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Start of 2020 a debut album titled All The Stories will be released by The Letter String Quartet, that contains a Song Cycle with lyrics by poet Maria Zajkowski – created in response to the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia. The Artistic Director of the quartet is the acclaimed viola player Biddy Connor who has also played Saw for Sophie Koh, music featured in a childrens’ game and is weekly host of a Classical music program that looks to educate its listeners to the form. Other artists of note – not limited to – they’re worked with include Laura Jean, Spirtualized, John Cale, Jherek Bischoff, Gang of Youths, Mick Harvey and Jen Cloher.

On the line from Victoria, Australia Biddy Connor joined radionotes for this chat…

To listen, click the green ‘play’ triangle… [note: may take few seconds to load] 

(Transcript of The Letter String Quartet’s Biddy Connor chat below, check to delivery in audio)

IMAGE CREDIT: Anthony Paine (Supplied)

The Letter String Quartet‘s All The Stories Album out at the start of 2020, current title-track available now.

SHOW NOTES: The Letter String Quartet episode

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Feature Guest: The Letter String Quartet’s Biddy Connor

Edge of Infinity – All India Radio (VIDEO)

Our theme music and stings are by Martin Kennedy and All India Radio – they have their new album Eternal releasing 31 October 2019.

Next Episode: Berdnturtle

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[Radio Production – notes: Biddy Connor The Letter String Quartet takes the who episode, tune to play is the Single ‘All The Stories’]


Theme/Music: Martin Kennedy and All India Radio   

Web-design/tech: Steve Davis

Voice: Tammy Weller  

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For direct quotes check to audio, first version of transcript by Jessica R at REV

John Murch: Biddy Connor, welcome to radionotes.

Biddy Connor: Hi.

John Murch: Let me start here. Playing the saw and Sophie Koh.

Biddy Connor: For the last couple of years I’ve been playing live with Sophie Koh, her viola player who’s a wonderful viola player moved to Canada, and so I was fortunate enough to fill in for her. And then at a show in Melbourne at the Recital Centre, I got to play saw on one of her songs and Sophie was playing traditional Chinese instruments.

John Murch: Her album was very much about Chinese stories and about her Australian Chinese heritage.

Biddy Connor: Yeah. And it’s such a beautiful album, and it’s got these wonderful arrangements on it by Caerwen Martin who plays the cello live with Sophie. She’s collaborated with Sophie for many years and the arrangements live are just usually just cello and viola and sometimes Sophie’s vocal group that she sings in, Ladychoir, join in. So it’s pretty special experience playing in that.

John Murch: Ladychoir, of course Angie Hart and Koh getting involved with that particular project. The saw, when did you learn or what was the desire to then learn the saw?

Biddy Connor: It came about in 2004. I was living in Sydney, had the pleasure seeing at the Sydney festival a version of Black Rider, the musical by William Burroughs and Tom Waits. And there was a violin player in the show who played a musical saw and also a Stroh violin, which is a violin created around the 1920s that has a horn coming off and the sound is resonated kind of like a gramophone resonating membrane. So it’s quite a piercing, tinny sound, but it was amazing. And he played the saw and I was fascinated by both those instruments. And there was a glass harmonica player as well. So it was a really amazing show.

Biddy Connor: And I came back to Melbourne and I bought an old musical saw off the internet, didn’t warn my housemate, which was fairly amusing. Answered the door to a musical saw arriving. So that was the inspiration. And funnily enough, just in the last couple of months, a friend of mine who’s a guitar maker and an amazing musician as well, found a Stroh violin in Brisbane for me that he’s been fixing up. So finally after all this time… Because I mentioned it to him 10 years ago and he remembered when he saw it in this antique shop, I’ll have Stroh violin and a musical saw. So if anyone wants to do a production of Black Rider, I’m ready.

John Murch: What drew you to the production? Where you there on invite of someone else or was there something about the production that drew you to go and see it?

Biddy Connor: I did get a free ticket through the course I was studying. I did know the album a bit and I did know the story as well. I was really keen to see the music with the theatre show. I love that combination when it’s not too opera, it’s not too music theatre. There’s something that connects more to music that I’ve grown up listening to.

John Murch: I’ve read recently that the viola, which is your instrument of choice, wasn’t necessarily the instrument of choice until the late 20s.

