15 July 2020
by Hugh Heller
Callum Mintzis on choosing not to play on his own album, balancing thoughts and feelings, and the power of sound to capture experience.
Twenty-year-old musician Callum Mintzis has a burgeoning reputation as one of Melbourne’s most innovative young composers. Callum and several of his jazz-influenced contemporaries, hailing from Melbourne’s north, form a ‘new wave’ which is about to break on the Melbourne art-music scene. His music is informed by a deep contemplation of his own experience, and is intimately connected with his personal reflections on consciousness and sound. Recently, Hugh got the opportunity to sit down with Callum and get an insight into the creative process for That Place, Our Place, and find out what informs the mind of a young composer in today’s world.
Composer and trombonist Callum Mintzis. Photo: Ceridwen McCooey
What’s been going through your mind recently?
There's personal things and there's greater worldly things. If I had to sum it up, I have been thinking about relating everything back to the idea of balance. I feel like it's a key that I came across at the start of the year through some interesting experiences, and I feel like it's become an antidote to anything else that gives me problems at the moment. I feel like that relates to music as well. Having so much time to think and also just to "be", has been overwhelming and rewarding at the same time. It's how you balance the time. It's a weird thing.
How has that idea of balance manifested in your life and also with regards to your latest album, That Place, Our Place?
I think the most relevant idea of balance for me is revolving around feelings and thought. The intellect is just one part of consciousness and it is generally accepted in society as the most important part of consciousness. I think this is an interesting mark on society itself… and it can become out of balance. If you think about thought everyday then you have nothing to think about but thoughts and you kind of lose touch with reality.
I think I've potentially been straddling the extremes of the intellect versus feeling over the last few years. I also feel hesitant to talk about these things as a twenty-year-old… it’s hard to feel like you've earned any proper idea of the sense of these words because you haven't really seen the greater depths of life. So there are problems in talking about these things. And trying to put a concept like balance into words is another point of control, because once you start to intellectualise the idea of balance you then have something to aim for, which is balancing, and then you start to try to control things more. You can end up overcomplicating things in life and over-intellectualising when sometimes what you need is a little grain of intuition to help you out. Sometimes you want to leave things unsaid.
I've been trying not to let my thoughts reach a fully concise point, which I think I previously strived for. I'm enjoying letting thoughts bobble around and not getting attached to them. As soon as you get attached to thoughts, you start identifying with them and then you can wind up in all sorts of trouble. Just like getting attached to anything, I guess. A big part of creating the music for the album was trying to balance the thinking, intellectual mind with the feeling self. Too much of either when writing the music led to results I didn’t really enjoy.
As soon as you start getting specific into all these little details, then you have more opportunity to control things, and we don't want to be controlling things, we want to surrender to them... but we don't want to surrender too much because then you get washed away by a storm of things. The predicament is talking about these things in such airy ways and trying to be concise about them… but to be too concise is to be too controlling. It's an interesting game.
"I thought ‘I am receiving this music, I'm not really the one creating it'."
Callum Mintzis on composition. Photo: Jared Becker
Do you think there’s an inherent contradiction in trying to enforce balance by controlling your language, action, or thoughts?
Such is the way of Zen - to know there is no man or woman behind the mask. The agent behind whatever is happening is exactly the same thing as what is happening. To try and control that can lead you into all sorts of trouble, but you do have to push the stream somewhere. You can’t be passive. You can't just do nothing because then you're doing something! The point is to minimise the anxiety that you can be having about things but to not completely neglect thought. Then again, these are instructional, and it shouldn't be instructional because then you have expectation, and as soon as you have expectation you can get anxiety. I agree with you, [balance] just happens by itself. It’s a liberating idea, because you begin to feel less attached to things you do, the ideas you have. It doesn’t mean you’re just a free agent and there’s no such thing as ethics, because that would be ridiculous, yet it means you have more freedom than you previously bargained for. It's beautiful, I think. There’s magic and freedom and beauty, and then there's measurement and science, and neither is better than the other - that wouldn't be balanced either. They've all got their merits.
How do you translate these thoughts and feelings into the concrete process of creating your music?
