luc Godard is one of my heroes. Just that aesthetic where anything is fair game, whether it’s an image or a sound, a gesture, whatever, it’s all material…I’m just assembling found texts. But it is writing because I create a new text. I’ll write a few melodies here and there but really it’s about grabbing what’s around you and making work out of it.

It’s about structuring and I’m finding more and more it’s about editing skills and narrative skills. That’s what I’m developing more and more and maybe that’s why I’m able to work in different areas because I’m understanding more and more what it means to create narrative—I include narrative told in very non-linear fashion or in multiple layers. A lot of the musical techniques that you find in Richard Vella’s teaching are there in his book (Musical Environments: A Manual for Listening, Composing and Improvising, Currency Press, 2001). I apply them all the time. That’s been a very strong grounding for me. I apply them to text, to whole concepts and structures. It’s about perception and about understanding relationships between objects or…let’s just call them events. So it’s quite exciting. I feel like now is a new era coming up where I’m hopefully going to create works that combine many, many things, even more.

IOLINI, Electroacoustic, Chamber Ensmble, Soundscape & Works for Radio, composer Robert Iolini, ReR Megacorp, CD RER RII.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 29

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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