We all have many playlists in us, some of them just in our heads. One of the beauties of a favourite piece of music is the story of how you came across it for the first time: who introduced you to it, where and with whom you heard it first, and how you were feeling at that time. Each song carries its own little piece of personal history with it. This list does not represent my all-time favourites. That would be a near-impossible task. Rather, this playlist is shared with our current state of affairs very much in mind: a soundtrack for navigating 30 minutes of the coronavirus crisis.
Track(s): AnimaminA (EP) (2005)
Can I include a four-track EP as ‘one’ of my five selections? They don’t call these ‘Director’s trax’ for nothing, so I guess I’ll get away with it. Just last week, I was talking with my colleague Jonathan Wilson, our community programs producer at the Gallery, about the austere soundtrack for The Valhalla murders, the latest Icelandic TV series that Tina and I have been binge-watching during these days of coronavirus social distancing. After pointing out that one of the screenwriters credited was Margrét Örnólfsdóttir, the keyboard player in Bjork’s first band, the Sugarcubes, Jonathan mentioned his own connection to Iceland and gave me a fantastic recommendation. In 2005, the Speak n Spell Music label he co-founded released the debut EP of the classically trained avant-garde quartet Amiina, who have also provided strings for the renowned Icelandic band Sigur Rós. I love the way that unexpected chains of cultural connection can lead to a new musical encounter. It didn’t feel right to separate one of these sublime tracks from the other three.
Artist: Julianna Barwick
Track: ‘One half’ from the album Nepenthe (2013)
I was introduced to the music of the Louisiana-raised Julianna Barwick by the Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken. Over many years of conversations with him about the future of art museums and his use of music in his video installations and site-specific performances, I also learned of his love for obscure Australian bands of the 1980s and 1990s such as Cannanes and Severed Heads. Most recently, he put together a ‘soundtrack’ for his New Horizon project last year in which he floated a 33-metre high reflective balloon and gondola from Martha’s Vineyard to a series of landscape sites across the state of Massachusetts. I was immediately drawn to the looping and layering of Barwick’s music and in particular her 2013 album, Nepenthe. Then, in one of those exquisite coincidences, I discovered that she had recorded the album in Iceland with the Amiina string quartet as well as Alex Somers from Sigur Rós. In a New Yorker profile from 2019, Barwick describes how, as a child, ‘I was always making stuff up, singing out the window, making myself cry while singing to myself. My favourite songs were the mournful, emotional, beautiful ones.’ ‘One half’ draws on all these sensibilities, with her overlaid vocals creating a cathedral-worthy resonance so appropriate for an artist who has sung in choirs for most of her life.
Artist: Federico Aubele
Track: ‘This song’ from the album 5 (2013)
After the minimalist ambience of my first two selections, I think it’s time for something that hits the heart more directly. I came across the Argentinian musician Federico Aubele at random: I think this song was ‘suggested’ to me by Spotify after it finished playing one of my own playlists. Let’s hear it for the algorithm! Aubele sings mainly, but not exclusively, in Spanish, and on his albums intersperses these brief songs with instrumental pieces that create a more direct, non-verbal connection with the listener. ‘This song’ is a simple ode to lost love sung with a cowboy-like authenticity to ‘get him through the night’ and ‘keep him warm’ now that he’s alone. I think we’re all feeling at a similar loss these days as our familiar way of life is converted to one of lonesome social distancing.
Artist: AR Rahman
Track: ‘Tere bina (Without you)’ from the album Guru (2006)
What would a playlist be without a touch of Bollywood? In this song, the brilliant Indian composer AR Rahman has taken this pop genre to new heights of beauty based on his deep understanding of South Asian musical and religious traditions. Sung in Hindi, ‘Tere bina’ (Without you) was dedicated to the memory of the greatest of all modern Pakistani qawwali singers, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the 10th anniversary of his death in 2006. I first came across this form of Islamic devotional music, possibly dating back as far as the 13th century and sung at the tomb shrines of Sufi saints, when I was undertaking my PhD research in India. The room I rented in Delhi was near the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya – the greatest of the saints of the egalitarian Chishti order, who died in 1325 – and I’d often visit his shrine in the evening to listen to the qawwali musicians perform. I’ve recently learned that the Australian artist Khaled Sabsabi shares my enthusiasm for this music and, in fact, his 5-channel video installation Bring the silence featured in the 2018 Biennale of Sydney was filmed in the Nizamuddin Auliya shrine. For ‘Tere bina’, Rahman has adapted the qawwali style into a Bollywood love song for the film Guru, and sings it himself along with Murtaza Khan, Qadir Khan and Chinmayee.
Artist: Young Franco, featuring Abhi the Nomad
And, finally, a shout-out to a young Australian performer, music producer and DJ, Young Franco. This might be the least hip introduction story possible, but Tina and I actually met Young Franco when he was at New Farm State Primary School in Brisbane and his older sister was in the same class as our eldest daughter. But more recently we saw him performing in Mexico City at the same time we were leading a Gallery benefactors tour there. ‘Angel’ features the American hip-hop artist Abhi the Nomad, who also co-wrote the lyrics, and is accompanied by a not-to-be-missed animated video. With the help of an AMEX Music Backers Grant, director Joey Hunter at Sydney production company Entropico had Young Franco 3D-scanned and placed into a custom-built 3D world using a video game building software. In a pre-coronavirus world, Young Franco was scheduled to perform on 23 August 2020 at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by the SANAA architects who have created our own Sydney Modern building now under construction in Sydney. Here’s to the day when our galleries and museums reopen and welcome in amazing local talent. In the meantime, though we’re physically apart, enjoy listening together.
You can also hear Young Franco talk about making his video…