Peter singer on animals, effective altruism, and the ethical life

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A conversation with Professor Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. The interview looks at his life story, and touches on his works which helped shape the modern animal rights movement and advanced our understanding of practical ethics in relation to international aid and development. 

 Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Peter Singer

Melbourne
Monday 13 August, 2018

 

00:00 Nick: It's a great honour and a privilege to be here with Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne.

 

00:14 Peter is consistently described as one of the leading philosophers and public intellectuals in the world, and I think he is one of the most influential and significant Australians of all time for his work in founding the modern animal rights movement and also in his work in practical ethics and international development and the eradication of extreme poverty.

 

00:32 Before we begin, a quick disclaimer that I'm not a philosopher, nor even a student of philosophy in any meaningful sense. Peter has spent a lifetime answering the most serious and challenging questions about morality and what it means to be human, while the most pressing questions I deal with are what to order for dinner on Uber Eats each night, but I am interested in human beings and what it means to live an ethical and authentic life in the 21st century. And also, how Professor Singer uses his own contributions to humanity and life on earth.

 

00:55 So, for listeners and readers not familiar with you and your work, Professor Singer, could you please give a brief vignette-filled overview of your life story in your terms, including that of your family's migration to Australia and your education at Ormond College and University of Melbourne and your work as a philosopher.

 

01:15 Peter: Okay, happy to do that, Nick. But first, I think you'll need to learn how to cook so that you can stop ordering from Uber Eats.

 

01:23 I was born in Australia in 1946 and that was just after the war. My parents came to Australia just before the war. They were refugees from Austria, from Vienna. They were Jewish so once the Nazis marched in, they realised that they had to leave, and they were fortunate enough to have met an Australian who offered to sponsor them to get a Visa. It wasn't easy to get a Visa to come to Australia. So, that's where they landed.

 

01:48 I grew up in Melbourne and went to the University of Melbourne, originally intending to study law but an advisor here suggested I do a combined arts/law degree because I'd done well in my arts subjects.

 

01:59 And I got interested in the arts side more than the law. I completed an honours degree in philosophy and history, and then decided to go on to do first a master’s which I did in philosophy. And then I was also fortunate enough to get a scholarship to go to Oxford, so I did further graduate studies at Oxford.

 

02:24 It was at Oxford that I got interested particularly in applied ethics which was - you couldn't really say it was a new field because it had been done for many centuries earlier, going right back to Socrates.

 

02:42 But when I was at the University of Melbourne, most of ethics was really conceptual analysis. It wasn't really about how we ought to live or what we ought to do. It was considered that they were not really proper questions for philosophers to answer.

 

03:03 But like everybody in the department, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher called John McCluskey who did political philosophy and was concerned about questions like, "What's the best kind of state? Or what should the limits on an individual freedom be?" 

 

03:15 But a lot of other philosophers at that time thought that the business of philosophy was to analyse the meaning of moral words. This was a time when there was a lot of student ferment. The Vietnam War was on. I'd been involved in Melbourne in protests against the Vietnam War and I thought that philosophy could actually connect with this. Traditionally, it had. Traditionally, philosophers discussed questions like, "Should we obey an unjust law?"

 

03:46 So, I tried to connect my philosophy with those issues that interested me. And I found an advisor at Oxford, R M Hare, who supervised my thesis on whether we ought to obey the law in a democracy, if we think we disagree with the law, are we obliged to obey it or not?

 

04:06 So, iI was getting into what you’d call normal ethics or anywhere normative political philosophy. And then I started writing about ethics as well, getting into questions about the obligations of the affluent to people in extreme poverty, which was something that was triggered in part by the crisis in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, when the Pakistani army brutally suppressed a movement for autonomy in that part of Pakistan and 9 million people fled over the border to India to escape the Pakistani army. So, 9 million refugees in a small area in a very poor country and not getting nearly enough assistance from the rich nations of the world. 

 

05:00 That's what got me thinking about what are my obligations as an individual. I didn't have a lot of money. I was living on a scholarship and my wife was a school teacher but still, living comfortably. And what were our obligations to help people in such desperate need?

 

05:19 Nick: So, while I was preparing for this interview, I found it most helpful to start with your 1972 essay 'Famine, Affluence and Morality.' I was able to understand your subsequent work on animal rights and effective altruism which we'll explore later throughout the interview, with a grounding in this essay. So, can you touch on - I guess in greater depth and perhaps you've already done so - the suffering and devastation that was then occurring in East Bengal and how it prompted you to write the essay? But I suppose more relevantly because you've already covered this off, what it was that you were saying that had not been said before or had not been heard in that particular way such that it had the impact that it did?

 

05:53 Peter: Right, well ‘famine, affluence and morality’ is the essay that I was referring to that was prompted by that situation. But also prompted by the desire to write something that was applied ethics and that was relevant to a large number of people. So, not a sort of arcane question that you were not likely to come across. Questions like 'Is capital punishment justified?' are not questions that really have a practical significance for most people except as citizens voting I suppose, but otherwise only for people in government making those decisions.

 

06:37 Whereas questions about 'Are we justified in spending money on luxuries that we don't really need when there are people that are in extreme poverty in the world?' are questions that really affect everybody who can afford to buy a cup of coffee which costs as much as some people in the world have to live on for the entire day.

 

06:54 So, the situation in what's now Bangladesh was really a dramatic way of raising this question, but the question is one that goes on all the time, whether there is such a crisis or not because there are people in extreme poverty. We can help them quite inexpensively and the question is whether we're justified in ignoring that, whether we can think of ourselves as living an ethical life if we don't do something significant for people in extreme poverty.

 

07:23 So, what did I say that was new in that essay? Well, it's pretty hard in philosophy after two millennia of philosophy to say something that nobody has said before. So, I'm not going to claim that I did but I certainly said things that nobody was saying at the time. Pretty much nobody in philosophy.

 

07:50 In fact, as I mentioned in the article, some of what I was saying was really quite consistent with traditional Christian and more specifically Roman Catholic teaching because I think I quoted Thomas Aquinas who said that the right to property exists in order to help us meet our basis needs, to help us better meet our needs.

 

08:22 But if in fact it's standing in the way of meeting those basic needs, then you don't have a right to that property. Say, for example I'm a wealthy man and I'm putting on a big, lavish feast for all my friends and there's somebody who is starving or whose family is starving, and he is able to come to the table and take a loaf of bread and put it under his cloak and walk off with it, he's not stealing according to Aquinas. He's not stealing because I have no right to this abundance when his needs are going unsatisfied. So, he actually has a right to that loaf of bread.

 

08:57 Nick: And so, in the context of what was happening at the time, I remember there was this great example that you raised about the exorbitant spending on the supersonic aircraft and the comparatively little funding that was spent on addressing the human suffering of I think 7 to 9 million people you mentioned. Is that an example of what you're saying?

 

09:23 Peter: Yes, that's right. I was talking about the amount being spend to develop Concord which was the first supersonic commercial passenger plane and clearly, it was not a great success because it was withdrawn after use. It flew for some years, a small number of flights, very expensive. A couple of them crashed and then it was withdrawn, so that was actually with a benefit of hindsight, we can see now, really a vast waste of money. And that money could have gone to help people in extreme poverty, to meet their needs.

 

09:56 So, I did then, and I even more firmly do now think that we ought not to have spent that kind of money when there are other people in extreme poverty.

 

10:09 Nick: So, perhaps with reference to effective altruism and your 2009 work, The Life You Can Save, can you expand upon this notion of moral cosmopolitanism which I think maybe even in referencing Christian theology - the idea that every soul is of equal worth - can you expand upon the idea of moral cosmopolitanism and the idea that all lives are equal, and that individual suffering is worthy of our attention, regardless of geographical distance or other factors such as familial connection or even time - the idea that we should consider future generations?

 

10:37 Peter: Yeah, that was certainly a large part of the argument because the article started by using this example which has acquired a kind of fame of its own about seeing a small child in danger of drowning in a pond and thinking about whether you should rescue this child. It's not your child. You're not responsible for it in any way. It's the child of a stranger and you don't know where the parents are.

 

10:58 But should you rescue it, even at the cost of ruining your really expensive clothes that you happen to be wearing and that you wouldn't have time to take off if you were going to jump into the pond and save the child?

 

11:09 So, pretty much everybody agrees that you should rescue the child there in front of you, even at the cost of spending let's say a few hundred dollars on replacing those expensive clothes.

 

11:26 But what you need to do then is to think about well, if it would be wrong to leave the child to drown in a pond, is it wrong to leave the child to die of malaria because there are no bed nets in that village, despite the fact that malaria is prevalent there and children often die of it?

 

11:47 That's just another example where we can for a modest amount of money, save a life or certainly reduce the chances of a child dying.

 

11:57 And then you have to say well, yeah, but the one child is in front of you and the other child is on the other side of the world. One child, you can actually see. The other child, you don't know who the child is that you'll save. One child is - you'll solve the entire problem there by pulling the child out of the pond. The other child, let's say you'll donate enough to save one child's life but there will be other children who are still going to die from malaria.

 

12:20 So, I examined whether those kinds of things make a difference. Do they make a difference to your ethical obligations? And a significant part of the argument of that article is to argue that they don't. So, I'm arguing that we do have - as you were saying - cosmopolitan moral obligations.

 

12:41 Another way to look at it is to say we ought to take a universal point of view. We ought to not simply look at the world from where we are today. That is, here I am in Melbourne, there are people in some need close to me in Melbourne but there are people in significantly greater need elsewhere or needs that can be more easily and effectively met elsewhere in the world.

 

13:16 So, should I first look after the needs of people in Melbourne, even if I can help more people with the limited resources I have if I help people far away from me? I would argue no, we ought to give equal weight to everyone's interests, irrespective of where they are, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their race, their religion, whatever. And that means that we ought to really be focusing much more on people in developing countries than in our own community.

 

13:41 Nick: As you mentioned in the article, it does kind of run counter to millennia of human psychological evolution in that we are kind of hardwired to be more concerned about the child drowning in the pond in our immediate vicinity or perhaps the child who is part of our family. Essentially, privileging the tribe or those who are most like us rather than the other or someone who is maybe many thousands of kilometres away and that seems to many people to be a natural response. 

 

14:10 With thinking about that, can you perhaps comment on how globalisation and technology has eradicated these boundaries to empathy and concern to fellow human beings, what the implications are in the 21st century when there are no real barriers to have communications with or having connections with people around the globe?

 

14:36 Peter: Yes, you're right of course that we have now technologies to relate to people on the other side of the world that we never had until relatively recently. That enables us to know what their needs are. It enables us to respond to urgent needs like drought, famine, civil war and so on.

 

14:55 And I do think that creates obligations which people didn't have a few generations ago when they couldn't really help. I mean, if you can't help somebody far away, clearly you don't have an obligation to help them.

 

15:10 So, that has made a difference. And it's also made some kind of psychological difference because we can see more of what's happening and image is often very powerful emotionally as the image of the small Turkish boy, the child of Syrian refugees who was washed up on the shore. That made a huge impact on people's support for refugees and the amount that was contributed to organisations helping refugees.

 

15:49 So, emotionally seeing something - even seeing a photo - makes a difference. And seeing something directly in front of you when it's not a photo makes a bigger difference. And I think, as you were hinting at, there are obviously evolutionary reasons why that should be so, why we should be geared to help people that we can see and that we can help and that mostly will be part of our own tribal or social group because that's how our ancestors lived, in quite small communities.

 

16:20 But the ethical question is so, okay, it does make a psychological difference. You could even say its natural in some way to respond to someone you can see rather than a stranger you can't see. But given that we're aware of the situation, given that we can know that we will save a child, given that will be a real child - just as real as the child in front of me, even if I never know who that child is - then I would argue that our psychological readiness to help the child near doesn't really translate into an ethical difference. It doesn't mean that it's required of me to help the child in front of me and not required of me to help the child far away who I don't see.

 

17:07 So, taking it one step further from the individual's responsibility in an ethical sense, how should governments prioritise the collective ethical responsibility of taxpayers, for instance, in terms of making decisions about allocating funds towards hundreds of thousands of people in international aid programs, for instance in Indonesia, or a smaller collective of farmers here in Australia? Does the same kind of principle apply at the government public policy level?

 

17:35 Peter: I think the general principal is that you should try and do the most good you can, whether an individual or a government. But it's true that governments are responsible to their electors, at least if we're talking about democratic governments - and I do think that democracy is the best available system or as Winston Churchill put it, the worst system except for all the others.

 

18:10 So, I favour that, and I recognise that governments have to please their voters, or they will be thrown out of office and there's no point in doing things that are going to be undone by your successor.

 

18:22 So, I think here governments need to lead and encourage voters to see this as something important, as something that's not going to hurt them to spend a modest amount on effective aid overseas.

 

18:35 And it is an extremely modest amount that we're spending. In fact, in Australia I would say it's a shamefully modest amount. We're spending about 22 cents in every hundred dollars that the nation earns, so about one-fifth of 1% of what we earn as a nation, and that's way below other countries that we compare ourselves with. It's only about a third of what the United Kingdom spends on foreign aid.

 

19:03 So, I think governments ought to educate the public as to how little we are spending and why the right thing to do is actually to spend more.

 

19:16 Nick: So, with this idea of moral cosmopolitanism and empathy for other sentient beings in mind, regardless of other things we've talked about like vicinity and other things like familial connection. I'd like to move to a consideration of your work in the animal rights movement which largely started with your 1975 work, Animal Liberation. So, I'd like to begin with the question of humankind's relationship to animals and the concept of animal rights as an extension of your reconsideration of humankind's concern for the suffering of other beings and by simple extension, the suffering of animals. That question didn't come out so well as it was written hastily over lunch. 

 

19:45 If I may, I'll open with a quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Enemies, A Love Story’ which you referenced at Melbourne University the other day. “As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought. In their behaviour towards creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with another species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principal that might is right. In relation to them, all people are Nazis. For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka”

 

20:11 So, that quote seems to echo Thracymachus’s assertion that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger from Plato's Republic. Can you speak about the notion of speciesism which features strongly in animal liberation?

 

20:28 Peter: Yes. It's a very powerful quote obviously. I don't think that Isaac [unclear] or Herman, the person who he is speaking through, is saying the same as Thracymachus. Because I think for Thracymachus is really taking a cynical view that there is no such thing as justice. When he says justice is really the interests of the stronger, that's a deflationary kind of justice. You know, if that's true, then sure, the stronger might force us to do what they want us to do but that's not justice. That's compulsion.

 

21:11 So, I don't think that IB Singer - who incidentally is no relation to me - I don't think that he is being cynical about justice. He's just saying that the relationship between ourselves and animals parallels the relationship between Nazi's and their victims, particularly Jews, in that they are stronger, and they do what they want to do. And of course, that's unjust in both cases but that's not to say that there isn't such a thing as justice.

 

21:43 It's a very powerful quote before of course Singer is a Jewish writer and some people would find that offensive, that to compare effectively in some sense Jews with animals - if you are comparing what we do with the animals with what the Nazis did to the Jews, then sort of the Jews are in the position of animals. Again, that's not what IB Singer was saying.

 

22:08 But he was saying these are situations in which we fail to deal rightly with people who are in our power. In fact, we deal very wrongly with them.

 

22:21 And although I've generally avoided making that comparison between Nazis and the way we treat animals, I can see why Isaac Bashevis Singer is making it because he is appalled at what's happening. We do it without much thought for the victims of it and we do it when we don't need to do it.

 

22:52 So, I think in that sense, it's an accurate account of our relationships with animals which is one where generally we simply use them as our means, as we wish to do so, with very little thought for their interests.

 

23:07 Now, that's not the case perhaps with dogs and cats and horses, other animals that we feel fondly about or have some relationship with. But it's very definitely the case with most of the animals who we eat because they're reared in factory farms with no real concern for their interests. The limits to how much we will crowd them together or misuse them are really just the limits of whether we'll reduce our profits because so many of them will die that we won't get the products at the end that we want to.

 

23:47 Ian: It's obviously a sensitive question but growing up in the shadow of World War Two and the Holocaust and your own family's experience, but how much did your family's experience inform your instinctive feelings and philosophical work in regard to repulsion towards totalitarian regimes and arbitrary cruelty, violence and suffering? Is that something that was...?

 

24:06 Peter: I'm sure it played a significant role. It's very hard to trace the influences on yourself, especially when they began when you were a small child. But obviously I knew a lot about Nazis. I knew a lot about what the Nazi's had done to my family and although my parents escaped, my grandparents did not and three of them were murdered in Nazi camps.

 

24:34 So, that was very present. As I got older, I read quite a lot of history. As I mentioned, I did both history and philosophy here at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate. And in history, I did a lot of different periods. I ended up doing quite a lot of history of the rise of fascism in Europe and the rise and fall of the Third Reich. So, I was aware of the brutality that was involved, of the breakdown of law and order, of the Nazi SA thugs in the streets and the things that they had done to my family when the Nazi's marched into Austria.

 

25:25 So, I think an abhorrence of that probably did play a role in forming my attitudes about the importance of the rule of law, the importance of decent institutions, open society, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and also concern for the weaker and the victims.

 

25:45 Of course, I could have had it without any Nazi background. Many people do but I think in my case, I was influenced by that.

 

25:51 Ian: You've also written about how when you went to Oxford, I think you started speaking with your wife and suddenly you have this volta or change in your attitudes. You said something like, "I think we need to stop eating meat," or something. It was a decision you came to together.

 

26:04 And like with the example of the suffering of millions in East Bengal, was there any particular personal experiences which spurred you on to adopt that position?

 

26:18 Peter: No, I mean, I think the encounter I had with a Canadian student, Richard Keshen, who was a vegetarian and a vegetarian because he didn't think it was right to treat animals as the animals that we're eating were treated. It was really the trigger for that.

 

26:37 I'd never really thought very much about the ethics of how we treat animals up to then. And I know that will sound pretty strange today when it's impossible to imagine that you get to being 24 years old and a graduate student at Oxford without having encountered people who are ethical vegetarians and who are stimulated don't think about that issue.

 

26:56 But that's how it was. I had never met a - if I'd met a vegetarian at all, I think it was a Hindu, and obviously I didn't relate to that. But I don't think - until I met Richard Keshen, I don't think I'd met someone who was an ethical vegetarian for non-religious reasons.

 

27:20 That wasn't really an issue that was being discussed. There was the RSPCA which was concerned mostly about cruelty to cats and dogs but there was no discussion of the treatment of animals in factory farms. So, I hadn't really come across that but once I did and once I went into it a little bit, then obviously the question of whether we were justified in eating meat arose. And as you said, I had a discussion with Renata, my wife, about that and she agreed that we should make that change.

 

28:01 I was ready to make it, so we did, and that was - of all the things that my work in ethics had actually on my personal life, the impact that it had on my personal life - that was by far, the most momentous because here it was changing something that we did every day. Twice a day, anyway. We didn't eat meat for breakfast as some Australian's do but twice a day anyway, I was usually eating meat. And this was something we had to change.

 

28:25 So, that was a big step and that did lead to this turning point and we also started thinking about our obligations to the poor and donating 10% of our income it was at that time, to Oxfam for its anti-poverty work. So, that was certainly a turning point in my life.

 

28:44 Nick: This is a bit of a long question, but I think one of the most beautiful and impactful pieces of writing in Australia in the last decade was Anna Krien’s 2012 Quarterly Essay, Us And Them. 

 

28:58 It opens with a sophisticated vignette about the slipperiness between our notions of humankind and animals and how we're often able to recognise in animals those qualities we like to think make us human and vice versa.

 

29:10 It makes very compelling and emotive reading and by blurring the lines between animal and human, encourages us to see animals as other ‘beings’ rather than mere ‘things’ whose suffering isn't morally relevant or can be explained away or even justified, biblically or otherwise.

 

29:21 So, can you reflect on the role of empathy in changing attitudes towards consuming animals? Like, for instance we don't eat other human beings because they are like us, exactly so. We don't eat species we keep as pets because we see ourselves in them and have feelings for them. 

 

29:35 We are generally more comfortable eating non-mammalian creatures like fish rather than animals such as cows and sheep. And people are generally non-plussed about eating non-sentient beings without central nervous systems like oysters. So, there seems to be a bit of a hierarchy based on likeness to us.

 

29:48 Peter: I don't agree if we are talking about Australians - and I don't think most people are at all uncomfortable about eating pigs and cows unfortunately. I think they should be, but I don't think we've got to that point.

 

30:01 I think the better contrast is to say we're very uncomfortable about people eating dogs and pretty uncomfortable about people eating horses. So, we think it's appalling that the Chinese and Koreans eat dogs, but we don't really transfer that over to well, isn't it just as appalling that we eat pigs? After all, it wasn't for nothing that George Orwell made pigs the leaders of Animal Farm above the dogs because pigs are at least as intelligent as dogs. But we don't have them running around the home, so we don't relate to them in that way.

