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Gonzervatory 2019

I’ve thrown my hat into the ring for this year’s Gonzervatory. The Gonzervatory is a 10 day fully-funded music residency, this year taking place in Cologne, hosted by the piano maestro Chilly Gonzales.


It’s the second year it’s been running & also the second time I’ve applied. The application process is no idle task: as part of it we’re asked to create a 2-3 minute original video showcasing our ‘musical universe’, as well as answer questions like:

  • Name 5 of your musical heroes

  • Name 5 of your non-musical heroes

  • What’s the best part of being a musician for you so far?

  • What’s the worst part of being a musician for you so far?

We also have to provide two tracks:

  • One that you’re very proud of

  • One that you’re struggling with

So not exactly an hour jobby.




Making A Video Application


Easily the most time-consuming – and nerve-wracking – part of the process was making an original video to showcase your ‘musical universe’. Both times, it’s what’s almost put me off applying altogether. Although I love being onstage and making music videos, I really don’t enjoy speaking to camera, and I find the idea of talking about myself in this frank way very off-putting. Precisely what I like about music is the ability to hide behind lyrics, to allude without being explicit, to demonstrate without being seen. Talking about your own music is surely one of the most cringe-inducing rituals any artist can go through. I made the art already! Look at it, it’s right there! Please don’t ask me to write the York Notes edition as well.


Having made 2 videos now for the Gonzervatory, it’s a bit hard to know what they want. The criteria is at once vague but specific: they ask that you show where you’re at when you’re making music, whether on your own or with a band; they say you can include a performance, but it’s not essential, and they’re not looking for technical ability necessarily.


In 2-3 minutes, it’s hard to get much of a sense of anything. You can talk about it, or you can show it: but it doesn’t feel like time enough to do both. Montages can come across as disjointed and fragmentary. A single song doesn’t give you time to talk about the wider context in which it was made. Simply explaining your music without showing it is a bit like reading about sex: informative, but you’re missing the fun part.




Last year I went for a montage of live footage and music videos with a voiceover on top. It was excellently cut together by a professional video editor (check out Matt's work here) but the winning videos seemed to indicate that this sleek approach was not what they were looking for.





This year I pared it back, swallowed my pride, and sat in front of the camera to show off a few piano flourishes and talk more broadly about my own connection to the classical tradition and how important collaboration is to me as an artist.


(This incidentally is another problem – collaboration IS hugely important to me, which means to give you an accurate window into all the ways I’m making music at the moment, I really do need a montage*.)


I haven’t been able to watch it back but a few people have said very nice things, and some of them I don’t even know.



Musical Humanism


The whole ethos of Gonzales’ work is to explore what he calls ‘Musical Humanism’, looking at how we make music together, how we can learn from each other, and the different ways we can build our own practice through embracing others’ genres and techniques. From what I can gather (and the criteria is a little vague), he’s looking for the exceptional, but not the perfect. The musicians selected for last year’s residency were a mix of classical and contemporary, formally trained & self-taught.


I’ve applied because not only is it an incredible opportunity (previous tutors have included not only Gonzales himself but also artists such as Peaches & Jarvis Cocker) but it more importantly, perhaps, it chimes exactly with my own belief that music is something we make and create together, something to participate in, not a spectator sport.





Breaking The Classical Mould


I grew up learning in a very rigid classical tradition, always feeling inadequate, always striving for an impossible perfection and quashing my own inventiveness as a result. It wasn’t until years later when I started strumming chords on a guitar that I finally started finding a way to make music on my own terms. Gonzales similarly comes from a classical background and seeks to move beyond that learned restrictiveness – not to reject it outright, but to incorporate it into a broader exploration of what music can be.




Admittedly, our experiences are a little different – in his call-out video Gonzo says airily that ‘technical knowledge came easily’, which is like me saying that Everest is a nice afternoon stroll. I didn’t do my grades so much as have a nervous breakdown once a year, clawing my way up what felt like a sheer rock face one bastard piece at a time. But the intention is the same: to see the enshrined classical canon and its teaching methods not as an endpoint, but as a beginning, something to be shaped and moulded and messed with; something that is part of a greater, still largely unexplored, whole.



Making Applications


Last year more than 800 people applied for 8 places. This year there are only 5 places and there were over 500 applications. I’m pleased I’ve applied again and I would be beyond thrilled to be chosen, but surely every single other applicant is thinking the same.


The fact is, as a musician – as any kind of artist – a hell of a lot of your time is taken up with labour like this. Applications that take time and stress and will often not be successful. This is a huge part of what it means to be an artist. The gigs and the albums are just the tip of the iceberg.


Underneath each performance there is a vault of hidden hours that will never get any glory, and often no reward – hours of emails, spreadsheets, applications, website maintenance, blog writing, social media posting. And that’s before we even get to the hard graft of actually writing the music and spending time getting better at our instruments.


I’m glad I applied for the Gonzervatory again (got to be in it to win it, right?), but I’m realistic about my chances. In this game you have to find a way to be optimistic without tipping over into full-scale delusion. I really really want doesn't = I will get (sadly).


All we can do as artists is to keep throwing our hats into the ring, to keep making music, and to persevere.


The shortlist is announced on 15th May at any rate – wish me luck!


*A training montage.

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© 2018 by Sarah Sharp