Biddy Connor: I was kind of by accident, if I’m honest, but a great accident. I was studying as a singer. I was doing the improvisation course at VCA and I was singing in an acapella group at the time and we were performing with a string quartet. It was my early 20s, so I was 23 at the time, picked up the viola, plays viola and just had a play and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know you played. I’ve got a spare one, do you want to borrow it?” So it was just sort of offhand thing, but I think I was also struggling a bit with being in that even though that was something that I felt really passionate about in my later teen years.

Biddy Connor: I’m actually a very shy person and singing, it’s like I chose something too confronting for myself, which has been good in a lot of ways, but I really wanted to play an instrument. I was feeling like I wanted an instrument to play. A happy accident. And then I started playing it because I had already learned violin as a child. It felt like there was a little bit of quick improvement and then many years of plateau practicing.

John Murch: Back in 2011 I remember playing something from Sailor Days, which was your solo project. It was about six minutes worth of Waltz of the Dodo. So what was happening at that time? How was the viola sitting with you at that time?

Biddy Connor: I was using it a lot to write things for just me. That album came from working with live loops with the viola and voice, and then I worked things with drums and bass and viola. So I was working with effects and looping, but it was really great to do that album with Jen Sholakis on drums and Laura Jean on bass. The three of us were playing in Laura’s Band as well. It was nice to be playing in a band and not doing a solo on my own performing.

John Murch: What’s the difference between performing the viola in that kind of setting and now in the more improvised-

Biddy Connor: There’s a lot of similarities. I don’t consider myself very classically trained on the viola, but other members of The Letter String Quartet have done quite a lot of classical training. It’s so great to play with those three musicians because they all done lots of different playing as well. They’ve played in bands and they’ve played in theatre shows. I like the bringing together of the more band, improvised, verging on classical elements all together. I feel more connected to it I suppose. I mean, to be honest, I would love to be a very highly trained classical violist, but I also do appreciate that I get to play with some pretty amazing people anyway.

John Murch: What is it about the viola that it’s become your right hand instrument?

Biddy Connor: I think it’s the mellowness of it. It’s got such a beautiful vocal sound to it. It’s very similar in a way to the range of my voice. There’s something that I really love about that compared to… I mean I love playing with other string instruments and the viola is often the voice in the middle, the alto voice. It’s beautiful to be in that place musically when you’re playing live in a string ensemble, often the voice that kind of makes the chord change in one way or another. The challenge of trying to play it well hasn’t gone away yet. I still want to get better and I still feel inspired to get better.

John Murch: Is that also a sense of the lyricism of the instrument?

Biddy Connor: Yes, and it can play melodies beautifully. It can be a supporting voice. It can be harsh as well. So yeah, it’s got a good range of emotion in it.

John Murch: We are currently speaking with Biddy Connor who is the artistic director and viola player of The Letter String Quartet, their brand new album, All The Stories will be out in 2020. The current singles of that very title is available now via your favorite music provider. Not everyone will know what a Song Cycle is.

Biddy Connor: A series of songs that might be thematically linked, and in this case they are all inspired by a place in Melbourne called the Abbotsford Convent, which is in Abbotsford and it’s not a convent anymore and hasn’t been for many years. It’s now a space where there are lots of artist studios, there’s some theatre companies now have spaces there. It’s I suppose a multipurpose artistic space, it was saved from becoming apartments, which is pretty amazing. I think that was in about maybe 2004, it was going to become apartments and a commercial place, but people banded together and stopped that from happening.

John Murch: You were actually working near or with it for seven years.

Biddy Connor: I was working in an office for the Victoria Music Teacher’s Association doing administration, would have been 2009 onwards for about seven years. I also worked for a little while for a company called The Song Room who had offices there. They take music, drama, art, and dance classes into schools that don’t have that sort of classes happening. So that’s just an example of two of the businesses that were in this building then. So the room that I was in would have been a nuns’ room at some stage. I think there still is some buildings even now being done up because it’s quite a big site.

Biddy Connor: There was lots of visual artists and writers. And the office that I was in was right next door to a bar. We had Handsome Steve’s House Of Refreshment, so it was great to go in there and meet people who were doing really interesting things in the building. And there was all these spaces that there was a space called the Oratory, which is a beautiful resonant hall. That’s really what made me want to do the long cycle because I wanted to play in there with the quartet.

John Murch: Do you get a sense of history when you’re within the building?