 

30:44 I think that's the major boundary - the idea that there are some animals who we admit to our home and almost because part of our family and we love them and care for them. And then there's others that we don't have much to do with and they are mostly out of sight as well, living indoors and in huge sheds. We just buy pieces of them at the supermarket and that's where the empathy cuts out.

 

31:11 So, show us a picture of the dog markets in Seoul and yes, empathy comes in. Pick up a piece of pork at the supermarket or steak or cow or whatever it is, and there's very little empathy. 

 

31:24 So, I think the trouble with empathy is it's often too geared to those kinds of emotions, and it takes an effort to actually say, "Hey, wait a minute. Pigs are also animals that can have a good life and that it's wrong to inflict a miserable life on just because we want to eat parts of their body."

 

31:50 And so, it's a kind of a cognitive empathy that we need, not an emotive empathy if we're really to get beyond these pretty arbitrary lines that we draw.

 

32:05 Nick: This leads onto my next question about, how hard is it to be human (in your philosophy), because humans don't like thinking and cognitive empathy certainly very difficult and something that requires effort. So, how hard is it to be human - when we are flawed and self-interested in the most part - and to do what your philosophy demands with regards to our relationship to animals? I feel sick sometimes when you think about 60 billion animals slaughtered and one trillion fish each year for human consumption. I become quite misanthropic and almost left in a state of despair and yet, I still haven't changed my behaviour in some years about eating meat.

 

32:42 I was vegetarian for 18 months for a time and then I suppose, you just forget about it. It just becomes easy amidst the business of life to not think about other beings.

 

32:56 Peter: Well, I'm not quite sure how to respond to that because I think it's always there and I don't actually think it's all that difficult - certainly it's not difficult to be vegetarian. Being vegan is sometimes a little more complicated, but I don't think it's really hard to stop eating animals.

 

33:16 Yeah, my life is busy too but that doesn't mean that I somehow would save a lot of time if only I went out and bought a steak or something like that.

 

33:28 So, is it hard? I don't think it's really hard to be human in this way. If by being human, you mean living out the ethics of how we ought to live. I think there are various pressures - psychological pressures, group conformity pressures - that lead people not to do it. But I think it's really easier than many people imagine.

 

33:58 Nick: I did it for 18 months. I was there...

 

34:01 Peter: Right. We need to have a conversation about why you went back to eating it after not doing it for 18 months.

 

34:06 Nick: Swordfish steaks was the gateway back to - real steaks. Anyway...

 

34:10 Peter: Okay, so some people think the solution to people like you is to produce steaks from plant-based products or invitro cell culture that are real meat but don't involve any animal suffering and fewer greenhouse gases.

 

34:27 So, maybe it's actually that we have some capacity for ethical thought but it's weak and therefore, it's outweighed often by your desire for swordfish steaks or your desire for T-bone steaks or whatever they might be.

 

34:41 Nick: But I think the point remains - going back to the 1972 piece about if you can be moral and there's a very little cost to it, then you should act to save the child, despite getting your boots wet or so on.

 

34:50 You mentioned it before. If you could have a plant-based substitute and in many ways, all the grain production on earth could sate the human need or demand for protein, why wouldn't we do it? It seems to be more a question of human pleasure or desire for animal products rather than it does about meeting a basic need as perhaps it once was, which bore out of necessity to eat the meat.

 

35:15 Peter: As I said, I think it's partly a kind of peer pressure. I think we are rather like sheep in not wanting to go our own ways as individuals as many people are. I think it may take a critical mass of people to refuse to eat animals for it to become easier for other people to do so.

 

35:45 And maybe we're getting there. Certainly, the number of vegetarians and vegans seem to be rising or at least the vegan and vegetarian food is much more evident now than it used to be. It's much easier to find in your supermarket aisles or in your restaurant menus.

 

36:04 So, maybe that's going to create some sort of tipping point. Or maybe, as we were saying, it's the production of better alternatives to meat that will do it. But I certainly don't despair of us actually getting there.

 

36:17 Nick: Yeah, it kind of leads on to a question about will, really. You're famously an atheist but I think that a lot of the things you advocate for which is essentially compassion and kindness towards other beings - as regards to the things we've discussed today - would be a lot easier if we could be certain of the existence of God. Not because we fear of being struck down by some omnipotent and retributive force when we stray from what is objectively right or true but because we could be certain of particular model truths which would make it easier to object to factory farming and eating meat, supposing God had forbade those things.

 

36:52 And as it happens, the converse is true where a lot of the attitudes towards eating meat are justified by the biblical hierarchies set out in Genesis 1, that is that God granted man dominion over the fish of the sea and animals of the land for his use and consumption.

 

37:11 So, when faced with what Camus called the 'benign indifference of the universe' - that is, a universe without God which is indifferent to our suffering and the suffering of animals on earth - why should we ultimately and metaphysically be concerned about the suffering of animals?

 

37:25 This might a bridge too far but if you can keep with me. To borrow ridiculously Plato’s example of The Ring of Gyges, why should we act in a moral way in a godless or atheistic universe in which there is no punishment for injustices, particularly when we consider that all morality may be socially constructed including your own, and the ones that you outline in Animal Liberation?

 

37:55 Peter: Well, I don't think that all morality is socially constructed. I do think there are objectively right ethical principles. And I think for example, inflicting suffering pointlessly is something that any rationale being, whatever society they had grown up in and indeed whether they were human or some other form of rational life, would be able to see was wrong.

 

38:22 And that has nothing to do with a belief in a God because there's the famous dilemma in Plato’s Euthyphro about, do the gods command things because they're right or are they right because the gods command them? Unless you want to make the god's arbitrary tyrants, you have to say the gods command them because they are right. So, you would need some sort of notion of what was right to make sense of that idea.

 

38:57 Of course you can ask well, what will motivate us to do what's right? One possible answer would be because well, we see that it's right and we're rationale beings and that in itself is a motivation to do what we see as the right thing to do.

 

39:12 But that doesn't seem to be a powerful enough motive for many people. So, I do think we need to add that in fact it's a fulfilling and rewarding kind of life, to do what is in accordance with our values and to feel that we're living to some purpose and that purpose is not only our own happiness, but it's a purpose of making the world a better place.

 

39:35 And I know that motivates me and it motivates a lot of people in the effective altruism movement. So, I do think that’s real and there's also plenty of good psychological studies that back that up, that show that people who are more generous and caring about others are actually more content with their lives and have a greater life fulfilment and satisfaction than others.

 

39:54 Nick: To wrap up - I know you've got to run - but when you look out to the horizon of the 21st century, what are you most optimistic and pessimistic about for humankind and other beings on the blue planet?

 

40:08 Peter: Well, I'm pessimistic particularly about our ability to deal with climate change. That seems to be the major worry at the moment, that we're not doing what we need to do. That the result is going to be a warming planet which is going to be much worse for billions of the world's poorest people and that's going to exacerbate a lot of problems.

 

40:35 If it were not for that, I'd be reasonably optimistic about our ability to make progress in feeding the world, in finding solutions to violence and generally also in increasing concern for animals as we decreasingly actually need to use them because of technological advances.

 

41:03 So, you could say I'm broadly optimistic except for the problem of climate change which is a particular dilemma because it requires everybody to act together. It's not enough for one individual or even one nation to act on it. It does require coordination so it's a kind of problem where it's in short term interests of everyone to be free riders on everyone else's actions, and that's why it's so hard to solve.

 

41:27 Nick: I forgot to add - this is one for a friend, a very quick one. There have been massive moral and social transformations in the last 75 to 100 years, for instance attitudes towards homosexuality or interracial marriage. Looking forward to the next 20 to 50 years, what are some things that you think may be considered wrong or whatever now but which you think might become accepted?

 

41:49 Peter: Interesting the conservative American columnist, Charles Krauthammer was asked to discuss that question in a column. Our attitudes and treatment of animals was the thing that he mentioned although not been known previously as someone who was particularly concerned about that or a campaigner about that.

 

42:12 So, obviously I do think that's something people will look back on and they'll be appalled at the way we treated animals as we are now appalled at the way that slave owners treated African slaves or Romans treated Christians in the arena.

 

42:33 But it's very hard otherwise to predict the things that have not yet been raised, that are not yet on the horizon. I don't have a crystal ball for seeing.

 

42:38 Nick: Professor Singer, thank you so much for your time today. It's been a singular pleasure.

