Therese Milanovic talks about the Muses Trio, and their new CD release The Spirit and the Maiden, consisting of works by female composers.

Q: First of all, before we talk about the new CD, would you give us a potted history of the Muses Trio, please? The trio consists of you (a pianist perhaps better known for your work with Topology), violinist Christa Powell (also a member of Topology), and cellist Louise King. How long have you played together, and what kinds of projects have you had?

A: Christa and I have worked together in Topology since 2009. I had wanted to work with Louise King for a long time, but our paths hadn’t crossed. The impetus for the Muses Trio actually came from a longtime supporter of my work, Barry Gorman, who broached the idea of a performance of music by women. CDs of repertoire started arriving in the post, and, each year, Barry and Jeanne Gorman have made a donation to help make our ongoing performances a possibility. We have performed together as the Muses for four years now, and have performed in Brisbane, Byron Bay, Sunshine Coast, featuring inspiring guest speakers and amazing visual artists such as Margaret Ellen Turner and Sarah Hickey. Later this year we will perform at the Sydney Fringe Festival, which will be our first outing in Sydney together. From the initial performance, we got hooked by the music and the powerful and often emotional audience response to the programs, and the Muses project has blossomed since.

Q: The Spirit and the Maiden CD has works by Australian (Elena Kats-Chernin, Kate Neal, Louise Denson, Cécile Elton) as well as international female composers. I’m guessing you had many more names to choose from – can you tell me a bit more about the process of researching the repertoire, finding the right mix for this album. What was left out that you really wanted to include?

A: Well, there’s a story… there was actually so much music we wanted to include that we recorded too much for one CD, and had to include a bonus download track! So, in the end, we didn’t leave much out from the culled wish list.

The works on this CD are a reflection of our favourite pieces from our concert programs over the last four years. As in our concerts, we wanted to showcase living (and Australian) composers, while acknowledging some trailblazers of the past, in this case Nadia Boulanger and Amy Beach. We were fortunate to have a new piece written for us by Cécile Elton, and the opportunity to highlight studio world premiere recordings by Neal, Elton, and Denson.

There are personal connections there too: both Louise Denson and Cécile Elton are friends and colleagues through the Queensland Conservatorium, and Louise King (cellist) actually commissioned Judith Bingham’s Chapman’s Pool during her time with the Gould Trio in the UK. It’s a varied and gorgeous collection of repertoire, from the swoon-worthy Amy Beach track, to Jennifer Higdon’s stunning and edgy work, the Cuban jazz-influenced Denson pieces, Elton’s Tango [for a sleepless city], Boulanger’s perfect miniatures, Bingham’s evocative landscapes, and Kats-Chernin’s trio is always a huge audience favourite … I could go on.

The process of researching repertoire is always ongoing, a combination of searching online, buying recordings and scores, and making connections with composers. It is such a joy to unearth works that have been undeservedly neglected, and also to communicate with real live composers. Before our work together in the Muses Trio, I have to confess that I was shamefully unaware of the huge and wonderful repertoire. Christa also tells the story that when I first broached the project to her, she was excited, but her immediate reaction was that it would be a short concert. We have buckets and buckets of amazing repertoire we would love to perform in the future, and really enjoy the process of carefully curating memorable performances, which often feature incredible female artists and guest speakers.

Q: Playing and recording female composers’ music should be a natural fit for young female musicians (and men, too), however in the CD notes you mention that the recording project came about precisely because of the realisation that women’s works were simply not there in concert programs and music exam syllabi. Do you think the recording, and the work by the Muses Trio, is making a difference? And will this project continue in the future?

A: We are definitely planning to continue the Muses Trio into the future, and are excited to make a small contribution in bringing attention to music by women with this album. Lately, we have noticed more and more prominence with this issue, and have enjoyed engaging with the Women in Composition Facebook group, Making Waves, and applaud Ensemble Offspring for programming 100% works by women in 2017. Queensland Music Festival director Katie Noonan has commented recently that she ‘got so used to being the only girl in the band or at a festival’, and that she hopes ‘to put a lot of bad ass women from Queensland, the rest of Australia and international artists on this festival’. [Rosalind Appleby’s] Women of Note and also Sounds and Sweet Airs [by Anna Beer] are vital books documenting the lives and creative processes of female composers. The Sydney Conservatorium has a commendable focus on supporting female composers, the Australian Music Centre is a wonderful resource to find scores and recordings, and Australia has one of the highest percentage of female composers in the world, around 20-25%. So while there is more work still to be done in raising awareness, there is also much of which to be proud, and I’m sure we’ll see more positive changes in the future.