Biddy Connor: Definitely. There’s lots of people reacting to that site as well. There’s been numerous performances, visual art installations, and musical performances. There’s a nursing home next door now run by The Good Shepherd who were the original owners of the place I think. Definitely get a sense of it and it looks like a classic convent. There’s a lot going on there, so it’s a pretty vibrant place.

John Murch: How much of that convent story and history is in the new album, All The Stories?

Biddy Connor: The words were written by a local poet, Maria Zajkowski. It’s not a literal telling of the stories of the convent. It’s an inspiration of what was happening then. So there’s one song on it called Same But Swallowed, which Maria thought about all the different immigrant people that had come and lived in Victoria. She’s actually originally from New Zealand but her family are from eastern Europe. And so that song is inspired by that, but it also contains ideas about her own father immigrating. So not a literal retelling of stories.

John Murch: As the Artistic Director of the quartet, what’s those conversations that you’re having with Maria as the poet?

Biddy Connor: Well we spend a bit of time together in the space, the Oratory, that beautiful building. Maria would sit there and write and I would play and we did a couple of tours of the convent space as well to get to know the history and have a bit of back and forth. So I might give her some music and she might come back with some words to go with that, or it would be the other way around. She’d start writing some words and bring them to me, and then I’d have a bit of an idea about some music to go along with that. Very much a collaborative effort in that way.

John Murch: Let’s look at another track that’s on the album. It’s called Momento Mori, my understanding would be the reminder of mortality.

Biddy Connor: This is actually an Orb Weavers’ song, so this isn’t part of the song cycle, written by Marita Dyson and Stuart Flanagan and it is about silkworms. The story is with silkworms is that to create silk, the larvae are killed, they’re boiled alive. So in a way the silk clothing is the Memento Mori, because to get that amazing material, these insects have a horrible death. Marita didn’t know about this and was learning about this. She’s got a big background in textiles. And in the set that we do live, we start off with some songs about bees that are written by an American composer, Eric DeLuca. And then we do the song cycle, and then we finish with the Orb Weavers’ songs, Memento Mori and Merri. So the insects connecting. There’s lots of connecting to the waterways, the Merri and that natural environment around the Abbotsford Convent there.

John Murch: Who are The Orb Weavers? Obviously you’re working with them on this release.

Biddy Connor: The Orb Weavers are a beautiful band from Melbourne. Songwriters, Marita Dyson and Stuart Flanagan, and they write a lot about historical references to Melbourne. Last year they finished songs about waterways in Melbourne and the Letter String Quartet joins them for that performance. They have these beautiful stories about hidden waterways and lost waterways in Melbourne. One of them Blue Lake, which was a lake that was in Footscray around Footscray area. At one stage was a very important place, but it’s now underneath roadways. Interesting things that come up when Marita talks about these waterways and how they’ve disappeared and why they’ve disappeared and what importance they had to Melbourne in general.

Biddy Connor: Part of the reason why I asked her to sing this song cycle because it has this historic reference to it. Love Marita’s voice and her way she interprets things musically is wonderful, but she also has a really great understanding of history and how to retail the stories of history in a really interesting way.

John Murch: How important is music for our aural history and understanding?

Biddy Connor: It’s so important because it brings the community together at the time. It’s also a way to look back and remember what was happening at particular times and how things have changed. It’s a really beautiful way of people having a voice and being able to tell their own stories. It’s a great way of passing on information and sharing information.

John Murch: How has music helped for you to tell your story?

Biddy Connor: In a way, music has helped me be part of a community rather than tell my own story. I’ve often enjoyed helping tell stories with other people. It’s really given me a way of connecting with people that I can sometimes find difficult. And I’m sure that that’s the case for many people whether you’re a professional musician or not. If you sing in a choir or you play in an orchestra, it’s a really great way of coming together in a community and sharing an experience that can be profound, even in its normalness.

John Murch: I imagine the quartet gives a sense of wonderment as well, a base for which all that can grow upon.

Biddy Connor: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. There’s something special that happens when you play with people over a long period of time. This connection that happens that’s very much like a little family in a way. You start to understand each other in ways that you might not otherwise. It’s a bit of an intangible thing almost to that connection, but you can feel it develop over time.

John Murch: As an audience member, I get that perspective when I see a quartet, maybe something like the Zephyr Quartet here in Adelaide, South Australia, that the four corners really protect the performers in where they’re at in the communication. It’s like a circle but it’s got four corners. We get this privy of looking upon and hearing the audio come back from that.

