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by Laura Chislett
Keyna Wilkins is a British/Australian composer-musician who was one of 3 finalists for the Australian Art Music Awards for Individual Excellence in 2018 and 2021 (APRA/AMCOS).
Laura Chislett met with Keyna in Sydney, Friday 29th October, 2022
Keyna and I met up for this interview in the multi-cultural suburb of Ashfield in Sydney about one month after I had returned from my European sojourn. Ashfield was developed in the late Victorian period and is now transformed into a vibrant shopping and dining hub with Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and European food options. We enjoyed coffee while recording this very relaxed and spontaneous interview. I was Keyna’s flute teacher when she was a super-fast-learning eight year old (no surprises there).
Laura Chislett: Hi Keyna, your career path is unusual. Could you give us a summary of your career so far:
Keyna Wilkins: I started out with classical flute and piano training, and I also studied composition in my undergraduate degree, and through that experience I realised that I enjoyed performing my own pieces, so that’s where my passion for composition came from. I studied at the Sydney Conservatorium, Bristol University, Bath University and I did a year in Germany as well, and so I’ve had experience of a wide range of institutions.
After I graduated, I naively thought that I’d just move to London and be a session musician, “how hard can that be” (Ed. laughs). It turns out it was really difficult, with no connections and no money, turns out…, impossible, so within about a year I realised that wasn’t going to work. Then I responded to an ad for a teaching job in Somerset. They wanted a full-time flute teacher with a teaching qualification as well, so I was doing classroom music teaching for 3 years.
The thing about teaching is that there’s a big market for teaching whether at an institution or privately: it’s been very stable income for me. But I didn’t have time for my composing and performing: there were 14 classes per week, plus preparation and marking. I lasted 3 years in that, and then after that I decided to fully commit to developing my performing and composing and to really trying to figure out what I’m about as a composer.
I’d seen lots of different ways of looking at music and life and I came to the conclusion that music is really about personal taste, that there’s no right or wrong, it’s about what you like. You can ask 100 people the same question and they’ll each have a slightly different opinion. In the end I came to the conclusion that I just want to be writing and performing music that I love.
That’s what makes me happy, and hopefully other people will like it too. And the funny thing is, when I started moving more into that kind of inspiration, I found that people loved it much more. I feel that people can smell when you aren’t being genuine. They know when you’re being fake.
I feel that as a musician the worst thing you can do is to chase the money. My journey was kind of like “OK let’s forget about the money and let’s go for just what I want to do, what I want to achieve, the sound that I like”, so then I started developing my solo compositions on flute and piano and I sent some of them off to Wirripang (an Australian publishing house).
Then they asked me to write a book of solo piano compositions which I did and then I recorded them as well. I set up my own ensemble to perform my pieces. I asked two of my favourite musicians to join me – Will Gilbert on trumpet and Elsen Price on double bass.
Composition and ‘Ephemera’
During this time I was also studying and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music doing a master’s in music composition with Anne Boyd.
She was trying to help me define what it is that’s special to Keyna, the thing that is unique to me, that I can claim is mine. It took two years to get there. Eventually I realised that it was the combination of music and astronomy, and that was great timing as NASA had just released some mp3s of space sounds on Soundcloud. They’re very beautiful sounds: some of them are almost like whale noises.
I googled it and no one else seemed to have done it. And writing music about space made me happy. It was almost like a philosophical thing, a philosophical journey that I was going on. I did my whole master’s portfolio on music that was inspired by astronomy, and then I set my ensemble up based on that. We are called Ephemera Ensemble. We’ve done about 50 or 60 gigs now over the last five years. It’s pretty niche but no one else is doing it and we do have a loyal following. I don’t care if it’s 100 or 1000 or 1, I don’t really care.
We’ve released two albums of my compositions and ensemble improvisations. I loved it so much that I started developing my solo show because, as we all know, when you’re working with busy musicians scheduling can be difficult. I realised that I’d have to do a solo version. Now I have a solo version of all the pieces, solo piano, and solo flute. To make the solo flute a bit more interesting I use a loop pedal, and I use projections if the venue can handle it.
Getting known as a composer
I find that people have such low attention spans now. If you don’t have a video for them to view they are less likely to listen to it, and less likely to perform it. I started reaching out to different ensembles and saying, “here’s some of my stuff and I could arrange it for your ensemble”, you know, push push push, and then eventually it started coming back.
I found that over time, a lot of my best opportunities have come through cold emailing. For example, right now I’m working on a triple flute concerto for the Metropolitan Orchestra, and that all started three years ago when I cold emailed them. But yeah, I’ve never actually won any of those grants or anything like that, well, I did when I was in the top three finalists for the Australian Art Music Awards which was really fantastic (Ed. for Musical Excellence in 2018 and 2021).
