Composed activism

On August 5, jazz musician and composer Ellen Kirkwood debuted her latest composition, “[A]part”, to a warm reception at the Io Myers Studio, UNSW. The four-part suite was performed by the mostly female Sirens Big Band, in which Kirkwood plays trumpet.

Ellen Kirkwood Photographer: Catherine McElhone
Ellen Kirkwood Photographer: Catherine McElhone

Kirkwood describes “[A]part” as “an artistic, emotional response to the refugee crisis and climate change” and also “a comment on how receiving much of our information through the internet affects how as individuals and as a society we see these things … how it’s sort of influencing world events in that people are not necessarily getting the truth all the time.”

The philosophy behind her composition was to “channel emotions or experiences and describe them through music.”

One melody that made it into the finished “refugee” section of the piece came to Kirkwood while she was lying awake at night, stressed over the upheaval of having to move from the inner city she’d called home for the past nine years. “A little melody sort of came into my head that seemed to kind of musically represent the way I was feeling, and so I just grabbed my phone and sang this little melody into my phone,” Kirkwood says, “and [later] I thought this would probably work well as maybe the starting of a piece about refugees, because if I felt that bad, in my life where nothing really bad can go wrong, if I felt that overwhelmed and stressed out, how must it feel to be a refugee who doesn’t really know if they’re going to live the next day and what’s going to happen to their children?”

“[A]part” received a three-and-a-half-star review from the Sydney Morning Herald, with audience members describing the piece as “detailed”, “gripping” and “enthralling”.

While the music doesn’t always sound the same performed by the band as it did in her head, she says, “It’s a great feeling to have it made real”.

Ellen Kirkwood Photographer: Karen Steains

Ellen Kirkwood Photographer: Karen Steains

Ellen Kirkwood has been playing trumpet since she was 9 years old, and was one of only three women in her 60-strong jazz course at the Conservatorium of Music. Since then female enrolments in the course have risen to 23 per cent. “Ideally it would be half and half,” says Kirkwood, who promotes women’s involvement in jazz through Sirens Big Band and the Young Women’s Jazz Orchestra, which she directs. “Historically, there’s a lack of role models,” she explains. “Gender stereotypes [are] a big thing as well, for instance, what instruments kids choose when they’re little – you know, flutes for girls, trumpets for boys.”

“When people form bands, they just get their pals together, and a lot of the time it’s just a bunch of dudes going, let’s have a jam! They don’t necessarily go out of their way to go – oh, hang on – it’s a bit of a sausage-fest, let’s get a woman in here.”

Kirkwood believes a changing music culture and a rise in “curated” listening has led to less popular music inspired by social and political themes than in decades past. “I think there needs to be more of the kind of thing that I’m doing – and I think if you know where to look, it’s there.” She firmly believes that music has a place in activism and social movements.

So, what’s next for Kirkwood? “Rest!”

Audiences keen to listen to “[A]part” will have to content themselves with a forthcoming highlights reel to be published on YouTube – at least until Kirkwood can raise the money needed to pay for a professional recording. “I might end up doing some sort of crowdfunding Pozible campaign,” she says. A tour next year is also on the cards, but again, “it all depends on funding”.

At 32, this young musician undoubtedly has more in store.

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