Biddy Connor: There’s definitely that feeling of… Did you say protection?

John Murch: Yeah.

Biddy Connor: Can be very exposing as well because everyone has their own role to play in it. Everyone’s an individual voice and you can hear those individual voices coming out at the same time. But yeah, I love watching classical quartets and the way they come in with just a sniff and then everyone knows where it is and they’re all playing in time, and the nature of a stringed instrument is this time where you put the bow down on the string and then you draw it and then the sound comes out. So often it can be a really malleable sense of time, but it still sits together really nicely.

John Murch: Biddy Connor is the artistic director, viola player of The Letter String Quartet. Their album will be out in 2020. The current single is All The Stories. I want to ask you about a collaboration you did in 2018, Glowing Pains: Music From The Garden Between. It’s a Tim Shiel release. How did you get to be on track number two with a song, Where Will We Go, with Mr. Tim Shiel? What an honor.

Biddy Connor: It’s definitely an honor. Tim did a bit of a call out to some people to see if they wanted to play on… I think their tracks weren’t completely formed, so he sent some basics of what he’d done and then played and sang a little bit on it and sent it back to him on the understanding that he could just edit it however he wanted. But Tim has been a really great… He’s been a bit of a mentor in some ways. I was lucky enough to get a job writing some music for a game through Tim. He recommended me for this game called Paperbark, which is a kid’s iPad game about wombats, came about through him and that was really lovely.

John Murch: Another thing that people should well know about you, and I want to hear more from you about personally, broadcaster at 3MBS about classical kids.

Biddy Connor: They were looking for someone to host this show and someone said to me, “Maybe you’re interested in it.” And so I did the training. I love radio. I think it’s a fabulous medium. It was really good to get the chance to learn how to use the radio studio there. And on Classically Kids, I do it every week. I have four co-hosts currently. Week one is Jess Carrascalao Heard. She just did her first week with me on the Saturday just gone. But she’s been on 3MBS for a long time doing various shows. Jess is replacing wonderful musician, Amy Bennett.

Biddy Connor: The second week I have Oliver Mann who’s a bass baritone singer who also writes his own music. He often does a segment about opera. The third week I have Ariel Valent and he goes to different places in the world. So he’ll pick a country and then he’ll play music from that country. And the fourth week, Zach Johnson, who’s a amazing violin player and he does a segment called twisted classical. So he’ll take a piece of classical music and then play all the versions he can find, and there’s always a jazz one.

John Murch: Talk to me about the importance and how you, Biddy, as a communicator and that’s what you are as a broadcaster, are getting kids involved and interested into classical music at a younger age.

Biddy Connor: It’s important to be exposed to the history of music like that, but also to be exposed to it as an ongoing musical genre. So to know that there are people still writing music, and there are people in Australia still writing, and there are Australian women who write music in this. Our theme music is by Peggy Glanville-Hicks. This year we’ve had lots of alive female musician composers. Last month we had an amazing composer, Dindy Vaughan, originally from New South Wales. She’s from an indigenous background, she’s 90 something and she’s still writing music, still giving lessons. She came into the studio and did a live interview with us. Her music is amazing and still going. And so having those role models I think is a really important thing for young people to see and hear.

John Murch: To keep them connected with the classical music form as well.

Biddy Connor: I think learning music at school is so important, and playing in groups at school, and having the option of doing that in all sorts of genres, being inspired to want to practice something like that. Whether you go on to do it all the time or if it’s just something that you learn and enjoy as a hobby. There’s been so many studies about how good it is for your brain learning music. When I was working for The Song Room we were going to schools that didn’t have programs. For a few years I was working at an English language school and I could really see how putting literacy and numeracy ideas into music helps the kids to learn and engage more with their schoolwork and with each other.

John Murch: Understanding is you’ve done a bit of traveling in the last 12 months as part of the quartet, but also solo as well. That cultural engagement of live music or even just vocalizing music, I think there’s been footage recently that you were listening to some Korean singings, for example.

Biddy Connor: Recently had this excellent experience. I got to take part in a creative music intensive with the Australian Art Orchestra in Tasmania in a place called Terraleah, which is an old hydro electrics town in the mountains in Tasmania, just out of Hobart, maybe two hours out of Hobart. And on the faculty there was quite a few Korean musicians and an amazing story singer Bael Il Dong, and he has a history of working with members of the Australian Art Orchestra and also most particularly with the drummer up in Sydney called Simon Barker jazz drummer. This intense, it was so great. I was one of maybe 27 people who attended. On the faculty there was a mixture of jazz, lots of talk about rhythm, and then we’d just do free improvising together in the afternoon. I’m still half there to be honest.

