John Rodgers in conversation with Linda Neil
From Issue 5 of extempore (get your copy here)
To those who have witnessed John Rodger’s kinetic and intelligent performances in any of the musical genres in which he works, it will come as no surprise that a conversation with him would be equally mercurial, challenging and full of ideas.
Over the years I have observed John in many different arenas and guises: some may have seen him as a barefoot concert master; wrestle with the violin during a memorable performance of the Brahms’ violin concerto; play his Spanish guitar at a local café; devise music for trumpeter Scott Tinkler in Neil Armfield’s Broadway-bound production of Exit the King; and busk with his son Viv on a sunny Saturday morning at the West End markets. Others would have seen him in the rock band Madam Bones Brothel; performing in the Australia Art Orchestra with, among others, the Indian instrumental virtuoso Karaikudi R Mani; singing in four-part harmony with his colleagues in the gospel band Towards Heaven; composing complex and genre-bending flamenco music with his longstanding vocal partner Pearl Black for the upcoming album release, The Uncaring Wind; or challenging the conceptual boundaries of improvised music in his musical partnerships with Ken Edie, Anthony Burr, Erkki Veltheim and Jonathon Dimond…
An excerpt from the interview…
Linda: You were born and raised in North Queensland. Do you think the place where you were born and raised affects your approach to music?
John: In North Queensland, the physical nature of existence is relentless, in your face, and beautiful. It doesn’t make sense to build big cities or complicated constructions there, so everything is structurally more open and adaptable to sudden shifts in temperature and climatic conditions.
I don’t think it affects my music in any particular way, but it affects what I feel is home and what I am most comfortable with—in terms of recognising diversity and naturalness as fundamentals of existence. As a result of the environment’s changeability, you are beginning the idea of improvisation without realising it. Because nothing is ever the same, you have to live an improvised life, adjusting and shifting all the time in your response to what’s going on in the environment. And then there’s the whole outdoor life that you love when you are a child—smells and textures and things that break open. There isn’t the separation between your body and the natural world the way I imagine there would be, for instance, in the cities. As a consequence, you get to know your body—and what it’s capable of—well.
Linda: Would you say this intense bodily engagement with your environment has
affected the almost visceral physicality of your subsequent approach to music
and musical performance?
John: Because the landscape is so fecund and fertile all the time, you realise fairly quickly you can never actually fight the environment. I remember doing homework in Ayr and the table was completely covered in insects. The environment is so overwhelming that to live a vaguely normal European or Anglo Saxon life you have to fight it a bit. You’d have to put netting or gauze over you or you wouldn’t be able to work. But then you’d have to find a way to allow the environment its own space as well. You lose the idea that you can dominate.
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Linda Neil is a writer, musician and radio producer. Her documentaries have won awards at the New York Radio Festivals and have also been short-listed for the United Nations Media Peace Prize. In 2009, Linda was the ABC National Radiophonic artist-in-residence and also released her first book, Learning How to Breathe (UQP) which she is now adapting—with music—for the stage. She is currently working as a freelance producer at ABC Radio National and researching her next book, My Year of Singing Love Songs.