Alma Zygier on jazz, performing and finding your voice

 
 Melbourne, Sunday 20 May, 2018   Interview with Alma Zygier – 20 May 2018      00:00  Nick: It's a great privilege and honour to be here with Alma Zygier today on my podcast which I am tentatively calling 'The Voice Behind the Voice' in which we try to get a sense of who the person is behind the performance.      00:14  I think Alma is one of the most extraordinary voices in Melbourne, certainly in jazz. This is high praise, we'll be there but...      00:24  I think she's going to have a really special career. She's twenty at the moment which is hard to realise, hard to sort of appreciate when you actually do hear her voice for the first time.      00:32  But I first heard Alma at an Amy Winehouse tribute concert for the Jewish Museum of Australia back in February and then I saw her again at the opening of Hummingbird in St Kilda, which is a really cool new jazz club here in Melbourne.      00:48  But, yeah, so Alma very kindly agreed to do this interview today. Thank you for being here.      00:52 Alma: My pleasure. It's such high praise. I'm loving it, ha ha.     00:54  Nick: But what a great Sunday afternoon just to have someone talk about you for forty-five minutes, an hour.      01:01 Alma: I know. I love it, you know? My ego is going to explode.     01:02  Nick: Yeah, fantastic. Good, good. So, maybe in your words, you could tell me your story. You're obviously from European and a Jewish sort of background. You live here in Melbourne. How did you come to be here today? Obviously bizarrely, we have this thing…      01:15 Alma: Well, okay, it's a deep question. I grew up in Melbourne. I have two sisters who also sing as well and act and everything. And I've got two awesome parents who are both Australian musicians and have been able to make a career in this hard industry that is Australian music.     01:46 But I guess - so, I am a Jew and I feel extremely Jewish. I know that sounds silly, but it's who I am, I guess.     01:55  Nick: Your family migrated from...?      02:02 Alma: Yeah, my dad's parents both grew up in Poland and during the time of World War Two, so both of them had to escape during the Holocaust and unfortunately most of their family were murdered because it was just - it's the most horrific time in history I think that I could say, but...     02:25  Nick: But out of that obviously horror of World War Two, you had this amazing story of love and I guess escape to Australia though your Polish grandmother or...?      02:32 Alma: Absolutely, yeah. My Babcia and Dziadek which is Grandma and Grandpa in Polish - whilst they were both of the run, they met in Hungary at the Consulate and they were both actually looking for jobs. They both had falsified Christian papers and they were the only two people in the waiting room and they struck up a conversation.     02:58 She was extremely nervous because she said to him, "I've heard this man..." - they were trying to get a job off - "He's scary and I've heard really frightening things about him."     03:10 Anyway, they sort of - he comforted her, and they spoke a lot and then she was called in. And he said to her before she went in, "Meet me tonight at six at the town square," or something like that. She said, "Okay."     03:26 Anyway, six o clock, he was there, and he waited for her - five past, ten past, quarter past. And he thought, "Oh, she's not going to come," and he was going to leave because it was extremely dangerous in that time just to be sort of hovering around war-torn Hungary.     03:43 And she finally came at about quarter past or twenty past six. They walked around together, and they spoke, and I guess he felt extremely at ease with her and he said to her, "Are you Jewish?"     03:57 And she was horrified because it was the height of - you couldn't admit you were a Jew to anybody. I mean, Jews were being murdered by the millions and it was - she'd been - it was - you couldn't say that.     04:10 And she said, "No, how dare you! What are you saying?" And he recited the first half of a Jewish prayer. I guess, I don't know, he just felt something. And she recited the second half and they fell into each other's arms and...     04:31  Nick: ... and the rest is history here in Australia.      04:32 Alma: ... they escaped. They had my Uncle and my Dad. My Dad grew up in Melbourne, my Mum grew up in Melbourne.     04:40  Nick: So, they came straight to Melbourne from Hungary or...?      04:41 Alma: No, they went - I think they would have travelled around Europe for a bit and then they went to Israel and they had my Uncle, and then they came to Australia - Melbourne - and they had my father.     04:53  Nick: So, you're now part of the Jewish diaspora around the world?      04:55 Alma: Yes, absolutely.     04:57  Nick: Very cool. So, maybe you can speak a bit more about your family because obviously you were the middle daughter of two sisters - Hettie and Syd?      04:58 Alma: Syd and Hettie, yeah.     04:59  Nick: ... who are all artists and musicians as well, but you guys are a very special family. You are the daughters of Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier - Zygier, sorry. We've been over this so many times. I got it wrong, it's a disaster.      05:18  Two very, very highly regard and creative and influential Australian musicians. I said to you before, your mother was doing the Client Liaison kitsch thing like what? Twenty or thirty years before it was cool. right? Back in the 80s with a band called - what was it? Do Re Mi or something?      05:31 Alma: Do Re Mi, that's it.     05:33  Nick: Yeah, yeah. You look a lot like your mum as well.      05:34 Alma: Yeah, everybody says that. I get that a lot.     05:35  Nick: Maybe you could speak about what it was actually like growing up in such a creative household. I kind of feel like you were almost pre-destined to live a life of - in jazz because there's that line from Shakespeare, like "What's in a name?" And your name is Alma which literally means 'soul' in Spanish or Latin...      05:51 Alma: Yeah, and Hebrew as well.     05:53  Nick: And Hebrew as well. It was like destined that you were going to be a soul singer. But, yeah, how did you pick up from your parents and your sisters as well - like, I guess, music and I said to you before I guess it's in your DNA. Like, when you were in the womb, your parents would have been recording and performing and listening as well, so...      06:09 Alma: Oh yeah. I mean, there's a photo on the wall of mum performing with me in her belly and she's wearing this beautiful dress and it's got a love heart over the pregnant belly and I'm...     06:18  Nick: Extraordinary, so you were performing basically before you were even brought into the world.      06:21 Alma: Ha ha, yes, I was on the stage.     06:23  Nick: You were like a back-up support.      06:24 Alma: I guess you hear all the parents saying, "You've got to be a lawyer or a doctor or something," especially in Jewish families. But I guess, you know, "You've got to be a musician."     06:35 It wasn't. They were - my parents have always been extremely supportive of whatever we want to do, but all of us - me and my two sisters, we all sort of followed their path.     06:44 I mean, from such a young age, they were exposing us to amazing music and not just one type - all this - not death metal, but a lot of different genres and a lot of beautiful, funny, great music. Musicals and, as you were, jazz and sort of rock, soul...     07:05  Nick: Fifties/sixties rock.      07:05 Alma: Yeah, sixties rock. Little Richard and Ray Charles and all that sort of stuff. And then Aretha Franklin and of course Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. And bluegrass country and classical and minimalist...     07:22  Nick: Yeah, I can see this amazing set of vinyls when you walk...      07:25 Alma: ... record collection, yeah, absolutely. And CDs. Oh, you know, we had so much fun.     07:30  Nick: Do you guys perform together? When you finish the day at school or something, you come home and...      07:35 Alma: Yeah, oh, well, I wouldn't call that a performance, but we sing together and fight together a lot.     07:40  Nick: You fight as well? Really? Okay? It seems really harmonious. I was downstairs. People were making sourdough. Everyone's in the garden.      07:44 Alma: Yeah, wholesome.     07:45  Nick:  It is so wholesome.      07:47 Me and Hettie have had our fair share of fights, but I think, as we get older, things get easier. I think every family would say that - more mature. But, no, I guess I had a - we were performing with mum and dad, on stage with them from a really young age doing backing vocals. Even just when we were really little, getting up on stage and dancing.     08:09 And me and Syd and Hettie had a little band for a while called 'She Said Zed,' where we did songs in three-part harmonies and things like that.     08:20  Nick: It's not really a normal childhood like I was - I didn't have this thing with my sisters. We had a great time, but we weren't like, you know - basically preparing yourselves because you all are actors and singers and...      08:32 Alma: Yeah, but it didn't feel like that.     08:34  Nick: Yeah, oh, obviously not, no.      08:34 Alma: It just felt fun.     08:34  Nick: No, I mean that would be insane if it was some hothouse preparation to be the next Ella Fitzgerald.      08:38 Alma: You have to do it. It's like Michael Jackson's family.     08:40  Nick: Yeah, so you've avoided all those neuroses and weird dynamics. Like, it's so natural, you know?      08:46 Alma: Oh, yeah, absolutely.     08:47  Nick: Like your sister just signing in the shower. The whole house is like an artistic sort of little getaway.      08:52 Alma: Yeah, oh definitely. You haven't even seen the music room yet! We've got a music room with...     08:57  Nick: Oh, a recording studio? Yes.      08:58 Alma: Yeah, a recording studio and twelve guitars and a piano and a whole recording system.     09:01  Nick: So, you would describe yourself ultimately though as a jazz singer, right?      09:08 Alma: Absolutely. I sort of discovered - oh, it sounds a bit lame - but I sort of realised my love for jazz when I was I reckon about ten. And, you know, I was definitely played jazz when I was young but not - when I say jazz, I'm not talking about modern jazz. It's all - in our family, we love really early stuff which is the stuff that has influenced me as a performer.     09:32  Nick: This is the idea of the American Songbook, right? Like the Canon...?      09:36 Alma: Absolutely, like the Cole Porter and Jule Stein and the Gershwin Brothers and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Look, I won't go on. I could.     09:43  Nick: We will. Maybe later, we'll come back to it.      09:45 Alma: But, yeah, I guess when I started to really love it - because I loved to sing it - was about the age of ten and...     09:50  Nick: How did you discover it? Just through parents, and having it around you?      09:56 Alma: Mum and dad playing musicals which has - where all those songs are from and also YouTube was just starting really. I mean, maybe it wasn't just starting but ten-year-old me just discovered it.     10:08  Nick: ... had just discovered it, but do you realise a lot of people - like other ten-year old’s - are on YouTube watching people play video games? Like, it's amazing that you would do this.      10:12 Alma: Oh yeah, it's crazy. I mean, there wasn't even that stuff back then. It was just sort of - there was lots of music and a lot of weird videos. But I...     10:23  Nick: Yeah, the dark side of YouTube. Cat videos and...      10:26 Alma: ... all that stuff. Get lost in that.     10:29  Nick: So, it was kind of largely self-directed then. Like, you found a sound or an artist that you liked and just...      10:34 Alma: Yeah, I definitely - self-directed but also guided by my parents' love of this sort of stuff. You know, I remember my mum playing 'Tisket a Tasket' for me the first time. Ella Fitzgerald's version of 'Tisket a Tasket'. And if you hear me perform today, I'll definitely be singing 'Tisket a Tasket'. That's a song in my repertoire.     10:47  Nick: Yeah, I love it.      10:53 Alma: I remember hearing that song and being like, "What?" It’s a cute nursery rhyme but it's so cool and fun. It's hilarious, it's funny.     10:59  Nick: I think it's fantastic. So much jazz is soulful, it's sad - longing and unrequited love - and then you have this amazing flip to being so fun.      11:06 Alma: I know, and she wrote that. She co-wrote that song. Most of the singers of the day didn't write songs.     11:12  Nick: Is that right?      11:14 Alma: I believe. I could be wrong, but I believe it was the only song she wrote, and she co-wrote it and it was a banger.     11:20  Nick: Are most jazz singers - do they just perform out of the repertoire of the songbook? Or when do you become an artist who writes your own jazz soul stuff?      11:29 Alma: I couldn't speak for most jazz singers, but I know - I see a lot of jazz because I work at two jazz venues. I work at the Jazz Lab in Brunswick and the Hummingbird in St Kilda where I also perform there as well. So, it's great. I can manipulate myself up on stage.     11:46  Nick:  Fantastic, yeah.      11:47 Alma: But, no, I see a lot of jazz singers and some of them do early work. Some of them do later jazz. Some of them write their own stuff. Sometimes it forms into more soul or blues or sometimes it goes really modern and kind of weird choral, minimalist, crazy...     12:05  Nick:  But this is what I come back to, like you've got this set suite of songs that everyone knows, right? All the classics.      12:11 Alma: Yeah, the standards.     12:12  Nick:  Yeah, the standards, that's what they're called. And you obviously perform them.      12:14 Alma: Yeah.     12:18  Nick:  But then this is, I think, what many artists have - this sort of tension about how do you discover your own voice and your own articulation of that song? Because anyone could - not anyone - I couldn't. You could get up and just run through the boiler-plate version of 'Tisket a Tasket' or 'Can't Help Loving Dat Man'...      12:31 Alma: Yeah, well, those I think are interesting because they're not really standards and I choose...     12:35  Nick:  Yeah, I've revealed my gross lack of knowledge to the audience here.      12:37 Seriously, anything else but this subject - this period of jazz - I am just completely - I don't know anything and I pretend I do. So, no, you're fine.     12:50 But something like 'Body and Soul' or 'All of Me' - like, those songs - they're standards and they're sung - you know, 'Summertime', 'My Funny Valentine' - they're sung thousands and thousands of times by countless artists in countless different ways.     13:06 But when I like to sing them - and I try and do more obscure tunes like 'Tisket a Tasket' and 'I like Pie, I like Cake', which is my most recent find of song. It's so weird and cool.     13:18 But when I do the standards, I try and - I make them - I don't know. I try and feel them, and I try and make them as real as possible, and I think people sort of pooh-pooh the standards because like, "Oh, they're done a million times. They're so overdone. They're not - they're boring."     13:31 But I feel like if you do them - and I'm not saying I do - I don't know, I try to, but with heart and soul and you really feel them. And if you listen, they're beautiful songs. They're amazing songs. 'Summertime' which everyone...     13:43  Nick: It's stunning. It's brilliant.      13:55 Alma: It's an incredible song and if you do it and you don't try and be different for the sake of being different - if you just try and be real and genuine, I think that you can make something that people will love and people will...     13:57 You know, when you put all the slicks in - those melismas or those "aaah oh oh..." I can't do them but when you do that stuff, yes, its impressive but it sometimes feels - when it's done well, it's amazing.     14:07 Don't get me wrong. I love that stuff but, if you just do it for the sake of doing it, it doesn't feel real. But if you just try and sing the songs and just feel them - it sounds a little bit wanky but...     14:20  Nick: No, it makes sense. I think that you have to be contextual. You can't be - I think your sound is a throwback to a different time for sure. But I think the way you express it is very contemporary. We were talking how you've got your Quartet and your Dad playing Django Reinhardt swing sort of stuff and that's really fun and accessible. But your point before made me think about how Amy Winehouse did Thelonious Monk 'Round Midnight', but she did that in trip-hop. It was hip-hoppy and cool and...      14:46 Alma: You know, when you can make these songs...     15:00  Nick: ... relevant.      15:01 Alma: ... accessible and relevant, it's amazing. And I think when you have these ideas and you go, "Oh, I can see it." And I feel like - obviously I don't know - but I feel like when Amy does it, I feel like she has these ideas and then she's just able to execute it. And I think that's amazing.     15:08 What I don't love is when people go, "Oh, I'm going to do this song like this and for the sake of doing it, so people will think it's impressive." No, I'm not...     15:15  Nick: Yeah, and they just go through the motions, like they're reading a script or something.      15:31 Alma: Yeah, exactly. But when Amy does it, it's just real. It's amazing and it's bringing these songs into light, making them relevant, but also being very true to the songs which is such a difficult skill to have, to be able to bring these songs and to feel them and just do them like she does. It's - oh - it's hard to articulate what - how it feels sort of when you hear it.     15:46  Nick: But then my question for you is how you kind of communicate that in your voice when you're a happy - well, I don't know you. I literally met you two weeks ago, but what do you draw on to infuse your voice with that because...?      16:00 Alma: It's interesting, like I read and I especially - I think about a lot of this stuff when I was doing acting at school. I did some really challenging roles - Medea and Ophelia.     16:10  Nick: In Sophocles or something?      16:12 Alma: Yeah, Medea. I played Medea.     16:14  Nick: 'A Stranger in a Strange Land', yeah.      16:15 Alma: Yeah, I played Ophelia from Hamlet. I played Polly Peachem from Threepenny Opera by Kurt Vile. He did the music. It's a very famous - you know, that's where 'Mac the Knife' which is a big song came from.     16:28 I did some more lighter roles, but I did Fontaine from Les Mis. So, I did these roles that were big and women who were crazy or powerful or - I don't know. And so, I'd always read stuff about actors - method acting or finding something - you'd draw from this or something like that. And I never was able to do it, but I'd just get on stage and then I'd just sort of do it.     16:55  Nick: Do you know there's an actor called Alma Zygier as well somewhere?      16:55 Alma: Alma Zygier?     16:57  Nick: Yeah, I was looking it up on Google. There's another one.      17:00 Alma: No way.     17:00  Nick: Literally, your name. I was like, "Oh my god, you're an actress as well."      17:03 Alma: That's crazy.     17:06  Nick: Yeah, I think she was in one film in 2016 called Emo Kid or something.      17:08 Alma: No, that's me.     17:06  Nick: Oh, that is you? That's actually you?      17:10 Alma: That’s me. I was in 'Emo the Musical'. Oh my god.     17:12  Nick: That's hysterical. So, you are an actress? Yeah, okay.      17:20 Alma: Well, no, no, I was in - oh god, that's funny. So, that was - I was asked to - I didn't have to audition or anything for that because it was - our neighbour is the one who was casting it and she knew I could just do acting and I was just like Christian Girl Number Two which is clearly the opposite of me in this movie which I didn’t particularly love, but that's okay.     17:40  Nick: Was it an Australian film or...?      17:41 Alma: Yeah, an Australian film called 'Emo the Musical' which is just - I couldn't even tell my friends - it was so - the title.     17:45  Nick: 'Emo the Musical'. We've unearthed this dark secret of yours now. You are Christian Girl Number Two.      17:51 Alma: Yeah, so I was the opposite of the Emos, as a Christian.     17:52  Nick: Were you cast as an Emo or...?      17:54 Alma: No, cast as a Christian. I was just in it for one scene - 30 seconds, didn't have a line or anything because you'd have to audition for that.     18:03  Nick: A brief but impactful career on the screen.      18:08 Alma: Oh, absolutely. I forgot about that. It actually recently came out on Netflix.     18:10  Nick: Actually?      18:12 Alma: That's funny that you thought it was another Alma Zygier. No, that's me.     18:16  Nick: Obviously you do - you have a gift with your voice.      18:18 Alma: Thank you.     18:20  Nick: And it's good, but my question is - and then the same thing with the jazz - you kind of step into this voice because there's such a discord between who you are on stage and who you are in person.      18:23 Alma: Well, yeah, I would agree with that. I find that sometimes...     18:25  Nick: It's performance based.      18:30 Alma: Yeah, it's a performance. I see a lot of music because I work in two music venues and the best performances always have someone putting on, I think, more of a show. And jazz can be something that can be quite sort of - I don't know - inward which I think can be a bit isolating for the audience.     18:53 And I think that the most important thing is to try and make this music accessible. Not the most important thing, and I think a lot of people disagree with that. You know, for them, it's about the music but for me, I want to connect with people who are there and be able to show them this music.     19:11  Nick:  But this is the thing about you - and again it's not up yourself to acknowledge this or whatever - but in the same way that, for me, Amy Winehouse got me into a little bit of jazz and soul music. Literally she was - I call her like a 'gateway drug', a gateway artist. When I saw you at the Amy Winehouse tribute concert, then again at the Hummingbird, that's the only reason I have listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and others as well      19:34 Alma: Well, that's great. And that's something that makes - that's sort of like a goal. I love that music and I love those recordings. I want people to listen to them.     19:46  Nick:  But that's why when you were saying, "Oh, well jazz maybe is a tough one to have a future." I think if you can kind of have the fun like Django Reinhardt stylings to it, as you do with your dad with the quartet - I don't know - like, I think that there's a potential to...      19:57  Nick:   It's insane that I am on a run this morning listening to 'Tisket a Tasket' - you know?      20:00 Alma: That's great.     20:01  Nick:  But that's cool. I think there's a thing there where you can kind of communicate that -      20:09 Alma: Yeah, that's why I feel like some people are like, "Oh, I hate jazz, it's so boring." Because they think of jazz as something that's very for the musicians -they're playing for themselves or the other people on stage - which isn't a bad thing.     20:22 I understand that, and I see a lot of gigs that are like that but, for me, I don't feel like I can connect with them. I feel isolated as an audience member and so something that I strive for is to make it accessible for the audience and exciting and a story and a show. And by making it a show, I tend to sort of act in it.     20:45  Nick:  Yeah, that's what I'm picking up. I didn’t realise how much of an actress you were.       20:47  Nick:  When you are on stage, you have a really strong presence.       20:49 Alma: Thank you.     20:57  Nick:  Like, you sort of stand there and you hold the room. Look, lots of people do it, but do you reckon that's a big part of the fact that you've done the theatre work as well? And you have a lot of vivid sort of hand gestures and things as well?      21:10 Alma: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you saw me a few years ago - even when I watch videos of a few years ago - I think there's one on YouTube of my year twelve concert. I'm singing 'Can't Help Loving Dat Man'.     21:18 Alma: But I'm already there, much more subdued. I'm so nervous. I was so - it's taken me a lot of - a few years, you know? If you looked at me in year five, my first musical audition, I couldn't even - I had hunched shoulders like this. I couldn't - I wasn't a confident...     21:33  Nick:  So, when did you come out of that person and then...?      21:36 Alma: It's taken me years and it's not - it's never been like...     21:37  Nick:  How did you do it? Was it just practice?      21:39 Alma: Yeah, just doing shows. I had a lot of dud ones. I did some - I guess I started doing sort of performances in 2016 at the end, not really though. More 2017, but I did some - because most of the ones in 2016 were just horrible. Like, I just was so nervous, and I just couldn't. And I'd stand there and there was just like - each performance was different. There was never a moment where I'm like, "Aha." It was sort of - each performance got a little bit easier, a little bit better.     22:07  Nick:  It's like that 10,000 hours rule of success. Success just literally comes through putting work in.      22:11 Alma: Oh yeah. I mean, I don't know if I've done 10,000 hours. I should practice more.     22:14  Nick:  You probably would have since you were what? Ten or eight? Young.      22:18 Alma: Yeah, I guess that's true.     22:20  Nick:  Plus, just listening to it from the age of - what? Your parents are both musicians. In the womb, you'd be listening and hearing this stuff. It's part of you, really. It's incredible actually to think about.      22:26 Alma: All that stuff. But it's not just jazz, you know? It's all sorts of beautiful music they exposed me to. Not even a lot of jazz. They like the jazz I like, but we all sort of agreed that modern jazz is less of our thing, but they showed me amazing bluegrass country music which is amazing. That sort of white soul and then the black soul which - oh, is amazing. Sixties - fifties and sixties - and you know? I said fifties rock, but I meant to say sixties rock before when I was talking about Little Richard.     23:01  Nick:  That's okay. Nobody noticed, it's okay. I just nodded in agreement, pretending I knew, but I really didn't.      23:09 Alma: But, yeah, all that sort of stuff - Beatles and Rolling Stones. Even that stuff which I...     23:17  Nick:  Coming back to you, you obviously loved Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. When you were listening to these people on YouTube and, on your vinyls, and I guess with your mum and stuff, how much was it you looking to sing like them? And at what point do you think you developed your own sound?      23:38  Because when I listen to you compared to Ella or Billie or whoever, you have your own voice. You even have a bit of gravelly Louis Armstrong in there as well, which we spoke about.      23:46  But at what point do you say, "I'm actually my own artist and I'm my own voice now. I'm not just trying to be like a student doing a grade eight musical exam." And you are an artist now, you know?      23:55 Alma: It's very tricky. I mean, I grew up really listening to this stuff. So, a lot of those - their voices sort of became ingrained in me and then I did a year twelve music subject, music investigation. I investigated Ella - Ella Fitzgerald's vocal techniques and the way she influenced other musicians and jazz.     24:20 And so, when I finished year twelve, I think I'd really picked up a lot of her stuff. Not nearly as good, mind you, but I definitely picked up some of her quirks. And I remember going to university and my university teacher saying, "It's great, but you've also got to move a little bit away from it and find something that's more you." And I guess listening to...     24:44  Nick:  Moving away from mimesis? Not saying that you were -      24:48 Alma: Yeah, moving away from mimicking someone.     24:52  Nick:  Mimicking, yeah, exactly.      24:55 Alma: And just trying to find you - your own voice. And I guess by doing a lot of performances and listening to not just Ella, but a lot of different singers and a lot of different jazz and a lot of different instrumental jazz and just really - when I first - that's when I really started going into it, when I got to uni.     25:11 Like, I'd done a lot of jazz all through high school, but it was specifically sort of Ella that I'd done. But now I sort of - and Louis and Billie - but now I really ranged out into Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter and even earlier, like Memphis Minnie.     25:25  Nick:  Really?      25:27 Alma: Yeah, that really early 1920's nearly jazz but not quite. All of that sort of stuff - and then Fiona Apple, who's modern, who's still - I don't know if you know Fiona.     25:37  Nick:  No.      25:41 Alma: She's an American jazz singer right now and she's wonderful and she's a singer/songwriter. Anyway, I guess by listening to a lot of stuff and seeing a lot of different stuff, I began to find really my own voice.     25:54 But I actually - something that I don't do, I haven't performed - I love to sing musical theatre as well. And I know all those American songbooks come from musicals...     26:02  Nick:  Because you said that you loved Chicago or Cabaret or something?      26:08 Alma: Chicago. I love Cabaret. I love Chicago, and those songs are quite jazz.     26:10  Nick:  It was from the film, the Renee Zellweger one?      26:16 Alma: Yeah, oh, it's great. But I mean even Fiddler on the Roof which isn't quite jazz.     26:12  Nick:  Oh, it's amazing.      26:15 Alma: And I love to sing the...     26:17  Nick:  "If I were a rich man..."      26:21 Alma: Yeah, I love that stuff. But even those more classical nearly, the really high stuff - I love doing this. I've never really performed it.     26:29  Nick:  You spoke at the start of the interview about your Jewish background and how you're not so super religious, it's more of a cultural community thing.      26:38 Alma: Yeah, I don't believe in God actually, I believe in Judaism and Jews. I believe in Jews. And I think that actually really influences my singing.     26:45  Nick:  I was going to say, yeah.      26:47 Alma: Because if you look, all of the songs - all of the American songs in the American Songbook are written by Jews.     26:58  Nick:  Is that right? Gershwin and...?      27:00 Alma: Oh, all of them. Pretty much - well, not Cole Porter. But there's a famous quote from Cole Porter saying, "I'll tell you the secret to writing a hit song, it's to be Jewish."     27:05  Nick:  Why do you think that? Why do you think that comes through? My portal, my connection to making this connection with you and your background, was when I heard you do 'Go down Moses’, the Louis Armstrong one. I thought that was just fabulous.      27:20 Alma: It's a great tune. It's wonderful.     27:24  Nick:  It's outstanding, but how do you pour the history of the Jewish people into the song? Why do you think so many writers of the Standard were Jewish?      27:30 Alma: Well, I think to answer your second question first...     27:33  Nick:  That's alright, I've already forgot my first one, so...      27:35 Alma: Many of these Jews - and it's the same in Hollywood, Broadway and Hollywood, you see it's a lot of Jews that began this sort of culture. Coming from Russia, the Pogroms - the Pogroms in Russia was around the turn of the century, the 19th to 20th century I mean.     28:00 And it's all these Jewish towns were ransacked in Russia. Jews were killed, and it was scary for them. It was very frightening, and a lot of Jews left and came to America on boats. And amongst these people were a lot of talented musicians - vastly talented. And these Russian Jews sort of - I don't really know. There’s a beautiful documentary on it.      28:28   Nick:  It gave expression to what great pain and suffering and what they had endured.      28:31 Alma: Oh, yeah, but also love. Also, these light songs about love and happiness. I don't know how. It's amazing, but they formed - they met on Jewish camps and things like that - summer camps.     28:35 There's a beautiful documentary called Broadway, a Jewish Legacy and it goes through all this stuff. But anyway, they created the Tinpan Alley which is where all these old standards are from that we all know and love - the Gershwin’s and a lot of others.     29:00 Anyway, they wrote all these wonderful songs and I think subconsciously - on some level, although they are so accessible, and they were so accessible to the Americans and to just the normal American family, they have a Jewish meaning.     29:20 Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' which is, as we all know - I hope you know - is from Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland sings it. But if you really listen to the lyrics, it could be about the Jewish story about somewhere over the rainbow.     29:35  Nick:  The promised land, the exile and returning home.      29:37 Alma: Yeah, the promised land, exactly. It really has that underlying meaning and you can really hear that in it and it's amazing. So, when I sing those songs, I really feel that history.     29:44  Nick:  You're in communion with 5,000 years of history of your people, basically.      29:52 Alma: Yeah, of trying to be annihilated over thousands of years in every century.     29:54  Nick:  That's quite extraordinary.   Everywhere, yeah .     29:55 Alma: They try and annihilate us. That's in the Haggadah which is the Passover book. Anyway, all that stuff, I don’t' even mean to but subconsciously I feel like I channel it when I perform just because it's so important to me.     30:10  Nick:  I reckon that comes out, absolutely.      30:15 Alma: And as I get older and I understand what being Jewish means, it becomes more important to me.     30:18  Nick:  This answers my other question. I didn't know where to fit this into this interview and I didn’t write any notes, as we know, and I'm horribly...      30:26 Alma: That's the best way to do it, I think.     30:30  Nick:  How bad were my panic attacks at that cafe? It was too noisy, trams, coffee machines happening.      30:32 Alma: Little kids.     30:34  Nick:  Oh, little kids. Not my kids. But I wanted to know how, at twenty, you were able to sound like someone like Ella or Billie Holiday or whatever it is who have lived - they have lived multiple lives, they've had very traumatic lives. Sometimes...      30:53 Alma: I'm blushing. I really am. I wouldn't say that I sound like them.     30:55  Nick:  Yeah, you do. Absolutely.      30:57 Alma: That's beautiful, thank you.     31:00  Nick:  But my question is stylistic, do you have to have had - not a hard life - but when you say it now in the context of channelling your people's history, you can understand where you can put feeling and emotion into your voice, right? It's emotive.      31:11 Yeah, I've had - without sounding like a weirdo - I've had a blessed life. I have a beautiful loving family. I mean, obviously there's trials and tribulations like in every family and there's been bad ups and amazing downs - sorry, great ups and amazing downs - you know what I'm saying.     31:28  Nick:  Shit. That's quite poetic. What's it called? An oxy-moron?      31:33 Alma: Yeah, oxy-moron. No, great ups, bad downs. That's what I mean. But, you know, I have had a really overall great life. When I sing those sad songs, it's not that I'm channelling things that have happened to me. It's more about channelling what the song writers wanted to say. It's what it means to me, those songs.     32:01  Nick:  That idea of empathy, getting into the song and understanding what the song really means - in terms that you understand and elucidate as an artist - how do you do that basically without - you've got a boyfriend of two and a half or three years. Life's good. How do you then sing something like 'Body and Soul' which is about aching for someone to notice you and reciprocate your desire? How do you sing about heartbreak and stuff?      32:28 Alma: I've never had heartbreak or anything like that. Exactly what you're saying, I've never experienced anything like that.     32:30  Nick:  And that's lucky, that's good. Nobody wants that.      32:40 Alma: Thank god. But again, for me, it's very subconscious or unconscious - I don't know which one. For me, it's not a conscious effort, it just really happens, and it always has. Even from a young age, I'd perform my shoulders up to my ears and I was an anxious performer. I got teased from it. Not bad, just from my friends, but I had this face. I couldn't control it. I had these crazy facial expressions when singing. It's been there for years and I don't...     33:12  Nick:  What is it?      33:14 Alma: Just so expressive...     33:16  Nick:  Is it emotions? Like how you sing with your hands, like an Italian sort of thing? Your whole body starts singing as well.      33:22 Alma: That's actually a more newer thing with my hands.     33:23  Nick:  Is it?      33:24 Alma: Yes, because I used to...     33:25  Nick:  Gesticulation...      33:30 Alma: ... hands by my side because I was so nervous and then when I suddenly realised I could be free, I went a bit overboard and now I'm just like "Woohoo." I guess I've always had a very expressive face, but it's mostly just about - I can't quite articulate what it is, but I really feel the song when I'm singing it. It's the music in something like 'Body and Soul', the music is heartbreaking. The lyrics are heartbreaking, and you can feel it. Even if you haven't been through it, you can feel empathetic and you can understand. You can hear. Who knows what Johnny Green who wrote 'Body and Soul' - I don't know if he - he might have gone through terrible heartbreak but who knows? Maybe he just knew how to write beautifully.     34:17  Nick:  I come back to the Donnie Hathaway thing with 'A Song for You.' They are the most beautiful lyrics I have frankly read ever. "A love you in a place where there's no space or time." You can only really write about that stuff when you have lived a life with someone and maybe you've experienced a deep loss of your partner. My question is more looking forward do you see yourself creating your own music or is it...?      34:35 Alma: Yeah, well, that's another thing.     34:37  Nick:  Is that the uncharted territory or...?      34:40 Alma: Maybe because I've had such a beautiful life, it's one of the reasons why I find it really hard to write songs. At this point, I haven't written a song. I've tried a few times. I find it really hard.     34:57  Nick:  But your parents write songs all the time, do you speak to them about that process?      34:59 Alma: Oh yeah, they're amazing song writers. Yeah, a little bit, absolutely. And dad said he'd help guide my way through it. They've been writing songs...     35:05  Nick:  You don't need to rush. At twenty, it doesn't matter. Who cares, right?      35:07 Alma: Exactly but that's another territory, as you said. But my parents have been writing songs and the genres they started - my mum started as rock, my dad started as jazz in the eighties. And then they met, and they did rock but sort of indie, at the time. You'd consider that indie rock now. Indie rock has got a whole new meaning. But weird electronica, all this stuff, and now they've come out of it and they do Jewish cynical folky sort of music. I guess that's one way I would describe it.     35:42 They're actually writing an album right now, but they're last two albums - Stories of Ghosts which was released in 2013 and Everybody's Begging which was 2016 - those two albums are amazing - Jewishy folky. And they definitely inspire me because it's about not reinventing but being able to keep with the times.     36:07 And I think if my mum was still doing rock now, it might be less - people that love rock are young and they want a young person doing that. Not that - you should do what's true with you - but I think as she becomes older, what becomes true to her is more about her beliefs and her way of life and her cynicism.     36:32  Nick:  So, if you had to today look forward - this is a bit trite but looking in twenty years and say you made it in jazz in Melbourne, Australia, wherever - what would it look like to you, to have a career? Where would you like to be?      36:48 Alma: Well, to make it in jazz is a funny thing because jazz - as I have said, it's not a very big genre. I mean, compared to pop, rock, classical, country, death metal even, jazz is way, way, way less popular and has much less of a following.     37:05 So, I remember my dad saying he was in New York in the eighties and he saw Bill Evans who is a very famous American jazz pianist. And he saw Bill Evans, and nobody was there.     37:15  Nick:  Really?      37:20 Alma: That was in New York and that's when he realised, "I don't think I want to be a jazz..."     37:25  Nick:  He was doing that in the eighties, you were saying, and now he's come back and doing it with you on stage...      37:27 Alma: Yeah, so that's when he stopped doing jazz, because he realised there's not that much of a future. Now, I don't want to sound negative, but making it in jazz - especially in Australia - is an interesting thing.     37:37 I think a lot of my teachers and stuff have to teach as well as perform because it's not the most reliable career, just because there's not much of a following. But I think in twenty years - it was twenty years you said?     37:53  Nick:  It could be thirty, it could be forty.      37:55 Alma: Whenever. I'd love to be able to write my own music. I'd love to be able to make jazz - the jazz I do which is really early specific sort of stuff. I'd love to make it more accessible.     38:00  Nick:  Just like how you make 'Tisket a Tasket' and 'Go Down Moses' a bit more accessible and punchy and swingy.      38:11 Alma: Well, I don't. And the thing is with my act - my show - I don't just do jazz. 'Go Down Moses', I guess, is jazz but not quite. But even I do 'Lonely at the Top' by Randy Newman. Randy Newman is an amazing songwriter. He writes music for - I think he's won or been nominated for ten Oscars or something for all his movie music. 'You've Got a Friend in Me' in Toy Story.     38:34  Nick:  Is that him?      38:36 Alma: Yeah, he's amazing. You've got to check him out. Randy Newman is an incredible...     38:40  Nick:  The funny lilting piano along with it as well. I think there's a Family Guy episode with Randy Newman there and they couldn’t shut him up...      38:48 Alma: I love that episode. I've seen all of Family Guy. That's season two. So nerdy that I know that.     38:54 So, I do a few Randy covers which is a bit jazz, but not quite. But I also do Patsy Cline which is country, but old sort of country which is nearly jazz. Well, it's sort of all amalgamated into one. I don't know if that's the right word.     39:10 And so, I think making that stuff more accessible and branching out even further and doing some folk stuff, I'd love to do that stuff. And really working on my voice, my instrument.     39:25  Nick:  But that's the interesting point to depart from, talking about earlier in our first botched interview attempt at the cafe, was how voices change when their young until when they're seventy. When I think about you singing now, it's like a mature voice. That's what a lot of people say. Where do...?      39:45 Alma: I guess. My personality isn't mature, mind you.     39:50  Nick:  It actually is. But it's exciting to think about what your voice could sound like in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time after you've been married with kids and...      39:58 Alma: Babies and addicted to cigarettes.     40:00  Nick:  Yeah, exactly.      40:01 Alma: Oh, no, I'm not a smoker.     40:02  Nick:  Well, it's good for the voice though. I get a great voice after I've had a cigarette.      40:08 Alma: A few darts, yeah. Husky.     40:10  Nick:  Oh, it husks me up. It's great. Not that I sing.      40:12 Alma: But speaking voice.     40:14  Nick:  Yeah.      40:56 Alma: I mean, yeah, the journey - as they say - it's all about the journey. It will be interesting, and we'll see. I mean, I don't know what it will be like in twenty years. I mean, the goal would be to still be singing definitely, to be doing things that make me happy, to sharing my music with people who maybe don't listen to this type of music. I love when that's there, the people that I love to reach out to, the people who don't usually listen to this type of music but can sort of understand it when seeing it live and then go on to listen to all the amazing recordings that I've tried to emulate at times. We'll see what happens.     40:57  Nick:  That's all a long way away. You've got to take it one day at a time and I think I'm super excited to see you next Saturday at the Hummingbird.      41:03 Alma: Oh yeah, I'm at the Hummingbird again. Yeah, absolutely. That's going to be a good gig.     41:11  Nick:  What have you got lined up?      41:14 Alma: There's two bands performing, just because it's a big room. I'd love to be able to sell it out all by myself. I have been selling out some gigs but this one is a big one.     41:22  Nick:  Lido, yeah.      41:24 Alma: Yeah, Lido, I sold out. That was great.     41:26  Nick:  I couldn't get a ticket. Disaster.      41:34 Alma: I love that. But this one, they thought it would be great to have two women and their own bands do it. The other woman who's performing, her name's Amelia - that's her stage name. Emily Schnarle is her name and she's a soul singer and she's wonderful. I studied with her at Monash. I didn't finish my degree. She did. I'll get to that later.     41:52  Nick:  You'll get your diploma, good.      41:58 Alma: She's great. She's got a soul band and they'll be performing first, and then I'll do a set with my band second. And some American Songbooks and some really weird obscure tunes that I found trawling on You Tube and just have decided to - me and my dad arrange all the songs. There's a lot of work that goes into all the performance that you see.     42:20  Nick:  Well, thank you very much for your time. It's been an absolute pleasure to interview you.      42:26 Alma: Oh, my pleasure.     42:28  Nick:  It's been a good 90 minutes of podcasting.      42:29 Alma: Great. I know how to talk.     42:30  Nick:  Yeah, you're very good at it. So, well done and thank you.    

