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Episode 11: Music, Co-Creativity and Cultures: A Conversation with Kim Cunio
[00:00:00] Kim Cunio: With music, even for composers, nothing exists till it’s made in sound in real time. Even a recording is sound made in real time, so even if it’s done once for a recording, this process of people coming together and battling their egos has to happen every time music is made. Examples of things like orchestras or bands or quartets or anything like that, music only really happens when someone listens to it. No musician is that happy, even if they make a lot of money, if people aren’t enjoying it.
[00:00:38] Maya Haviland: That’s musician, academic and co-creative practitioner Kim Cunio, talking about the many ways in which music is always a form of co creativity. Whether that be through the coming together of different instruments and performers in an orchestra, in the relationship between the instrument and the musician, and the space in which the music is being played, or in the co-creative process of an audience listening to a piece of music.
[00:01:03] Maya Haviland: I’m Maya Haviland, and I’m so pleased to bring you highlights of a yarn I had with Kim in this episode of Collaboratory Conversations, as we explore Kim’s musical work as an example of co creativity in action.
[00:01:17] Kim Cunio: Hi there everyone. My name is Kim Cunio and I’m the head of music at the Australian National University, and that’s my sort of job, but besides that, I have another life too, which is I make music. There’s a funny thing about people like me. We do research just like people do research in, you know, all through the ANU, but we make art. And that art is sometimes called something weird, non-traditional research. It’s a bit like Edward Said’s, ‘other’ you are completely described as the ‘other’ of everyone else in your same institution. And that’s me. I’m a proud ‘other’ in that regard, and I’m a proud other in many other aspects of my life.
[00:01:54] Maya Haviland: As someone who also identifies as a non-traditional researcher myself, I really appreciate Kim highlighting how the experience of working across difference, be that across disciplines, different forms of creative and knowledge work, or across differences of cultural traditions, can bring forward feelings of being othered or positioned as a cultural outsider in certain ways.
[00:02:17] Maya Haviland: Through his musical work, Kim has embraced the complexities of being positioned as the ‘other’, creating spaces and relationships, which use cultural differences as a strength to do new and inspiring things with musical traditions and forms. In our conversation, Kim reflects on a number of co-creative musical projects he’s been part of, and shares insights into the responsibilities that different cultural roles and relationships require of us. Kim has experienced being the other in many contexts in his life, one of which is the mix of cultural heritage in his family. So how has his background influenced his work as a musician and his approach to co-creative practice in general?
[00:02:59] Kim Cunio: That’s a very good question, which is, you know, how I, as a musician been influenced by my culture and how that leads to co-creation, because there is actually, I think, a link between that all.
[00:03:09] Kim Cunio: My mother is a Burmese Indian Jew, which is a tiny micro community. They’d been in India for hundreds of years, but Burma for about three or four generations. And my father’s an Iraqi Jew who grew up in Shanghai. So I grew up thinking that you had multiple identities, and that was sort of okay, and they’d all find their way because even though I was born into the Jewish religion, There was a lot of Islam in my dad’s sort of worldview and understanding.
[00:03:32] Kim Cunio: I mean, you know, there was Aramaic and Arabic as sort of, you know, languages that my dad always sw in Arabic, for example. So I realized that his Arabic was pretty good and my mother was very influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism. She actually grew up when she was little in the same street as Aung San Suu Kyi, university avenue, where the Shwedagon Pagoda was.
[00:03:49] Kim Cunio: So, I had this sense that it was very hard to find a home space when I was a kid, and I was quite comfortable with that until I became a teenager because I just thought we were a tiny little community and I was a part of that tiny little community and we were self-referencing and it all felt very normal. But of course, as a teenager, we’re going to school in Sydney. I suddenly wanted to fit in and become like a normal person. And then I did discover otherness and I must say, I discovered racism as an integral part of this country. And I’m not to say that racism is in everyone, but racism is in quite a lot of people and it’s made me a bit of a campaigner in my life because when I was being formed, it really slowed me down finding who I was, the reactions to that because I would put layer upon layer of self-preservation upon myself to cope with the world I was a part of. And I really don’t want to be a part of a country that sort of expects other people to do that now.
