ANAM librarian Philip Lambert spoke to the one-of-a-kind artist, James Hullick about the breadth of his practice.
James Hullick can’t be put in a box. He stretches the concept of composer way beyond the normal definition of that term. Yes, he deals in sounds and musical instruments, but his art is also visual, and the sounds have often been inseparable from confronting installations and theatrics. His art is a weird looking 21st century version of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total art work’ that engages a host of one’s senses and lights up several areas of one’s brain. He builds amazing sound machines, like the Tiny Tappers (computer controlled solenoids) and Whirling Dervishes (power tools converted to spin bowls). He sets up tee-pees in Federation Square as tiny one-on-one acoustic chambers, where one player and one listener can enjoy the most intimate musical get-together imaginable. Coming at us from the creepier reaches of Hullick’s imagination are the Bone Machines, implements from an abattoir rigged up with pulleys and cables to create eerie sounds in an acoustic chamber.
His mum, a psychologist and painter, used mythology and dreams as a gateway to creativity, and Hullick similarly finds the visual content of dreams to be a rich resource, just waiting to be mined and transformed into something that will provoke a psychic response in his audience. His collaborators are wide ranging, including some of Melbourne’s edgiest professionals in the amazing BOLT Ensemble, and a dedicated group of intellectually disabled people, the fabulous Amplified Elephants. Is any composer anywhere working at so many different and surprising tangents?
James Hullick discovered early on that music alone just wasn’t enough. “My first instrument was guitar, then piano and voice. I did opera for a year at the VCA, but I wasn’t introduced to much contemporary music, which was frustrating. After that I spent a year writing music for theatre productions.” He finally found his métier at La Trobe University, where he mingled with like-minded souls such as Anthony Pateras and Rob Fox, and studied with Felix Werder. He had found his path.
His work with the intellectually disabled ensemble Amplified Elephants is especially unique, and has produced remarkable results for more than a decade. “They know how to have a really good time, and their fun is based on playfulness most of the time, so it’s quite pure. But they’re hard workers as well, and I do push them along. I’ve realised that ability isn’t a precursor to making great art. People with an intellectual disability have often been hard-wired to want to be normal, so one of the big challenges for them is to learn to ignore the need to be normal. It can manifest itself in fairly mundane ways, like a massive love of ABBA. Which is fine! I love ABBA. I also love Eurovision! But in terms of what they can offer the world, I don’t think it’s singing ABBA songs! Encouraging them to think abstractly is important, because the medical world tends to pin people with an intellectual disability as being unable to think abstractly, and one of the things that auditory creation – I like to use that phrase at the moment – does is force you to think abstractly because you can’t see the sound itself. Interestingly, they think quite abstractly when they think that is okay.”
James Hullick’s Australian Voices concert for ANAM will focus, somewhat uncharacteristically, on his music, presenting a wide variety of works for ensemble and chamber orchestra from the last several years. He finds the prospect of working with musicians at ANAM not only appealing, but necessary. “One of the reasons I think the Australian Voices series is unreal, and engagement with ANAM is unreal, is Australian artists could challenge themselves a little more to pay it forward. It’s a funny thing. I’ve been thinking about people like Ravi Shankar who come from a culture where nearly every performance is with the students. So the tradition is always there, and the audience don’t feel they’re paying to witness a student-teacher concert, but that they’re seeing the real thing. Some of the best music I’ve heard in my life was made by the students at La Trobe. Australian students do amazing things.”
AUSTRALIAN VOICES 3: JAMES HULLICK UNRAVELLED
MON 3 AUGUST 6PM
HULLICK Coercion Vivesection
HULLICK (. . . and set my teeth) In the Silver of the Moon
HULLICK Pyramids Drift like Clouds
HULLICK Annihilated Levitated
HULLICK The Weight of Sapiens
Peter Neville curator/percussion
James Hullick piano
Venue Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Tickets Full $25 Conc $15
For more information see anam.com.au