Brian Ritchie, founding member of the Violent Femmes, teahouse owner and master of the Japanese Shakuhachi flute talks to Australian Stage’s Briony Kidd about his latest role, curator of Tasmania's Festival of Music and Arts - MONA FOMA.

Brian RitchieCan you explain the philosophy of MONA FOMA?
MONA FOMA stands for Museum of Old and New Art Festival of Music and Art. So everything that’s in the festival has something to do with music --even a visual art thing would have a musical element to it, whether it’s covering a musical idea or song and visual art combined. The idea also is to have some straight-ahead musical performances, ranging from funk to classical to noise music, a little bit of punk and other kinds of rock music here and there – but not the really commercial and boring kinds. It reflects my broad interest in music and art and also the interests of the museum [MONA is under construction and will open to the public in 2011].

What would you say is the difference between this year’s festival and last year’s inaugural MONA FOMA?
The first time we considered it kind of like a pilot festival. We’re going for more than two weeks this time [as opposed to four days] and using more venues. Part of our philosophy is not to have a site-specific festival: we just tailor the events to the venue. So a lot of things will happen in a very small venue like the Peacock Theatre, which holds about 130 people, all the way up to having about 5000 people out in front of Salamanca Arts Centre for the opening night concert, and everything in between. We have even used St David’s Cathedral; the Town Hall, which is a beautiful venue; the Theatre Royal. The festival hub is Princes Wharf 1, which is a shed, and it’s being architecturally redesigned immediately following this so it’s kind of like the last hurrah for that venue the way it is.

What have audiences been responding to so far?
The classical component does surprisingly well because we get the classical buffs and we also get kids who are kind of like MONA FOMA fans to listen to music that they normally wouldn’t go to. We’ve had very good attendance for organ concerts at Town Hall and St David’s. Also a piano and cello concert that we have there from Gabriella Smart and Sue-Ellen Paulsen (from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra) – an example of another one of our themes, which is collaboration between Tasmanian musicians and artists and visiting ones. Gabriella is from Adelaide and Sue-Ellen is from Tasmania. 

Michael Kieran Harvey, Australia’s finest concert pianist, premiered his own composition called 48 Fugues for Frank and that was extremely well-received. We did five performances and we had to turn people away for all of them and he received standing ovations.  It was a tour de force.

The opening night concert was a big success. We had great funk bands – from Texas, where you would normally find funk music coming from [but] we also had a great Japanese funk band called Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro and they blew everybody away.

Most of the events in MONO FONA are free. Do you have to reach out to find audiences or do you find that they just come?
The idea is kind of like, “Hey, what do you have to lose? You may not be familiar with these artists or you may not even have heard this style of music before but we want you to check it out.” That’s part of the philosophy behind being free, it’s not just, “Oh, if it’s free then they’ll come.” We can entice people to go out on a limb artistically and experiment with something that they might not normally go for.

Obviously the audience is mainly Tasmanians but are there many people coming from interstate?
Well, this is the peak tourist season so there are of course a lot of tourists. I’ve heard from a lot of them that they’re amazed to come to Hobart, Tasmania, which is a place where they might have thought they were going to do some hiking or something like that – and then suddenly there’s this really intense, full-on arts festival. 

What are the events between now and the end of the festival that should not be missed?
Tonight [19 January] is the first concert from our artist in residence John Cale [founding member of the Velvet Underground and minimalist composition pioneer]. He already has an installation showing and he’s going to be doing four performances of different music in three different venues, ranging from solo to full band with string section and everything in between. 

Grandmaster Flash on Thursday: he’s one of the pioneers of hip hop, pioneers of scratching technology, that whole style of music making. Friday we’re doing an interesting concert called Eight Hands at the Theatre Royal (which is the oldest operating theatre in Australia, actually) and it’s a piano concert. Four different piano players: Cale, Gabriella Smart, Andrew Legg, who’s a gospel pianist, and Paul Grabowsky, who was the Australian jazzman of the year several times I believe. They’re all doing mini-sets, 20 to 30 minute sets, of theme and variations as a concert. The Saturday night concert is going to be big – Dirty Three, Bridezilla and Cale again. 

MONA FOMA this year is hugely ambitious. Do you ever find it a bit overwhelming?
It is pretty overwhelming and it’s exhausting, maybe a little bit too ambitious – but it’s probably better to err on that side than being too cautious. I hope to refine it a bit next year, maybe simplify and not have it quite as sprawling [but] we’ll probably try to attract bigger and – well, I wouldn’t say better but more well known artists as well. 

So MONA FOMA will keep going?
We’re thinking of it as an annual event. We discussed doing it every other year but we think an annual event is better because, well, obviously we get to do more stuff that way and keep the ball rolling all the time. 

MONA FOMA runs from 8 to 24 January 2010. Further information»

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