[00:04:42] Kim Cunio: So that was a big part of my life. But of course, in my twenties I discovered myself again as when we get past our teenage years, we start to reconcile our childhood with our adult life. And for me, that was a very exciting process because as I became a professional musician, I was able to realise that I could be who I am as a cultural being through music. And that really changed my life. And of course, when I studied, they couldn’t teach that stuff, but I just decided to do it myself, and that really made my career and what I do today. Probably 20 or 25 years of experimentation to think how do I allow these multiple identities to exist through the making of music, and then over time, through the making of research?
[00:05:21] Maya Haviland: So, what did that journey of experimentation look like?
[00:05:24] Kim Cunio: I can even tell you when it started, it was one of those seminal moments. I was in my final year at the Conservatorium doing the final musicology test. That’s basically musicology is, it’s the studying, I guess you’d say, within two lenses. One is musical analysis, the other one is sort of like anthropology or archaeology. That’s sort of vibrational thing of thinking about, you know, cultural practices and how they influence music. I found that subject pretty easy. So, I finished about an hour and a half early. And I’m just sitting there going, okay, I’m finishing my degree soon. What am I going to do with my life? Do I want to be like everyone else who just wants to either play in an orchestra or write the sort of standard repertoire, or do I want to be myself?
[00:06:01] Kim Cunio: And it just hit me like a bolt. Of course, I want to be myself and I will be myself. And then I just made that pact with myself that I would actually transform my practice and I would look at integrating the multiple cultures of my life, but then also many of the cultures of the world and see what would happen. And I’d basically decided that day to develop a, I guess you’d say a methodology to work with communities and traditional musicians and to be able to compose with them and around them and to find ways to attribute, to allow co-creation in my life.
[00:06:33] Maya Haviland: In those early days, was co-creation a word that you used?
[00:06:37] Kim Cunio: Not as a conceptual framework, but I very much saw that that was how you did things. Because you know, in my own culture, for example, even though I’d learnt all the tunes of my own culture, which is the Mizrahi Jewish tradition, there’s no way I could perform them publicly without the elders giving me permission.
[00:06:53] Kim Cunio: So, it’s a very similar situation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So, you might know the work but you have to be given permission every time to share it. And so, I just grew up thinking that was pretty normal. As I started to work professionally, there’d be music festivals that would say, can you perform this work? And sometimes I just have to say, no, this work is actually embargoed. This is for our community. It’s too spiritually significant to be shared and sort of cheapened in the concert realm. And that wasn’t easy as a young musician.
[00:07:20] Maya Haviland: So how did you navigate explaining the need to have the cultural authority to work with particular knowledges and traditions?
[00:07:28] Kim Cunio: I find this a really interesting proposition because you’re right, I didn’t have the language and I didn’t have the expertise, I was just a young musician. All as I could say, as my elders have said no, and that was usually enough, and it was quite interesting. What I found at this time, being a young musician to a certain extent, it was like, oh, he’s a really nice guy, he’s a bit of the other, let’s look after him.
[00:07:48] Kim Cunio: So, I found that people were very, very nice to me, but it was the point where I wanted to then go into Western idioms and I couldn’t just be the sort of guy with an accent because I don’t have an accent. I was brought up in Australia, so I got lost in two worlds. One was the world of, okay, he’s a kid of refugees, but he’s not a refugee, so we can’t really feel sorry for him. And yet he doesn’t want to be just a slightly weird kid who plays Mozart really well, which we are also used to. And so, I found that was the interesting space that took a lot of navigating about defining myself as not having to be one of those two stereotypes.
[00:08:23] Maya Haviland: As Kim shared earlier, he made a conscious decision to use his own cultural identities, combined with his creative and technical skills to develop a unique approach to musical practice. He began seeking out projects that would allow him to engage with communities he was connected to through his compositional work.
