Thursday 17 July 2014

Lyle Chan - an AIDS activist's thoughts on music, history, and creativity

Lyle Chan in the early 90s.
Photo: Pattarapa Tsunpruck.
Reproduced from the National
AIDS Bulletin
Today, Lyle Chan is an acclaimed composer whose works have been commissioned and performed by major artists including soprano Taryn Fiebig, pianist Simon Tedeschi, Sydney Philharmonia Choir and the even former Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

But in the early nineties Lyle was a core member of ACT UP and other AIDS organisations. He and fellow activists couriered AIDS treatments from the US that were unavailable in Australia, fiercely lobbying the Australian government to approve experimental treatments more quickly.

Lyle's composition, String Quartet: An AIDS Activist's Memoir, was sketched in the crisis years 1991-1996, but only completed 20 years later.

In the lead up to several performances of the complete work, associated with the AIDS 2014 conference, Lyle spoke to Jill Sergeant, AFAO Project Officer, about the memoir, activism, and the value of music.

This piece of music was a long time in the making. You say on the program notes that it started out as diary entries back during your days as an activist in Sydney in the early 1990s, but you only completed it very recently.

In 2010 I was asking myself a lot of questions about what I wanted to do as an artist.  I realised that to be able to focus on composing, I had to get past the experiences of the early nineties, and I remembered that I had my diary entries.  Now I call them diary entries; I never thought of them that way back then. I was just sketching music that related to the feelings I had at the time.

Sometimes there were just a few bars, and sometimes, like in the case of the work that I wrote after Bruce Brown died, it was virtually performable as it was.

Did you also write the text that now accompanies the piece, at the time you were doing the sketches?

I didn't keep a diary in words. The dates would tell me what a piece was about, if I needed any sort of reminder. But after I turned each sketch into a performable piece, I would write something so that the performers or I would have something to speak on stage. I'm still in the process of writing the full length versions of those essays, and some are available on my website. But the music certainly came first.

It's almost impossible to describe a memoir that's actually not a verbal memoir.  All memoirs that we know of are memoirs in words. It took me a long time to figure out that I could actually present it this way.  I could have written it just for me, or I could have thrown it into the world as music and not said what it was about. I made the choice to explain it.

In some of the essays you've been quite explicit about the meaning of the work. In your essay on In September the light changes, you talk about using the sounds of bombs to convey the idea of disaster and being in a war zone.

Yes.  No more explicit than composers that choose to be explicit.  There are moments in other composers' works where a folk tune or nursery rhyme appears and you know there's a story behind it, you just haven't been told in words. What is clear is the feeling behind it when you listen to the music. It's the same in my case.  Had I not said a single word about AIDS I think the feeling would still be clear.

I listened to that piece and I found it really moving, to tears really, but then I was around during those early years, and I know what it's about so I'm a biased listener.

I'm so happy to hear that.  The whole point of putting music out into the world is for people to get in touch with their feelings.  I know that the piece works for people who don't know about the AIDS crisis. I've had enough conversations with audience members after a concert that I'm confident that people don't need to have lived through this history, thank goodness, to actually understand that once upon a time there were some very brave people whose stories need to be told.

I like to be as clear as I can be, in explaining the music. I am also honest when I don't know what it's about.  Sometimes you don't have words for the feelings. For example, in the piece recollecting Bruce's death, the violins imitate sirens.  There were no sirens at Bruce's death. Why are the sirens there? I don't know.  The best guess that I can come up with is that it just felt wrong for the death of one of the most prominent activists of the era to be accompanied by so much silence. I tried to take the sirens out of the music and the music just fell apart, it wouldn't let me.

ACT UP demonstration Sydney 19 June 1990.
Photo: Jamie Dunbar.
Reproduced from the National AIDS Bulletin. 
But I'm sure a lot of people, whether or not they were around HIV/AIDS in those days, will bring meaning to that.

They will.  For me there was no better proof of that than the four members of the Acacia Quartet, because they have no connection to this history at all.  In many ways this story of the early to mid-nineties will sound like a parallel universe to many people. There was a normal world going on outside. Those of us who were activists, who worked in AIDS, it was like this bubble of existence, it felt like that was the whole universe and everybody was in it, but there was an entire world outside that didn't know any of it. Most of the members of the Acacia Quartet were alive at that time and AIDS to them was this thing that they read about in the news. Sure, they remember the protests - and then they remembered that one day there were no more protests and they wondered, why was that?

How closely do you work with the musicians?

In this particular case, quite closely. As the composer I would have a way of hearing the music in my head and I would expect them to play it that way, but of course my notation being limited, as all notation is, they would play it the way they hear it and sometimes I would think, oh wow, that's a better idea. So the music is completely written by me but we worked on the interpretation together.

There will come a time when the music leaves me. There will be performances of this music that will not involve me or Acacia.  In the same way that Shostakovich' music is played today by people who have never known him, they just know the tradition of its playing. I want that. I want people to bring whatever they think, whatever they feel to the music.

Were the Acacia Quartet's suggestions and interpretation purely based on how they were responding to the notation as musicians or were they also related to the history you had already told them about?

I talk to them quite a bit because they have been genuinely very curious. It will be interesting for them when they do these performances during AIDS 2014 because they will meet people in the audience who knew the people they are playing about.

Bruce Brown. Photo: Jamie Dunbar.
Reproduced from the national AIDS Bulletin.
To Acacia, people like Bruce Brown, Tony Carden and David McDiarmid are almost mythological creatures, they are just like names in a novel, but when Acacia play in Melbourne, they will meet someone who was present at Bruce's death. It will be a level of reality beyond just knowing me.

They play this fourteen minute piece about David's health and his care and his activism but they never knew David. They will be performing surrounded by his artwork at the National Gallery of Victoria.