Melbourne, Sunday 20 May, 2018

Interview with Alma Zygier – 20 May 2018

 

00:00 Nick: It's a great privilege and honour to be here with Alma Zygier today on my podcast which I am tentatively calling 'The Voice Behind the Voice' in which we try to get a sense of who the person is behind the performance.

 

00:14 I think Alma is one of the most extraordinary voices in Melbourne, certainly in jazz. This is high praise, we'll be there but...

 

00:24 I think she's going to have a really special career. She's twenty at the moment which is hard to realise, hard to sort of appreciate when you actually do hear her voice for the first time.

 

00:32 But I first heard Alma at an Amy Winehouse tribute concert for the Jewish Museum of Australia back in February and then I saw her again at the opening of Hummingbird in St Kilda, which is a really cool new jazz club here in Melbourne.

 

00:48 But, yeah, so Alma very kindly agreed to do this interview today. Thank you for being here.

 

00:52 Alma: My pleasure. It's such high praise. I'm loving it, ha ha.

 

00:54 Nick: But what a great Sunday afternoon just to have someone talk about you for forty-five minutes, an hour.

 

01:01 Alma: I know. I love it, you know? My ego is going to explode.

 

01:02 Nick: Yeah, fantastic. Good, good. So, maybe in your words, you could tell me your story. You're obviously from European and a Jewish sort of background. You live here in Melbourne. How did you come to be here today? Obviously bizarrely, we have this thing…

 

01:15 Alma: Well, okay, it's a deep question. I grew up in Melbourne. I have two sisters who also sing as well and act and everything. And I've got two awesome parents who are both Australian musicians and have been able to make a career in this hard industry that is Australian music.

 

01:46 But I guess - so, I am a Jew and I feel extremely Jewish. I know that sounds silly, but it's who I am, I guess.

 

01:55 Nick: Your family migrated from...?

 

02:02 Alma: Yeah, my dad's parents both grew up in Poland and during the time of World War Two, so both of them had to escape during the Holocaust and unfortunately most of their family were murdered because it was just - it's the most horrific time in history I think that I could say, but...

 

02:25 Nick: But out of that obviously horror of World War Two, you had this amazing story of love and I guess escape to Australia though your Polish grandmother or...?

 

02:32 Alma: Absolutely, yeah. My Babcia and Dziadek which is Grandma and Grandpa in Polish - whilst they were both of the run, they met in Hungary at the Consulate and they were both actually looking for jobs. They both had falsified Christian papers and they were the only two people in the waiting room and they struck up a conversation.

 

02:58 She was extremely nervous because she said to him, "I've heard this man..." - they were trying to get a job off - "He's scary and I've heard really frightening things about him."

 

03:10 Anyway, they sort of - he comforted her, and they spoke a lot and then she was called in. And he said to her before she went in, "Meet me tonight at six at the town square," or something like that. She said, "Okay."

 

03:26 Anyway, six o clock, he was there, and he waited for her - five past, ten past, quarter past. And he thought, "Oh, she's not going to come," and he was going to leave because it was extremely dangerous in that time just to be sort of hovering around war-torn Hungary.

 

03:43 And she finally came at about quarter past or twenty past six. They walked around together, and they spoke, and I guess he felt extremely at ease with her and he said to her, "Are you Jewish?"

 

03:57 And she was horrified because it was the height of - you couldn't admit you were a Jew to anybody. I mean, Jews were being murdered by the millions and it was - she'd been - it was - you couldn't say that.

 

04:10 And she said, "No, how dare you! What are you saying?" And he recited the first half of a Jewish prayer. I guess, I don't know, he just felt something. And she recited the second half and they fell into each other's arms and...

 

04:31 Nick: ... and the rest is history here in Australia.

 

04:32 Alma: ... they escaped. They had my Uncle and my Dad. My Dad grew up in Melbourne, my Mum grew up in Melbourne.

 

04:40 Nick: So, they came straight to Melbourne from Hungary or...?

 

04:41 Alma: No, they went - I think they would have travelled around Europe for a bit and then they went to Israel and they had my Uncle, and then they came to Australia - Melbourne - and they had my father.

 

04:53 Nick: So, you're now part of the Jewish diaspora around the world?

 

04:55 Alma: Yes, absolutely.

 

04:57 Nick: Very cool. So, maybe you can speak a bit more about your family because obviously you were the middle daughter of two sisters - Hettie and Syd?

 

04:58 Alma: Syd and Hettie, yeah.

 

04:59 Nick: ... who are all artists and musicians as well, but you guys are a very special family. You are the daughters of Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier - Zygier, sorry. We've been over this so many times. I got it wrong, it's a disaster.

 

05:18 Two very, very highly regard and creative and influential Australian musicians. I said to you before, your mother was doing the Client Liaison kitsch thing like what? Twenty or thirty years before it was cool. right? Back in the 80s with a band called - what was it? Do Re Mi or something?

 

05:31 Alma: Do Re Mi, that's it.

 

05:33 Nick: Yeah, yeah. You look a lot like your mum as well.

 

05:34 Alma: Yeah, everybody says that. I get that a lot.

 

05:35 Nick: Maybe you could speak about what it was actually like growing up in such a creative household. I kind of feel like you were almost pre-destined to live a life of - in jazz because there's that line from Shakespeare, like "What's in a name?" And your name is Alma which literally means 'soul' in Spanish or Latin...

 

05:51 Alma: Yeah, and Hebrew as well.

 

05:53 Nick: And Hebrew as well. It was like destined that you were going to be a soul singer. But, yeah, how did you pick up from your parents and your sisters as well - like, I guess, music and I said to you before I guess it's in your DNA. Like, when you were in the womb, your parents would have been recording and performing and listening as well, so...

 

06:09 Alma: Oh yeah. I mean, there's a photo on the wall of mum performing with me in her belly and she's wearing this beautiful dress and it's got a love heart over the pregnant belly and I'm...

 

06:18 Nick: Extraordinary, so you were performing basically before you were even brought into the world.

 

06:21 Alma: Ha ha, yes, I was on the stage.

 

06:23 Nick: You were like a back-up support.

 

06:24 Alma: I guess you hear all the parents saying, "You've got to be a lawyer or a doctor or something," especially in Jewish families. But I guess, you know, "You've got to be a musician."

 

06:35 It wasn't. They were - my parents have always been extremely supportive of whatever we want to do, but all of us - me and my two sisters, we all sort of followed their path.

 

06:44 I mean, from such a young age, they were exposing us to amazing music and not just one type - all this - not death metal, but a lot of different genres and a lot of beautiful, funny, great music. Musicals and, as you were, jazz and sort of rock, soul...

 

07:05 Nick: Fifties/sixties rock.

 

07:05 Alma: Yeah, sixties rock. Little Richard and Ray Charles and all that sort of stuff. And then Aretha Franklin and of course Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. And bluegrass country and classical and minimalist...

 

07:22 Nick: Yeah, I can see this amazing set of vinyls when you walk...

 

07:25 Alma: ... record collection, yeah, absolutely. And CDs. Oh, you know, we had so much fun.

 

07:30 Nick: Do you guys perform together? When you finish the day at school or something, you come home and...

 

07:35 Alma: Yeah, oh, well, I wouldn't call that a performance, but we sing together and fight together a lot.

 

07:40 Nick: You fight as well? Really? Okay? It seems really harmonious. I was downstairs. People were making sourdough. Everyone's in the garden.

 

07:44 Alma: Yeah, wholesome.

 

07:45 Nick:  It is so wholesome.

 

07:47 Me and Hettie have had our fair share of fights, but I think, as we get older, things get easier. I think every family would say that - more mature. But, no, I guess I had a - we were performing with mum and dad, on stage with them from a really young age doing backing vocals. Even just when we were really little, getting up on stage and dancing.

 

08:09 And me and Syd and Hettie had a little band for a while called 'She Said Zed,' where we did songs in three-part harmonies and things like that.

 

08:20 Nick: It's not really a normal childhood like I was - I didn't have this thing with my sisters. We had a great time, but we weren't like, you know - basically preparing yourselves because you all are actors and singers and...

 

08:32 Alma: Yeah, but it didn't feel like that.

 

08:34 Nick: Yeah, oh, obviously not, no.

 

08:34 Alma: It just felt fun.

 

08:34 Nick: No, I mean that would be insane if it was some hothouse preparation to be the next Ella Fitzgerald.

 

08:38 Alma: You have to do it. It's like Michael Jackson's family.

 

08:40 Nick: Yeah, so you've avoided all those neuroses and weird dynamics. Like, it's so natural, you know?

 

08:46 Alma: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

 

08:47 Nick: Like your sister just signing in the shower. The whole house is like an artistic sort of little getaway.

 

08:52 Alma: Yeah, oh definitely. You haven't even seen the music room yet! We've got a music room with...

 

08:57 Nick: Oh, a recording studio? Yes.

 

08:58 Alma: Yeah, a recording studio and twelve guitars and a piano and a whole recording system.

 

09:01 Nick: So, you would describe yourself ultimately though as a jazz singer, right?

 

09:08 Alma: Absolutely. I sort of discovered - oh, it sounds a bit lame - but I sort of realised my love for jazz when I was I reckon about ten. And, you know, I was definitely played jazz when I was young but not - when I say jazz, I'm not talking about modern jazz. It's all - in our family, we love really early stuff which is the stuff that has influenced me as a performer.

 

09:32 Nick: This is the idea of the American Songbook, right? Like the Canon...?

 

09:36 Alma: Absolutely, like the Cole Porter and Jule Stein and the Gershwin Brothers and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Look, I won't go on. I could.

 

09:43 Nick: We will. Maybe later, we'll come back to it.

 

09:45 Alma: But, yeah, I guess when I started to really love it - because I loved to sing it - was about the age of ten and...

 

09:50 Nick: How did you discover it? Just through parents, and having it around you?

 

09:56 Alma: Mum and dad playing musicals which has - where all those songs are from and also YouTube was just starting really. I mean, maybe it wasn't just starting but ten-year-old me just discovered it.

 

10:08 Nick: ... had just discovered it, but do you realise a lot of people - like other ten-year old’s - are on YouTube watching people play video games? Like, it's amazing that you would do this.

 

10:12 Alma: Oh yeah, it's crazy. I mean, there wasn't even that stuff back then. It was just sort of - there was lots of music and a lot of weird videos. But I...

 

10:23 Nick: Yeah, the dark side of YouTube. Cat videos and...

 

10:26 Alma: ... all that stuff. Get lost in that.

 

10:29 Nick: So, it was kind of largely self-directed then. Like, you found a sound or an artist that you liked and just...

 

10:34 Alma: Yeah, I definitely - self-directed but also guided by my parents' love of this sort of stuff. You know, I remember my mum playing 'Tisket a Tasket' for me the first time. Ella Fitzgerald's version of 'Tisket a Tasket'. And if you hear me perform today, I'll definitely be singing 'Tisket a Tasket'. That's a song in my repertoire.

 

10:47 Nick: Yeah, I love it.

 

10:53 Alma: I remember hearing that song and being like, "What?" It’s a cute nursery rhyme but it's so cool and fun. It's hilarious, it's funny.

 

10:59 Nick: I think it's fantastic. So much jazz is soulful, it's sad - longing and unrequited love - and then you have this amazing flip to being so fun.

 

11:06 Alma: I know, and she wrote that. She co-wrote that song. Most of the singers of the day didn't write songs.

 

11:12 Nick: Is that right?

 

11:14 Alma: I believe. I could be wrong, but I believe it was the only song she wrote, and she co-wrote it and it was a banger.

 

11:20 Nick: Are most jazz singers - do they just perform out of the repertoire of the songbook? Or when do you become an artist who writes your own jazz soul stuff?

 

11:29 Alma: I couldn't speak for most jazz singers, but I know - I see a lot of jazz because I work at two jazz venues. I work at the Jazz Lab in Brunswick and the Hummingbird in St Kilda where I also perform there as well. So, it's great. I can manipulate myself up on stage.

 

11:46 Nick:  Fantastic, yeah.

 

11:47 Alma: But, no, I see a lot of jazz singers and some of them do early work. Some of them do later jazz. Some of them write their own stuff. Sometimes it forms into more soul or blues or sometimes it goes really modern and kind of weird choral, minimalist, crazy...

 

12:05 Nick:  But this is what I come back to, like you've got this set suite of songs that everyone knows, right? All the classics.

 

12:11 Alma: Yeah, the standards.

 

12:12 Nick:  Yeah, the standards, that's what they're called. And you obviously perform them.

 

12:14 Alma: Yeah.

 

12:18 Nick:  But then this is, I think, what many artists have - this sort of tension about how do you discover your own voice and your own articulation of that song? Because anyone could - not anyone - I couldn't. You could get up and just run through the boiler-plate version of 'Tisket a Tasket' or 'Can't Help Loving Dat Man'...

 

12:31 Alma: Yeah, well, those I think are interesting because they're not really standards and I choose...

 

12:35 Nick:  Yeah, I've revealed my gross lack of knowledge to the audience here.

 

12:37 Seriously, anything else but this subject - this period of jazz - I am just completely - I don't know anything and I pretend I do. So, no, you're fine.

 

12:50 But something like 'Body and Soul' or 'All of Me' - like, those songs - they're standards and they're sung - you know, 'Summertime', 'My Funny Valentine' - they're sung thousands and thousands of times by countless artists in countless different ways.

 

13:06 But when I like to sing them - and I try and do more obscure tunes like 'Tisket a Tasket' and 'I like Pie, I like Cake', which is my most recent find of song. It's so weird and cool.

 

13:18 But when I do the standards, I try and - I make them - I don't know. I try and feel them, and I try and make them as real as possible, and I think people sort of pooh-pooh the standards because like, "Oh, they're done a million times. They're so overdone. They're not - they're boring."

 

13:31 But I feel like if you do them - and I'm not saying I do - I don't know, I try to, but with heart and soul and you really feel them. And if you listen, they're beautiful songs. They're amazing songs. 'Summertime' which everyone...

 

13:43 Nick: It's stunning. It's brilliant.

