When did you first begin to play music?
"Apparently I took interest in a family friend’s piano around the age of five - so my Mum’s parents travelled from Yorke Peninsula, SA to Melbourne with their old piano in the back of the ute and then I started formal lessons with the teacher at my primary school.
My dad was a farmer before becoming a set and costume designer for theatre and opera. He spent a lot of time with musicians & conductors, and would often sit and listen whilst I practiced. He would query the narrative behind a piece which in hindsight taught me to consider nuance in motifs and musical arcs in a broader sense.
When I was an obnoxious teenager we used to have fights about me not practicing enough. He’d often threaten to pull the pin, which was my cue to jump on the keys and convince him I wanted to continue lessons. Sometimes I find I do this with projects now- I’ll resist looking at the material for ages until the deadline looms- once I start though - I’m like oh, this is fun."
Credit Ed Gurr
Why the piano? How has your relationship with the instrument changed over the years?
"Our piano was in the lounge room and there was often lots of activity happening around me when I practiced - the smell of dinner being cooked, my brother watching the TV on mute behind my back...The fixed nature of a piano taught me to consider the surrounding ambiance and adjust my playing accordingly.
When I moved out of home, my piano moved ten or so times between different houses. It encountered many different settings from shared spaces to my bedroom. I was fortunate enough to live with some incredible people, many who were visual or conceptual artists who gave me confidence in my playing because for many years I felt like a bit of a failure that I hadn’t become a concert pianist.
Having insight into their arts practices, seeing how they worked day to day, how they fostered collaborations, conversations and critique and embraced imperfections and mistakes influenced me a great deal.
When I finally had a studio space I noticed my practice and compositions changed a lot because I didn’t worry so much about bothering others around me. For the most part, having a studio has been such a luxury to ride to everyday but I do get a weird separation anxiety from my piano if I go too long without playing it - sounds slightly dramatic, but it’s by far the most consistent thing in my 20s!"
What draws you to the style of spacious ambient piano music that you create?
"It’s a fair mix of things I would say. When I studied classical piano at the Melbourne Conservatory, I encountered so many brilliant musicians. Many of them seemed to be disconnected to the sound they created though, like they weren’t really listening to themselves or others, unless it was to identify a mistake. It felt like someone talking too fast, cramming in too much information rather than trying to communicate something with clarity - with space and breath.
I always admire music from the heart, rather than the fingers - and you can tell, even if you know nothing about music - there is a command when it comes from the former. Even complicated, abrasive music should have a sense of ease to it - a slip stream from the body producing it.
Music by composers like Bach, Liszt, Prokofiev etc are obviously rhythmically and harmonically more complicated than ambient music - but I think when I discovered the four 1960s American minimalists; Riley, Reich, La Monte Young, Glass and later Nyman and John Adams I loved how so much tension still existed in the music with less “happening".
Ambient music gets a bad wrap, because there is a lot of bad ambient music out there - and I think it’s bad because there is no tension. Even if the music is trying to evoke a pleasant, relaxing state in the listener - there are still devices at play that separate it from being effective or really boring in my opinion. When it’s good, it’s like you are in the palm of the composer's hand - they have the power to suspend pitch and rhythm - you can almost hear the change before it’s sounded and when it does emerge it's such a satisfying release.
The French composers of the early twentieth century have also been a big influence on my style of playing - the notion of pitch as colour, employing the full register of the piano, gestural motifs, an interest in eastern and Arabic traditions of music... playfulness, humour, space…
Which probably leads into other influences of mine like Sculthorpe - who was interested in capturing the landscape of Australia in his classical works - the infinite skies, the buzzing heat - how a piercing flock of birds sound in a gorge - nature’s own stereo system… Since I spent a lot of time in rural SA where my parents were from, I understand, feel grateful and find solace in the space of that country.
All of the composers I’ve mentioned are men though and for a long time I felt disconnected with the classical repertoire because it basically was the spectrum of life through a male lens. There's a lot more momentum for including female/non-binary composers works in the AMEB repertoire for kids learning and unearthing lost works from history that are performed on main stages today - but a decade ago it wasn’t so much a thing.
My pieces have been described as ‘distinctly feminine’ - which I love but the space in them was in many ways carved out of necessity - to make room for a different voice/s. Mostly the spaciousness is a by-product of a distillation process - trying to get to the essence of a melody, chipping away until it feels honest, almost raw. Going forward, maybe this won’t always be my approach though."
Improvisation is a large part of your work. Why are you attracted to this method of performance and composition?
Improvisation for me is about happy accidents - I think all of my composed melodies come from moments of private improvising, usually after a long day of teaching when I need to remind myself how I play. If I come across anything that sticks I’ll jot it down in a very loose way and come back to it in the morning and check if I still like it/if it’s any good.
