I am going down to Melbourne to see a performance of The Reef in a couple of weeks, which I'm really looking forward to. In part because I'll finally get the chance to meet director of the film component, Mick Sowry, who I met a couple of years ago via blogging, but have never yet managed to meet in person. Knowing I was going down, I remembered that I never posted the review I wrote of Musica Surfica, which is the previous collaboration between Mick, Derek Hynd and Richard Tognetti (and others), and which I watched and wrote about exactly a year ago today (according to the dates on my files)! So I thought it might be nice to post these words now to encourage me to think about reviewing The Reef as well. So, here you are, a belated review of a film that came out four years ago!
I have a confession to make: I didn’t watch Musica Surfica when it came out, because I was cynical about it. A film about finless surfing that was somehow linking itself with classical music? I avoided it. I avoided it because the film was released at time when I felt there were a number of surfers trying to convince the world that what they do is some higher form of living, of being. It was at a time when numbers of surfers were positioning their wave-riding as art, a positioning I still feel uncomfortable about. Riding waves is a highly creative pursuit – absolutely – but it makes me suspicious when surfers start throwing around the word ‘art’ to describe their lines. Maybe it’s just me, but I generally find it to be a disingenuous and self-serving use of the term. So despite the accolades, when Musica Surfica was released I stayed away. But since then, I have come to know a few of the folk involved in it, and find them to be humble, sincere and intelligent people, so I sought the film out, and oh! How wrong I found my assumptions to be.
A quick summary: a group of accomplished surfers, led by Derek Hynd, travel to King Island (in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania at the bottom of Australia) to surf finless boards for a week. As a collaboration with this surfing ‘experiment’, a group of classical musicians from the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) organised to develop a performance to take place in the old King Island Dairy. Included in this musical collective is the film’s other main protagonist, Richard Tognetti, who is both the Artistic Director and lead violin of the ACO. He also surfs. What Derek Hynd and Richard Tognetti share beyond being highly skilled and successful at their chosen pursuits is a passionate belief in and dedication to the development of surfing and music respectively, as well as an interest in their own relationship to the ways they participate in and perform them.
In this way, Musica Surfica does not extoll surfing as art, but rather uses relationships to how various people understand and experience surfing and music to consider the nature of creativity, performance, movement and how we come by these forms of knowledge. How do we know what surfing is, what boards look like, what music sounds like, and what the rules for these things are? How do these knowledges limit us in the ways we create, perform and move? And what it is like to push ourselves beyond all of that? Or, in the words of Derek Hynd, what is it like to have “a conversation with the unknown”?
Derek’s engagement with these questions manifests in exploring what happens to surfing when you remove fins from a board; when you remove the usual methods of control and structure? By now of course (and perhaps in part as a consequence of the success of this film), finless surfing is no longer ‘new’ and the trend of looking back to look forward has taken a firm hold. This renewed interest has opened up another generation of surfers to board designs of the past – the ones that got discarded after the thin, light, fast, manoeuvrable, dynamic, high-performance thruster took hold. There is of course, nothing wrong with design and performance moving on, except that in doing so a whole range of other approaches to waves and to wave-riding got pushed to the side and devalued as old or lacking innovation. But of course, ‘smaller, faster, lighter, higher, stronger’, is not always better nor more innovative.
Taking experienced surfers onto finless boards really brought Derek’s “conversation with the unknown” to life. As lab-rats, Derek invited a host of willing and talented surfers including Tom Carroll, Belinda Baggs, Tom Wegener, and Heath and Sage Joske to come and play, some of who (Wegener and Sage Joske in particular) were familiar with finless surfing and others who, um, weren’t. Jumping on boards with no fins took many of these talented folk out of their comfort zone, right in the space where they are usually so confident, competent and at home – in the waves. Yet here they were falling, sliding, slipping and stumbling as they learned how specific their performative surfing knowledges were.
Richard Tognetti sums up this kind of discomfort perfectly, locating it as risk. He connects this with his own experiences performing as a violinist and as Artistic Director of the ACO, lamenting the structures and rules that, he argues, limit the ways classical music is accepted and performed amongst its own cultural elite; the lack of risk. I have heard English concert pianist, James Rhodes, describe similar frustrations about the ways that the culture of classical music performances (in terms of spaces, music, dress, behaviour, instruments) limits the access that ‘outsiders’ have. Yet James Rhodes sees access to the music of Beethoven and Bach as a public right, one which should not be denied to those who are not willing or able to don a suit or visit a concert hall. Instead Rhodes takes his music to country halls and pubs, telling stories of composers as part of his concerts, breaking the rules of classical music performances in order to make it more accessible and relatable. This kind of approach is risky but, like Tognetti wonders, how else do we learn? How else do we challenge ourselves and our ways of knowing? In surfing, in playing music, in anything, what does it mean to get to the top of your craft and then stop reaching beyond your comfort zone? What does it mean to always be good, to always excel, to never stumble? What are the implications for ourselves and for the things we do?
Of course, in taking these risks at King Island and in being filmed doing so, we must remember that Derek Hynd was already practised and experienced at finless surfing, so the risks he was taking were less performative and more conceptual – that is, he was using finless surfing as a way of thinking through and talking about risk and the unknown. However, Tognetti was unhappy with some of his performances in the Dairy, so for him in particular the question of what does it mean to always be good and of putting your own reputation on the line, seemed to have a particularly interesting vulnerability. He was really stepping out in performing in these spaces, in these places, in these ways.
Whatever Tognetti’s hesitations were, the music was beautiful. Across the footage of the island and surfing and performances, the sounds of strings pierce, tremble, flow and resonate through the images and the viewer. The warmth and emotion and passion of the music is unavoidable, and Tognetti (I’m assuming) has been very clever in the pieces he chose to accompany the film, the Island and the surfing. The way the performances were filmed and edited really linked in with surfing as well. Richard Tognetti and Satu Vänskä’s performances in particular illustrated the physicality of playing music. Their whole bodies sway and move with the music, in part consequentially to their playing, in part involuntarily in response to what they were hearing and feeling. It is always thrilling to see people come to life as they do the things they love and this was no exception. Derek Hynd is similar. On land, and even sitting in the lineup, Derek is unassuming in how he passes through space, but on a wave, Derek’s movements come to life, sliding, turning, twisting, surfing – movements both consequential and responsive to riding waves.
Of course, in this review I have only focused on the characters and crafts around which this film is based. However, there is also risk and leaping into the unknown in even making a film like this, a challenge taken on by director, Mick Sowry. The intriguing thing about Mick’s role is that he does this in a way that so invisible that he almost disappears. We hear his voice and there are a couple of images, but his real achievement is that he manages to make this film about other people, not about the way he sees them. For me, this is the most telling hint at the level to which this film was collaborative across several platforms – surfing, music, film - rather than by or about one person in particular. Mick’s role in this is to bring all that together, a role that he fills very successfully. A role that should be acknowledged.
After some years now of exploring surfing culture – contests, histories, films, music, art, photos, stories – I have come to be quite cynical about certain words and approaches and attitudes related to surfing. I’ve talked about this before and am willing to admit that this is not my best quality. And it took my developing relationships to some of the people involved in this film for me to take the time to watch it. Having done so, I can remember few times when I took so much pleasure in having my assumptions proved wrong.