A lot of the stuff that they have brought up was based on responding to the stories. Sometimes they wanted to make things more explicit than I wanted to and I would say 'just trust the notation, you don't have to exaggerate that. The message will be clear, if you play it in the subtle way that it is written rather than needing to punch home the point'.

The piece Towards Elysium was written after AIDSX published the Self Euthanasia Recipe. It was the most blatantly illegal act that we had done and Acacia in the early performances really wanted to emphasise what they felt was the journey of the soul into eternity and to play the music in some way to reflect that. I felt it was in a way distorting the music. The music was lucid and if you play it in its simplest form that feeling comes through anyway.

A lot of the stuff they worked with me on was technical. My last memory of Tony Carden was playing the organ at his funeral so there's a passage that sounds like church music. They weren't thinking, 'let's make it sound like an organ' but rather they were thinking 'how do we phrase and slur it so that we bring out sweetness in the sound?' That's where I really appreciate their input. That was something I couldn't do.

Lyle Chan in the early 90s. Photo: Pattarapa Tsunpruck.
Reproduced from the National AIDS Bulletin.
How did Acacia get involved?

Acacia had played another piece of mine, unrelated to the AIDS Memoir, and they wanted to play more of my music. I gingerly showed them the piece about David and they played it. They found it very hard, both emotionally and technically. Then they said to me, 'there must be more, right? Surely there is more.' I said yes, there's probably about eighty minutes more.  So they said, you keep finishing it and we'll keep playing it.

The next section I wrote was about Franca Arena and her twin sons.  Acacia played that and got a good reception from audiences. In fact their concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre for AIDS 2014 was booked a year ago on the basis of one person hearing that section.  Then Acacia wanted another section for a concert in Brisbane, so I wrote the first section of Dextran Man, which was about Jim Corti, and after that it snowballed.

Do you think you will do another piece related to that period, or will you move on to something else?

Who knows and it doesn't matter. I'm fond of saying that a work of art is never actually finished, you just abandon it in interesting places.

There are still quite a lot of fragments. I look at them, and I pretty much remember what was going on but I don't know how to fit them into this quartet.

In between the sections about Bruce Brown and Tony Carden would be activists that I remember well, like Brian Hobday. I was fond of Brian, he was a very sweet man. There is nothing in this music about him, but there could be because there were fragments about him.

I had to make a choice as to what was finish-able. It's like when people make movies and there are the scenes made that end up being deleted because they somehow don't fit into the overall presentation.

Do you have a favourite bit?

I have different favourite bits every time I think of it.  My favourite bit right now is the very ending.  I came from a rehearsal on the weekend where the way Acacia played it was just magic. It's inspired by old World War II holiday songs like I'll Be Home for Christmas. That sentimental feeling was with me when I was writing that sketch. Somebody was at home waiting for the soldiers to return and some soldiers made it and some didn't.  Enough people came home to tell the story - isn't that amazing? The section is about growing old as well. There was a time when it was a luxury to think anyone might grow old.

Was grief one of the things that kept you from revisiting the sketches and has revisiting them helped you to deal with the grief from that era?

Having finished writing this memoir, I'm experiencing a feeling of saying goodbye to the period. I don't know how to answer your question because I wonder if I have ever actually grieved.  I think one of my responses to people dying back then was frustration more than grief. We were in a war so you moved on to the next skirmish.

Maybe I don't see the point of grieving.  I respect the memory of all my friends who are not with us and I show my respect in ways like writing pieces about them. Maybe that is grieving.

I don't feel sad actually. I wonder if once upon a time I might have and I don't remember. I am just honoured to have known them and in some ways a memoir like this is to give a voice to people who are dead.

Have you thought about what pieces the Acacia Quartet will play at the launch of HIV Australia and the AIDS Education and Prevention journal, at the G'day Networking Zone at the AIDS 2014 Global Village?

It will be a noisy environment, and a lot of the music is soft and contemplative. To exclude that would not give the right impression of the work. We're going to see if we can amplify Acacia so they can play Towards Elysium, which audiences love.

The opening of Dextran Man is also good for an audience who is hearing the music out of context. It's quite a powerful story and I don't think it's being told anywhere else. It's about  Jim Corti and how he illicitly manufactured ddC. About four hundred people got ddC from me back in '91 and '92 and I couldn't tell them where it came from. I'm not the person they should be thanking, it's Jim Corti. I would like to play that piece at the launch because there is a history to be respected.

Where do you think you will be in a few years' time in terms of your music -- or do you have something already on the horizon?

I think all art is a journey into the unknown. As an artist if you know where you are going to go then you're making something, but it's not necessarily art. I have lots of commissions that I have to fulfil. I am presently writing a piece for UTS, who commissioned me to write a work for their resident ensemble. Their animation students will make a film based on it. I also have a choral piece to write for a choir that's going to Europe next year. They're playing in a couple of famous Abbeys and they want to take an Australian piece with them.

I can only write a piece of music I believe in.  Life is too short to do otherwise.


Sydney: 18 July 2014, 8.00pm (Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo) Free, but bookings required. Ticket information.

Melbourne 23 July 2014 (excerpts, Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, introduced by the Hon. Michael Kirby) - free, no booking required. In conjunction with David McDiarmid retrospective exhibition. Further information

Melbourne 23 July 2014 - The Acacia Quartet plays selected pieces at the launch of HIV Australia and the AIDS Education and Prevention journal AIDS 2014 special editions

Melbourne 24 July 2014 - 10:30am Kirsty Machon in conversation with Lyle Chan at the G'day, Welcome to Australia Networking Zone.

Melbourne 24 July 2014 (Melbourne Recital Centre) - Ticket information

Complete recording is available on CD or download from Vexations840.

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