[00:08:41] Kim Cunio: The first one was actually a piece called Doye Doye, and it’s about the 8:00 AM on the 8th of the 8th, ’88. And it was this mass protest by really all aspects of Burmese or Myanmar’s society. And that had a profound effect on me because, you know, my mum always followed what was happening in Burma and there was always this feeling in our family that military were like another form of colonialism. The British had left, but the military had actually subsumed the mantle of operation of the British military in order to subdue their own people. And that work was a 15-minute oratorio where I worked with members of the free Burma community. On those protests, a few people had Walkmans and they actually made recordings of the sounds. And so I got given these sounds and I thought, what can I do with. So, I composed around those sounds. I transcribed those sounds, and I wrote a work for two singers in a combined aural history. So, you know, people who’d been interviewed by, you know, various historians about their effects. And it was a harrowing, harrowing crackdown.
[00:09:37] Kim Cunio: It’s funny that, you know, we remember in the West Tiananmen Square, which is, you know, about a year away from the 8th of the 8th, ’88. And back then it didn’t get much coverage in Australia, but years later we can just Google that experience and see it. So, time has sort of changed all of this, but of course what we found this year is that Aung San Suu Kyi, who’s a bit like a fallen angel, she was sort of held up by the West, to be more than she was, and then we got disappointed in her.
[00:10:01] Kim Cunio: I mean, isn’t that a classic story that we make someone into two dimensions and when we find out they have three dimensions, we then reject them? Because she’d always never had much tolerance for ethnic minorities in Myanmar. She’d been quite clear her really her entire political life that when she got into power, that really wasn’t her thing. But we got really, really angry about it at the West because that’s against our notion of human rights. And these were the things that I wanted to think about. So, I wrote this work and the middle part of the work was a direct transcription of these Walkman recordings of the sounds of the military firing on the students and being a sort of student at the time, or finishing off my studies, it just felt such a profound thing to think if I was in the country of my mother’s birth, not this country, I’d be doing that.
[00:10:43] Kim Cunio: I was clear that I would be on the streets and my friends would’ve been the ones who were slaughtered. And that was just like a kick in my guts. And I realised from then on that I was interested in two things. One is sort of like reconciliation notions, how we can bring about peace and possibly through some notion of the spiritual powers of music, even though I know it’s a bit of a lightweight phrase to many people because we can become very reductive with that. But also, the notion that composers and musicians can have a political opinion and can play a part in those debates, and that’s what I wanted to do. And then from then, I just never stopped working.
[00:11:15] Kim Cunio: A few months after that, I got a call from the Art Gallery of New South Wales and they said, “The Dead Sea Scrolls are coming for the Olympic Arts Exhibition. Would you like to set them to music?” And I went, “wow”. This was an incredible opportunity for me because I spent a year really studying these, I guess you’d say they’re seminal texts of Western Canonic thought. These are texts that were written around the time of the historical Jesus. So, to get these texts and to be able to examine them next to the Tanakh, which is the five books of Moses, and then aspects of what later became the New Testament, and to see that there were multiple versions of a religion that we now see one version of. For example, I found in that collection, Psalm 151, there’s 150 Psalms that made the cut. I got to set up Psalm 151, which I thought was really, really cool.
[00:12:00] Kim Cunio: And from then I just never stopped working because in that project I worked with Baghdadi and Yemenite elders, and I realized that the joyful process of working with old people with their tunes and learning, and then saying, “can we try this with that?” And seeing their joy through that process of co-creation was just, it was more fun than me being the so-called smart guy with an intense pencil on a piece of paper and presenting something for a bunch of people my age to play to 50 people in a concert hall. It was just way more fun.
[00:12:30] Maya Haviland: In the Dead Sea Scrolls project, did you know the elders from the Baghdadi community before the project?
[00:12:36] Kim Cunio: Yes, I did, and this is how I started my method was that, you know, this was my community. And so, there was this thought, where’s someone from one of those communities who’s a composer who could do this job? I was trained as a musicologist and I thought, well, when I was called, I said, “I’d like to actually use this sort of burgeoning musicological skill of mine doing lots of transcriptions and then doing a process of realising music rather than composing music”. So in other words, using the skills of a composer, but to try and imagine the gaps between what oral history can provide. And this is oral history. I mean, people singing these tunes and then actually trying to get the texts of the Deads Sea Scrolls to the oldest surviving tunes of these Eastern Jewish communities. And they’re pretty old. The Baghdadian and Jewish community descends from 586 before the common era. It was unbroken in that territory until really the Farhud, which it was 80 years ago this year. And then it started the mass migration of Iraqi Jews away from Iraq, and the majority now live in Israel of course.
