Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fragility and wonder: the music of Emma Tonkin

When I was writing The Divided Heart, I was always conscious that one of the most modest and talented artist-mothers in my midst was living right next door.

When I suggested to singer-songwriter Emma Tonkin that I should include her in my book, she scoffed and said something about not having a proper creative practice. And yet in her own discrete way, Emma never lets go of that delicate creative thread, even if sometimes she feels that she's only hanging on by a fingernail.

A tinkling piano and Emma's exquisite voice often reach me in the quiet hours when the children are asleep. Alive to the sensuous world around her, if at first you think she writes songs about the "small", listen closer...

What seems intimate becomes epic. Her music lifts you out of the chaos of living and transports you to somewhere defenseless, fragile and immense with wonder.

As the Age music writer Michael Dwyer says about her latest album, Cave of Lights: "A fire in the dark. Hope in the storm. Emma Tonkin's new album with the First Chorus Band of Singers is the gloriously redemptive sound of the human spirit alive in a house of skin and bone."

Emma's first album, The Anchor and the Albatross, showcased her unique feeling for melody. Add a swelling four-part harmony to those tunes (as the First Chorus Band of Singers do in Cave of Lights) and the result is nothing short of sublime.

So many creative mothers say to me that they don't really deserve to be called artists because they're not actually managing to juggle mothering and art with any great success. Or that they barely ever produce anything, so they don't deserve to be recognised alongside their more prolific counterparts.

But what makes a "real" artist, anyway? Emma's songs are pretty real, I know that much. And if it takes five or ten years to write a single book or release a single album, so be it. The world is still richer for having that work of art in it. And a life is all the richer for having created it, no matter how slowly.

So if you want to witness something really special, Emma Tonkin and the 25-strong First Chorus Band of Singers, led by Virgina Bott, will be performing at the Wonderland Spiegeltent (Docklands) on Saturday night in Melbourne from 8pm.

I will be there, celebrating what can be achieved in the wee hours and stolen moments -- beyond the laundry and the dirty dishes -- when the world doesn't even realise that you're quietly weaving some magic.


sister outlaws said...

Reading that second last paragraph brought tears to my eyes. I really needed to hear that. It's been a hard day.

Rachel Power said...

Oh dear. Yes, it is a concept that I've had to come top terms with (the hard way) myself! Like you've said in some of your wonderful posts on the subject, as a mother you can never be fully submerged in the work, never completely switched off from a sense of duty etc, and that makes for a frustratingly slow/interrupted/fragmented process. And yet what we lose in time and mental freedom, I have to believe we gain in other, emotionally complex ways that can only be good for the art we make, when we manage to make it. It doesn't matter if all we can grab is 15 minutes a day for a creative practice. It's that 15 minutes that counts. x

sister outlaws said...

Yes that's sure true about the fragmented process. I think the hardest thing is keeping on top of the frustration and keeping despondency at bay so you can use that precious time well. And appreciating how well you are doing rather than beating yourself up on both fronts - parenting and creatively!

Sally Rippin said...

Beautiful review Rach. Can't wait to hear the album. I love Emma's work.

Fiona Claire said...

Thank you so much for continuing to explore these questions - we still have a long way to go towards appreciating this new work/life landscape. I think this is part of our contribution as women to the evolving world order and economy of work. I want to write it on a placard and march down the street - "It doesn't matter how long it takes - it all counts!!"

Rachel Power said...

What a perfect slogan, Fiona! That's exactly what I have to keep telling myself every day. And then I just pray that life is long!