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In Conversation with Forest Collective’s Kim Tan

We speak with Forest Collective flautist Kim Tan to talk about the importance of exploring new narratives in music repertoire, philosophy, and adapting to the constant changes of the global pandemic.

In 2021, Forest Collective sought to introduce audiences to new and powerful global voices from pan-Asia to New Zealand and Australia in their in focus seasons. Affected by the multiple lockdowns due to COVID, their new season Shifting will occur at the Convent in 2022.

We chat with flautist and Forest Collective member Kim Tan to find out how has been adapting to the challenges of ongoing restrictions and the importance of expressing diverse narratives in music.

Who is Kim Tan, in a sentence?  

Kim Tan is a musician, teacher, and flautist with Forest Collective.  

Do you remember the first time you picked up the flute? Tell us about that moment!  

I was in Grade 5 and having lessons with another person in my class called Emily; my first teacher was Jacinta Power. I remember feeling this incredible buzz of excitement. My first lesson was a feeling of exhilarating free-fall into this new world, and I was completely absorbed by it. Now I can’t imagine my life without playing the flute.  

Apart from music, what else are your interests?   

I’ve always been interested in philosophy, and I love making things. So, I like to knit, cook, sew, draw, crochet and always have 3 or 4 ongoing craft projects. At the moment, my favourite medium to draw with are oil pastels. 

Your artistic biography mentions your interest in interdisciplinary music and cross-sections between these disciplines. Can you share some of your interests and influences?  

Being an interdisciplinary musician is another way of saying that many things inform and create my practice (I think this is true of all artists). I’m constantly exploring other techniques in search of new perspectives and new ways to create. When I was at university, I studied both music and philosophy. They both weave and interconnect in my life and my way of being in the world. I’ve always been fascinated by the human condition, the nature of existence and how we find meaning. Music has been my conduit to understanding, questioning, and expressing these things.  

Let’s move to Asia in Focus, a season due to be performed at Abbotsford Convent when restrictions allow. Forest Collective mention that Western audiences may be unfamiliar with many of the works in the season. Could you give us your take on the season and how the works present new musical forms to Australian audiences? 

Unfortunately, due to the current lockdown, we have had to withdraw Asia in Focus. However, Forest Collective is rescheduling the season to 2022—called Shifting. The Asia in Focus program will be juxtaposed with Australia and New Zealand in Focus season (also cancelled due to lockdown). 

The program features work by living composers from across Asia. Composers such as Emily Koh (Singapore), Luo Zhongrong (China), Luo Maishuo (China), Siraseth Pantura-umporn (Thailand), and Alireza Farhang (Iran/France) alongside Micah Thompson and Dylan Lardelli (both from New Zealand) diversifying and giving nuance to the musical landscape. Pantura-umporn, Farhang, Lardelli, and Thompson extend the instruments’ language, exploring the extremities of what is expressible. Koh, Luo Zhongrong, and Luo Maishuo open the ears to a harmonic vernacular incomparable to any other composer. 

Presenting works by these composers is important because they create unique sound worlds, and each has an individual voice. There is a tendency to default to dominant narratives when it comes to the music of other regions. So, the more we perform and listen to diverse composers, the more detailed and nuanced our understanding of our world.  

Some of the composers presented in this season, such as Ravi Shankar and Toru Takemitsu, transcend attempts to be pigeonholed by weaving multiple influences into their compositions and forming new relationships with musical traditions. What can we learn from this?   

The process of interweaving various influences and traditions whilst forming new connections with unexpected encounters is the force of creative life. Both Shankar and Takemitsu had incredible creative lives, and their music expresses this regardless of attempts to pigeonhole their work. This goes back to what I said earlier about the tendency towards dominant narratives to anchor the meaning of what is new into what we already know of the world. To take these new things in, we must put aside what we already know and accept the newness into our world. What we can learn about Shankar and Takemitsu is to walk through our lives with deep humbleness. The more we embrace new experiences, the more we encounter different points of view, and the richer, deeper and wider our understanding becomes of the world and our creative lives. 

How do you and your colleagues stay performance-ready amongst lockdowns? Do you have any tips or tricks for musicians who might be reading this?   

Gosh, it’s hard. I’ve just been using the lockdown time to indulge in music that I usually don’t get to play. I’ve been playing along to recordings for some sense of playing music with other people. For me, the hardest part is adjusting to ensemble playing in an acoustic where you rely on sensory language to craft your practice. Lockdown has robbed me of body language, and I rely on it so much for communication.  

What does live music/performance look like in 10 years?  

I tend to be philosophical about these things—forgive me. I think music performance is temporal and always enfolded with what is happening in the world at the time. It makes memories, and it is made of memories – on all levels, from the individual to the spiritual. To that end, I think in 10 years, music performance will have enveloped the layers of everything that has happened up until that time. What we do in music performance in the present will be carried in the layers of music performance in the future. So, in a strange kind of abstract sense, we are making it right now.