Firstly, I don't really feel that I am creating these ideas because all our ideas come from somewhere else anyway. Anyone who feels responsible over their creation or their work, is not really responsible over it, as much as you should still give them credit, of course. Everything comes from somewhere else, and that includes nature, I guess. I would be lying if I said this album came from a place of thinking and measurement. It definitely came from feeling things, feeling things quite intensely, and feeling like I would be stupid not to steer or channel these things into something creative. Around the time I started writing the album I was in Europe, travelling with my dear friend, and we had a ridiculous rollercoaster of experiences, which I don’t think could ever be really captured by anything. They might be similar to that of a film
film or book, and I think that the music is essentially a film score to all of that, if I had to characterise it as something. I feel like we can remember emotions and memories more so via music than a lot of other senses, or at least I can. I feel like I should say that, maybe that’s a good preface to the music.
In terms of the actual writing process, it would involve a drafting process where I wasn't trying to write a piece of music. One session at the piano would never equate to a full seed of an idea which would become a piece. Things would evolve in/at different places, most things evolved at the piano. I have an especially romantic upright piano in my music room at my home. Whenever I'm feeling things intensely, I'll sit down and start playing and then something will come out of that. It wasn't always just at the piano, the process was definitely a result of my brain archiving different experiences and things I heard and pulling from them - some of this was unconscious of course, some was conscious. For example, I really like the sound of children playing. In one of the pieces there is a field recording and I never thought that would turn into a piece. This is what I mean when talking about seeds coming from different places. I remember thinking late last year, when I got that recording, that it is an amazing, beautiful sound - in the first fifteen years of our life we are literally hearing that every day. We hear those sounds every day at primary school and in the playground, and it's a sound we know very well. This gives me a sense of how sound relates to consciousness and experience, as well as it relates to creativity and ideas. I think I've always found that to be a particularly touching sound, hearing the atmosphere of a school. I guess that’s another interesting topic, where sound relates to all of our experiences [not just the musical] and how it makes us feel things.
I don't know if you are familiar with the electronic musician, Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai)? He's a Berlin musician who uses a lot of high-frequency electronics to create these beautiful soundscapes. He said that he stumbled upon that high-frequency sound and he loved it, then found out ten years later that that was the frequency emitted by his television when he was a boy at home. It was the same frequency! So he found comfort in that frequency because it felt like home to him. So, there are all these interactions that we have sonically that we are unconscious of and I’m trying to get some kind of knowledge on them in relation to my own experience. It seems that a lot of roads you need to take to be an artist are roads to get to know yourself better.
Listen to Callum's latest album 'That Place, Our Place' online
We're talking about an intensely personal attachment to sound. Can you talk about the value in sharing one's intensely personal experience with other people through a creative medium?
Interestingly, I didn't really set out to write the music with the idea of people listening to it as an end-result, however if by making them feel something significant, or shaping for a moment, I take comfort in that. I guess there's a lot of reasons to write music and "music as process" is also very appealing to me, so I found writing the music itself very therapeutic and healing.
I like the idea that to prescribe too much to a listener is to really take away from their interpretation of something, much the same as someone reading a book is not prescribed the scene visually as in a movie - they can imagine exactly what they want to imagine to accompany the text. So, I don't think I thought that much about trying to steer listeners in a certain direction, or the accessibility of the music to people, or making it open to a wide audience, because to have any of those kinds of thoughts would be aiming for too much control and too much intention, when all I want is for people to surrender to it.
In a way I thought, "I can never be in someone else’s consciousness, I can only be inside my own". If I can be aware of my own to a significant extent then I can probably understand what makes me feel certain things, what makes me think certain things. That's also a big reason I didn't play trombone on the album, because I was at much less of a risk of thinking about my personal playing - getting caught up on bad playing or whatever.
You described not wanting to get caught up in the self-conscious trappings of being a ‘player’ while creating this album. Do you think you could maintain the composer’s perspective on your music while also playing in the band?
I think that’s definitely the next place. The next thing I write and record will definitely involve the trombone. At the start of the year, when I was writing the album, I did actually think about how I could fit in the trombone. I had initially planned a track that was a duet with Paul Williamson, and we were about to record some music at a big space like a hall or a church, but I think I realised I was doing it to get the trombone on the album and that wasn’t a good enough reason. I think I’m getting to that space of being uncritical. It’s an interesting balancing act because you do need to be critical to keep your craft going, but it’s all about the amount that you are attached to the criticism. I think that attachment is what I struggled with. I do strive to get to a place on my horn which is similar to my writing, and when I get closer to it I’ll probably write some more music and record. It’s about that difficult but enviable ability to listen to the music on a macroscopic perspective versus the microscopic perspective of your own instrument.