 

13:55 Alma: It's an incredible song and if you do it and you don't try and be different for the sake of being different - if you just try and be real and genuine, I think that you can make something that people will love and people will...

 

13:57 You know, when you put all the slicks in - those melismas or those "aaah oh oh..." I can't do them but when you do that stuff, yes, its impressive but it sometimes feels - when it's done well, it's amazing.

 

14:07 Don't get me wrong. I love that stuff but, if you just do it for the sake of doing it, it doesn't feel real. But if you just try and sing the songs and just feel them - it sounds a little bit wanky but...

 

14:20 Nick: No, it makes sense. I think that you have to be contextual. You can't be - I think your sound is a throwback to a different time for sure. But I think the way you express it is very contemporary. We were talking how you've got your Quartet and your Dad playing Django Reinhardt swing sort of stuff and that's really fun and accessible. But your point before made me think about how Amy Winehouse did Thelonious Monk 'Round Midnight', but she did that in trip-hop. It was hip-hoppy and cool and...

 

14:46 Alma: You know, when you can make these songs...

 

15:00 Nick: ... relevant.

 

15:01 Alma: ... accessible and relevant, it's amazing. And I think when you have these ideas and you go, "Oh, I can see it." And I feel like - obviously I don't know - but I feel like when Amy does it, I feel like she has these ideas and then she's just able to execute it. And I think that's amazing.

 

15:08 What I don't love is when people go, "Oh, I'm going to do this song like this and for the sake of doing it, so people will think it's impressive." No, I'm not...

 

15:15 Nick: Yeah, and they just go through the motions, like they're reading a script or something.

 

15:31 Alma: Yeah, exactly. But when Amy does it, it's just real. It's amazing and it's bringing these songs into light, making them relevant, but also being very true to the songs which is such a difficult skill to have, to be able to bring these songs and to feel them and just do them like she does. It's - oh - it's hard to articulate what - how it feels sort of when you hear it.

 

15:46 Nick: But then my question for you is how you kind of communicate that in your voice when you're a happy - well, I don't know you. I literally met you two weeks ago, but what do you draw on to infuse your voice with that because...?

 

16:00 Alma: It's interesting, like I read and I especially - I think about a lot of this stuff when I was doing acting at school. I did some really challenging roles - Medea and Ophelia.

 

16:10 Nick: In Sophocles or something?

 

16:12 Alma: Yeah, Medea. I played Medea.

 

16:14 Nick: 'A Stranger in a Strange Land', yeah.

 

16:15 Alma: Yeah, I played Ophelia from Hamlet. I played Polly Peachem from Threepenny Opera by Kurt Vile. He did the music. It's a very famous - you know, that's where 'Mac the Knife' which is a big song came from.

 

16:28 I did some more lighter roles, but I did Fontaine from Les Mis. So, I did these roles that were big and women who were crazy or powerful or - I don't know. And so, I'd always read stuff about actors - method acting or finding something - you'd draw from this or something like that. And I never was able to do it, but I'd just get on stage and then I'd just sort of do it.

 

16:55 Nick: Do you know there's an actor called Alma Zygier as well somewhere?

 

16:55 Alma: Alma Zygier?

 

16:57 Nick: Yeah, I was looking it up on Google. There's another one.

 

17:00 Alma: No way.

 

17:00 Nick: Literally, your name. I was like, "Oh my god, you're an actress as well."

 

17:03 Alma: That's crazy.

 

17:06 Nick: Yeah, I think she was in one film in 2016 called Emo Kid or something.

 

17:08 Alma: No, that's me.

 

17:06 Nick: Oh, that is you? That's actually you?

 

17:10 Alma: That’s me. I was in 'Emo the Musical'. Oh my god.

 

17:12 Nick: That's hysterical. So, you are an actress? Yeah, okay.

 

17:20 Alma: Well, no, no, I was in - oh god, that's funny. So, that was - I was asked to - I didn't have to audition or anything for that because it was - our neighbour is the one who was casting it and she knew I could just do acting and I was just like Christian Girl Number Two which is clearly the opposite of me in this movie which I didn’t particularly love, but that's okay.

 

17:40 Nick: Was it an Australian film or...?

 

17:41 Alma: Yeah, an Australian film called 'Emo the Musical' which is just - I couldn't even tell my friends - it was so - the title.

 

17:45 Nick: 'Emo the Musical'. We've unearthed this dark secret of yours now. You are Christian Girl Number Two.

 

17:51 Alma: Yeah, so I was the opposite of the Emos, as a Christian.

 

17:52 Nick: Were you cast as an Emo or...?

 

17:54 Alma: No, cast as a Christian. I was just in it for one scene - 30 seconds, didn't have a line or anything because you'd have to audition for that.

 

18:03 Nick: A brief but impactful career on the screen.

 

18:08 Alma: Oh, absolutely. I forgot about that. It actually recently came out on Netflix.

 

18:10 Nick: Actually?

 

18:12 Alma: That's funny that you thought it was another Alma Zygier. No, that's me.

 

18:16 Nick: Obviously you do - you have a gift with your voice.

 

18:18 Alma: Thank you.

 

18:20 Nick: And it's good, but my question is - and then the same thing with the jazz - you kind of step into this voice because there's such a discord between who you are on stage and who you are in person.

 

18:23 Alma: Well, yeah, I would agree with that. I find that sometimes...

 

18:25 Nick: It's performance based.

 

18:30 Alma: Yeah, it's a performance. I see a lot of music because I work in two music venues and the best performances always have someone putting on, I think, more of a show. And jazz can be something that can be quite sort of - I don't know - inward which I think can be a bit isolating for the audience.

 

18:53 And I think that the most important thing is to try and make this music accessible. Not the most important thing, and I think a lot of people disagree with that. You know, for them, it's about the music but for me, I want to connect with people who are there and be able to show them this music.

 

19:11 Nick:  But this is the thing about you - and again it's not up yourself to acknowledge this or whatever - but in the same way that, for me, Amy Winehouse got me into a little bit of jazz and soul music. Literally she was - I call her like a 'gateway drug', a gateway artist. When I saw you at the Amy Winehouse tribute concert, then again at the Hummingbird, that's the only reason I have listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and others as well

 

19:34 Alma: Well, that's great. And that's something that makes - that's sort of like a goal. I love that music and I love those recordings. I want people to listen to them.

 

19:46 Nick:  But that's why when you were saying, "Oh, well jazz maybe is a tough one to have a future." I think if you can kind of have the fun like Django Reinhardt stylings to it, as you do with your dad with the quartet - I don't know - like, I think that there's a potential to...

 

19:57 Nick: It's insane that I am on a run this morning listening to 'Tisket a Tasket' - you know?

 

20:00 Alma: That's great.

 

20:01 Nick:  But that's cool. I think there's a thing there where you can kind of communicate that -

 

20:09 Alma: Yeah, that's why I feel like some people are like, "Oh, I hate jazz, it's so boring." Because they think of jazz as something that's very for the musicians -they're playing for themselves or the other people on stage - which isn't a bad thing.

 

20:22 I understand that, and I see a lot of gigs that are like that but, for me, I don't feel like I can connect with them. I feel isolated as an audience member and so something that I strive for is to make it accessible for the audience and exciting and a story and a show. And by making it a show, I tend to sort of act in it.

 

20:45 Nick:  Yeah, that's what I'm picking up. I didn’t realise how much of an actress you were.

 

20:47 Nick:  When you are on stage, you have a really strong presence.

 

20:49 Alma: Thank you.

 

20:57 Nick:  Like, you sort of stand there and you hold the room. Look, lots of people do it, but do you reckon that's a big part of the fact that you've done the theatre work as well? And you have a lot of vivid sort of hand gestures and things as well?

 

21:10 Alma: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you saw me a few years ago - even when I watch videos of a few years ago - I think there's one on YouTube of my year twelve concert. I'm singing 'Can't Help Loving Dat Man'.

 

21:18 Alma: But I'm already there, much more subdued. I'm so nervous. I was so - it's taken me a lot of - a few years, you know? If you looked at me in year five, my first musical audition, I couldn't even - I had hunched shoulders like this. I couldn't - I wasn't a confident...

 

21:33 Nick:  So, when did you come out of that person and then...?

 

21:36 Alma: It's taken me years and it's not - it's never been like...

 

21:37 Nick:  How did you do it? Was it just practice?

 

21:39 Alma: Yeah, just doing shows. I had a lot of dud ones. I did some - I guess I started doing sort of performances in 2016 at the end, not really though. More 2017, but I did some - because most of the ones in 2016 were just horrible. Like, I just was so nervous, and I just couldn't. And I'd stand there and there was just like - each performance was different. There was never a moment where I'm like, "Aha." It was sort of - each performance got a little bit easier, a little bit better.

 

22:07 Nick:  It's like that 10,000 hours rule of success. Success just literally comes through putting work in.

 

22:11 Alma: Oh yeah. I mean, I don't know if I've done 10,000 hours. I should practice more.

 

22:14 Nick:  You probably would have since you were what? Ten or eight? Young.

 

22:18 Alma: Yeah, I guess that's true.

 

22:20 Nick:  Plus, just listening to it from the age of - what? Your parents are both musicians. In the womb, you'd be listening and hearing this stuff. It's part of you, really. It's incredible actually to think about.

 

22:26 Alma: All that stuff. But it's not just jazz, you know? It's all sorts of beautiful music they exposed me to. Not even a lot of jazz. They like the jazz I like, but we all sort of agreed that modern jazz is less of our thing, but they showed me amazing bluegrass country music which is amazing. That sort of white soul and then the black soul which - oh, is amazing. Sixties - fifties and sixties - and you know? I said fifties rock, but I meant to say sixties rock before when I was talking about Little Richard.

 

23:01 Nick:  That's okay. Nobody noticed, it's okay. I just nodded in agreement, pretending I knew, but I really didn't.

 

23:09 Alma: But, yeah, all that sort of stuff - Beatles and Rolling Stones. Even that stuff which I...

 

23:17 Nick:  Coming back to you, you obviously loved Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. When you were listening to these people on YouTube and, on your vinyls, and I guess with your mum and stuff, how much was it you looking to sing like them? And at what point do you think you developed your own sound?

 

23:38 Because when I listen to you compared to Ella or Billie or whoever, you have your own voice. You even have a bit of gravelly Louis Armstrong in there as well, which we spoke about.

 

23:46 But at what point do you say, "I'm actually my own artist and I'm my own voice now. I'm not just trying to be like a student doing a grade eight musical exam." And you are an artist now, you know?

 

23:55 Alma: It's very tricky. I mean, I grew up really listening to this stuff. So, a lot of those - their voices sort of became ingrained in me and then I did a year twelve music subject, music investigation. I investigated Ella - Ella Fitzgerald's vocal techniques and the way she influenced other musicians and jazz.

 

24:20 And so, when I finished year twelve, I think I'd really picked up a lot of her stuff. Not nearly as good, mind you, but I definitely picked up some of her quirks. And I remember going to university and my university teacher saying, "It's great, but you've also got to move a little bit away from it and find something that's more you." And I guess listening to...

 

24:44 Nick:  Moving away from mimesis? Not saying that you were -

 

24:48 Alma: Yeah, moving away from mimicking someone.

 

24:52 Nick:  Mimicking, yeah, exactly.

 

24:55 Alma: And just trying to find you - your own voice. And I guess by doing a lot of performances and listening to not just Ella, but a lot of different singers and a lot of different jazz and a lot of different instrumental jazz and just really - when I first - that's when I really started going into it, when I got to uni.

 

25:11 Like, I'd done a lot of jazz all through high school, but it was specifically sort of Ella that I'd done. But now I sort of - and Louis and Billie - but now I really ranged out into Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter and even earlier, like Memphis Minnie.

 

25:25 Nick:  Really?

 

25:27 Alma: Yeah, that really early 1920's nearly jazz but not quite. All of that sort of stuff - and then Fiona Apple, who's modern, who's still - I don't know if you know Fiona.

 

25:37 Nick:  No.

 

25:41 Alma: She's an American jazz singer right now and she's wonderful and she's a singer/songwriter. Anyway, I guess by listening to a lot of stuff and seeing a lot of different stuff, I began to find really my own voice.

 

25:54 But I actually - something that I don't do, I haven't performed - I love to sing musical theatre as well. And I know all those American songbooks come from musicals...

 

26:02 Nick:  Because you said that you loved Chicago or Cabaret or something?

 

26:08 Alma: Chicago. I love Cabaret. I love Chicago, and those songs are quite jazz.

 

26:10 Nick:  It was from the film, the Renee Zellweger one?

 

26:16 Alma: Yeah, oh, it's great. But I mean even Fiddler on the Roof which isn't quite jazz.

 

26:12 Nick:  Oh, it's amazing.

 

26:15 Alma: And I love to sing the...

 

26:17 Nick:  "If I were a rich man..."

 

26:21 Alma: Yeah, I love that stuff. But even those more classical nearly, the really high stuff - I love doing this. I've never really performed it.

 

26:29 Nick:  You spoke at the start of the interview about your Jewish background and how you're not so super religious, it's more of a cultural community thing.

 

26:38 Alma: Yeah, I don't believe in God actually, I believe in Judaism and Jews. I believe in Jews. And I think that actually really influences my singing.

 

26:45 Nick:  I was going to say, yeah.

 

26:47 Alma: Because if you look, all of the songs - all of the American songs in the American Songbook are written by Jews.

 

26:58 Nick:  Is that right? Gershwin and...?

 

27:00 Alma: Oh, all of them. Pretty much - well, not Cole Porter. But there's a famous quote from Cole Porter saying, "I'll tell you the secret to writing a hit song, it's to be Jewish."

 

27:05 Nick:  Why do you think that? Why do you think that comes through? My portal, my connection to making this connection with you and your background, was when I heard you do 'Go down Moses’, the Louis Armstrong one. I thought that was just fabulous.

 

27:20 Alma: It's a great tune. It's wonderful.

 

27:24 Nick:  It's outstanding, but how do you pour the history of the Jewish people into the song? Why do you think so many writers of the Standard were Jewish?

 

27:30 Alma: Well, I think to answer your second question first...

 

27:33 Nick:  That's alright, I've already forgot my first one, so...

 

27:35 Alma: Many of these Jews - and it's the same in Hollywood, Broadway and Hollywood, you see it's a lot of Jews that began this sort of culture. Coming from Russia, the Pogroms - the Pogroms in Russia was around the turn of the century, the 19th to 20th century I mean.

 

28:00 And it's all these Jewish towns were ransacked in Russia. Jews were killed, and it was scary for them. It was very frightening, and a lot of Jews left and came to America on boats. And amongst these people were a lot of talented musicians - vastly talented. And these Russian Jews sort of - I don't really know. There’s a beautiful documentary on it.

 

28:28 Nick:  It gave expression to what great pain and suffering and what they had endured.

 

28:31 Alma: Oh, yeah, but also love. Also, these light songs about love and happiness. I don't know how. It's amazing, but they formed - they met on Jewish camps and things like that - summer camps.

 

28:35 There's a beautiful documentary called Broadway, a Jewish Legacy and it goes through all this stuff. But anyway, they created the Tinpan Alley which is where all these old standards are from that we all know and love - the Gershwin’s and a lot of others.

 

29:00 Anyway, they wrote all these wonderful songs and I think subconsciously - on some level, although they are so accessible, and they were so accessible to the Americans and to just the normal American family, they have a Jewish meaning.

 

29:20 Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' which is, as we all know - I hope you know - is from Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland sings it. But if you really listen to the lyrics, it could be about the Jewish story about somewhere over the rainbow.

 

29:35 Nick:  The promised land, the exile and returning home.

 

29:37 Alma: Yeah, the promised land, exactly. It really has that underlying meaning and you can really hear that in it and it's amazing. So, when I sing those songs, I really feel that history.

 

29:44 Nick:  You're in communion with 5,000 years of history of your people, basically.

 

29:52 Alma: Yeah, of trying to be annihilated over thousands of years in every century.

 

29:54 Nick:  That's quite extraordinary. Everywhere, yeah.

 

29:55 Alma: They try and annihilate us. That's in the Haggadah which is the Passover book. Anyway, all that stuff, I don’t' even mean to but subconsciously I feel like I channel it when I perform just because it's so important to me.

 

30:10 Nick:  I reckon that comes out, absolutely.

 

30:15 Alma: And as I get older and I understand what being Jewish means, it becomes more important to me.

 

30:18 Nick:  This answers my other question. I didn't know where to fit this into this interview and I didn’t write any notes, as we know, and I'm horribly...

 

30:26 Alma: That's the best way to do it, I think.

 

30:30 Nick:  How bad were my panic attacks at that cafe? It was too noisy, trams, coffee machines happening.

 

30:32 Alma: Little kids.

 

30:34 Nick:  Oh, little kids. Not my kids. But I wanted to know how, at twenty, you were able to sound like someone like Ella or Billie Holiday or whatever it is who have lived - they have lived multiple lives, they've had very traumatic lives. Sometimes...

 

30:53 Alma: I'm blushing. I really am. I wouldn't say that I sound like them.

 

30:55 Nick:  Yeah, you do. Absolutely.

 

30:57 Alma: That's beautiful, thank you.

 

31:00 Nick:  But my question is stylistic, do you have to have had - not a hard life - but when you say it now in the context of channelling your people's history, you can understand where you can put feeling and emotion into your voice, right? It's emotive.

 

31:11 Yeah, I've had - without sounding like a weirdo - I've had a blessed life. I have a beautiful loving family. I mean, obviously there's trials and tribulations like in every family and there's been bad ups and amazing downs - sorry, great ups and amazing downs - you know what I'm saying.

 

31:28 Nick:  Shit. That's quite poetic. What's it called? An oxy-moron?

 

31:33 Alma: Yeah, oxy-moron. No, great ups, bad downs. That's what I mean. But, you know, I have had a really overall great life. When I sing those sad songs, it's not that I'm channelling things that have happened to me. It's more about channelling what the song writers wanted to say. It's what it means to me, those songs.

 

32:01 Nick:  That idea of empathy, getting into the song and understanding what the song really means - in terms that you understand and elucidate as an artist - how do you do that basically without - you've got a boyfriend of two and a half or three years. Life's good. How do you then sing something like 'Body and Soul' which is about aching for someone to notice you and reciprocate your desire? How do you sing about heartbreak and stuff?

 

32:28 Alma: I've never had heartbreak or anything like that. Exactly what you're saying, I've never experienced anything like that.

 

32:30 Nick:  And that's lucky, that's good. Nobody wants that.

 

32:40 Alma: Thank god. But again, for me, it's very subconscious or unconscious - I don't know which one. For me, it's not a conscious effort, it just really happens, and it always has. Even from a young age, I'd perform my shoulders up to my ears and I was an anxious performer. I got teased from it. Not bad, just from my friends, but I had this face. I couldn't control it. I had these crazy facial expressions when singing. It's been there for years and I don't...

 

33:12 Nick:  What is it?

 

33:14 Alma: Just so expressive...

 

33:16 Nick:  Is it emotions? Like how you sing with your hands, like an Italian sort of thing? Your whole body starts singing as well.

 

33:22 Alma: That's actually a more newer thing with my hands.

 

33:23 Nick:  Is it?

 

33:24 Alma: Yes, because I used to...

 

33:25 Nick:  Gesticulation...

 

33:30 Alma: ... hands by my side because I was so nervous and then when I suddenly realised I could be free, I went a bit overboard and now I'm just like "Woohoo." I guess I've always had a very expressive face, but it's mostly just about - I can't quite articulate what it is, but I really feel the song when I'm singing it. It's the music in something like 'Body and Soul', the music is heartbreaking. The lyrics are heartbreaking, and you can feel it. Even if you haven't been through it, you can feel empathetic and you can understand. You can hear. Who knows what Johnny Green who wrote 'Body and Soul' - I don't know if he - he might have gone through terrible heartbreak but who knows? Maybe he just knew how to write beautifully.

 

34:17 Nick:  I come back to the Donnie Hathaway thing with 'A Song for You.' They are the most beautiful lyrics I have frankly read ever. "A love you in a place where there's no space or time." You can only really write about that stuff when you have lived a life with someone and maybe you've experienced a deep loss of your partner. My question is more looking forward do you see yourself creating your own music or is it...?

 

34:35 Alma: Yeah, well, that's another thing.

 

34:37 Nick:  Is that the uncharted territory or...?

 

34:40 Alma: Maybe because I've had such a beautiful life, it's one of the reasons why I find it really hard to write songs. At this point, I haven't written a song. I've tried a few times. I find it really hard.

 

34:57 Nick:  But your parents write songs all the time, do you speak to them about that process?

 

34:59 Alma: Oh yeah, they're amazing song writers. Yeah, a little bit, absolutely. And dad said he'd help guide my way through it. They've been writing songs...

 

35:05 Nick:  You don't need to rush. At twenty, it doesn't matter. Who cares, right?