[00:13:34] Maya Haviland: This early work with communities that Kim had some connection to already, laid a strong foundation for his practice. But does he think that the skills he honed working with his own community transferred to work with other communities?
[00:13:47] Kim Cunio: Yes, I do. And I didn’t know it at the time because I, you know, this was just a series of projects. But what I noticed was, if you can learn people’s music quickly and do it with them well, anything is possible, and that’s what I’ve found out, particularly working with my own community because I had a reasonably good knowledge of the repertoire, but it’s a vast repertoire in this Iraqi, Jewish, Mizraji cantillation.
[00:14:11] Kim Cunio: One text might have 12 or 13 different tunes, and these tunes all have quarter tones, sixth of tones. So, they have a level of detail that doesn’t actually exist in Western classicism or even jazz. So, there’s a whole element of you have to be able to prove to someone who knows it better than you, that your structures of ornamentation are good enough, or that you know what you’re doing. You’re not just sort of making it up on the spot, or if you’re making it up on the spot that you are really, really good. But the funny thing is I found out over time that I have a bit of a natural ear, and that was partly due to the fact I didn’t learn really Western musical skills till I was an adult.
[00:14:44] Kim Cunio: We call it aurality now. It’s a funny word, but you know, I was born as an aural musician and then I learned the written skills of music much later. So, it meant that my ear was fine tuned to be able to respond to, I guess you would say, the interpretation of others, that I could take that on to some extent without having to think. And I think it’s a big thing for me in a music school now is how we can build that skill into young musicians. But that’s probably another story.
[00:15:06] Kim Cunio: And then I found out not long after that, the ABC called me and they said, “would you like to start writing music for Compass? Every so often we have series of sort of major works that are on different religions. Would you like to write scores for them?” And then I started this whole process. Uh, if I was writing something on Hinduism, I would spend time with the Hindu community or Buddhism, the Buddhist community. But what I found, of course, which was very lucky for me, that when I scratched the surface, just because of the countries my family were from, there was almost no religion or no community that I didn’t have some sort of familial connection to.
[00:15:37] Kim Cunio: So I was very, very lucky that there was always some, it’s like sort of meeting your fourth cousin working with these communities that we’d find we had things in common. And I can remember one very funny day, I was doing quite a lot of work with Islamic music for a number of years. And you know, it had gone very, very well and I was never hiding the fact that I was Jewish. But I remember once being asked to play at a very big celebration for Eid Festival and it went really well. I was really delighted. I played my oud. I did traditional Islamic repertoire, and someone just said, I think the MC said, “where have you been all our lives?”
[00:16:08] Kim Cunio: And that was the moment, and I realized, you have to be there for the long haul. If you’re going to join a community, you just can’t come and do the gig and then leave and do your next project. And that was a big moment for me. And I basically just had to say, well, I wasn’t here when I was a child because I was in another religion. And it was a bit of a shock for the people around. And some people didn’t like it, and others loved it. And I realized that this method of really spending deep time with communities can work, but it requires complete disclosure all the time.
[00:16:36] Maya Haviland: Being alive to the relationality and timing of such a disclosure of positionality is an art in itself and isn’t always easy as Kim discovered.
[00:16:46] Kim Cunio: Well, funnily enough, the notion of a Jewish person working with Islamic music can be problematic for a lot of Islamic people. It’s a very hard thing to talk about in some ways because there were so many nuances, and I have actually so many Islamic musical friends, and I have so many Arabic musical friends who are also influenced by Islam who might not be Islamic.
