Taking 5 with Stephanie Eslake

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Taking 5 with Stephanie Eslake

She’s the brains behind CutCommon, one of Australia’s only dedicated classical music magazines.

Her passion for the Australian arts and music landscape has led her to write for The Guardian, Meanjin, The Mercury, SBS, Limelight Magazine and more, and when she’s not writing for Australia’s media she regularly writes the witty and observant listening notes you’ll find in our concert programs.

We sat down with Stephanie Eslake to chat CutCommon, putting down the saxophone (and taking up writing), her favourite composers and more.

Tell us about yourself! (And also, your literary baby, CutCommon.)

I guess you could call me an arts communicator. There’s probably no other title for my job, because I don’t really have just one. I get to spend my days chasing stories about classical and art music, writing program notes, and interviewing the remarkably talented pool of people that make our music industry go around. 

In 2014, I started to combine my passions for media and music, and CutCommon is the result. When it launched, the idea was – and still is – to celebrate what’s happening across the community of emerging musicians and arts workers in Australia. It’s about providing them with a voice, and sharing the stories that might not make a major daily newspaper but are often more interesting or important than what you’d find in one.

This year, I’m finishing my draft of a book about arts communication. I’ve worked my way through newsrooms, educational institutions, and now found my home in freelance arts writing. 

I believe I have some things to share from these experiences - and I'm passionate about helping other artists build their communication skills, too!

Tell us about your journey to music? Have you ever played an instrument or are you more familiar with the theory side of music?

It’s a combination of both!

Like many other musicians in Australia, I first went through the school bands program. This nurtured my interests and welcomed me into a community. I clung to music and enrolled in a performance major at university. 

My instrument was classical saxophone, so already I had an unusual road ahead; this is not a common orchestral instrument! But an accident would break the momentum: I injured my wrist, and some misguided therapy resulted in permanent damage. Anyway, life goes on, and for me that meant a switch to musicology. I wasn’t about to let go of my passion for music!

While all this was happening, I was also studying journalism through a double degree. So, the dream came to me: I’d be a classical music journalist! After enrolling in the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Words About Music program, wrapping up my studies, and getting into freelance writing and editing, things started to fall into place.

Sometimes, I think the accident was the best thing that happened to me. While it forced me away from playing, it also helped me think differently about how I could enjoy music. And now, I get to share my passion with others by using words on the page instead of notes! 

CutCommon has become a publication for discussion and ideas about music in Australia and abroad, how do you see it growing in the next few years? Do you think classical music will shift and change dramatically, and CutCommon will adapt?

I feel as though the presentation of classical music in Australia is already shifting and changing dramatically. When I say ‘presentation’ here, I mean everything from the way a concert program is put together to the way a musician is photographed for a brochure, the graphic design used by arts organisations, and the digital mediums through which a musician reaches a ‘live’ audience. 

Observing these changes, I’d suggest there has been a diversification of classical music in Australia, and a shift into making things more casual and accessible for audiences. This is absolutely great on both counts. Yes, it’s nice to see an orchestra of musicians in formal concert blacks, and to dress yourself up for a night out; maybe even sipping champagne at interval. But isn’t it also nice to sit in the concert hall and hear some film music, or an Australian composition alongside your Beethoven? Isn’t it also nice to know an orchestra is taking a chance on a diverse program, throwing in some new works that may traditionally be considered a little ‘out there’? Isn’t it nice to know those professional musicians are also human, and that the whole experience is really about the shared enjoyment of music?

Take the QSO, for instance. Your home page is filled with photos of musicians dressed in formal concert blacks – but rather than looking distant and imposing, they have big smiles on their faces! The QSO From Home videos are heart-warming; one even shows your conductor chilling out on the couch, and instrumentalists having fun with friends and families. And then there are interviews like this one, where QSO has a casual chat with the people who work in our industry. In the end, it’s all about breaking boundaries, isn’t it? We’re all here to enjoy the same thing, and to enjoy it together! 

These are my feelings that underpin your original question. And the answer is yes – as the industry continues to evolve, CutCommon will be there to document its changes. It’ll continue working to be a voice that advocates, and helps pave the way, for a healthier classical music industry in Australia.

If you could sit down with one composer for dinner who would it be? And why?

Do I have to choose just one?! Please send my apologies to Howard Shore, Clara Schumann, and especially Elena Kats-Chernin! I’d really love to have dinner with Elena one day...

But for the purpose of this interview, the exclusive seat at this dinner table belongs to Joe Hisaishi. Anecdotally, I was lucky enough to see the Studio Ghibli composer leading an orchestra in Australia just a few years back. It was around the time of the terrible bushfires. Towards the end of the concert, Hisaishi conducted some of his beautiful music, which was set to a specially produced montage of nature scenes from the Studio Ghibli films. It sent such a moving message of solidarity and care for the environment. 

If I could sit down with this composer at dinner, I’d love to thank him for leading the orchestra through such a thoughtful gesture – and, of course, tell him how much universal joy he creates through his musical worlds.

When you're not writing, editing, or thinking about writing and editing, what are you up to?

Playing video games! 

You probably wouldn’t expect a classical music lover to be the type of person who would also play video games. But if you think about it, these two artforms – and I use that term intentionally – are not too far apart. After all, video game soundtracks are now packing out Australia’s concert halls. That’s not to mention the music itself, which is so often inspired by classical music. Therefore, as someone who loves orchestral music, why wouldn’t I want to spend my downtime immersing myself in artistic landscapes with stunning soundtracks?

Two of my favourite games at the moment are Doraemon Story of Seasons, which includes a gorgeous orchestral score set against a watercolour village and mountain; and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which indulges my retro game nostalgia and passes the time like nothing else. I’d suggest watching a live studio recording of the Mario Kart soundtrack – now those are some expert instrumentalists!

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