For some, the somatic experiences associated with feelings are relieved or find expression in the physicality of playing an instrument. Could you talk about using the piano as a compositional instrument with regards to those sensations or feelings?
I definitely feel the most viscerally free on the piano. I think not having any perfectionism tied to the piano, not needing to be a good technician, sums up why I feel so free with the instrument. It's also the first instrument that I ever played, and while I got lessons here and there, it was mostly self taught. I think that’s why it is a place where I feel quite free from logic and theory, even though I have my theoretical knowledge of music and harmony and everything else. I think that is an interesting thing because it also makes me feel more physically free. It makes magic more possible, it makes things more personal. The place where things begin is always a place of magic and wonder. Of course a C major chord is boring after it's called a C major chord, but if you're hearing it played by someone and you never understood anything
anything in your life, then… the amount of connotation on things comes from societal conditioning, not that societal conditioning is a bad thing, but there is a lot of freedom in playing an instrument and not thinking rigorously while it's happening. The brain is one of the fastest working mechanisms in the world, and if you have to think before doing everything it just makes it more clumsy and cumbersome. I think being at the piano is the most freedom-inducing place, it gets me in the right state, and I think I have an association with sitting down at the piano and being as honest with my feelings as possible (and being able to get mathematical as well, in a balance). But it’s definitely a special place. It's almost something that can't be described in words.
Callum performing live. Photo: Betty France
I am curious to hear; being a person in the political and social context of today, how has this affected your own subjective experience?
There are so many things that have happened in the world over the past 6 months. We had the bushfires, which was deeply saddening. I was away in Europe for most of that, so I returned to a strangely different Australia, and now COVID has swooped through, and everything that has happened in the last few months with bla(c)k rights and police brutality. It's deeply troubling, and they're all issues that are easy to feel quite helpless about because we are so isolated, and we are all coming from different places at the same time. I guess an interesting point here is; I like the idea of thinking about every single human being as 'me' - ‘I'm talking to you now, but you are me’, so to speak. When we are born we have the experience of being a self and it's shaped by all of these exterior things like experience and ideas and people, but at the root of it, at the initial point, whatever consciousness feels like would be relatively similar. This obviously changes - our experiences are so different, and from when you discover, as you grow up that you're a living creature and you're a human and you are part of the world - it can be an extremely isolating experience, I think. Of course, I can't really comment on what will happen in decades to come, but if there was a value that had to be clung to and rejoiced at and fought for, it's the idea of us all being common as human beings. There is a relationship between the world and us, and it's all the same, really. I think if you have some principle like that then you have more of a foundation for compassion towards everyone. Of course, we should also all be giving as much as we can, in every way possible, to supporting causes that need our support in this damaging time; through donations, raising awareness, allyship, understanding history and understanding the historical outcomes of certain ideas.
What exciting projects do you have planned in the future?
I’ve started scoring some music for a horror film with Theo Carbo, and that’s been a lot of fun. It’s opening doors in my mind towards writing more music for film. I’d like to finish some more music for a jazz ensemble, maybe a quintet or septet with three horns and a rhythm section. I’m getting more interested in electronic processing of sound, and what that entails as far as feeling… an orchestra can make you feel many things, but electronics can give experiences that are also quite expansive and probably a million times cheaper than hiring an orchestra.
I started writing prose recently, and am enjoying writing poetry a lot, though I’m not very good at it. I think I want to write a novel at some point, but it wouldn’t be something that I wouldn’t be precious about. But the top priority is to focus on my craft as a trombonist, over the next few years. This album was something I felt like I had to do, and maybe I’ll write more music in a similar vein at some point, but I think it was a therapeutic release more than it was related to my instrumental craft - in future I want to push myself at the horn more. I’m enjoying the freedom of not being too specific with what I want to do, because that’s exciting. It’s liberating.
Keep up to date with Callum here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.
Thank you dearly to Callum Mintzis for your time.
Interview with Callum conducted on 25 June 2020.
Article first published 15 July 2020.
Photographs taken by Ceridwen McCooey, Jared Becker and Betty France.
Written and edited by Hugh Heller with contributions by Zac O'Connell.