[00:17:05] Kim Cunio: But there’s no doubt within some parts of the mainstream Sunni version of the world, we shouldn’t have a Jewish guy doing this. And also, in some parts of the Shia version of the world too. But at the same time, something is quite possible because there’s a notion of Islamic secular music that Jews have always been involved in. And one of the things I have found out over the last 20 years, Is that a lot of the music of Arab nationalism, in terms of what we would call now, the late classical traditional or late classical folk traditions of Islamic countries was actually composed by people like me, by Jewish people who lived in Islamic countries.
[00:17:41] Kim Cunio: And more and more Islamic musicians are becoming aware of this. And so that’s an incredible icebreaker moment or an ice melting moment. And I had one breakthrough project actually about 15 or 16 years ago. It was in New York in 2006. And someone decided to bring together a whole bunch of Islamic and Jewish musicians, and I got to direct this project and we all worked together for a couple of weeks, and we presented concerts in New York. It was incredibly fun, but we had to do a lot of talking while we were playing because we had people from Israel, we had people from Morocco, we had people from Iraq, and then we had this guy from Australia leading the project, and people just thought that was the weirdest thing they could ever imagine.
[00:18:21] Kim Cunio: Like, why get a guy from Australia? It’s the end of the world for this sort of work. And then over time we realised this is what Australia offers, and I started to realize that I’m very, very proud to be Australian because this sort of work is more possible in Australia because we have a culture that encourages us to think beyond singularity if we’re able to accept that.
[00:18:47] Maya Haviland: Something I’ve observed in my research with people who work co-creatively across different disciplines and different cultures is that they commonly have the personal experience of straddling multiple identities. This can become a bit of a superpower as they develop an appreciation of the opportunities that occur in the spaces where different traditions and knowledge systems interact.
[00:19:09] Kim Cunio: Music opens up something quite interesting because we tend to see in the big, mainstream, glossy version of how we understand music, there might be something like real world, which is all these sort of rock stars go, wow, I’ve discovered African music. Look at me. You know Paul Simon, Graceland great songs, right?
[00:19:25] Kim Cunio: He’s working with Lady Smith Black Mambazo. It’s pretty impressive in a sort of a Grammy winning way, and you go, “wow, that’s sort of fantastic”. So, these elite Western rock stars can go off and do this incredible thing. And you know, maybe my critical side might say, subsume the music of longstanding traditional cultures for hit record and then move on if they want to move on, or they might not move on. But even so, it’s problematic because of the issues of ownership. But what’s really happening is far more beautiful. It’s that colonisation is a two-way process that people from nearly every traditional culture are colonising Western music because it has a lot to offer. Western notation is quite incredible and Western notions of recording, which sort of make a critical edition of music. They’re very, very exciting to people in most of the traditional cultures of the world to be able to move into this space.
[00:20:13] Kim Cunio: So I think we’ve got something that is actually far more beautiful than we would realize that Westerners are going to sort of the other to try and get something that means more to them. But the so-called others are seeing the Western music as a way to bring wholeness. And so, we have a very interesting co-creative space in music tradition happening right now. It’s never really happened on this scale before.
[00:20:36] Maya Haviland: While this co-creation across musical styles and cultures can be two-way, as Kim says, what are some of the challenges that he’s found regarding appropriation of traditions?
[00:20:47] Kim Cunio: So, it was a big experience in my life as a young musician. One of our most formidable ethnomusicologists discovered my tradition. And this is a person who got multiple ARC grants, had led music departments, a huge, towering figure in musicology, and actually a wonderful woman as well. It’s not a personal criticism of this person.
[00:21:06] Kim Cunio: This person who had been an expert in Indonesian music on a trip discovered Mizrahi Jewish music and was literally blown away by it. But because she’s such a major player, she got the ARC Grant to study it, and she got the record deal with Celestial Harmonies to make recordings and release and decide who would be on those recordings and to say, this is the representation of this amazing micro tradition of music.
[00:21:29] Kim Cunio: And it was a great ARC. I mean, I actually helped her on it because I thought it was so exciting for my community. But then I thought later, the problem with the musicologist doing that is that when I’m ready to do that, 10 years later it’s been done, and I can’t do it. And I’m the person who should do this work because I’m the sort of person in those two worlds. And for every tradition we have to make that person to do that work where possible. So, for my role as an academic now, it’s to look for people to do those projects rather than me do them for them. I’d see that this is a really big responsibility of moving on.
