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Dan Thorpe: Emo, Queer Storyteller (and not a ‘Maverick’)

Original blog post published 6 April 2021 by Forest Collective.
Written By Daniel Szesiong Todd (鄭時雄)


“I didn’t quite expect to make it this far; career-wise or being alive-wise” Dan Thorpe tells me over the phone as he commutes back to his Adelaide home. In the background, a tram sounds its bell, announcing the next stop. “I’ve had a complicated relationship with being alive and with music, but I’m about to turn 30 and I’m still here! And the music I make reflects on that.”

Raised in the badlands of Adelaide’s outer north, Thorpe grew up steeped in the area’s strong metalcore and hardcore music scene. And while he still loves that music, it was his superb gift for playing piano that drew him into a world of contemporary classical music.

“My piano teacher never gave me Bach because she knew I would hate it,” Thorpe recalls, “so she gave me Hindemith and Takemitsu instead. I didn’t realise how unusual this was until I got to uni.”

And while he is “quite fond of the classical canon”, it rarely influences his own artistic practice. “Lots of people play Chopin and Bach really well – they don’t need me to ham-fistedly make my way through a fugue!”

Thorpe’s music exists in an entirely different space. Brooding yet luminescent, with moments of extreme tenderness and explosive virtuosity, it transcends genre and defies expectation.

“Emo is the only descriptor that really fits me, which is hilarious as someone who trained as a classical pianist!” Thorpe laughs. “It’s the word I used when I was younger and it’s grown with me.”

While the stereotype of ‘emo’ may conjure up images of black fringes, teen angst and misanthropy, Thorpe is joyous, effusive and fizzing with energy as he talks about music, performing and life.“But I’m sad we don’t have the fringes anymore!” he adds.

Thorpe’s upcoming concert with Forest Collective Emo Phase is full of stories from his career thus far. Each piece on the program is special to him, including the first work he ever commissioned, Light Jar by Keziah Yap, Drones and Piano by his good friend Nico Muhly, a concerto commission, Lampi, by his long-time mentor Cat Hope. Two of Thorpe’s original works also appear on the program: Takahe, which sets the poems of Maori poet Stacey Teague; and Thorpe’s epic new work You Are Jeff for acting pianist and ensemble, based on Richard Siken’s queer poetic masterpiece.

Siken’s poetry in particular was a creative revelation for Thorpe when he first encountered it 10 years ago.

“I’d just come out to my parents and then immediately moved to California. Upon arriving there, I pretended to have my shit together,” he recalls with a laugh.

“I enrolled in a freshman poetry seminar and wrote poems about boys, being sad and being horny, as only a 20 year old can – which is badly!”

Thorpe’s lecturer, Oakland poet and lesbian icon Nora Bergamino, commented that she thought he was brave to be openly queer in class, adding “Your musical compositions are probably like that too, right?” Thorpe was struck. “I thought: ‘Oh what? Music can be queer? Why isn’t my music like that?’”

Bergamino handed Thorpe a copy of Crush, Siken’s 2005 poetry collection – a masterwork about love, lust, grief and the death of his partner.

“It was the first queer text I had ever interacted with in my entire life.” Thorpe says. Siken’s poetry is predominantly in the second person, placing the listener in a bewildering cascade of situations, identities and images.

“When it won the Yale prize for poetry, the judge Louisa Glück described it as ‘like being a deer in the headlights, being the driver of the car, watching from the side of a road and watching from a helicopter all at once.’” Thorpe says.

“So much of Siken’s poetry reads that way,” he continues, “it’s a really physical, visceral and disorienting kind of experience, but there’s something really gorgeous and human at its core. The process doesn’t give way to how fleshy it is.”

You Are Jeff is the longest poem in the collection. Through a cascading series of episodes, the poem follows a group of men who are all named Jeff. They are your brother, your father, your uncle, your boyfriend, your dead lover and more – all called Jeff. Even you are called Jeff. The poem is symphonic in its scope, featuring complex motivic development that is reminiscent of a theme and variations. Thorpe’s musical treatment of this poem is strongly influenced by this structural complexity.

“There’s a big picture but the little picture stuff sometimes absolutely overtakes it, and that’s beautiful.” he says. “It’s really shaped my music – these little tender moments, these little windows… big changes and gradual changes arising from the way things feel on the body, the way things fit on instruments and performers.”

Thorpe has wanted to work with this poem since 2011, but had never felt ready.

“I feel ready now.” he says.

Being somewhat notorious for his physically extreme and theatrical performances, Thorpe has a reputation as a piano ‘maverick’. His website proudly highlights audience feedback which described him as having “no respect for the culture of pianism”. Indeed, his concerts are the stuff of legend, including performances of Cat Hope’s Chunk: For Disklavier and Grand Piano, which pits a human pianist against a computerised mechanical piano in a battle for maximum volume. Thorpe has ripped shirts, severely bruised himself and, during one performance in Portugal, bled all over the piano while playing this piece. Nevertheless, the moniker of ‘maverick’ doesn’t sit easily with him.

“I don’t want to be a pianistic edge-lord, but I do like to take the piss,” he laughs, adding “Anyway, I don’t think it’s that maverick to beat up a piano anymore!”

According to Thorpe, it is storytelling and reflecting life’s experiences that motivate his artistic practice. And while this includes telling stories that Australian audiences aren’t necessarily used to, Thorpe does not think this really makes him a rebel.

“I don’t think it’s that rebellious to tell stories about same gender romance, loss, grief or lust.” Thorpe says. “Our classical music audiences aren’t used to gay men talking about being gay. They’re used to gay men, but not them actually talking about being gay.”

“I do what I do because I care about audiences and I care about myself. Telling complex queer stories on stage matters. Not from a place of wanting to put straight people off, but wanting queer people to have their stories echoed to them. To have their stories told in a venue where that normally doesn’t happen.”