After 20 years of local and international collaboration and experimentation and with a freshly minted Art Music Award for excellence in the bag, Adelaide’s acclaimed Zephyr Quartet hits ‘pause’.
Now an internationally regarded beacon of innovation in the contemporary classical scene, Adelaide’s ‘string quartet with a difference’ began when a bunch of Elder Con students decided one day to get together and play music their own way. Indeed, Zephyr Quartet’s first gig was at an open mic variety show in which they teamed up with a jazz trio and performed their own composition.
“Twenty years ago, or so, when I was studying at university, I asked some friends to play in a string quartet with me,” recalls Zephyr Quartet founder, artistic director and cellist Hilary Kleinig. “And they said yes. I never would have believed in my wildest dreams that by asking that simple question – along with a huge amount of hard work and perseverance – that I would be led on an amazing journey with some friends. This thought completely blows my mind, and for this I feel incredibly humbled and thankful.”
The urge to move beyond chamber music’s usual confines has made Zephyr Quartet extraordinarily versatile. Over their time together they have created an extraordinary range of cross-artform shows – with for example Brink Productions, Australian Dance Theatre and even interior designer Khai Liew. And their collaborations with musicians are mind-blowing in their stylistic span: jazz with Andrea Keller, ambient music with Stars of the Lid, postpunk with JG Thirlwell, and minimalism with cult Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson.
“Zephyr has had the good fortune of collaborating with so many inspiring artists working in multiple artforms. We have performed around Australia and the world to audiences young and old. We have championed voices, emerging and established, telling important stories through music. We have strived to create and present bold, forward-thinking, outward-looking new work that speaks to and for our rich and diverse society,” Kleinig says.
Unusually for a string quartet, all four players are also experienced composers who frequently contribute pieces in their concerts and recordings. All of which makes them a frontrunner in innovative practice – there really is no other group like them in Australia. Fittingly, Zephyr Quartet were winners at the 2019 Art Music Awards in Sydney, taking out the Award for Excellence by an Organisation “for their 2018 activities and 20 years of sustained contribution to the local, national and international arts scene”.
Kleinig says Zephyr has been able to forge a path within these tiered landscapes because it has always welcomed challenges that are new and difficult. “When I look back on our work,” she says, “often what I am most proud of is our most risky, complicated work – projects that took years to put together, often involving multiple elements and many different artists, projects that I really didn’t know were any good or worked until they had their premiere.”
“I believe that the reason that we have been able to sustain our work and practice for so long is because of our innate desire to collaborate, both internally within the group and with other artists. We have also strived to be nimble and accommodating to the individual needs of our members as well as being able to respond quickly to social and cultural issues.”
Zephyr’s big win at the Art Music Awards means there is much the foursome can celebrate. But Kleinig also wants it to serve as an encouragement for others to find their own new voice and not be afraid.
“This is incredibly important both for artists and audiences,” she says. “We dream big and encourage others to do so as well. We believe that gender parity, racism and economic privilege are problems that we can address in our spheres of influence, and we try to share our resources with other artists and communities who don’t share our privileged position.”
For the members of Zephyr, currently Belinda Gehlert, Emily Tulloch and Jason Thomas, and longtime manager Jennifer Greer Holmes, Kleinig says it is also time to pause and consider their future. She emphasises just how hard it is for artists in this country to keep doing what they are doing and survive. It has been an ecstasy to get where they are now but also a struggle, she says. The struggle is that unlike well-resourced larger arts organisations, they have to do everything themselves and try to make ends meet.
“Heading into the unknown is scary and risky,” Kleinig reflects. “But it is also where we reap the most rewards and experience the most growth. So now, the next most scary and unknown adventure for Zephyr is to try to take some time off, to allow us all space to pursue some other dreams and goals. And whilst we won’t disappear altogether, and will continue to be active as individuals, Zephyr will strive to do less for a while as we shift the focus of the organisation.”
All power to them.
Zephyr Quartet perform new works by Adelaide women at the Wheatsheaf Hotel on Monday, September 16, and their response to SALA 2019 featured artist Louise Haselton’s exhibition at Samstag Museum on September 26-27.