Jonathan Little’s historically-informed music has been acclaimed for its “mystical beauty, intensity and richness of material.” His multi-faceted style has been described as “Archaic Futurism”, “Ecstatic Minimalism”, and “Picturesque Archaism”. His music is published in Australia by Wirripang and can be heard on his highly acclaimed albums Terpsichore and the Navona release POLYHYMNIA. Today, Little is our next featured artist in The Inside Story, a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and artists. Read on to see what he’d do if he could do anything in the world!
When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist/composer/creator?
This sense of focussing on the creative and nurturing is probably there from birth, quite possibly in most of us. What shape it takes must then gradually emerge. I could quite happily have been a painter, or an architect – which I did, for some time, consider. I think being a composer developed from realizing that, for me, being a musical performer was not quite enough. And, of course, being a composer is simply being an architect in sound – dealing with more ethereal and seemingly insubstantial building blocks; and yet, in time, these insubstantial elements may, ironically, even outlast anything made of stone, as long as future generations remain able to decode the mystical symbols we make on our manuscript paper: “Ars longa, vita brevis”!
If you could do any job in the world and make a living at it, what would that be?
Well, if the impossible existed, and it was possible to make a living from designing and decorating beautiful houses and gardens, and filling them with music – everything so that we might be surrounded with earthly and spiritual “richness” – then I’d apply for that job! And I dare say that people’s lives might be more pleasant and rewarding if we all lived in better natural and aesthetic environments. I am afraid I believe in the speculations of “arts for art’s sake” – in a parallel way that we encourage the extraordinary conjectures of our theoretical physicists – in that the seemingly most outlandish concept may take us to the heart of some new understanding, born of the virtue of its initial imaginative detachment. Let us have complete freedom in creativity: and Time alone – the most reliable of all our critics – can determine what is truly worthy to last!
If you could spend creative time anywhere in the world, where would it be? And why?
I have in my head a sort of ideal artist’s retreat (that doesn’t in fact exist)! It would be, perhaps, a sort of Renaissance palace, crossed with an ancient (even slightly ruinous) cloistered monastery – complete with landscape gardens – for creative contemplation(!) – and also crossed with the feel of a pleasant seaside fishing village, where a (not-too-hot) sun often shines: the embodiment of the picturesque! And it would be the main automobile and noise-free zone. In fact, any sort of machine would only be permitted if it were quiet. Then, we might be able to hear and attune ourselves better to the sounds of nature once more, which I think essential for true inspiration – that is, to have time and space to be able to listen to, and sense, what you might call, the underlying harmonies and rhythms of the universe. Can you find me such a place?
What would you say to an artist performing your work that nobody else knows?
Can we focus on beauty of sound, please, and also passion!! We all want technical perfection, as far as possible, but the music must not in any way be thought cold, or sterile. (Yes, music can, of course, at times sound discordant, in certain particular contexts – but it must never come across as aurally “ugly”.) My test for a fine piece of music is to determine if it, almost unconsciously, makes us want to open our inner ears, and not close them. Imagine if we had earlids – just as we have eyelids; if we did, beautiful music should make us want to open our earlids, wide!
Was there a piece on your album that you found more difficult to compose/perform than the others?
“Wasted and Worn” was the most challenging, for the simple reason that it was the first substantial new choral work of the entire project, which I commenced in mid-2015, after receiving an inaugural Australia Council “Individual International Arts Project Award”. This beginning phase is the time when the creator feels most uncertain: at the same time you can be quite excited, but also a little terrified, and often unconfident. I think this is the case irrespective of the stage in the artist’s career, or what he or she may have achieved beforehand: the blank canvas, the empty manuscript, the beginning of something quite possibly very ambitious, the brand new – when all possibilities lie open (including the possibility of failure) – this is the time of greatest creative confusion and uncertainty. “Wasted and Worn” took a lot longer than intended, as it very gradually built up, and I checked and rechecked it, not only considering how each individual part was evolving, but also how the balance of elements across the whole work was taking shape. Generally speaking, it is not until I have written about a third of a brand new piece that I know whether it will work or not, and can only then begin to feel any confidence. (This is one of my golden “rules of three”!) Added to that, if there are sponsors involved, you don’t want to let anyone down! You may also hear in “Wasted and Worn” how it passes through the most mood and “colour” changes of all of the works in this collection.
Is there a specific feeling you want listeners to tune into when hearing your work?
I worry that we sometimes become so focused on technical accuracy that we lose the thing that is of fundamental importance: communicating the passion and the emotional heart of what it is that the creator feels must be said. And this includes retaining a focus on the more “overall” aspects of musical composition – beauty of line, of constantly building intensity in a certain direction, and of gorgeousness of sound – all, in fact, adding up to the ability to transport the listener to that “other plane”, totally free of the distractions of everyday living, so that we can ultimately focus on, and be reminded of, the deeper things that matter in our lives: the things that go on, and will live on, even after us. The fact that art can communicate through time and space, and speak to others across different generations, is a huge mystery – so while, of course, we seek technical accuracy to the highest degree, unless we also are able to evoke the “emotional centre” of a work, then we are not really fully communicating. Technical accuracy and purity are great, and all the performers did a fantastic job here – with, at times, some very demanding passages; but in rehearsals, I could sometimes be heard requesting that we not forget the passion. I trust we have the balance right in these fine recordings!