Clayton Thomas (The NOW now Festival): “Impossible things can happen.” Interview by Bob Baker Fish


Australia double bass player, improviser and composer Clayton Thomas is also one of the organisers of the NOW now Festival, an artist run celebration, of spontaneous music, experimental music, and even improvised music, that has become a Sydney institution. Now in its 18th year, it features a ridiculous bounty of Australia’s most forward thinking musicians often paired in all manner of unique combinations with local and overseas artists, and the results are frequently astounding. It’s the kind of festival where no one really knows what will happen next – particularly the organisers. Despite the disappointing absence of public funding, such is the dedication and sense of community of the artists and organisers that they’ve put together five nights of unique sonic discovery featuring everyone from Robin Fox‘s analogue systems to Montreal’s Pierre-Yves Martel on the ancient viola da gamba.

Cyclic Defrost: What is spontaneous music? Why does it matter?
Clayton Thomas: Well, whereas ‘improvisation’ is about a process – and one that has idiomatic overtones, ‘spontaneous music’ is all about the moment, which is where the NOW now gets its name. All music that has the capacity for flexibility and actual responsiveness and surprise can sit comfortably within the frame of ‘spontaneous’, so that works. It matters, because its rare – spontaneity is a value that goes up hard against machine oriented consumer culture, and that’s positively vital.

I think Alvin Curran said it beautifully “Improvisation is the only musical art which is predicated entirely on human trust and love.” And I’m a cornball, so that’s resonates with me. I think it’s incredibly important to be alive in the playing, and the NOW now presents music that is defined by that life.

Cyclic Defrost: Can you tell me what you see as the importance of the NOW now festival? Is there a role that it fulfils that you can’t find elsewhere?
Clayton Thomas: The NOW now is important because it brings communities together and expands them; and it does so, I think, in a really open way. None of us are doing this for our careers or money (obviously). That said, it is about raised expectations and the realisation that comes from the pressure of performance. It’s a place where the value of the experience of playing and sharing that music as an audience takes priority.

It’s all very earnest I guess, but hey, you have to have ideals to even try.

For the players, we never have headline acts, so everyone has equal billing. I think that’s important too. For a young player, having equal billing with Tony Buck, for example, means a lot – and it pushes the music further. Or for someone like Jasmine Leung playing with Pierre-Yves, there’s a lot riding on both musicians’ ability to share a space musically that allows their very different musical histories to co-exist.

These are living experiences of learning that feed everyone who is there to experience it. I think that’s pretty rare.

Cyclic Defrost: What is the economic climate like in Australia for an experimental musician at the moment? Is your answer going to be the reason why a large amount of experimental musicians base themselves in Europe?
Clayton Thomas: A terrifying reality! ‘Experimental musician’ covers a pretty wide range of skill sets and interests, but needless to say, as far as I am experiencing it, anyway, to NOT create pop music or institutionally supported music is a financial disaster (and even then it’s pretty hard I’m sure). Unless you are independently wealthy, have a university job, or are completing a PhD, then by and large, you are having to self-support your life as an artist.

Sydney is a devastatingly expensive city with very little interest in the role of creativity to shape its future. We live in a building site.

People move to Europe because there is a living conversation about the role of all kinds of art, as fundamental to the way people live. You feel you can have an impact in the lives of people, and that there is value attributed to that.

Institutions recognise experimentalism as fundamental to growth, and they aren’t terrified by change the same way.

That said, I think Australian experimental musicians are making the best music in the world because of that lack of connection to institutions (even flexible, forward thinking ones), and our ability to understand a broad spectrum of creative modes of operation that for an American or European, are deeply entrenched and personal.

When it comes to Indonesian, Chinese and Malaysian creative music, noise music and the like, I think we’re in a pretty perfect place to listen and learn and interact – but the funding situation for them is about as dire as it is for us, making travel difficult.

Cyclic Defrost: How has the festival evolved over time? What are you trying to achieve?
Clayton Thomas: We are staying alive right now. The evolution is always based on the curators at the helm. I took 8 years out, while in Berlin, and so in that time the festival incorporated a lot of directions that the original crew wasn’t as involved in, particularly conceptual performance art, and new music (classical). It also moved to the mountains, brewed some Prophets, became more focussed on academic engagement and various other aspects of Sydney’s experimental scene. So, with that in mind, we’re simply continuing to respond to what is going on around us, and providing a forum for visiting artists to coalesce around a shared space.

Over the last two years we’ve also held the NOW now over the Invasion Day / Australia Day weekend. That’s forced us to look at our relationship to indigenous culture, and to share our festival with curators and artists who are explicitly focussing on issues of decolonisation and connection to Country.

We were entirely focussed on the music for so long, feeling that in supporting experimental arts we were making an important political statement. But, in retrospect, that was from a point of blind privilege. That’s changing through experience and collaboration.

Trying to put it simply, we’re trying to continue to function as an expansion point for the scene, and introduce international artists with local ones for the good of the playing.

Cyclic Defrost: What has the lack of local funding options meant for the festival? How can it continue without support from funding bodies?
Clayton Thomas: We’ve had to do quite a few editions of the NOW now without funding. After 18 years, we’ve learned that you can’t count on anything – but this year hurt, as the applications were, I think particularly strong, and outlined a really beautiful vision leading up to our 20th year in 2021.

In the past we’ve fundraised with the generous help of Douglas Kahn and his remarkable record collection. And I performed 24 hours of solo double bass improvisations at MONA to raise money for the festival in 2017.

It’s forced us to stay lean, but it’s also meant that we are relying on the generosity of the artists involved to make it work. Nobody who is playing this year’s festival has a guaranteed fee, and that is a situation that sucks.

When we were in larger venues like The Factory and the old @Newtown RSL (RIP), we could count on more income from the door, which really helped. But now, we have a maximum 200 per night, and we’ve tried always to keep the tickets at a price that doesn’t exclude people. So, after this year’s edition we’ll have to reconsider how we go about it, I think. Ideas?

Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk about the participants? How do you go about curating it? Is there an overarching method you use or theme or practice that you are attempting to demonstrate?
Clayton Thomas: The festival’s main language is improvisation, and personally, I believe the most powerful aspect of that language is its ability to bring people together in the moment. Impossible things can happen, and that’s what we try and look for when we’re curating.

This year, for example, the Canadian viola de gamba (a very old fashioned cello, you could say), is going to meet the Melbourne based Urhu player, Jasmine Leung. In my mind, this pairing of strings, with strong cultural identities provides a really beautiful starting point for players who are not trapped by those identities. I really have NO idea what that is going to sound like, because both players find inspiration in noise and musique concrete (for example), as much as their own traditions. So, I go for that kind of thing. For the other curators – Jono Milo, Sebastian Sequoia-Grayson, Freya Schack-Arnott, Sonya Holowell, Alexandra Spence and Rhys Mottley, they’re all throwing names in the ring – then collectively we’ve shaped the course of the four nights.

As for the theme, at the end we’ll know more.

Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk about your own practice. What continues to interest you about the bass?
Clayton Thomas: Right now, I’ve started composing again – which is rare for me, because I’m neither very experienced in that, and usually not that interested. But, for some reason there’s a couple of things that I want to play and hear that I can only achieve through planning – it’s mostly process work, like creating a playground with a certain amount of slides and round-a-bouts and swings, and sometimes a corner where you’re sure to die if you turn it.

Cyclic Defrost: What excites you about this year’s festival? What should we be looking for?
Clayton Thomas: The first set! Always. I just want it to begin.

The NOW now Festival is on Jan 24th – 28th 2019 at 107 Projects in Redfern Sydney.
You can find the full lineup and more here.


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.