 

35:07 Alma: Exactly but that's another territory, as you said. But my parents have been writing songs and the genres they started - my mum started as rock, my dad started as jazz in the eighties. And then they met, and they did rock but sort of indie, at the time. You'd consider that indie rock now. Indie rock has got a whole new meaning. But weird electronica, all this stuff, and now they've come out of it and they do Jewish cynical folky sort of music. I guess that's one way I would describe it.

 

35:42 They're actually writing an album right now, but they're last two albums - Stories of Ghosts which was released in 2013 and Everybody's Begging which was 2016 - those two albums are amazing - Jewishy folky. And they definitely inspire me because it's about not reinventing but being able to keep with the times.

 

36:07 And I think if my mum was still doing rock now, it might be less - people that love rock are young and they want a young person doing that. Not that - you should do what's true with you - but I think as she becomes older, what becomes true to her is more about her beliefs and her way of life and her cynicism.

 

36:32 Nick:  So, if you had to today look forward - this is a bit trite but looking in twenty years and say you made it in jazz in Melbourne, Australia, wherever - what would it look like to you, to have a career? Where would you like to be?

 

36:48 Alma: Well, to make it in jazz is a funny thing because jazz - as I have said, it's not a very big genre. I mean, compared to pop, rock, classical, country, death metal even, jazz is way, way, way less popular and has much less of a following.

 

37:05 So, I remember my dad saying he was in New York in the eighties and he saw Bill Evans who is a very famous American jazz pianist. And he saw Bill Evans, and nobody was there.

 

37:15 Nick:  Really?

 

37:20 Alma: That was in New York and that's when he realised, "I don't think I want to be a jazz..."

 

37:25 Nick:  He was doing that in the eighties, you were saying, and now he's come back and doing it with you on stage...

 

37:27 Alma: Yeah, so that's when he stopped doing jazz, because he realised there's not that much of a future. Now, I don't want to sound negative, but making it in jazz - especially in Australia - is an interesting thing.

 

37:37 I think a lot of my teachers and stuff have to teach as well as perform because it's not the most reliable career, just because there's not much of a following. But I think in twenty years - it was twenty years you said?

 

37:53 Nick:  It could be thirty, it could be forty.

 

37:55 Alma: Whenever. I'd love to be able to write my own music. I'd love to be able to make jazz - the jazz I do which is really early specific sort of stuff. I'd love to make it more accessible.

 

38:00 Nick:  Just like how you make 'Tisket a Tasket' and 'Go Down Moses' a bit more accessible and punchy and swingy.

 

38:11 Alma: Well, I don't. And the thing is with my act - my show - I don't just do jazz. 'Go Down Moses', I guess, is jazz but not quite. But even I do 'Lonely at the Top' by Randy Newman. Randy Newman is an amazing songwriter. He writes music for - I think he's won or been nominated for ten Oscars or something for all his movie music. 'You've Got a Friend in Me' in Toy Story.

 

38:34 Nick:  Is that him?

 

38:36 Alma: Yeah, he's amazing. You've got to check him out. Randy Newman is an incredible...

 

38:40 Nick:  The funny lilting piano along with it as well. I think there's a Family Guy episode with Randy Newman there and they couldn’t shut him up...

 

38:48 Alma: I love that episode. I've seen all of Family Guy. That's season two. So nerdy that I know that.

 

38:54 So, I do a few Randy covers which is a bit jazz, but not quite. But I also do Patsy Cline which is country, but old sort of country which is nearly jazz. Well, it's sort of all amalgamated into one. I don't know if that's the right word.

 

39:10 And so, I think making that stuff more accessible and branching out even further and doing some folk stuff, I'd love to do that stuff. And really working on my voice, my instrument.

 

39:25 Nick:  But that's the interesting point to depart from, talking about earlier in our first botched interview attempt at the cafe, was how voices change when their young until when they're seventy. When I think about you singing now, it's like a mature voice. That's what a lot of people say. Where do...?

 

39:45 Alma: I guess. My personality isn't mature, mind you.

 

39:50 Nick:  It actually is. But it's exciting to think about what your voice could sound like in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time after you've been married with kids and...

 

39:58 Alma: Babies and addicted to cigarettes.

 

40:00 Nick:  Yeah, exactly.

 

40:01 Alma: Oh, no, I'm not a smoker.

 

40:02 Nick:  Well, it's good for the voice though. I get a great voice after I've had a cigarette.

 

40:08 Alma: A few darts, yeah. Husky.

 

40:10 Nick:  Oh, it husks me up. It's great. Not that I sing.

 

40:12 Alma: But speaking voice.

 

40:14 Nick:  Yeah.

 

40:56 Alma: I mean, yeah, the journey - as they say - it's all about the journey. It will be interesting, and we'll see. I mean, I don't know what it will be like in twenty years. I mean, the goal would be to still be singing definitely, to be doing things that make me happy, to sharing my music with people who maybe don't listen to this type of music. I love when that's there, the people that I love to reach out to, the people who don't usually listen to this type of music but can sort of understand it when seeing it live and then go on to listen to all the amazing recordings that I've tried to emulate at times. We'll see what happens.

 

40:57 Nick:  That's all a long way away. You've got to take it one day at a time and I think I'm super excited to see you next Saturday at the Hummingbird.

 

41:03 Alma: Oh yeah, I'm at the Hummingbird again. Yeah, absolutely. That's going to be a good gig.

 

41:11 Nick:  What have you got lined up?

 

41:14 Alma: There's two bands performing, just because it's a big room. I'd love to be able to sell it out all by myself. I have been selling out some gigs but this one is a big one.

 

41:22 Nick:  Lido, yeah.

 

41:24 Alma: Yeah, Lido, I sold out. That was great.

 

41:26 Nick:  I couldn't get a ticket. Disaster.

 

41:34 Alma: I love that. But this one, they thought it would be great to have two women and their own bands do it. The other woman who's performing, her name's Amelia - that's her stage name. Emily Schnarle is her name and she's a soul singer and she's wonderful. I studied with her at Monash. I didn't finish my degree. She did. I'll get to that later.

 

41:52 Nick:  You'll get your diploma, good.

 

41:58 Alma: She's great. She's got a soul band and they'll be performing first, and then I'll do a set with my band second. And some American Songbooks and some really weird obscure tunes that I found trawling on You Tube and just have decided to - me and my dad arrange all the songs. There's a lot of work that goes into all the performance that you see.

 

42:20 Nick:  Well, thank you very much for your time. It's been an absolute pleasure to interview you.

 

42:26 Alma: Oh, my pleasure.

 

42:28 Nick:  It's been a good 90 minutes of podcasting.

 

42:29 Alma: Great. I know how to talk.

 

42:30 Nick:  Yeah, you're very good at it. So, well done and thank you.

 

 

André Aciman on Call Me by Your Name, love, and life

 
 Melbourne, Thursday 3 May, 2018  Returning from my lunchtime run, I refreshed my inbox to find a message from Andre Aciman, the author of  Call Me by Your Name  and  Out of  Egypt. I had emailed him earlier in the week, requesting 30 minutes of his time for a podcast while he was in Melbourne headlining a writers’ festival hosted by the Wheeler Centre. His response was brief, indicating that yes, he would be delighted to meet, and could I make it happen this afternoon?  Here was my chance to converse and ask questions of one of my favourite authors, who had also written the love story behind my favourite film. Aciman exists in that personal pantheon of authors who have deeply moved and shaped me as a person. This would be like talking to Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, or Ernest Hemingway, and being able to ask them about the deepest truths of their texts and inquire about all my unresolved questions .  Was this really happening? The whole afternoon suddenly had a frisson of the fantastical to it. I felt like Owen Wilson in  Midnight in Paris , only this would be Afternoon in the Paris End of Collins St, Melbourne.  Sitting in the foyer of the Sofitel Hotel, Andre quietly approached me and thanked me for coming, before leading me over to a table in the foyer. He had a gentle and respectful demeanour, and his Sephardic olive eyes had a Dumbledore-like warmth and twinkle to them. The qualities of his cosmopolitan voice hinted at the extraordinary life he has led: the Arabic purr from his childhood in Egypt; the expressive musical Italian cadences from his youth and education in Italy; and the intellectualism and texture of the Jewish diaspora from a lifetime in New York.  What followed was a thirty-minute interview, which turned out to be one of the most pleasurable conversations of my life. You can read the full transcript below. It helped illuminate  Call Me by Your Name  as a canonical book and a filmic work of art, but also it helped me to understand Andre Aciman as the wellspring beneath the global phenomenon of  Call Me by Your Name , which has touched the lives of so many people across continents, genders, sexualities and class barriers. I’ve never agreed with Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘The Death of the Author’, which asserts that the text and the creator are not connected and should be analysed separately. While the author’s experiences should probably never constitute a definitive explanation of the text, I think that they can certainly help us understand the contours and composition of a literary work in meaningful ways.  --   Interview with André Aciman, Melbourne, Thursday 3 May 2018    Nick Fabbri interview with André Aciman      00:01  Nick: I'm very fortunate to be here today with André Aciman, Professor of Comparative Literature at City University of New York and author of the hit novel, 'Call Me by Your Name'. So, thank you very, very much for joining us here in Melbourne. It's a great privilege and an honour to be speaking with you here today.   00:16 André: For me as well, it's a great pleasure.  00:17  Nick: Thank you. Perhaps you could begin, Professor, by giving us a brief overview of your life and story, and how it was that you came to be here in Melbourne on this Autumn evening for your first time, I believe.   00:29 André: Very first time, yes. I think that my whole life begins in Egypt and there is a moment of - it was a bit of a shock because I was kicked out of Egypt which is a place that I didn't want to be in to begin with.  00:44 So, I was born there. I didn't like it. I couldn't wait to get out and then eventually I was forced out because of political situation.  00:53 And essentially, I never got over that. I think it reappears in almost everything I write, the absence of a homeland or of a home. They're not necessarily synonymous but they mean the same thing in the end. In other words, a home cannot be a homeland but it's still where you long to be and where you were made to expect to be.  01:14 So, you always have this expectation of something that occurred in the past. I mean, no, let me rephrase this. You are taught that you will be in a place, even though you're also understanding that you will never be in that place.  01:28 So, that kind of bickering that occurs inside of you and in the family as well, that we belong here but we don't belong here, has stayed with me forever and so I take it everywhere I go.  01:40 I write about exile, about displacement, about ambivalence, ambivalent sexuality. Everything that I write is essentially at loggerheads with itself. I hate to use the word 'contradiction', it's too simple.  01:59 And eventually I wrote a book called 'Out of Egypt' which is about my life in Egypt, growing up in Egypt. It was successful and I kept writing about exile, exile, exile after that all the time; until I got sick and tired of exile and I decided to write about something else and I wrote this book about a gay love affair.  02:17 And 'Out of Egypt' had done very well. I didn't need to write another book if I wanted to be known but this has basically exploded and, once the film comes out, everybody talks about it. Everybody writes to me and it's there.  02:33 So, I get invited to places and eventually I got invited to Australia, to come to Melbourne.  02:43  Nick: We're very lucky to have you here. So, you are a Professor of Comparative Literature. You teach the classics and English style, with a particular interest in Marcel Proust. I hope I got the name right.   02:54 André: You did.  02:50  Nick: Could you please reflect on Proust's influence on your style and perhaps also on the broader themes that he seems to be concerned out? Namely memory, the passing of time and nostalgia for things that we've lost.   03:07 André: Yes. I think that the nostalgia comes naturally to me, so finding it in Proust was an easy thing. Proust is a nostalgist. He longs for the past or at least he claims to long for the past. It's an easy gesture. It's an easy move for him and I immediately connected with that when I read Proust. I was very young when I read Proust.  03:31 But there's also many other things in Proust. Proust was interested in people and he wants to examine or let's say 'excavate' their personalities, their motivations, what it is that they're hiding from you and what it is that you're hiding and what your motivations are when you're dealing with others. He's very interested in that. I don't think there's another author who has done it as well as he has. Even psychologists are not able to penetrate the mind as he has.  03:58 I was interested in that too because I don't trust people and I always assume they are out to get me or to hurt me, so I'm always analysing, "What does he want? Why? Why? What do they want?"  04:07 So, with that I connected as well but the third item is the most important. There was a particular kind of cadence in the rhythm that Proust has invented for us. And once you allow yourself to be trapped and caught and basically carried away by that rhythm, you begin to see life differently.  04:28 And what I wanted for people to do when they read me is to like the rhythm that I gave them, to accept the fact that they will be carried away by it. And once they do that, they can no longer tell whether it is they themselves they are reading or me. And the fact that there's a confusion is a Proustian move. When you read Proust, you think you're reading yourself, you're not reading Marcel. And I wanted that to be - or maybe I didn't even want it, it just happens.  05:00  Nick: It did happen in 'Call me by your name'. I was reading it and I felt myself slipping into the grooves of Elio's consciousness. I actually almost felt sort of headachy at a point because of this obsessiveness about Oliver. It actually was so empathetic in the way that I was able to be absorbed into his mind.   05:18 André: Well, a lot of people get absorbed into it and they start crying because they see the trauma that they've experienced. But there are a lot of straight men who read my book and begin to question what their sexuality really is because they're seduced by it. And there are girls who are twelve or thirteen years old who start crying for days. So, they write to me and their mothers tell me, "She's been crying for days. I want to know what you've done." I, of course, say, "I didn't want to do that."  05:47  Nick: Yes, I know.   05:49 André: But it's something that's totally unintentional.  05:51  Nick: And beyond Proust, I think what I really loved about your work is how it's sort of suffused with classical and other literary references. Like, I remember Elio's father speaking and quoting Dante and Dante's 'Inferno' and Virgil as well, particularly the image of reaching out to the further bank from book six [of  The Aeneid, VI, 313] . You see these subtle references all the way through and, of course when they go to lake and they literally dredge up a classical monument - I mean, this is quite a potent symbol of I think what your book does, it actually brings the classics back into our consciousness. So, can you reflect on what moves and influences you, about the classics, as a writer?   06:30 André: The classics are, for me, very - they're the best books that have ever been written. I mean, let's go with that. They also are the safest books. In other words, they're always established. They are there.  06:44 When I was reading the classics as a child, I was in Egypt and there was something about the classics that made me feel I belonged to this tradition even though I'm out there in this outback of the world which has no connection with the rest of the universe - because it was really secluded. And yet, when I think of the classics, it sort of tells me, "No, no, you belong to a long tradition."  07:08  Nick: Which you can communicate with...   07:09 André: Yes.  07:10  Nick: ... and become part of.   07:12 André: Exactly, so in many ways the classics for me represented a connection with history and with the rest of Europe and also with the very best of Europe, and I wanted that.  07:24 But at the same time, the classics are so profound. So, when Elio masturbates with the peach, he's also thinking of the peach as a character from Ovid that has been transformed into poor peach and she's suffering.  07:45 Or there's a scene - there's a big scene in the third chapter. It occurs in Rome and they're having this dinner together. Everybody's getting drunk and suddenly this guy arrives very late because he got lost on the way. He's drunk too and he starts talking gibberish. And that is all a pastiche of 'The Symposium' by Plato - very few people know this.  08:06  Nick: Yes, okay.   08:07 André: And so, basically there is, "What is love? What is the theory of love?." They're basically playing on Plato and I love that because I think the classics are what - in one way or another, they are what unifies us among ourselves because it's a common language we have and it also unifies us with the past.  08:26 And so, it's something I consider essential and very safe. They're always going to be there. As long as we have books, we will have the classics. They are never going away.  08:37  Nick: Yes, that's very beautiful. What I mentioned before, I think it is a classical work or a book that pays homage to the classics...   08:44 André: I think the attitude is classical.  08:46  Nick: A classical attitude, yes.   08:47 André: Yes, the style is not - I mean, we can use the work 'fuck' a few times but it doesn't mean that we're not aware that - basically, the language is polished. The writing is, I think, pretty decent. It doesn't - the standards are high, I think. I shouldn't be saying this, but I'm conscious I mean, if my sentences are sort of awkward, I fix them. I don't want them to be awkward.  09:14 And so, I'm writing - if I can claim this, which is very arrogant - I'm writing for the great works. I'm writing to them. I want them to hear me. I'm not writing for people who read magazines.  09:28  Nick: But I think through the film and the book as well, you've inducted many people into that tradition as a result of how accessible it has been, in terms of the love story.   09:38 André: I hope so. I would love to think that. The funny thing is that people may not have read my book before. Now they read it.  09:39  Nick: Exactly, yes.   09:40 André: And these are people who would normally not want to read that kind of a book because it's a difficult book. It's not easy-easy. I mean, the writing is sometimes even precious.  09:56  Nick: Yes, but it's like when you work through Proust. It's a labour. It's an effort sometimes. I'm not saying it's difficult to read your book, I read it in a day, but...   10:03 André: At first, you have to accept the rhythm. Once you're in it, it's easy.  10:07  Nick: So, do you think in the modern world - I mean, because of this sort of nodding and gesture towards the classics and how you apotheosise it in some ways - do you think there's something deficient or something in our modern world in terms of our considerations of Love and our consideration of Beauty and the sublime?   10:25 André: No, I don't think there's something deficient. I think that the art is deficient. The standards of high art. I'm not talking about middle-brow art, I'm talking high art - are totally lacking.  10:39 We want things to be simple and easy and quick. And there's a sense of - and I was speaking about this a couple of days ago in Sydney when I was making fun of Strunk and White, I don't know if you know who they are.  10:51  Nick: No.   10:52 André: Strunk and White are two individuals who wrote a book called 'The Elements of Style'.  10:52  Nick: Oh, yes. I - yes [My enemies - Ed.]   10:5 André: Okay, but that's exactly what people think what good writing is - simple, declarative, indicative mood. Never the subjunctive - never. Never the conditional mood.  11:07  Nick: No long subordinates, no.   11:08 André: Yes, I spoke about subordinature forever and basically people don't like that. So, I don't think our appreciation of love is any different. The Greeks didn't have a good idea what love was either, but they knew how to speak about it and they knew how to elaborate as opposed to simplify it.  11:28  Nick: Which we don't in short declarative academic writing in many ways.    11:29 André: You can't.  11:30  Nick: You can't, no.   11:32 André: It destroys it.  11:33  Nick: You only get a credit or a pass on your assignment, you know?   11:35 André: [laughing]  11:37  Nick: Okay, so moving along. In terms of the impact that the book has had on attitudes towards sexuality and gender, particularly people's attitudes towards gay or bi-sexual or even bi-curious men and women - people reading the book can interrogate their own sexuality. What kind of impact do you think that your work has had and the film as well, in terms of making people feel that it's okay to be authentic in themselves and in their sexual identities?   12:11 André: I think that at this point in time, most people are not fighting their sexuality any longer. I mean, people are coming out all the time.  12:22 It's older people who basically regret not having come out to their parents because their father's long dead, that sort of thing, and they write to me about that.  12:32 In many ways, I think that the book sanctions the absence of repression and it's an encouragement, particularly to parents, to heed what their children are saying and to accept. There's no choice but to accept.  12:49  Nick: But this is like - I come back to Plato again. You know, the father - I can't remember his name this is horrible - but he represents, in many ways, a Platonic form of what a father should be in terms of being loving and accepting...   13:02 André: Yes, oh God, yes.  13:03  Nick: ... and in listening as well. And almost encouraging his son to feel the pain rather than to just sort of 'stiff upper lip' and carry on...   13:10 André: Oh yes, ‘it’s gonna go away’.  13:12  Nick: Yes, I thought that was a remarkable...   13:14 André: Well, but I think - I believe it. I think everybody accepts that, we fight many times and we suffer, especially with love. We fight it. We try to hate the other person and get rid of them. And what the father's saying, "No, no, don't fight it. It's good to suffer." Then he makes the other declarative statement that is, "I could have had what you have, but I never did." And so, there was even this touch of nostalgia on the part of the father.  13:42  Nick: Yes, precisely.   13:43 André: And what kind of father would tell that to his son? It's not just the son coming out to the father, it's the father coming out to the son.  13:50  Nick: Precisely and it's remarkable.   13:53 André: And I think that's very moving.  13:55  Nick: Yes, deeply so. Beyond the idea of reconciling one's self with that Greek concept of 'Gnothi Seauton' (  γνῶθι σεαυτόν)   - that's not the right pronunciation, but it means 'become who you are' [Know Thyself – Ed] essentially...   14:06 André: Oh, yes.  14:07  Nick: There's a sense in which the book and the film is about sexual awakening; a coming into one's sexuality, the act of making love as well. But I think what hasn't been discussed as much insofar as the things that I've read is the idea of the book being a religious awakening as well. There's that beautiful line about when Elio and Oliver are together and Elio has had the blood nose, and they speak about the Star of David that they're wearing on the chest. He says, "You’re not a Jew of discretion" or something to that effect. Oh no, Elio says that, "Mum says we're Jews of discretion." But then after that, the next scene is him coming out of the water - almost a baptismal sort of image - and he's wearing the Star of David.   14:48 André: Very well said. I had never planned for this, but it's in the film. He comes out of the water and he is baptised. Very well said.  14:56 I think that he's accepted his religion and he's open. I think the religion motif - I wasn't really interested about the Jewishness per se, but they are the two Jews in the town and so it automatically binds them somehow. They have something in common. They may have nothing else in common, but they do have that in common and it sort of solidifies their relationship.  15:17 And the fact that Elio accepts to wear the star of David, for me, is clearly a symbolic acceptance of his own sexuality.  15:28  Nick: Absolutely.   15:28 André: Which he's accepted from page one in the book and, from page one, there's no, "I am not gay, I am not gay." I mean, he - from the very beginning, he's saying, "I know what I want. I want to sleep with this guy. Period."  15:40  Nick: I think it also taps into that almost Kafka-esque, as a writer, sense of him - there's like that outsider complex, being gay and being away from what is hetero-normative, but also being Jewish in a village which isn't Jewish. And the same as Oliver being - he's in New Hampshire or something, he's the only Jew in that particular locale. So, how do you - going back to that idea of exile and outsided and alienation - is this something that's been pertinent for you as a writer?   16:08 André: It is totally pertinent to me because I remember when I was in Egypt - I was ten years old, even perhaps younger - and there was another boy and he must have been sixteen/seventeen. He wore a Star of David or actually not even a Star of David, he wore a Mezuzah which I don't know if you know...  16:23  Nick: No, I don't know.   16:24 André: It's another symbol the Jews have. And I saw this and said, "What is he, crazy? This is Egypt and he's walking around with this thing?"  16:31  Nick: And this is after the Egyptian nationalism where they expelled the Jews and...?   16:35 André: Yes, yes. In fact, he ended up pretty badly; years later, I found out. But, I mean, he was so totally okay with being Jewish, whereas I was not ever going to wear one. And I envied him and I became interested in him because he was a Jew who was not afraid of being Jewish.  16:52 Of course, I thought I wanted to have a friendship with him. He wasn't interested because he was much older but I'm sure that if I had known about sex back then, maybe I would have thought that there was some kind of attraction, but I'm not sure. I couldn't say.  17:07  Nick: For you, as a writer and a human -  you obviously live in New York now and, in some academic writing, that's been called the 'Global Capital for the Jewish Diaspora'.   17:19 André: Yes.  17:19  Nick: Versus that idea of having to be rooted in a particular homeland, like in Israel and the Holy Lands. How do you interact in New York as a Jewish man?   17:28 André: Put it this way, New York has made it very, very easy for me to be Jewish in the sense that most of the people I know are either half Christian or Jewish.  17:41 But I'm a very bad Jew. I don't like Judaism. I don't like the religion. I was never the equivalent of communion or bar-mitzvared. I refused the whole thing.  17:52  Nick: Why?   17:52 André: Because I hate religion. I really don't like religion, any religion. And probably because I had to pay a price for being Jewish when I was growing up, so I just have no tolerance for religion.  18:04 So, in New York, there are many practising Jews and they invite me to their weddings and things and I have to go, but I hate going. I really hate going.  18:12  Nick: See, I find that surprising because I thought that, in the whole beautiful image of 'Call me your name and I'll call you by your name' - that recalled to me   the Song of Solomon verse, chapter six verse three [Song of Solomon 6:3 – Ed] or something, about 'I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.' This idea of total - I don't know - total sort of exchange of self or total 'two hearts beating as one'. I don't know, total commitment - trust, love, loyalty...   18:38 André: Intimacy.  18:39  Nick: Intimacy, exactly.   18:41 André: Well, I believe that. I believe that it's possible. It doesn't always last but it exists and it exists capriciously, whimsically, because you can't always arrest it there, but it is something to be cultivated.  18:56 And one works at it because you don't want to lose intimacy. Once you lose intimacy, you're with somebody but it doesn't really matter.  19:02  Nick: Yes, exactly. What did you think of the film? What do you think was gained and maybe lost by the adaptation?   19:09 André: I think the film was perfect. I loved the film. In fact, ironically, I was watching it on the plane coming here.  19:15  Nick: Really [laughs]?   19:15 André: Yes, just to refresh my mind. I've seen it a million times and I like the film. I like the fact that it takes its time. It is not in a rush to make the point that they're going to have sex, and it makes you almost - it forces you to slip into their lives and to understand how this thing is being worked out between them, how the tension is increasing constantly and you're not feeling it, but it's there. And then you have this moment of eruption in front of the monument when the kid just basically doesn't know what he's saying. He may not even have planned any of it, but he's telling him, "I'm interested in you. I have feelings for you." Well he's saying it very ambiguously of course because he might want to withdraw everything he's just said.  20:03 The film is very faithful to the spirit of the book. Now, there are many changes that occurred. Among others, there's no sense of the future which is totally out of the - there's no trip to Rome, which I think was pretty important for me. But it doesn't matter because I think the end of the book - most people get to the end of the book and they always write to me and they said, "I've cried. The moment I could feel the end coming, I was already crying." And I don't understand why.  20:30  Nick: Really?   20:30 André: I don't, and I'm being very honest. It's very hard for me to understand.  20:34  Nick: I cried a lot.   20:35 André: Why?  20:38  Nick: Why? Because it's a sense that something profoundly beautiful exists only once in a lifetime and it’s just sort of slipped you by. I think that's pretty devastating, at least.   20:45 André: It is devastating and I think the film, even though it has a scene that was never in the book - it's a scene when Elio is staring at the fireplace - I think that captures exactly what the end of the book was doing in its own, in film language, which is totally different from book language.  21:06 It does - it achieves the same effect. Now, why is it that this film - people go to see it many, many times? And why is it that people read the book many times? And why does it have this impact on people? What is it actually saying to them that they never tell me because they can't formulate it? I don't know what that is.  21:26 I cannot answer that question. I mean, I wish I knew because if I knew, I would have a formula and I would write a book every six months, but it's really very difficult to say. The only thing that I - and I say this many times - the only scene that means something to me personally is when they are in Rome and they're kissing against the wall and Elio is so entranced by the kiss that he doesn't care that these two old men are walking by and saying ‘in Mussolini’s time, those two guys would have been arrested.’  21:55 He doesn't care and I have had a moment like this in my life, against the wall, and every time I go to that wall which is not in Rome...  22:03  Nick: You revisit it? Yes, wow...   22:07 André: I am heartbroken because I realise at that wall, that my life could have taken a turn in the totally different direction, and it didn't. And so, when I go back to that wall, I see the moment. I can almost touch that moment when, by sheer idiocy on my part - which was also a touch of genius because it would have created a disaster - but...  22:31  Nick: That life with that particular woman, yes.   22:33 André: That was a disaster but, in fact, I do regret it. I'm grateful it never happened but I regret it because I knew that, at that moment, my love had come - had blossomed against that wall. And so, I wanted that scene at the wall. But most people read about the wall and they keep going.  22:55  Nick: I've got - we're thirty minutes in, so I've got about three more questions and then you can go and have a shower.    22:56 André: I've taken a shower already.  22:57  Nick: Oh, perfect. Okay, relax. Excellent.   22:59 André: I was going to nap but then I said, "I don't have time to nap."  23:05  Nick: No, you've got to roll through. Yes, it's the best way to beat jet-lag. But I think that it is so profoundly soul-rending, if that's the right word, because it does confront you with a vision of - everyone looks on Elio and Oliver and the loss that happened as a result of that, and you don't get the sense of how deep that loss was in the film as you do in the book. But we all look on our own lives and interrogate and we think, "Oh, I've had a moment of love like that, but I didn't live a life with that person when I could have." So, we are kind of confronted with all the selves we could have been, all the happiness that we could have had, and that's profoundly - hauntingly beautiful but profoundly shocking and disturbing in many ways. It's devastating.    23:50  For me, the ending and being confronted with the different selves - I've only seen it done a couple of times in literature, and never as well as with your book. And that's why I thought that the film maybe could have put something in there, in terms of the twenty-year meeting after which I think was...   24:02 André: Well, he wants to do a sequel. I mean, that's what he was saying.  24:04  Nick: Yes, is that what that's going to unpack?   24:06 André: I don't know. I don't know. There’s talk of it, but I don't know if it's palaver or it's real. He is very committed to it, but there are too many other individuals involved. But you're touching on something that's very important for me. It's the particular - it's a verb mood, it's the 'might have been'.  24:27  Nick: Yes, the 'might have been'.   24:28 André: And I’m writing a whole book on 'might have beens'.  24:30  Nick: It's like “pluperfect lover” line, what's the mood? I'm trying to think - is there actually...? Anyway...   24:33 André: It's a conditional.  24:34  Nick: It's a conditional, that's right.   24:35 André: Yes, it's a past-conditional, the 'might have been'. And that is a dimension of our lives that we seldom visit because it's awful.  24:45  Nick: It's infinite, though. It could, you know...?   24:48 André: Well, that's exactly it. And so, it forces us to go backwards and forwards because the 'might have been' is still with us and it might be achieved in the future. And we dread it and we desire it, and we don't know.  24:59 And so, this whole condition of the 'might have been' might be the moving click, the thing that makes you say, "My god, this is not just about the love lost, but it's a love that could have been and hasn't quite resolved itself." And that's disturbing.  25:17  Nick: Yes, I've only seen it done in McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach' at the end when he says, "This is how the course of a life could change." Because he didn't call out to his lover on the beach and say, "I'm sorry, I love you."    25:25  But the second half of the book, like your Ghost Spots section, flips by life very quickly. I think it's so beautiful and it's sad because ultimately the life they did lead is not fulfilling in some ways...   25:41 André: That's true.  25:42  Nick: ... compared to the infinite possibilities in their minds.   25:45 André: And I like the fact that Elio says - when he says, "Come and visit my family." And he says, "No."  25:50  Nick: Because he doesn't want to see.   25:52 André: Obviously he still is not over it.  25:54  Nick: Yes.   25:54 André: And neither is Oliver for that matter.  25:58  Nick: But coming back to the final questions, there's that beautiful line at the end in the last couple of pages about the memories and the instances you've had with your lovers and partners and lovers and friends. They're never really gone and you use the expression that was like a beautiful summer fire fly or that it was like a “summer field”, like an eternal sort of space of memory in which you and your lover from forty years ago on the wall in Rome are still together in some ways, it doesn't disappear.   26:25 André: 'Yesterday was like tomorrow' or something like that.  26:27  Nick: Yes, exactly.   26:28 André: That’s just one sentence. Yes, that captures it because what just happened centuries ago. And what happened twenty years ago is just like this morning.  26:39  Nick: Yes, precisely.   26:40 André: And I think, yes, but because I'm always challenging time. And you initially started by saying that time is mortality, and I think it is. I mean, time equals death and we don't like death and I do not accept death.  26:53 And I think that we try to negotiate with it, however feebly we can, so that we can essentially grab something and keep it, and it's very hard to do.  27:05  Nick: My final question is do you think that memory can sometimes be like a siren which can lead you to crash on the rocks? Because my thing is it's nice for me, at least - I dwell on all the, you know, beautiful lovers and friends that I've known over the years - but ultimately, we are here in the present today. And I think the best part, when I read the book and watch the film, is when it makes me feel like I should be creating more memories today and gathering my rosebuds while I still can because what we have here today will one day be memory and we need to make sure we are actively living in the present.   27:39 André: We should live in the present. I've always thought so and that's what the father is saying, "Live in the present, don't fight the past, but don't also anticipate the future. Stay in the present." And I believe that, except I don't know how to do it.  27:57 I think that every - whenever I used to go into a relationship, I would feel like, "I know this is not going to last more than two weeks, I can already tell." And people will say, "Don't be judgemental." I'd say, "But I can tell, it's not going to go far." And I was always right - "Well, you made it happen that way because you..." No, I said, "No, I just knew it wasn't going to go."  28:17 The ones that where I felt my whole life was teetering before this particular relationship and this particular desire are the moments when I felt, "I'd better control this because it might control me." And I was going against the father's advice.  28:34  Nick: Yes, well, thank you so much for your time. I know you've got to rush off.   28:36 André: You're welcome.  28:36  Nick: It's very generous of you to squeeze me in and thank you so much.   28:39 André: It's a pleasure. You're really very good at this.  28:42  Nick: Thank you.   28:42 André: I have to tell you. I really - it was a total pleasure.  28:46  Nick: Thank you. Enjoy Melbourne as well.   28:48 André: Thank you.  28:48  Nick: One night in Melbourne, fantastic.   28:49 André: One night in Melbourne, that's all I can do.  28:51  Nick: Okay.   28:51 André: Are you coming to the thing?  28:52  Nick: I am, I am.   28:53 André: Oh, you're going.  28:54  Nick: I'm going to get a dinner and I'm going with some friends.      