John Murch: I’ve jotted down Mick Harvey, I’m thinking Mick Harvey of The Bad Seeds.

Biddy Connor: 2017, Mick Harvey wrote some pieces for us, performed with Mick at The Recital Centre. We were doing a series at The Recital Center. I think I’d recorded on one of his Serge Gainsbourg albums. I cheekily asked him if he would write some music on Letters From Quartet and he said yes, so that was pretty great. And then we recorded them. Mick released them last year and they are inspired by the plight of refugees around the world. So these recordings ended up being donated. The money from it goes to the ASRC. Four beautiful pieces, mostly instrumental with some piano and percussion from Mick Harvey on it. So that was a really lovely experience to work with someone of such great inspiration to many people with his own work with PJ Harvey and in The Bad Seeds.

John Murch: What is the plan for 2020 and onwards for the TLSQ?

Biddy Connor: The album, which has taken awhile because that’s just what happens when everyone’s very busy and doing lots of different things, so it’ll be really great to get the album out. We’re going to do a launch in Melbourne in March. If we could come back to Adelaide, we would in a heartbeat.

John Murch: That experience of doing the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, was it under the Zemiro? Was it under Barry Humphreys?

Biddy Connor: It was Julia Zemiro and we did a show with Tina Del Twist who is the alter ego of Wes Snelling. Tina is a beautiful, tragic cabaret singer. This is one of the beauties of being in a string is that ability to play with other people and then do our own stuff as well. But yeah, doing this cabaret show, it’s so different from the stuff we do with Mick Harvey for example. But there’s still this… I don’t know, it feels right to have those different streams.

John Murch: You’ve recorded with Augie March and Jen Cloher.

Biddy Connor: Augie March, we did some strings on the last recording. And we also had the pleasure of playing live with them at a National Gallery of Victoria performance. They always have their excellent brass trio playing with them, but they had strings that night as well.

John Murch: And the Jen Cloher recording-

Biddy Connor: Hasn’t been released yet. It’s part of a Milk Records compilation. I played in Jen’s band from years ago.

John Murch: Was that during the In Blood Memory years?

Biddy Connor: Yes.

John Murch: Very fine record indeed. Biddy, is there any other solo projects that you might be doing there in the works? Is there some writing that you’d like to share with us that you’re currently working on?

Biddy Connor: There’s nothing solid. I’m hoping to record a couple of solo songs in the next few months.

John Murch: Under a moniker or as your own name?

Biddy Connor: I think I might do it as my own name. Okay. Now I’ve said it out loud on recording I’m going to have to do it. There’s two shows that The Letter are going to be working on next year. One of them will be with Richard Franklin, who’s an amazing renaissance man who is an academic, he’s a playwright, he’s a songwriter. That’s our one project, the other one is show that we did a bit of a development for, which was about the Nicholas building, which is a building in Melbourne that’s full of artists’ studios. Did an element with chambermaid using recorded interviews of tenants from the Nicholas building. Speaking of textiles, it was in the city part of the textile area in Flinders Lane in the city, kind of Escher type building with lots of staircases and lifts, and it’s quite fascinating. Those are two shows The Letter we’ll be working towards next year.

John Murch: Who is your favorite artist or what is your favorite painting?

Biddy Connor: My favorite visual artist, she’s an Australian artist. She lives in France now. Liz Racz, she actually did the artwork for the Sailor Days album. Beautiful, interesting artist who now lives in France and apparently sings in a punk band too.

John Murch: The final thing is what do you mean a forklift operator’s license for?

Biddy Connor: For my day job. I’m the loans officer for Federation Handbells, which are sets of bells that were made in 2001 for a performance that Sidney Myer Music Bowl to celebrate the centenary of Federation and now they’re part of the outreach program with the museum. So people buy them to use the compositions, people use them in schools, community choirs. They’re kept in a warehouse on racks so you need a forklift to get them down.

John Murch: I’m so glad I asked that question.

Biddy Connor: There’s so much more I could tell you about that. It’s a great job.

John Murch: Thank you so much for joining radionotes.

Biddy Connor: Thanks, John.