With first time nominees Immix Ensemble surprised by their nomination, Getintothis’ Paul Higham talks to Dan Thorne about multi-disciplinary collaboration, the city of Liverpool and open-minded endeavour.
Too often we find ourselves confronted by over-inflated egos, particularly at the merest hint of artistic recognition. Yet for Dan there was clearly a huge element of surprise at Immix being considered for the award let alone making the nominee shortlist. “It’s incredibly flattering really. The people who have been nominated for the GIT Award this year and in past years are of a consistently high category and Immix is still relatively new to the scene.
“The kind of work we do is a little bit different so just to be on the radar is really quite humbling.”
Immix are not your average artist as Dan himself is only too keen point out to the extent where he seems to question the ensemble’s eligibility for the award itself, “we’re not a band, it’s not my band”. Dan is keen to assert that he doesn’t view Immix as a “a creator of music in its own right” rather he sees the band as focal point, and to encourage collaboration between contrasting artists.
From that point of view Immix can be seen more of, as Dan himself terms it, a “music facilitator”, an ensemble that looks to build bridges between creative communities and start conversations that might not be happening naturally.
Indeed this seems to be the goal of Immix, its higher calling. A noble intent to create an artistic community that pays little heed to conventions of genres and the often self-imposed restrictions of specific art forms. Indeed Dan looks beyond categorisations which seem to foster division and hinder community-building collaborations. “Personally for me my philosophy around music is there’s good music and there’s band music I’m not fussed about genre.”
It seems that Liverpool has helped shape Immix and its direction. Hailing originally from Perth in Western Australia, Dan is candid about his initial intentions, seeing Liverpool as a stepping stone, a refuelling point before the bright lights of London came calling. “When I first moved to the UK my plans were to do six months in Liverpool to find my feet and then go down to London.”
Yet Dan resisted the lure and Immix is now an integral part of Liverpool’s musical community. It is clear that regrets are few. “If I’d gone down to London, I think the nature of the work I would have been doing from the get-go by virtue of it being a different and bigger city and whatnot might have meant that I may not have had the time to go and explore and you know mould the ideas around a little bit.”
So what is it about Liverpool that has helped mould Immix?
In many ways it is the open-mindedness of its musical community, a willingness to embrace new perspectives and to challenge perceptions that resonates through composers, performers and audiences alike. Yet Dan confesses an initial surprise, perhaps unaware of the city’s capacity for art and culture, particularly the outré and the avant-garde.
Citing the duality of his classical background and love of jazz with an enthusiasm for experimental music he was nonetheless “kind of surprised that in a city like Liverpool you had groups like Ex-Easter Island Head who were making really interesting and unique music.
“And then you had these incredible musicians playing at the Phil and involved in other classical ensemble material, so equally interested in interesting music and there wasn’t a lot of conversation going.
“Really the idea of Immix was just to bridge that gap a little bit.”
Along with a ready-supply of musical talent Dan is equally keen to suggest that there is something inherent in Liverpool that has laid the foundations on which Immix has been built.
He feels that Liverpool as a city to an extent shares his own musical perspectives, “Liverpool on the whole as a city and the way it consumes music is very similar.
“It’s certainly been my experience that the audiences seem quite open-minded in this city and that’s a great opportunity to have people who are going to listen to James Canty on one night and then to Ensemble Ten Ten on another night.”
Place seems to play a strong role in the development of Immix with Dan displaying an overt sense of pride in his adopted city sufficient to rival any native Liverpudlian, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being proud of what your city’s doing, particularly when there’s good stuff going on.”
There is a feeling that the city has offered a fertile soil for Immix, yet this extends beyond the open-mindedness and the pool of musical talent. There is something about the size of the city that has helped shape the ensemble. “I think for the most part because it’s a slightly smaller place there aren’t so many walls up between audiences and art forms and scenes within those art forms and things like that.
“I have friends who live and work in other places and they talk about their scenes and they’re so cliquey and even though they’re making great music and working with great people they’re sort of existing in little bubbles.