For us personally, it was important to record and make available these wonderful works by women. As an independent musician, one often produces many live performance projects, but rarely fully documents one’s work due to time and money pressures. Having this album offers us the impetus to craft and refine our work, to give people the opportunity to get to know this repertoire outside the live performance context, for music lovers nationally and internationally to discover some rarely played gems, and for the living composers to have another vehicle with which to promote their work. Hopefully the recording will have an ongoing life and impact.

Our work through the Muses began as addressing the imbalanced representation of female composers, but has expanded to become almost a social movement for us, with a focus on connecting and supporting creative women, and highlighting stories of powerful women and gender inequality. We share a lot of this press through our Facebook page.

Q: The Spirit and the Maiden CD is only one aspect of a project that has a strong live component. Would you tell me about the feedback you’ve had from your audience?

A: From the beginning, the feedback from audiences has been really powerful. Sharing the stories of the composers’ struggles and triumphs is an important component of our live performances, and readings from wonderful authors such as Isabel Allende and classic texts such as Women who Run with the Wolves. Concert-goers often thank us for this, which they feel helps them access the music in a very direct and emotional way. It’s not uncommon to see a few tears at our events. We’ve attempted to replicate this story-telling element through the gorgeous 12-page booklet with our CD (huge shout-out to Trudy Renee and Two Trees Creative for the beautiful design at this moment).

We’ve had really positive feedback all around for the CD, from our supporters to the composers whose works were featured. Interestingly, some have reported that they enjoyed the disc much more than they expected. I think there is still a stigma around unknown music generally, before adding in the extra ‘risk’ factor of music by women. I wish people were as excited about hearing music they didn’t know as we are about seeing a new movie!

The album launch was a particularly memorable event, held in the F-Wing, former women’s cellblock, at Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, for the Anywhere Festival. Vulcana Women’s Circus joined us for one piece, and the Saturday evening performance was preceded by a ghost tour! The acoustics were incredible, and overall it was such an evocative and memorable weekend. The performances had an added poignancy because Boggo Road is touted to soon be redeveloped into schmick bars and cafes in the former cellblocks, and so this performance experience will not be possible in the future.

Q: This CD was a crowdfunded project, so numerous individuals have a small stake in it. What are your thoughts about crowdfunding based on this experience – what are the upsides and the downsides of this popular method?

We were thrilled by the generous support offered by our fans, friends, family and colleagues. Honestly, we can’t thank everyone enough to have had the opportunity to make this recording, and we couldn’t have done it without FundRazr. We also enjoyed keeping our supporters updated during the process, giving them sneak previews of the photo shoot, and some of the recordings. We’ve had really lovely responses about how much it meant to have a personal and genuine connection between the artists and supporters.

Having said that, the fundraiser was a huge amount of work, it doesn’t just happen. I’ve heard that, due to the bombardment of information through social media, people now need 10 reminders to take action, whether that be to commit to buying a concert ticket, make a donation, or buy a CD. There’s a lot of noise to cut through, everyone is too busy, and these things can fall through the cracks despite the best of intentions. Despite the generous support, we have had to make a significant personal financial investment into the recording. As we all know, the recording industry has changed significantly in recent years, and it is more and more difficult to recoup costs from recording.

As any professional musician would know, there is a huge amount of (unpaid) administration, research, planning, thought, marketing, promotion, organising, grant writing etc that goes behind the scenes, and performers are rarely paid. There is little public awareness in the public why the arts need to be supported, that even a sold-out show may not cover all the costs involved. We feel so very fortunate to be great friends as well as colleagues, and there is a lovely dynamic between us. I hope the Muses Trio will continue for many years to come!