[00:21:59] Kim Cunio: And it’s no criticism to the last generation of ethnomusicologists because I think they had no idea how the world would change. The world has changed so profoundly. Things that weren’t imagined as possible are actually possible if we just look at the democratisation of recording for people in the field now. It’s a magnificent change in the last 20 years. I can tell you that in the year 2000, I had a professional recording studio to do my work. It costs $34,000. The equivalent sound quality I bought for my son last year, it was $170. This means that in less elite parts of the world, it’s actually possible now to do this recording and dissemination of music at a fraction of the cost as it was done a generation ago.
[00:22:40] Maya Haviland: As well as collaborating with different practitioners to document and present back musical traditions, Kim has also been involved in projects that are about co-creating something new in response to an established form of repertoire. In these scenarios, how does he navigate the anxieties that come up around authenticity and integrity of tradition when making new works?
[00:23:03] Kim Cunio: Part of the answer is naivety. And I say that quite seriously because if we second guess ourselves, we miss the game. But I was thinking when you asked that question about one project in particular, because it’s taken years and I hope that it’ll have more manifestations. It’s my work and also with my wife Heather with the Gyuta monks of Tibet. And we have two good friends, Maureen Fallon and Sonam Rigzon. And Sonam has been a translator for many of the most major Tibetan figures. And Maureen’s a white woman who basically dropped everything and decided that I will support these monks and I will find a way that Australia can really help this tradition in exile in in Dharamshala in India.
[00:23:40] Kim Cunio: And I first met them in 2000 at a sacred music festival and heard the monks. Then we were fortunate that we did some touring together in the next couple of years where we would just perform, and they would perform. So it was, we might meet them over a game of pool, but a bit like if you’ve seen that film, The Cup, you know, it was a bit like that, you know, really fun and breaking the myths of the monks not wanting to have any fun too, which I thought was really, really great. And then years later we came together and said, let’s work together seriously, and in order to work together seriously, we just had to spend time together. We had to not be like the real world collaboration where here’s the gear, here’s the person, they’re ready to press record, come and play. We’ve got two hours to come up with something. It involves spending time together, meditating together, eating together, cooking together, having fun together, getting to know each other profoundly, and then allowing the music to birth.
[00:24:28] Kim Cunio: And the way the music birthed over time was me hearing, of course, this astonishing chant because the Gutto monks chant lower than anyone else in the world, besides maybe Tuvans, but this is a holy, sacred tradition. So it’s quite an incredible experience to be close, but then also just to very humbly share my own tradition and to see what they thought of it.
[00:24:47] Kim Cunio: And they were delighted because they started saying back, you know, this is important to us because His Holiness said to us a number of years. We need to collaborate with people of other cultures and religions more, and they were looking for the way to do it. So, when we realized that we were doing something that His Holiness wanted to do, then it was all systems go and we were fearless, and we got to have an incredible amount of joy in this process of co-creation that it probably took a year before we found what we could do of spending a lot of time together. And that doesn’t work so well with the Western notion of deadlines, does it?
[00:25:21] Maya Haviland: Kim has been part of several collaborations that span many years, but he’s also thought about important aspects of process and practice in the kind of co-creative work he does, regardless of the length of a project or the specific context it’s happening in.
[00:25:36] Kim Cunio: I think most of my community work, it has ebbs and flows because you can’t just spend all your time in a community if you have a job, you know, I have a job and it’s a busy job. But what I notice is that if I get the call and it’s important for me to be with the community, I will see that, and this is a hard thing for my role in at the ANU. If I’m a little bit affiliated with a number of communities, I need to be available. So just as I am with my own community, I need to be available for those communities.
[00:26:03] Kim Cunio: And say for example, I’ve mean I spent a lot of time with Hindu thought. There’s two particular Hindu communities I do spend a lot of time with. And it’s really important that I’m there for the major festivals and I’m there for the major events just to say, well, it’s not that we are doing something or collaborating, but just to show that I haven’t walked away, that I haven’t come as a transactional musician to do something for you and then leave, which is what usually happens.
