Before I get into Sam's story, I must express my gratitude and excitement for her contribution to A Sunburnt Country. Sam's topical piece is a brave and bold statement on Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Sam recognises the importance of addressing the uncomfortable elements of the country's culture in order to truly and wholly represent it. Addressing this issue was integral for Sam, and I find that incredibly inspiring; recognising this suffering was significant in the acknowledgement of her own identity as an Australian - that is truly embracing the meaning of this project.
Introducing, Samantha Wolf!
Hey there, I’m Sam!
I love music, cheese, puns, cheesy puns, puppies, podcasts, and Arrested Development.
I’m a native Canberran, but grew up in Queensland and now live in Melbourne. Right now though, I’m in Amsterdam, about two-thirds of the way through a European adventure that started with the Impuls Academy in Austria, and will finish in London in a couple of weeks. I love to travel – I caught the bug on a student exchange trip to Japan when I was 12, and have been ticking places off my bucket list ever since. This trip is very special to me, because it’s the first time that my partner Kieran and I have hit up Europe together.
Kieran’s a great travel buddy – and a great life buddy! – because he makes the little things fun. One of our favourite activities is restaurant roulette, where we pick random items from the non-English menu and see what we end up with. This is an excellent way to try new and exciting food. It definitely made our Japan trip extra memorable!
Back home, I split my time between a full-time job and freelance composing, which keeps me very busy! If I’m not working or attending as many concerts as I can, you can usually find me jogging along the Merri Creek trail. Exercise is really important to me, not just for my physical health but also for my mental health. Running is like meditation for me – there’s something about focusing solely on your body and your breathing for an hour that really clears the mind. Plus it’s the only time that I allow myself to listen to trashy dance music! If I’m feeling lazy or the weather’s not great, I like to curl up with a good non-fiction book. I’m currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which I definitely recommend if you’re interested in psychology and human behaviour.
My background is very conventional. I wasn’t born into a musical family, but there was always a lot of music around the house when I was a kid. My dad has pretty eclectic taste – he would play Led Zeppelin, Thelonious Monk, Holst, Blondie, David Bowie and Mozart, sometimes all in one day. Mum favoured ABBA, Alice Cooper and The Offspring.
My brother Nic, who’s four years older than me, introduced me the best of the 90s – Placebo, Eminem, Nirvana and Radiohead. He also introduced me to the saxophone, which I immediately fell in love with, not only for its impressive sound but also for its looks. What can I say; I’m a sucker for shiny things! I had been playing piano before then, which I really enjoyed, but it was the saxophone that really got me hooked.
The path to composition
It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise how much of an impact my choice of instrument had on my eventual path to composition. For example, saxophone students are actively encouraged to improvise, thanks to its place in jazz music. Although I’d already been improvising on the piano, it was liberating to be encouraged to improvise so often on the saxophone. Essentially, my pathway to composing was improvising, learning to write my improvisations down, and then expanding and refining the ideas on the page.
I also think it’s relevant that the saxophone is a relatively young instrument. Classical saxophone players start with music composed after 1850, so I never really saw ‘new music’ as fundamentally different from ‘classical music’. There are many brilliant saxophonists/composers, and I suspect that that might have something to do with it.
For me, art is when you harness every part of you, to create something that is much bigger than you. I think that’s why I tend to draw inspiration from extramusical and extrapersonal sources, because it reminds me that even though I put the dots on the page, it isn’t really about me at all.
A Sunburnt Country
This is reflected in the piece I’m writing for A Sunburnt Country, Unbelonging. When Maddi first approached me about the project, I was conflicted. While I certainly feel very lucky and grateful to be an Australian, I’ve always found the idea of Australian identity problematic. To me, it seems defined as much by who is excluded as by who is included. Part of the privilege of being a white Australian is that I can ignore this most of the time. But Indigenous Australians and Australians of colour don’t have that privilege.
There are many things I adore about Australia, but we aren’t good at confronting the uncomfortable parts of our country, whether it’s our treatment of Indigenous Australians, LGBT+ Australians, the environment, or asylum seekers. This needs to change if anything is going to improve.
Music does not give us solutions to life’s problems, but what it does give us is time dedicated to focus and reflection. When you think about it, a commission is an enormous gift – you have a certain amount of time in which the musicians and the audience are, ideally, immersed in your piece and completely open to what you have to say. So deciding what to say is very important. In the context of an international performance, especially one that explores and celebrates Australian identity, I felt compelled to draw attention to my country’s horrific treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, particularly those currently held in offshore detention. I’ve done this for several reasons: firstly, to acknowledge the suffering of those people, and to pay tribute to those who have died as a result of this policy. Secondly, to warn the international community not to follow Australia’s lead in this area. Thirdly, to add my own voice to the chorus of people calling for the end of offshore detention.
I’m not naïve enough to think that one little piece by an unknown composer will change anything, but exploring Australian identity in 2017 without at least touching on this issue would have felt insincere. I love my country, and because I love it, I want it to do better. And I know that it can.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Maddi for the gift of this commission, and for allowing me to follow my gut and write this piece. Due to the content, it has been very difficult to put together. There’s only so long you can trawl through records of abuse and self-harm without losing your faith in humanity, so I had to take a lot of breaks, which meant it’s taken a very long time to write. Maddi has been incredibly patient and supportive throughout it all, and I am so incredibly grateful to her for that. I also want to thank Sami El-Enany for granting me permission to use his recording of the Nauru Files reading in London as the tape part.
Finally, I want to thank you for reading this and for supporting A Sunburnt Country. If you haven’t already, I implore you to consider donating to support the project and its artists. And while you’re there, please consider donating to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and/or UNHCR, so they can continue their excellent work assisting some of the world’s most vulnerable people.