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‘I had to be taken out of the museum’: the artistic challenge that almost broke Dean Stevenson | Mona

F.or in the past 10 months, Dean Stevenson has gone deep into the bowels of Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart’s underground gallery dedicated to the dark and the strange, to sit at the piano and write a piece of music from scratch. Nobody had Stevenson write 150 compositions; if he’s completely honest, he wanted to see how far he could go until he broke. “And it turned out there were about 130,” he says mildly.

Under the constant gaze of curious art lovers, the 50-year-old composer has spent the past 10 months writing a piece every day, stopping at around 4pm when the musicians of Tasmania’s Symphony Orchestra arrive to perform whatever he wrote, good or bad. that is. At the end of the performance, the composition was shelved and Stevenson started over.

The 4PM project is “arguably the most ambitious thing” that Stevenson has ever done, forcing him to “suck something for a while and own it,” as he wrote at the beginning on his website. When 4pm was first announced last year, a curator from Mona said, “I can’t wait to see him suffer for his art as time goes by.”

So, did Stevenson suffer? “Oh my God, yes,” he says. “First it would be three months, then six, then 10. And I probably could have stopped at any time, but either I was writing good music or I didn’t feel in danger for the moment.”

In March, after having been in the depths of Mona since July last year, “something snapped in my brain and I had to be taken out of the museum,” he says. “I couldn’t go back for a couple of weeks. To be honest, I’m not quite back yet. It was traumatic. I was no longer in control of everything that happened around me. It was something to be on display all the time, it took a very heavy toll. “

Dean Stevenson at his piano inside Mona.
Dean Stevenson at his piano inside Mona: ‘Was I getting better at writing music? Or was the music getting better and I was suffering under it? ‘ Director of photography: Mona

After being removed by Mona, Stevenson took a short break and went on tour, before returning to the gallery to resume at 4pm for his sister festival, Dark Mofo. He knows he has been changed by the experiment, but wonders exactly how he is; he suspects he has become a braver musician because of it. “Was I getting better at writing music?” he asks. “Or was the music getting better and I was suffering under it?

“In the end, I think that’s what happened: the music was getting really good and I wasn’t doing that good. But I did it to myself. I guess this is the experiment. “

When he first suggested the idea behind 4pm to Mona’s founder and friend David Walsh, “it was all about me, look how awesome I am – he was too self-centered, that would have been terrible.” The idea never went anywhere. For the past 20 years, Stevenson has toured as a drummer, composed and taught music. In his he students, young and old, he came to observe a shared “paralyzing anxiety”; most were “so afraid of doing something that wasn’t right”.

Eventually he realized: We all have to suck something for a while and own it.

“We stigmatize mistakes so heavily: if you don’t do them right, it’s best to abandon them,” he says. “Only those who have an absolutely bloodthirsty passion will go on, because he can’t Not just do it. And as a teacher, I was encouraging people to get into the music industry, which I won’t do anymore because it’s a terrible industry. Seeing where we are in the food chain during Covid, I finally realized that unless that’s all you can do, it’s a crucifix – and I won’t encourage anyone to hang themselves on it. “

Some days, at 4pm, he just had “terrible music, just nonsense” to show. A few days she left the gallery with great pride. But every day, after each performance, he was approached by people telling the same story. “It’s curious, but at least once a day they say, ‘I used to play an instrument and I gave it up.’ You can feel the regret. I always give those people my time, because it’s a really precious moment “.

Dean Stevenson and members of the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra perform a 4:00 pm show inside the MONA
“You rarely see people doing things, you always see the end result.” Director of photography: Mona

Surrounded by finished art, he was showing them something exotic: the very process of creation. “You rarely see people doing things, you always see the end result. And doing is something you do at home in gloomy despair, like practicing stairs. It’s just a horrible idea, not something funny. But I can be the guy who hangs up his dirty underwear every day, “he says.

Visiting Stevenson in Mona, I see a message typed on a page on one of the lecterns: “The art is never finished. It is abandoned only in an interesting place ”. Consider this the biggest lesson and “the antithesis of panic that we have to do things right the first time”.

“If we want to do better things and be happier, sometimes we just have to say, ‘Oh that’s enough,’” he says. “Being good enough is actually fine.”

For the two weeks of Dark Mofo, his 4pm sessions were devoted to composing parts of a symphony titled With Ukraine. On Tuesday night it was assembled and executed in its entirety in Hobart; an incredibly moving experience that raised $ 10,000 for Voices of Children, a charity that helps Ukrainian families. And for the first time in 10 months, Stevenson wasn’t performing: he was backstage watching as someone else conducted: “Total Relief.”

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