Improvising live is a totally different thing - sometimes I liken it to an extreme sport - in the moment you either connect with the flow state and feel it completely or are left floundering, wishing there was an eject button beneath you. The struggle of not feeling it and searching for connection is a lot closer to the reality of life.
Personally, I like listening and watching musicians have a bit of a wrestle during an improv, before emerging with their response/solution but when I’m that musician… it’s always slightly terrifying. I guess the risk is part of the thrill and learning to trust your intuition and lean into your ear, as deep as possible, can be really empowering.
My friend Pat Telfer who is now the Senior Technical Coordinator at the Brian Brown Studio, VCA started the Isolation Improvisation Collective at the beginning of Covid in 2020. 5-30 artists/ musicians/ dancers improvised weekly via zoom, taking in turns to provide an initial prompt for the session.
There was a lovely regularity to this and my improvising muscles became quite fit because of it. As a group we grew together as well, what started out as a bit of fun/musical chaos on zoom became a series of really beautiful recordings with visual documentation by Briony Barr - ‘037 Telematic Music’ was released by Nice Music December last year.
Your work is also often punctured by textural elements including found sound, noise, spoken word, the theremin and other eccentric acoustic instruments. What do you feel these elements bring to your work? Why do you find yourself attracted to these other instruments & sounds?
These elements are part of my practice for a few reasons - I’m self taught on the theremin and harmonium, even though they are complex instruments with established pedagogies. They have been a way I can naively create sounds a piano never could. I was initially drawn to the theremin for its ability to capture gestures without touch and the harmonium for the overtones it can produce. Also, their musical histories fascinate me and the portability of both compared to a piano is wonderful too.
‘Without touch' and ‘overtones’ are something I wanted to layer into my pieces both as conceptual and sonic ideas. Recently, I’ve started harp lessons with my friend & teacher Gen Fry and have been acutely reminded how hard it is to learn a new skill, which is good for me to remember as a piano teacher. In a few years time I’d like to be proficient on all these instruments so I have the freedom to shift between them seamlessly but I’m a slow learner before something clicks, so we'll see!
The integration of these instruments as well as sound/foley/field recordings/spoken word feels like the equivalent to creating a visual collage and a very different process to the kind of practice I do on the piano.
It’s a chance for me to be more playful and in some ways cut through the seriousness/sincerity of some of my piano works. I like being able to draw a listener or audience in with a sentimental piano melody and then subvert it with a bit of “grit" - as a way to depict how memory or real time operates; you might be in your own world for a moment before it’s punctuated by something and leads you down another branch/train of thought.
Your work is quite prolific, spanning solo releases, compilations, Soundcloud sketches, theatre works, live performances and many collaborations. Have you always had such a dedicated work ethic when it comes to your art?
My output reflects the only way you can make a viable career in music (in Australia) without having another part-time job I think! You have to be versatile- my main source of income still comes from teaching piano though. Many of my works have been made because of a knee jerk reaction to say yes to everything- and then putting all my energy into shaping it into something that is true to my practice.
My collaborations foster a love for working with other people and getting energy from them and their ideas - I love observing directors/ actors/ dancers - how they digest conceptual ideas - I am constantly inspired by it. Working with others forces me to be dedicated and accountable - to avoid letting people down is a big factor. These interdisciplinary projects create sparks for my more introspective works - it’s a circular thing.
What is coming up for Grace Ferguson for the rest of 2021?
I recently started working with producer/booking agent/artist all round incredible human- Stella Schiftan who also represents Aarti Jadu. It’s been so lovely to bounce around ideas, dream up performance events that will hopefully happen later this year/2022 and work with someone who advocates ulterior means of music consumption - like Lauren and Brad (duo behind record label, Music Company).
Like many artists, I’ve had a number of things cancel because of the frequent lockdowns - probably the saddest being a devised theatre work I’ve been a part of since 2017 - ‘We All Know What is Happening’ by Samara Hersch and Lara Thoms, which examines Australia’s relationship with the Republic of Nauru and is performed by seven children/activists. We were meant to go to Darwin Festival the day before the latest announcement. I’m not as bothered by the cancellation/ rescheduling of solo performances- but that was a big loss because it’s such a politically and emotionally potent work that everyone needs to see!
Whilst things are Covid precarious I’m really not sure what will go ahead or not - so I’m going to put most of my energy into finishing a new LP ‘How she reaches, how she echoes’ inspired by Anne Carson’s novel ‘Eros: The Bittersweet’ and finishing a short film ‘Breath’ with my friend/old housemate/ film maker/photographer Rudi Williams.