“I think Liverpool is special because it doesn’t suffer from that to the same degree as other cities”
Settling into conversation on a sunny Tuesday morning immediately after Threshold Festival, our thoughts turned almost inevitably to the prior weekend’s coming together of Liverpool’s artistic and creative communities. With the event feeling less like a festival and more a joyful celebration of the vibrancy of the city’s artistic communities, it is clear why Dan sees this collaborative, multi-disciplinary event as further confirmation that Immix truly feel at home beside the Mersey. “Threshold is a really good example I think.
“There’s just so much stuff going on about it, it’s more of celebration of the various creative personalities that people adopt in the city. I love the fact that you’ll have someone who is exhibiting visual arts and then is singing songs.
“I can’t think of too many events that do that. As a proper celebration of creativity I think it’s really special.
“I mean do you think that a festival like Threshold would exist outside Liverpool?”
Yet this is not to concede to complacency and the nature of what Immix are setting out to achieve is not without its challenges. Of particular challenge is persuading people to branch out from their accustomed norms and break free from the cultural shackles imposed largely by their own habits. “I think a lot of the time what stops people going to things quite often is just that bit of fear of the unknown.
“Whether that’s someone who listens to rock music not wanting to go to a classical concert or whether that’s someone who listens to classical music not wanting to go and see something in the theatre or dancers not wanting to go…you know, that sort of thing.
“People get kind of comfy and have their comfort zones I mean rather than try and shock people out of them or anything like that just go ‘this is cool, this is alright’, yeah kind of make something that’s open to people that are interested.”
This broadening of minds and breaking down often self-imposed barriers seems to be one of Immix’s primary objectives. Yet there seems more some institutions can do to appear more welcoming and inclusive. “I think that each different style of music does have its own institutions and to outsiders they can seem a little bit intimidating.
“I guess then the goal for Immix is to bypass all of that and say this is good music these are great players, come in and listen to it.
“It’s not going to cost an arm and a leg, it’s not going to be a sit down concert environment but equally it’s not going to be an ultra-hip sort of thing that might be intimidating to another audience.
“Just finding the ears for good music.”
Price and accessibility remain watchwords for Immix, feeling integral to all that they do. There is little point building bridges and forging links between contrasting art forms if the toll to cross is too high. That so the ensemble looks to limit, wherever possible, the ticket prices to £5, ensuring as many people as possible have the opportunity and the means to access culture.
When talking about the soon-to-be-announced season, conversation quickly turned to funding and the financial implications of making music in the way that Immix do. It is clear that there is a strong ethical outlook, ensuring that participants are fairly remunerated for their work, “whether that’s the people performing or the person designing the poster”, as well as ensuring that the art is accessible.
Yet music of this nature does not pay for itself and Immix remain grateful for the support of the funders, namely the Arts Council and PRS who have largely made the project possible, “on the one hand we want to make sure that everyone gets paid properly, from the people performing the music, the people writing the music.
“On the other hand we want to make sure that as many people can come to these gigs and there’s not a big financial barrier so from that perspective funding is absolutely crucial to what we do.”
Yet despite the financial pressures, Immix are looking ahead to further collaborative projects, ever-willing to embrace the challenges and to benefit from the exposure to new perspectives that each one brings.
It is this sense of collaboration that makes Immix such a genuinely innovative and exciting ensemble. You don’t know where they are headed next.
Unsurprisingly Dan is reluctant to give away too many clues to what their next season might hold, other than of course it will involve additional collaborations. When pressed as to whether it would mark a departure from the ensemble’s earlier work he remained coy, “It’s hard to say radical departure because every show we do is fairly different from what we’ve done before.
“But in a sense that everything is still going to be collaboration focused it’s a continuation of what we do but also a departure.”
Following on from our meeting has come the initial exciting announcement of Immix‘s forthcoming season. On June 8, Liverpool’s Bluecoat will play host to the world-premiere of a feature length work composed by Norwich-based electronic musician Luke Abbott and Immix founder Daniel Thorne himself. The work will explore themes of texture, density, time and space, and will see the ensemble’s instrumentation augmented by Abbott’s live electronic processing of the acoustic sounds.
Collaboration undoubtedly presents its challenges, although provided the participants display a willingness to collaborate then such challenges are easily faced down.
