International Women's Day: In Conversation with the BAN BAM Awardees - Bianca Gannon
- Interviews / Q&As
IMC chats with BAN BAM Awardee Bianca Gannon
BAN BAM Commission & Development Award is a commissioning and career development opportunity for female and gender minority composers in jazz or improvised music, living on the island of Ireland (North and South) from Improvised Music Company (IMC) and Moving on Music (MOM). Through a detailed analysis process, the judges unanimously rated three outstanding composers particularly highly – Meilana Gillard, Bianca Gannon, and Carole Nelson – and chose them to be awarded the commission in the latest round.
Selected by Improvised Music Company as a 30/30 Artist - one of Ireland’s outstanding improvisers, Bianca Gannon has toured her solo improv act across Australia, USA, Canada and Ireland. Her debut improv album with // without with Impermanence trio garnered a four star review in the Sydney Morning Herald and was selected by Rhythms Magazine as “Best Instrumental Album 2020”. BAN BAM Awardee, King House Piano Commission Recipient, Pythia Prize Winner (Composition) and 2020 Artist in Residence with the City of Greater Dandenong, Bianca’s work has been presented internationally by leading ensembles including loadbang, Ensemble Offspring, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the Australian Art Orchestra, and the Irish National Concert Hall Gamelan with Elizabeth Hilliard.
The premiere of her work ‘Our House Is On Fire’ by Rubiks Collective was awarded the 2021 Percy Grainger Award with ClassikOn writing “ its relevance possesses a need for dissemination into the canon”. Bianca recently performed her Melbourne Symphony Orchestra commission ‘Utter Stutter Flutter’ for orchestra, video, electronics and West Javanese angklung, at the Myer Music Bowl. With an audience of 10,000, national newspaper, The Age, described it as “soul-stirring” and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as “mind-blowing…extraordinary…a really special work”.
Tell us about the type of music you create; what are the key qualities, themes, styles, influences?
I work as both a multidisciplinary art music composer and improviser. Creating immersive multisensory work, and exploring the surprising parallels and connections between seemingly disparate concepts lights me up. My compositions are often conceptual, full of symbolism and social commentary. While I love the power of a driving ostinato, my Indonesian field-research and collaborations inform my music in other less obvious ways too. My free improvisations and instant compositions traverse form and genre. The other-worldly extended harmonies and tunings of simultaneous piano + gamelan + singing bowls create an ethereal lyricism layered with pulsating difference tones. This resonant expansiveness is punctuated with ritualistic rhythms, jazz grooves and post-classical references.
What are some challenges you’ve had to overcome as an artist?
The patriarchy, the jazz scene being a boys club, advances from male tutors, verbal abuse masqueraded as “feedback” from tutors and fellow musicians, crippling self-doubt, imposter syndrome, playing catch-up since starting music later in life, financial insecurity, the unpaid labour of grant applications (50+ a year), wearing all the hats, ridiculous juggling acts, burnout. I’m relatively at peace with rejection emails (even the ones I get on my birthdays), although a few times I’ve found out I made the shortlist, but ultimately the panel selected exclusively male awardees. That’s disheartening and infuriating. I call it out when I can, but it’s not easy to speak out against the gatekeepers - e.g. for fear of being blacklisted for future opportunities.
Tell us about some things/people/initiatives that have set you up for success in your career?
It takes a village! Four special mentions are Dr Chloé Diskin-Holdaway, Damian Evans, Jane O’Leary, and Adam Simmons. Chloé, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, and my best friend of nearly thirty years was the person who has really modelled to me: ambition, pursuit of dreams and the power of having diverse interests.
Damian, still a friend and mentor today, was one of my fantastic ensemble tutors in Galway’s youth big band ‘Black Magic II’. Even as a clueless teen, Damian made sure I was welcomed into the Galway Jazz Festival/Club family, being exposed not only to world class music and receiving ad hoc lessons from the likes of Jamie Oehlers and Mike Nielsen, but also learning how it all works and feeling part of the scene.
Composer Jane O’Leary, in my opinion, is a national treasure. I was very fortunate to grow up around the corner from her and got to know her through volunteering for ‘Music for Galway’ concert series as a teen. She gave me my first composition lessons, but even more importantly - she modelled to me in a scene of almost exclusively dead white guy music, that women can be a formidable force in contemporary classical/art music composition.
In 2016 I was selected by New Music Network in Australia, where I was living, for 6 months of mentorship by Adam Simmons (saxophonist, multidisciplinary artist, Dingo Jazz Journal editor, former artistic director of Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues) on creating and project-managing multidisciplinary work. It’s now been 7 years and Adam still continues to generously mentor me offering me deep wisdom, support and a shrewd eye. There is a very good chance that I would not be pursuing a career in music if it weren’t for that initial mentorship with Adam where he went above and beyond the call of duty and demystified the industry for me.
Deep love also to equitable initiatives and those that tackle gender imbalance. Being awarded the Australian Pythia Prize and the BAN BAM commission award - both for Women and Gender Diverse composers, has been huge for me in creating a track record and in getting a seat at the table.
What projects do you have coming up this year?
The launch of my debut solo album improvising simultaneous piano, gamelan and singing bowls. You can get a taster of that at my upcoming performance in ‘Concerts at Noon’ at the Hugh Lane Gallery on April 23rd. I’m also working on several composition commissions including the King House Piano Commission Award. For that commission I’m responding to Lady Gregory’s account of the mythological creation of Loch Cé (Lough Key) which is local to the venue. The solo piano work will be premiered at King House on July 28th as part of Boyle Arts Festival.
Who are some of the Women in Music from the past and present who’ve made an impact on you, as well as one/s to watch who you expect will make their mark into the future?
Nadia Boulanger, composition teacher, pianist, first female conductor of the world’s great orchestras (1887-1979) has had a huge impact on western art music, helping to shape the music of her students Phillip Glass, Stravinsky, Piazzola, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones - all of whom I admire. I was very fortunate to study under Arlene Sierra and Judith Weir in my composition degree at Cardiff University - adore their music. Other living contemporary classical composers who have influenced me include Nicole Lizée (CAN) who incorporates electronic glitches and obscure lo-fi instruments into her audiovisual work and Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw (USA) for sheer beauty and refined craft. In improvised music, Jen Shyu (NYC) through her work and mentorship has had a huge impact on me. While her approach and path is very different to mine, she’s really inspired me to take on huge risks and adventures and to be myself in music. Her advocacy and support for women in improvised music through initiatives like We Have Voice and Mutual Mentorship is game-changing. I love the music of NYC-based Australian double bassist Linda May Han Oh and can’t wait to hear her perform on her Music Network tour across Ireland in June. Some young guns I love and admire include Australian clarinettist/performance maker Aviva Endean, Australian-based drummer Chloe Kim, Amsterdam-based Korean drummer Sun Mi Hong, and Australian composer Holly Harrison all of whom are making waves internationally.
I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in gamelan scenes in Bali - while male-dominated, Saraswati, the hindu goddess of music is revered, celebrated and worshipped…
Can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect in your BAN BAM commission?
The working title is “We’re all just walking each other home”. I’m planning to include it on my upcoming chamber music album ‘Níl Aon Tinteán Mar Do Thinteán Féin // No Place Like Home’ which features themes of home, displacement, climate change and fire.
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