LC: What do you see as the societal role of creative and independent musicians at the moment?
KW: That’s a really tough question and I believe it’s one that I’m still figuring out to be honest. We have portfolio careers using a range of skills and ways of making money, such as a bit of teaching, running workshops, doing session gigs, and maybe writing some music as well. Some people work three days a week doing music administration for an organisation and the rest of the time they play in an orchestra. If you want to do music, you really have to figure out how to make money.
For me that’s teaching. I have 35 flute and piano students. I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I’ve dealt with everything. I do exams, I do just-for-fun, I do jazz, I do classical. I can deal with any scenario. I can figure out what makes kids tick and I’ll hone in on that.
Finding a niche
Then you just have to figure out what the thing is that’s your niche. For me, what I really love doing is composing. I’m always seeking more opportunities to compose and right now I am Composer in Residence for the Metropolitan Orchestra. I’ve written three compositions for them: a digeridoo concerto two years ago, a clarinet nonet this year and now I’m also working on the triple flute concerto. I find it really exciting, and it nurtures that part of me which wants something really kind of challenging to devote myself to.
I also do a lot of performing in different kinds of ensembles, like flamenco, tango, folk, and jazz ensembles, and I’ve kind of developed a bit of a sound on my flute where I do free improvisation and I don’t think many people in Sydney are doing it right now. Then of course I have sheet music sales: I’ve had 50 compositions published by Wirripang. But you’ve got to keep pushing: record an album, have a big album launch, push push push.
Try and get in the media, try and get in the arts magazines, try and get in the journals, push push push. But I find that if you do that, you will get sales. So that’s obviously the thing that I’m trying for, to get passive income.
LC: Effectively you are running a small business as well. Have you done any formal training in that area?
KW: I don’t have any formal credentials in business management however I’ve learned a lot over the years, mostly about how social media works. Deep down I hate it, but it’s the way things are: everyone’s on social media and it’s completely free. In half a second you can communicate with flautists in Germany or America.
My stuff is quite niche you know, but if you reach the right people there’s potentially a big market. Basically, I’m looking for concert flautists and high-level students. That’s my market. I keep trying to get my sales out there. But I also want to increase my album sales as well. All my stuff is on Spotify and iTunes. I get some income from royalties and sheet music sales.
LC: Let’s change course a little bit here. Could give us an overview about how you’ve gone about developing your free improvisation skills on flute:
KW: I always found that my heart was never completely in classical playing even though I enjoyed it, I realised that I was never going to practise heaps and heaps. I get bored quite easily and it just wasn’t really my thing. So I started thinking what is the real passion here, and then I saw a concert by a Tibetan Buddhist bamboo flutist called Tenzin Choegyal and he just closed his eyes and did an entirely improvised concert and I thought “yeah that’s what I want to do”.
I had lessons from him and I feel like it changed my life because he said not to worry about the note, it’s all about the intention and the mental space that you’re in. For him improvisation was like a vehicle for meditation because it’s all about breath control.
He said to start off with one long note – it’s funny this is 20 years ago but I still have this concept in my head, it’s really powerful – he said you start off with one note and you have to get in the zone mentally, then you add one more note, and then you might do a little play around those two notes and then you add a third note and you might do a little play around those, and then a fourth note comes up, and then a fifth note and then eventually it takes off and flies.
That is like so many of my compositions: they are exactly that concept on a bigger scale, so basically what I got from that is that really, if your intention is true to your vision, if you have a clear sound that you’re trying to create, whatever comes out is going to be perfect. This is what I do in my improvisation. I’ve done 3 hour, entirely improvised gigs. It’s been tiring but it’s worth it because I find that the more you lose the fear and the inhibition the more exciting it can get.
What I’ve found in my flamenco and jazz flute experience is that a gritty sound is often what can make the sound more human and more real and so I actually really go into that gritty sound, trying to explore it. I find that closing my eyes really helps because then I don’t have any distractions. I just want to focus on the sound in that moment.
You know musicians now need to have a whole range of skills in music: as well as being excellent technicians they should also have some experience in improvisation, certainly not be scared of it, and also they have to know how to market themselves and to keep doing the cold emailing.
LC: Keyna, I’d like to talk about a post of yours that I saw on social media regarding your work with a refugee from Iran. Could you tell us about that please?
KW: For a long time I’ve been a bit of a grassroots refugee supporter. During COVID last year I was looking for a text to write an opera from, and that’s how the project started. I was looking for interesting words for the libretto and I came across a refugee who’d been in detention for nine years, including six years on Nauru, which is basically a concentration camp. The UN is incredibly scathing about the conditions that Australia keeps these refugees in.