Melbourne, Thursday 3 May, 2018

Returning from my lunchtime run, I refreshed my inbox to find a message from Andre Aciman, the author of Call Me by Your Name and Out of Egypt. I had emailed him earlier in the week, requesting 30 minutes of his time for a podcast while he was in Melbourne headlining a writers’ festival hosted by the Wheeler Centre. His response was brief, indicating that yes, he would be delighted to meet, and could I make it happen this afternoon?

Here was my chance to converse and ask questions of one of my favourite authors, who had also written the love story behind my favourite film. Aciman exists in that personal pantheon of authors who have deeply moved and shaped me as a person. This would be like talking to Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, or Ernest Hemingway, and being able to ask them about the deepest truths of their texts and inquire about all my unresolved questions. Was this really happening? The whole afternoon suddenly had a frisson of the fantastical to it. I felt like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, only this would be Afternoon in the Paris End of Collins St, Melbourne.

Sitting in the foyer of the Sofitel Hotel, Andre quietly approached me and thanked me for coming, before leading me over to a table in the foyer. He had a gentle and respectful demeanour, and his Sephardic olive eyes had a Dumbledore-like warmth and twinkle to them. The qualities of his cosmopolitan voice hinted at the extraordinary life he has led: the Arabic purr from his childhood in Egypt; the expressive musical Italian cadences from his youth and education in Italy; and the intellectualism and texture of the Jewish diaspora from a lifetime in New York.

What followed was a thirty-minute interview, which turned out to be one of the most pleasurable conversations of my life. You can read the full transcript below. It helped illuminate Call Me by Your Name as a canonical book and a filmic work of art, but also it helped me to understand Andre Aciman as the wellspring beneath the global phenomenon of Call Me by Your Name, which has touched the lives of so many people across continents, genders, sexualities and class barriers. I’ve never agreed with Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘The Death of the Author’, which asserts that the text and the creator are not connected and should be analysed separately. While the author’s experiences should probably never constitute a definitive explanation of the text, I think that they can certainly help us understand the contours and composition of a literary work in meaningful ways.

--

Interview with André Aciman, Melbourne, Thursday 3 May 2018

Nick Fabbri interview with André Aciman

 

00:01 Nick: I'm very fortunate to be here today with André Aciman, Professor of Comparative Literature at City University of New York and author of the hit novel, 'Call Me by Your Name'. So, thank you very, very much for joining us here in Melbourne. It's a great privilege and an honour to be speaking with you here today.

00:16 André: For me as well, it's a great pleasure.

00:17 Nick: Thank you. Perhaps you could begin, Professor, by giving us a brief overview of your life and story, and how it was that you came to be here in Melbourne on this Autumn evening for your first time, I believe.

00:29 André: Very first time, yes. I think that my whole life begins in Egypt and there is a moment of - it was a bit of a shock because I was kicked out of Egypt which is a place that I didn't want to be in to begin with.

00:44 So, I was born there. I didn't like it. I couldn't wait to get out and then eventually I was forced out because of political situation.

00:53 And essentially, I never got over that. I think it reappears in almost everything I write, the absence of a homeland or of a home. They're not necessarily synonymous but they mean the same thing in the end. In other words, a home cannot be a homeland but it's still where you long to be and where you were made to expect to be.

01:14 So, you always have this expectation of something that occurred in the past. I mean, no, let me rephrase this. You are taught that you will be in a place, even though you're also understanding that you will never be in that place.

01:28 So, that kind of bickering that occurs inside of you and in the family as well, that we belong here but we don't belong here, has stayed with me forever and so I take it everywhere I go.

01:40 I write about exile, about displacement, about ambivalence, ambivalent sexuality. Everything that I write is essentially at loggerheads with itself. I hate to use the word 'contradiction', it's too simple.

01:59 And eventually I wrote a book called 'Out of Egypt' which is about my life in Egypt, growing up in Egypt. It was successful and I kept writing about exile, exile, exile after that all the time; until I got sick and tired of exile and I decided to write about something else and I wrote this book about a gay love affair.

02:17 And 'Out of Egypt' had done very well. I didn't need to write another book if I wanted to be known but this has basically exploded and, once the film comes out, everybody talks about it. Everybody writes to me and it's there.

02:33 So, I get invited to places and eventually I got invited to Australia, to come to Melbourne.

02:43 Nick: We're very lucky to have you here. So, you are a Professor of Comparative Literature. You teach the classics and English style, with a particular interest in Marcel Proust. I hope I got the name right.

02:54 André: You did.

02:50 Nick: Could you please reflect on Proust's influence on your style and perhaps also on the broader themes that he seems to be concerned out? Namely memory, the passing of time and nostalgia for things that we've lost.

03:07 André: Yes. I think that the nostalgia comes naturally to me, so finding it in Proust was an easy thing. Proust is a nostalgist. He longs for the past or at least he claims to long for the past. It's an easy gesture. It's an easy move for him and I immediately connected with that when I read Proust. I was very young when I read Proust.

03:31 But there's also many other things in Proust. Proust was interested in people and he wants to examine or let's say 'excavate' their personalities, their motivations, what it is that they're hiding from you and what it is that you're hiding and what your motivations are when you're dealing with others. He's very interested in that. I don't think there's another author who has done it as well as he has. Even psychologists are not able to penetrate the mind as he has.

03:58 I was interested in that too because I don't trust people and I always assume they are out to get me or to hurt me, so I'm always analysing, "What does he want? Why? Why? What do they want?"

04:07 So, with that I connected as well but the third item is the most important. There was a particular kind of cadence in the rhythm that Proust has invented for us. And once you allow yourself to be trapped and caught and basically carried away by that rhythm, you begin to see life differently.

04:28 And what I wanted for people to do when they read me is to like the rhythm that I gave them, to accept the fact that they will be carried away by it. And once they do that, they can no longer tell whether it is they themselves they are reading or me. And the fact that there's a confusion is a Proustian move. When you read Proust, you think you're reading yourself, you're not reading Marcel. And I wanted that to be - or maybe I didn't even want it, it just happens.

05:00 Nick: It did happen in 'Call me by your name'. I was reading it and I felt myself slipping into the grooves of Elio's consciousness. I actually almost felt sort of headachy at a point because of this obsessiveness about Oliver. It actually was so empathetic in the way that I was able to be absorbed into his mind.

05:18 André: Well, a lot of people get absorbed into it and they start crying because they see the trauma that they've experienced. But there are a lot of straight men who read my book and begin to question what their sexuality really is because they're seduced by it. And there are girls who are twelve or thirteen years old who start crying for days. So, they write to me and their mothers tell me, "She's been crying for days. I want to know what you've done." I, of course, say, "I didn't want to do that."

05:47 Nick: Yes, I know.

05:49 André: But it's something that's totally unintentional.

05:51 Nick: And beyond Proust, I think what I really loved about your work is how it's sort of suffused with classical and other literary references. Like, I remember Elio's father speaking and quoting Dante and Dante's 'Inferno' and Virgil as well, particularly the image of reaching out to the further bank from book six [of The Aeneid, VI, 313]. You see these subtle references all the way through and, of course when they go to lake and they literally dredge up a classical monument - I mean, this is quite a potent symbol of I think what your book does, it actually brings the classics back into our consciousness. So, can you reflect on what moves and influences you, about the classics, as a writer?

06:30 André: The classics are, for me, very - they're the best books that have ever been written. I mean, let's go with that. They also are the safest books. In other words, they're always established. They are there.

06:44 When I was reading the classics as a child, I was in Egypt and there was something about the classics that made me feel I belonged to this tradition even though I'm out there in this outback of the world which has no connection with the rest of the universe - because it was really secluded. And yet, when I think of the classics, it sort of tells me, "No, no, you belong to a long tradition."

07:08 Nick: Which you can communicate with...

07:09 André: Yes.

07:10 Nick: ... and become part of.

07:12 André: Exactly, so in many ways the classics for me represented a connection with history and with the rest of Europe and also with the very best of Europe, and I wanted that.

07:24 But at the same time, the classics are so profound. So, when Elio masturbates with the peach, he's also thinking of the peach as a character from Ovid that has been transformed into poor peach and she's suffering.