What has helped is the nature of the ensemble, far from the rarefied and often snooty reputation of the classical world, Immix have fostered a constructive working environment rather than “this sort of raised eye-brows over the top of the music stand and things like that which some people unfortunately experience”.
It is clear that collaborations are entered into equally even if “we’re working with someone who flat out hasn’t worked with those kind of instruments or notated music or anything like that before. I sometimes help in finding a way to craft things or we’ve done some things in the past where we’ve had a classical songwriter and a composer out there and they can try and work together to navigate it.”
Challenges do arise when one party is unfamiliar with notated music but the solution is often one of mindset and a willingness to embrace new ideas and new ways of workings for both classically trained members of the ensemble and the collaborator. “The notation thing is just language, it’s a means of communication that’s all it is and that’s why having open-minded musicians in the ensemble is so important and so critical to why its been working so far.
“That’s all it comes down to, different ways of explaining a concept and communicating an idea and if you’ve got a few different fail-safes to make sure you don’t have these total breakdowns in communication then it tends to run fairly smoothly.”
A big part of the collaborative process is the cross-disciplinary aspect of it the fusion of not just different strands of music but also other art-forms. Of particular excitement is fusion between electronic music and visual art, with the work alongside Vessel and Sam Wiehl springing to mind most immediately. It is clear that the introduction of other aspects of the creative arts acts as a catalyst, bringing new ideas to the table and elevating the end product to a higher plane.
Speaking of Transition with Vessel, Dan was able to offer a fascinating insight into the creative process. “Sam instructed his own parallel narrative, for want of better word, to what Vessel and myself were doing and the complementary nature of it was such I think it worked better if he was trying to follow exactly what we were doing visually.”
To further illustrate the point that the final piece is enhanced by the participants operating independently Dan pointed towards the Forest Swords’ Shrine piece at the Black-E, “what I like about projects like that is that because they’re focused around the concept rather than here is my music and someone has put a dance to it or here is my visual art and someone has written some music to it.
“Both things are focused on this other point, whether that is something conceptual or the physical limitations of a space. That’s when I tend to see things that excite me creatively because you’ve got multiple creative people focusing on this one thing and you get different perspectives.
“You get a lot out of it as an audience member.”
Cross-overs such as this are not limited to electronic music and visual arts. One of the stand-out collaborations of Immix’s 2016 season was between composer Paul McGee and the playwright Jeff Young and it is when talking about this that you truly get a sense of what Dan means when he speaks of being a facilitator. “But again the thing I really love about that was you had two people who didn’t really know each other, get them in a room, start seeing some ideas, start seeing the spark.
“I mean I was a fly on the wall for most of it just watching them put together their thoughts and arranging it as an idea and then bringing in some great players and perform it. Yeah it just worked really, really well. It’s nice seeing things where you sort of, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff and Paul worked together again on something.”
Cross-disciplinary projects seem to spark a passion in Dan that leaves you in no doubt that his work extends beyond music. It is driven by a sheer love of art and creativity, often for its own sake if only to be able to bask in its beauty or to broaden your mind.
In the creation of memorable moments it also speaks of a desire to bring people together. In an increasingly isolationist and protectionist world where fear and scare-mongering are once again common currency Immix really does feel like a progressive force. A force for good in a society intent on turning in on itself closing its eyes and ears to its neighbours.
It seems appropriate to leave the final word to Dan and his message of open-minded co-operative endeavour speaks of enlightenment beneath our ever-darkening skies.
“We’re all fighting the same fight.
“It’s such an important time for the arts and culture I think that we should be working together, we should be trying to share audiences, and not siphon them off for ourselves. I think it’s important for everyone that audiences move around and try different things.
“I like performing to thoughtful audiences, most people do. I think it is really, really important and I think there’s a lot to be gained from having reciprocal relationships with other art forms not just in terms of audience but in terms of creative people who are always interested in how other creative people work.
“There are certain things that are peculiar to each art form and certain ways of doing things that when you first kind of encounter them they can be or seem a little unusual but there’s always something positive that comes out of those sorts of conversations.”
The GIT Award 2017 takes place at Constellations on May 13. Tickets are available here.
Immix Ensemble and Luke Abbott play live at Bluecoat, Thursday June 8 at 7.30pm, £5.