His name is Jalal Mahamede. Nauru is a very small island, it’s very hot and the refugees were in tents. There was no opportunity to work apart from basically slave labour on building sites, for six years. This is a man who was working for a bank in Iran. He’s educated and all that, not that that makes a difference. He writes very beautiful poetry and draws beautiful pictures. I got chatting to him and he said that I could use some of his work for my opera.
As I got to know him and as COVID developed I realised that there’s no way that I could get an opera performed during COVID. Then I noticed that his voice had a very natural musical lilt to it, so I decided to record him speaking his poetry and I put music to it. At this point he was in the Brisbane Detention Centre. He’d been there for two years: they call it the Immigration Transit Accommodation but he was literally in there with prisoners who have committed serious crimes.
There was a study done by an Australian human rights organisation and it found that no one should be held in those conditions for more than two weeks because there’s hardly any greenery, they are kept in very small rooms shared with three other men, they have zero privacy apart from the toilet, and he was there for two years.
No-one was allowed to visit during COVID but even if it there was no COVID. If someone wanted to visit, you had to hand in your passport, you had to be searched, and you had to fill in a request two weeks in advance and they could reject it at any point. He was in a very vulnerable situation, especially being a refugee from Iran, an Ahwazi Arab, which is one of the persecuted minorities. If you are from one of these minority groups there’s no way you’ll ever get accepted back into Iran.
He realises that he chose the wrong country because there are other refugees who left around the same time and they got to Germany and now they are married and have kids and have a good life. Jalal was incredibly depressed: that comes out in the poetry and in the images.
Because it was COVID I got to know him a bit and I recorded his spoken poetry via Zoom from his prison cell. I did it all on Zoom. The guards were passing every now and then and he had to stop because they don’t like knowing that they’re doing anything like this. We recorded 12 poems. Originally it was going to be just my music but then COVID kept going on and I decided to try to make it a bigger project, to get lots of people involved so that no-one can ignore it.
So got 19 of my musician friends including my own kids (they were the only non-professional musicians) to improvise some music to go with the poetry and it went really well. We had a massive album launch and Dr Graham Tom from Amnesty International spoke: we got in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on ABC Radio, and two weeks later Jalal was released. That was an incredibly rewarding time and since then I’ve worked with five other refugees in detention.
I’m planning to work with another poet from Iran, Mohammad Maleki: he’s had heaps of poetry published over the last six years. He was also held on Manus Island in detention for nine years in conditions that most of us couldn’t handle. There are a lot of suicides. A lot. Or they just lose their minds, you know they develop all kinds of mental health conditions that make it very hard for them to ever reintegrate into any society let alone Australian society. I would like to use some of his poetry for an opera.
My other plan is to get to America and to Europe doing my solo show at a conference. I’d love to get some composing opportunities in those countries as well. America and Spain seem to be the two countries where I’ve had heaps of performances, and some musicians have recorded my stuff on their CDs. I’d love to get there sometime, but I’ve also got 8 year old twins… (Ed. laughter all round!)
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Keyna Wilkins is a British/Australian composer-musician who was one of 3 finalists for the Australian Art Music Awards for Individual Excellence in 2018 and 2021 (APRA/AMCOS).
Keyna’s music is characterised by a passion for human rights, astronomy, Indigenous culture, jazz, intuitive improvisation and existential quests. As an innovative soloist and leader of cutting edge ensembles, she has been heralded by UK’s Jazz Journal as a “powerhouse player“, and “fine and nuanced playing“ by Limelight Magazine and is described by Australian Jazz as being “unconstrained by labels and is constantly exploring new ways to express herself musically“.
Her compositions have been described as by The Sydney Morning Herald as “arresting, genre-blurring, disquieting music with massive breadth and high drama“. She has released 9 albums of original music on all streaming platforms including 4 solo albums. Her latest album in 2021, “Set Me Free”, a collaboration with a 9 year innocent detained refugee poet-artist, Jalal Mahamede, has been described by New York DooBeeDoo arts magazine as “Beautiful and sobering…and important story to tell“.
Australian flute player Laura Chislett has established herself on the international stage as a performer, educator and recording artist across a wide range of musical styles. Her recordings, on ten different labels and multiple streaming platforms, range from Bach and Boulanger, to Ferneyhough and Dench.
It’s perhaps in the extraordinary solo flute repertoire of the 20th Century onwards that Laura has especially made her mark, forging her way through daring sonic journeys and seeking to extend the expressive capabilities of the flute. She has long been a champion of Australian music, and music by female composers.
Laura has become known for her inspiring and rigorous performances, described as the “Rolls Royce versions” by the legendary composer Horatiu Radulescu.