07:45 Or there's a scene - there's a big scene in the third chapter. It occurs in Rome and they're having this dinner together. Everybody's getting drunk and suddenly this guy arrives very late because he got lost on the way. He's drunk too and he starts talking gibberish. And that is all a pastiche of 'The Symposium' by Plato - very few people know this.

08:06 Nick: Yes, okay.

08:07 André: And so, basically there is, "What is love? What is the theory of love?." They're basically playing on Plato and I love that because I think the classics are what - in one way or another, they are what unifies us among ourselves because it's a common language we have and it also unifies us with the past.

08:26 And so, it's something I consider essential and very safe. They're always going to be there. As long as we have books, we will have the classics. They are never going away.

08:37 Nick: Yes, that's very beautiful. What I mentioned before, I think it is a classical work or a book that pays homage to the classics...

08:44 André: I think the attitude is classical.

08:46 Nick: A classical attitude, yes.

08:47 André: Yes, the style is not - I mean, we can use the work 'fuck' a few times but it doesn't mean that we're not aware that - basically, the language is polished. The writing is, I think, pretty decent. It doesn't - the standards are high, I think. I shouldn't be saying this, but I'm conscious I mean, if my sentences are sort of awkward, I fix them. I don't want them to be awkward.

09:14 And so, I'm writing - if I can claim this, which is very arrogant - I'm writing for the great works. I'm writing to them. I want them to hear me. I'm not writing for people who read magazines.

09:28 Nick: But I think through the film and the book as well, you've inducted many people into that tradition as a result of how accessible it has been, in terms of the love story.

09:38 André: I hope so. I would love to think that. The funny thing is that people may not have read my book before. Now they read it.

09:39 Nick: Exactly, yes.

09:40 André: And these are people who would normally not want to read that kind of a book because it's a difficult book. It's not easy-easy. I mean, the writing is sometimes even precious.

09:56 Nick: Yes, but it's like when you work through Proust. It's a labour. It's an effort sometimes. I'm not saying it's difficult to read your book, I read it in a day, but...

10:03 André: At first, you have to accept the rhythm. Once you're in it, it's easy.

10:07 Nick: So, do you think in the modern world - I mean, because of this sort of nodding and gesture towards the classics and how you apotheosise it in some ways - do you think there's something deficient or something in our modern world in terms of our considerations of Love and our consideration of Beauty and the sublime?

10:25 André: No, I don't think there's something deficient. I think that the art is deficient. The standards of high art. I'm not talking about middle-brow art, I'm talking high art - are totally lacking.

10:39 We want things to be simple and easy and quick. And there's a sense of - and I was speaking about this a couple of days ago in Sydney when I was making fun of Strunk and White, I don't know if you know who they are.

10:51 Nick: No.

10:52 André: Strunk and White are two individuals who wrote a book called 'The Elements of Style'.

10:52 Nick: Oh, yes. I - yes [My enemies - Ed.]

10:5 André: Okay, but that's exactly what people think what good writing is - simple, declarative, indicative mood. Never the subjunctive - never. Never the conditional mood.

11:07 Nick: No long subordinates, no.

11:08 André: Yes, I spoke about subordinature forever and basically people don't like that. So, I don't think our appreciation of love is any different. The Greeks didn't have a good idea what love was either, but they knew how to speak about it and they knew how to elaborate as opposed to simplify it.

11:28 Nick: Which we don't in short declarative academic writing in many ways.

11:29 André: You can't.

11:30 Nick: You can't, no.

11:32 André: It destroys it.

11:33 Nick: You only get a credit or a pass on your assignment, you know?

11:35 André: [laughing]

11:37 Nick: Okay, so moving along. In terms of the impact that the book has had on attitudes towards sexuality and gender, particularly people's attitudes towards gay or bi-sexual or even bi-curious men and women - people reading the book can interrogate their own sexuality. What kind of impact do you think that your work has had and the film as well, in terms of making people feel that it's okay to be authentic in themselves and in their sexual identities?

12:11 André: I think that at this point in time, most people are not fighting their sexuality any longer. I mean, people are coming out all the time.

12:22 It's older people who basically regret not having come out to their parents because their father's long dead, that sort of thing, and they write to me about that.

12:32 In many ways, I think that the book sanctions the absence of repression and it's an encouragement, particularly to parents, to heed what their children are saying and to accept. There's no choice but to accept.

12:49 Nick: But this is like - I come back to Plato again. You know, the father - I can't remember his name this is horrible - but he represents, in many ways, a Platonic form of what a father should be in terms of being loving and accepting...

13:02 André: Yes, oh God, yes.

13:03 Nick: ... and in listening as well. And almost encouraging his son to feel the pain rather than to just sort of 'stiff upper lip' and carry on...

13:10 André: Oh yes, ‘it’s gonna go away’.

13:12 Nick: Yes, I thought that was a remarkable...

13:14 André: Well, but I think - I believe it. I think everybody accepts that, we fight many times and we suffer, especially with love. We fight it. We try to hate the other person and get rid of them. And what the father's saying, "No, no, don't fight it. It's good to suffer." Then he makes the other declarative statement that is, "I could have had what you have, but I never did." And so, there was even this touch of nostalgia on the part of the father.

13:42 Nick: Yes, precisely.

13:43 André: And what kind of father would tell that to his son? It's not just the son coming out to the father, it's the father coming out to the son.

13:50 Nick: Precisely and it's remarkable.

13:53 André: And I think that's very moving.

13:55 Nick: Yes, deeply so. Beyond the idea of reconciling one's self with that Greek concept of 'Gnothi Seauton' (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) - that's not the right pronunciation, but it means 'become who you are' [Know Thyself – Ed] essentially...

14:06 André: Oh, yes.

14:07 Nick: There's a sense in which the book and the film is about sexual awakening; a coming into one's sexuality, the act of making love as well. But I think what hasn't been discussed as much insofar as the things that I've read is the idea of the book being a religious awakening as well. There's that beautiful line about when Elio and Oliver are together and Elio has had the blood nose, and they speak about the Star of David that they're wearing on the chest. He says, "You’re not a Jew of discretion" or something to that effect. Oh no, Elio says that, "Mum says we're Jews of discretion." But then after that, the next scene is him coming out of the water - almost a baptismal sort of image - and he's wearing the Star of David.

14:48 André: Very well said. I had never planned for this, but it's in the film. He comes out of the water and he is baptised. Very well said.

14:56 I think that he's accepted his religion and he's open. I think the religion motif - I wasn't really interested about the Jewishness per se, but they are the two Jews in the town and so it automatically binds them somehow. They have something in common. They may have nothing else in common, but they do have that in common and it sort of solidifies their relationship.

15:17 And the fact that Elio accepts to wear the star of David, for me, is clearly a symbolic acceptance of his own sexuality.

15:28 Nick: Absolutely.

15:28 André: Which he's accepted from page one in the book and, from page one, there's no, "I am not gay, I am not gay." I mean, he - from the very beginning, he's saying, "I know what I want. I want to sleep with this guy. Period."

15:40 Nick: I think it also taps into that almost Kafka-esque, as a writer, sense of him - there's like that outsider complex, being gay and being away from what is hetero-normative, but also being Jewish in a village which isn't Jewish. And the same as Oliver being - he's in New Hampshire or something, he's the only Jew in that particular locale. So, how do you - going back to that idea of exile and outsided and alienation - is this something that's been pertinent for you as a writer?

16:08 André: It is totally pertinent to me because I remember when I was in Egypt - I was ten years old, even perhaps younger - and there was another boy and he must have been sixteen/seventeen. He wore a Star of David or actually not even a Star of David, he wore a Mezuzah which I don't know if you know...

16:23 Nick: No, I don't know.

16:24 André: It's another symbol the Jews have. And I saw this and said, "What is he, crazy? This is Egypt and he's walking around with this thing?"

16:31 Nick: And this is after the Egyptian nationalism where they expelled the Jews and...?

16:35 André: Yes, yes. In fact, he ended up pretty badly; years later, I found out. But, I mean, he was so totally okay with being Jewish, whereas I was not ever going to wear one. And I envied him and I became interested in him because he was a Jew who was not afraid of being Jewish.

16:52 Of course, I thought I wanted to have a friendship with him. He wasn't interested because he was much older but I'm sure that if I had known about sex back then, maybe I would have thought that there was some kind of attraction, but I'm not sure. I couldn't say.

17:07 Nick: For you, as a writer and a human -  you obviously live in New York now and, in some academic writing, that's been called the 'Global Capital for the Jewish Diaspora'.

17:19 André: Yes.

17:19 Nick: Versus that idea of having to be rooted in a particular homeland, like in Israel and the Holy Lands. How do you interact in New York as a Jewish man?

17:28 André: Put it this way, New York has made it very, very easy for me to be Jewish in the sense that most of the people I know are either half Christian or Jewish.

17:41 But I'm a very bad Jew. I don't like Judaism. I don't like the religion. I was never the equivalent of communion or bar-mitzvared. I refused the whole thing.

17:52 Nick: Why?

17:52 André: Because I hate religion. I really don't like religion, any religion. And probably because I had to pay a price for being Jewish when I was growing up, so I just have no tolerance for religion.

18:04 So, in New York, there are many practising Jews and they invite me to their weddings and things and I have to go, but I hate going. I really hate going.

18:12 Nick: See, I find that surprising because I thought that, in the whole beautiful image of 'Call me your name and I'll call you by your name' - that recalled to me the Song of Solomon verse, chapter six verse three [Song of Solomon 6:3 – Ed] or something, about 'I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.' This idea of total - I don't know - total sort of exchange of self or total 'two hearts beating as one'. I don't know, total commitment - trust, love, loyalty...

18:38 André: Intimacy.

18:39 Nick: Intimacy, exactly.

18:41 André: Well, I believe that. I believe that it's possible. It doesn't always last but it exists and it exists capriciously, whimsically, because you can't always arrest it there, but it is something to be cultivated.

18:56 And one works at it because you don't want to lose intimacy. Once you lose intimacy, you're with somebody but it doesn't really matter.

19:02 Nick: Yes, exactly. What did you think of the film? What do you think was gained and maybe lost by the adaptation?

19:09 André: I think the film was perfect. I loved the film. In fact, ironically, I was watching it on the plane coming here.

19:15 Nick: Really [laughs]?

19:15 André: Yes, just to refresh my mind. I've seen it a million times and I like the film. I like the fact that it takes its time. It is not in a rush to make the point that they're going to have sex, and it makes you almost - it forces you to slip into their lives and to understand how this thing is being worked out between them, how the tension is increasing constantly and you're not feeling it, but it's there. And then you have this moment of eruption in front of the monument when the kid just basically doesn't know what he's saying. He may not even have planned any of it, but he's telling him, "I'm interested in you. I have feelings for you." Well he's saying it very ambiguously of course because he might want to withdraw everything he's just said.

20:03 The film is very faithful to the spirit of the book. Now, there are many changes that occurred. Among others, there's no sense of the future which is totally out of the - there's no trip to Rome, which I think was pretty important for me. But it doesn't matter because I think the end of the book - most people get to the end of the book and they always write to me and they said, "I've cried. The moment I could feel the end coming, I was already crying." And I don't understand why.

20:30 Nick: Really?

20:30 André: I don't, and I'm being very honest. It's very hard for me to understand.

20:34 Nick: I cried a lot.

20:35 André: Why?

20:38 Nick: Why? Because it's a sense that something profoundly beautiful exists only once in a lifetime and it’s just sort of slipped you by. I think that's pretty devastating, at least.

20:45 André: It is devastating and I think the film, even though it has a scene that was never in the book - it's a scene when Elio is staring at the fireplace - I think that captures exactly what the end of the book was doing in its own, in film language, which is totally different from book language.

21:06 It does - it achieves the same effect. Now, why is it that this film - people go to see it many, many times? And why is it that people read the book many times? And why does it have this impact on people? What is it actually saying to them that they never tell me because they can't formulate it? I don't know what that is.

21:26 I cannot answer that question. I mean, I wish I knew because if I knew, I would have a formula and I would write a book every six months, but it's really very difficult to say. The only thing that I - and I say this many times - the only scene that means something to me personally is when they are in Rome and they're kissing against the wall and Elio is so entranced by the kiss that he doesn't care that these two old men are walking by and saying ‘in Mussolini’s time, those two guys would have been arrested.’

21:55 He doesn't care and I have had a moment like this in my life, against the wall, and every time I go to that wall which is not in Rome...

22:03 Nick: You revisit it? Yes, wow...

22:07 André: I am heartbroken because I realise at that wall, that my life could have taken a turn in the totally different direction, and it didn't. And so, when I go back to that wall, I see the moment. I can almost touch that moment when, by sheer idiocy on my part - which was also a touch of genius because it would have created a disaster - but...

22:31 Nick: That life with that particular woman, yes.

22:33 André: That was a disaster but, in fact, I do regret it. I'm grateful it never happened but I regret it because I knew that, at that moment, my love had come - had blossomed against that wall. And so, I wanted that scene at the wall. But most people read about the wall and they keep going.

22:55 Nick: I've got - we're thirty minutes in, so I've got about three more questions and then you can go and have a shower.

22:56 André: I've taken a shower already.

22:57 Nick: Oh, perfect. Okay, relax. Excellent.

22:59 André: I was going to nap but then I said, "I don't have time to nap."

23:05 Nick: No, you've got to roll through. Yes, it's the best way to beat jet-lag. But I think that it is so profoundly soul-rending, if that's the right word, because it does confront you with a vision of - everyone looks on Elio and Oliver and the loss that happened as a result of that, and you don't get the sense of how deep that loss was in the film as you do in the book. But we all look on our own lives and interrogate and we think, "Oh, I've had a moment of love like that, but I didn't live a life with that person when I could have." So, we are kind of confronted with all the selves we could have been, all the happiness that we could have had, and that's profoundly - hauntingly beautiful but profoundly shocking and disturbing in many ways. It's devastating.

23:50 For me, the ending and being confronted with the different selves - I've only seen it done a couple of times in literature, and never as well as with your book. And that's why I thought that the film maybe could have put something in there, in terms of the twenty-year meeting after which I think was...

24:02 André: Well, he wants to do a sequel. I mean, that's what he was saying.

24:04 Nick: Yes, is that what that's going to unpack?

24:06 André: I don't know. I don't know. There’s talk of it, but I don't know if it's palaver or it's real. He is very committed to it, but there are too many other individuals involved. But you're touching on something that's very important for me. It's the particular - it's a verb mood, it's the 'might have been'.

24:27 Nick: Yes, the 'might have been'.

24:28 André: And I’m writing a whole book on 'might have beens'.

24:30 Nick: It's like “pluperfect lover” line, what's the mood? I'm trying to think - is there actually...? Anyway...

24:33 André: It's a conditional.

24:34 Nick: It's a conditional, that's right.

24:35 André: Yes, it's a past-conditional, the 'might have been'. And that is a dimension of our lives that we seldom visit because it's awful.

24:45 Nick: It's infinite, though. It could, you know...?

24:48 André: Well, that's exactly it. And so, it forces us to go backwards and forwards because the 'might have been' is still with us and it might be achieved in the future. And we dread it and we desire it, and we don't know.

24:59 And so, this whole condition of the 'might have been' might be the moving click, the thing that makes you say, "My god, this is not just about the love lost, but it's a love that could have been and hasn't quite resolved itself." And that's disturbing.

25:17 Nick: Yes, I've only seen it done in McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach' at the end when he says, "This is how the course of a life could change." Because he didn't call out to his lover on the beach and say, "I'm sorry, I love you."

25:25 But the second half of the book, like your Ghost Spots section, flips by life very quickly. I think it's so beautiful and it's sad because ultimately the life they did lead is not fulfilling in some ways...

25:41 André: That's true.

25:42 Nick: ... compared to the infinite possibilities in their minds.

25:45 André: And I like the fact that Elio says - when he says, "Come and visit my family." And he says, "No."

25:50 Nick: Because he doesn't want to see.

25:52 André: Obviously he still is not over it.

25:54 Nick: Yes.

25:54 André: And neither is Oliver for that matter.

25:58 Nick: But coming back to the final questions, there's that beautiful line at the end in the last couple of pages about the memories and the instances you've had with your lovers and partners and lovers and friends. They're never really gone and you use the expression that was like a beautiful summer fire fly or that it was like a “summer field”, like an eternal sort of space of memory in which you and your lover from forty years ago on the wall in Rome are still together in some ways, it doesn't disappear.

26:25 André: 'Yesterday was like tomorrow' or something like that.

26:27 Nick: Yes, exactly.

26:28 André: That’s just one sentence. Yes, that captures it because what just happened centuries ago. And what happened twenty years ago is just like this morning.

26:39 Nick: Yes, precisely.

26:40 André: And I think, yes, but because I'm always challenging time. And you initially started by saying that time is mortality, and I think it is. I mean, time equals death and we don't like death and I do not accept death.

26:53 And I think that we try to negotiate with it, however feebly we can, so that we can essentially grab something and keep it, and it's very hard to do.

27:05 Nick: My final question is do you think that memory can sometimes be like a siren which can lead you to crash on the rocks? Because my thing is it's nice for me, at least - I dwell on all the, you know, beautiful lovers and friends that I've known over the years - but ultimately, we are here in the present today. And I think the best part, when I read the book and watch the film, is when it makes me feel like I should be creating more memories today and gathering my rosebuds while I still can because what we have here today will one day be memory and we need to make sure we are actively living in the present.

27:39 André: We should live in the present. I've always thought so and that's what the father is saying, "Live in the present, don't fight the past, but don't also anticipate the future. Stay in the present." And I believe that, except I don't know how to do it.

27:57 I think that every - whenever I used to go into a relationship, I would feel like, "I know this is not going to last more than two weeks, I can already tell." And people will say, "Don't be judgemental." I'd say, "But I can tell, it's not going to go far." And I was always right - "Well, you made it happen that way because you..." No, I said, "No, I just knew it wasn't going to go."

28:17 The ones that where I felt my whole life was teetering before this particular relationship and this particular desire are the moments when I felt, "I'd better control this because it might control me." And I was going against the father's advice.

28:34 Nick: Yes, well, thank you so much for your time. I know you've got to rush off.

28:36 André: You're welcome.

28:36 Nick: It's very generous of you to squeeze me in and thank you so much.

28:39 André: It's a pleasure. You're really very good at this.

28:42 Nick: Thank you.

28:42 André: I have to tell you. I really - it was a total pleasure.

28:46 Nick: Thank you. Enjoy Melbourne as well.

28:48 André: Thank you.

28:48 Nick: One night in Melbourne, fantastic.

28:49 André: One night in Melbourne, that's all I can do.

28:51 Nick: Okay.

28:51 André: Are you coming to the thing?

28:52 Nick: I am, I am.

28:53 André: Oh, you're going.

28:54 Nick: I'm going to get a dinner and I'm going with some friends.
 

 

 

Paul Monk: On Western Civilization

 

Paul Monk: On Western Civilization

Listen at PodBean here: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-guss5-8ff9e5

Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.

Here, Paul and I discuss Western Civilization through topics as wide-ranging as erotic poetry, stoicism and the ancient world, and the turmoils of the 20th century. From Pericles via Shakespeare to the 21st century, Paul surveys the roots of Western Civilization and defines it geographically and temporally, before reflecting on its most cherished cultural, scientific and political contributions to humanity, and  concludes by painting a picture of what the future of Western Civilization may look like in a turbulent world beset by ecological crises.

This interview is but one example of the endlessly rich and varied conversations that Paul has kindly shared with me over the years. I am delighted to be able to count him as a friend.

 

 Dr Paul Monk, 22/04/2018

Dr Paul Monk, 22/04/2018

 

paul monk: the secret gospel according to mark

 

Paul Monk: The Secret Gospel According to Mark – The extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist

Listen at PodBean here: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-yb2a9-8d0e6a

Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.

Most recently, Paul has written a biography on the life of Brother Mark O’Loughlin: science teacher, mentor to youth, pastoral counsellor to the mentally ill, marine scientist of global stature and founder of ecumenical Christian base communities. The Secret Gospel According to Mark – the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist is the subject of this inaugural podcast, and is Monk’s tribute to his lifelong friend and mentor, whose story certainly deserves wider understanding and appreciation. A comprehensive, loving, and fastidiously researched biography, Monk traces the humble but profound and influential life of a man who sought to live up to the example of Christ, and who was and is sustained by boundless love for humankind. Monk sets down the story of this one precious life with a remarkable consideration of major societal movements across theology, the Church, politics, science and academia, all of which formed the backdrop to Mark’s life and shaped him in turn.

This interview is but one example of the endlessly rich and varied conversations that Paul has kindly shared with me over the years. I am forever grateful for his friendship and support.

You can purchase The Secret Gospel According to Mark here.

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