[00:26:27] Kim Cunio: So, this takes time and effort. But of course, the joy is that we have long-term relationships. And the funny thing is, this process has really led me to have faith in our School of Music being able to do this with communities, but also our School of Music being able to build up a series of school-wide methodologies with Indigenous communities that really the number one thing is a long-term commitment. And from there, lots can be forgiven.
[00:26:54] Maya Haviland: So, what does it take when we try to transfer this relational approach to an organizational or institutional context?
[00:27:01] Kim Cunio: You know, this is where it gets dangerous because of course when it’s just ourselves, if I do something and I do it wrong, I can ring someone and just apologize. And I have, in terms of the nature of the work I do, I apologise quite a bit. Because if I’m doing stuff, I do get it wrong regularly and, uh, I’m really happy to wear my heart on my sleeve and just beg forgiveness when I do things. And I’ve found just about everyone I’ve ever worked with quite likes that, because if you’re not, sort of doing some sort of affected false humility if it really is from that space of deep respect.
[00:27:33] Kim Cunio: You know, things are quite possible always, but for organisations that is harder. We can’t move so fast and so it does take care. But for me, with the School of Music, it was building up a community of practice and I have some remarkable colleagues and it’s very important to say with Indigenous work, there’s no way I lead it. You know, I’m not Indigenous.
[00:27:51] Kim Cunio: So, the first thing is to bring Indigenous people to the school and say, what do you and your communities think is necessary? And then we start on that process. And I think that’s the foundation stone, is to have other people to say that they have a version of this process. You know, we all have multiple versions of this process. And I think a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander thinkers, academics, musicians, artists, are going through some version of this process where they can become institutionalised, and they have these dual allegiances.
[00:28:21] Kim Cunio: 90% of their allegiance is to their communities, of course, and to their practice and to traditional law and thought, and you know, all the things that are so profound. But then there’s this growing allegiance to this sort of weird place, this Western institution that wants to do good, but can often do bad.
[00:28:37] Kim Cunio: And one example would be, of course, once you get a consultancy agreement, an ANU legal gets involved. Like any university or any major organisation, it can make traditional people run at a rate of knots. So, we have so many things that can go wrong, but at the same time I felt that, you know, my wonderful colleagues can do this very, very well. And in particular, our Indigenous convenor. Chris Sainsbury is wonderful at this work. I take my hat off to him and he’s really a great teacher of mine in terms of thinking about this stuff because maybe he does it thinking a bit less than I do. I might overthink sometimes, and I think Chris is really able to just sit.
[00:29:12] Maya Haviland: So, we’ve heard a lot about Kim’s own co-creative musical practice, but what is it about music that can help us understand what co-creation is and how it happens?
[00:29:30] Kim Cunio: I think music does offer something quite unique. If I just compare it to the visual arts, for example, the visual arts still have a model. It’s a bit like the lone scientist who gets the Nobel Prize. And that’s sort of what we expect of the great visual artists, isn’t it? They’re in their studio and they don’t answer their phone. They’re just making these incredible artworks and then, I mean, it’s amazing. They go from being unknown and then they go to being famous. We have this sort of mythology about the visual arts, and of course most visual artists do collaborate a lot, but there’s a lot of solitary time.
[00:30:00] Kim Cunio: But with music, even for composers, nothing exists till it’s made in sound in real time. Even a recording is sound made in real time, so even if it’s done once for a recording, this process of people coming together and battling their egos has to happen every time music is made. Examples of things like orchestras or bands or quartets or anything like that.
[00:30:23] Kim Cunio: Possibly. The best example I know of is the gamelan. If we think of the Javanese or Indonesian gamelan, we think this has up to 30 players who are not even just playing different instruments together. They’re playing one instrument, so they have a conceptual space that they’re all actually a part of one living whole.
[00:30:39] Kim Cunio: And this is potentially there in all great music making. Some of the most famous string quartets have spoken that when they really get into the zone, therefore instruments become one voice. For example, even someone like Bach who I love his music, if you listen to his solo violin partitas, they’re exquisite works, right?
[00:30:56] Kim Cunio: What Bach does is he actually loves the fact that there’s parts that would normally be done by three or four players, and he puts them all into one instrument. So, what makes the greatest music of the Western tradition is allowing one person to play an approximation of what three or four would play. So, music only really happens when someone listens to it. No musician is that happy. Even if they make a lot of money, if people aren’t enjoying it. So, we have this act of sharing who we really are and having immediate feedback. And all of us have PhDs in how to listen to music. We’ve all listened to 40, 50, 60,000 hours of music. Let’s think about that for a second. There’s not a person on the planet who doesn’t know how to listen to music.
[00:31:37] Maya Haviland: Most of us do indeed have the ability to listen to music, but are there other skills and approaches that musicians use for co creativity that could be more widely adopted or understood? What are musicians, particular superpowers that the rest of us could learn from?
[00:31:53] Kim Cunio: There’s two concepts I think that are very useful to anyone who’s in this collaboratorium space. One is the notion of composing. Musicians either write compositions or play compositions, and so there’s this idea that instead of just answering a research question, we are making something. So, from its outset, we are making something that isn’t just form follows function.
[00:32:13] Kim Cunio: We’re making something that there might be a functionality about it, but there’s another dimension to it. So, there’s something for the human soul in the act of the collaboration. And I think that’s a really important thing to say. Even if you are writing a paper across three disciplines for a scientific journal, it doesn’t mean the prose has to be ugly. So that’s what music can say to us, that we can compose, and we can actually have a sense of aesthetics when we compose.
[00:32:37] Kim Cunio: But the greater one that musicians do, and even classical musicians do it, even if they pretend, they don’t, is to improvise. And so what musicians are that is the superpower is when things need to be changed, the musician can change it. You don’t like the dynamics wrong between these instruments? Well, we’ll just fix it. I won’t get really, really angry because you know, I have to turn my violin down. I’ll just fix it because that’s what a blend is. So, we have already in this idea of what music as a whole is the idea that we might have to change our part and we might even have to change the structure of what we are doing.
[00:33:08] Kim Cunio: And particularly in jazz and contemporary music, we have these notions that you can make it up as you go along as long as you have overarching structures. Neuroscience tells us actually about this concept called the “Lull”, and you know, people like Liane Gabora are really interesting researcher in this space, talks about the fact that often our best work is when we come to terms with the fact that we actually don’t know what we’re doing on some level. And I think musicians are quite good at knowing that they don’t know what they’re doing.
[00:33:35] Kim Cunio: Isn’t that a funny thing to say? But they know that there’s a gap there and they’re not scared of the gap. Whereas I think when we are really in our intellectual selves, as soon as we see a gap, we’re scared of it, and we want to fill it out with the most clever response we can make. But musicians are telling the stories of the world as it truly is all the time. Because they can’t restrain themselves from doing it.
[00:33:54] Kim Cunio: And there can be a 16-year-old who hasn’t had a lesson who can do it just as well as a person with a PhD. And that’s the other thing that is great about music is that there’s always someone who can tell the truth through music, and it has nothing to do with their technical skill.
[00:34:08] Maya Haviland: And with that, we come to the end of this episode of Collaboratory Conversations with Kim Cunio. I’m Maya Havilland. I hope you’ve found this conversation interesting. Check out some of the others in our conversation series that you might have missed. And please share Collaboratory with others who you think might get something out of it, as the best way to grow our community is through your recommendation.
Collaboratory is written, edited, and produced by me, Maya Haviland, with production and editorial assistance from Nicole Deen. Audio Engineering by Nick McCorriston. Music made especially for us by Sep Rock. Additional research and production support by Yichen Li.
Collaboratory is produced on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, and Ngunawal people. We pay our respects and ongoing gratitude to the custodians past, present, and future of the lands on which we work and of the knowledges from which we learn.
Collaboratory is a production of the Scaffolding Cultural Co-Creativity Project hosted by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Funding is generously provided by the Australian National University Translational Fellowship scheme.