Scaling the heights of creativity – Jennifer Eriksson writes about her residency at The Banff Centre

Jennifer Eriksson, viola da gamba player, founder and Artistic Director of The Marais Project recently spent a residency at The Banff Centre in Canada, curating the ensemble’s most recent concert. It was an intensely creative and enriching time. She tells of her experiences in her own words:

In January and February 2013 I undertook at short term Winter Residency at The Banff Centre, Canada.  Banff is one of the largest arts centres in the world.  To be accepted I had presented a proposal which in my case was to prepare a recital called “Six of the Best” which included works by five of the great French Baroque composers and a new commission by Australian composer, Rosalind Page.  I am grateful to New South Wales Arts who provided me with a grant which assisted me to take up the 5 week Residency.


As I approached Banff Township, which sits almost 5000 feet up in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I was ov00erwhelmed by the spectacular scenery. I had this amazing feeling of expectation that I was going to experience something very special. This is the story of how special it was.

First days

On waking the next day I met the music coordinator and received the program for the week.  Most importantly, however, I took possession of the key to my personal “hut,” which was the place I would spend a lot of my time over the coming weeks.  My hut was set in the forest not unlike the great viola da gambist Sainte Colombe’s practice room depicted in the movie “Tous les matin du monde”. I could imagine the young Marin Marais, Sainte Colombe’s estranged student, secretly listening to his idol practicing the viol from underneath the veranda as the legend goes.  I was struck by the stillness and the quietness of my surroundings. There was no background noise.

The short term residency

The short term music residency program was more structured than I had imagined although it was up to each artist as to whether or not they participated in any activities. For example, there was a Monday morning meeting where all musicians got together which also featured an occasional guest speaker. During the week there were 2 quite formal concerts Wednesdays at 4.30pm, a so-called “Mid Week Medley” and an evening concert on Friday night.

I was lucky that there was a fantastic harpsichordist in residence, Katelyn Clark from Montreal. Kate and I practiced most days together, working through the repertoire I was preparing for my recital back in Australia. We performed a Caix d’Hervelois suite together on a Friday night.  We also joined up with an Australian violinist, Christina Katsimbardis, to present a Corelli violin Sonata.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon there were self directed concerts in a more relaxing venue, the “Bentley”. On Tuesday evenings Henk Guitttart, the Dutch violist and Banff’s music director, or one of the visiting faculty, gave a talk or showed a DVD. I enjoyed these sessions which often ended up in heated discussions in Maclab, the on-site pub.

The whole atmosphere at residency in Banff was incredible.  In my view this was created by Henk’s outstanding leadership. There was no actual or hidden hierarchy, no “in cliques”, which can be the bane of classical music. It didn’t matter where we were in our careers, everyone was treated equally.

Early music, the gamba and Banff

I found it refreshing to be around musicians who were for the most part not early music specialists.  It was interesting that nearly all musicians at Banff had never seen or heard a viola da gamba in the flesh. Viol playing colleagues, we should be appalled at this fact!  There was a very special moment when I volunteered to be examined by a physiotherapist while playing in front of a room full of musical colleagues. I selected a Muzette by Marais and as I played there was total silence.  Afterwards the whole place applauded – something they did not do for the other volunteers. I’d like to think that it was me they were enthusiastic about but I suspect it was the power of the music and the pure, stark beauty of the unaccompanied bass viol.

Another highlight was performing minimalist Terry Riley’s famous “In C”… never common fare for a viola da gambist!

The beauty surrounding us

We were encouraged to take time to be inspired by the beauty around us, the mountains which soared to 12,000 feet. For me this took place in my daily runs, my numerous climbs up the spectacular Tunnel Mountain, my snow shoeing at Lake Louise and probably the greatest day of all, a half marathon run on the frozen Bow River. (Yes ON the frozen river, not alongside it!)

One of my great joys was to get up every morning at sunrise (7.30am) and go for a 10 km run around town. It took a while to work out the appropriate clothing which finally got right: two layers of everything and a balaclava. It took 15 minutes to get dressed every morning but fortunately there was a heat wave in Banff while I was there: -8 to +4 degrees!

Practice, practice, practice!

Each morning I would arrive at my practice hut at around 10am and work to about 4pm. I would then break for concerts and often rehearse in the evenings. On the 5th day I wrote in my diary, “Try to move the heart in the wonderful program I am preparing. Look for beauty in what you are playing. Look at the creation that surrounds you and draw inspiration from it”.

On the 7th day of my residency I came to realise that the program I had elected to do for my recital back in Sydney in April 2013 was undoable for me physically. I had chosen 5 demanding composers that together would be too much for me in one concert. This is what was so fantastic about Banff. I could just go and talk to someone about my fears and concerns. I did this immediately and was supported with the decision to change the Marais suite I had originally chosen for one that was more “under the fingers”.

This was quite a learning point for me. There is no reason why I cannot approach my musical community here in Australia when I need to talk through musical decisions. I think as musicians we can build barriers between us, especially in the close-knit community that is the Australian classical and early music scene. I know I am afraid to share my fears about any musical short comings I might have, but I would benefit much from seeking other people’s views more often.


Jennifer Eriksson amongst the spectacular landscape of Banff


Learning from and with colleagues

As I mentioned earlier there were a number of visiting faculty at Banff.  For example, pianist Hardy Ritter, cellist Shauna Rolston, trumpeter Marco Blaauw and violinist Marc Destrubé. We could choose to sign up for coaching which I did with Marc as he does a lot of period violin playing including with the Orchestra of the 18th Century and our own Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. It has been a long time since I have had coaching like this. I found it hard to put my name down on the list but in the room with Marc, and with his guidance, the music I played began to go to different places. I found this an incredibly humbling and worthwhile experience.

Part of my project, alongside expanding my command of the French Baroque repertoire, was to learn a new piece written for me by Rosalind Page. Rosalind was the reason I was in Banff as she encouraged me to apply for a residency in the first place.  She had been there the year before.  This resulted in a wonderful connection between her and my experience. It gave me great joy to be working in my hut on a piece that was written by an Australian friend and colleague who a few months before had been sitting in a hut just like mine!

I had the opportunity to perform in a lecture given by renowned architect Theaster Gates who gave a presentation about making urban communities liveable and how “art” was a very important factor in achieving this. Theaster began his lecture by dropping his jeans. It definitely got everyone’s attention of everyone. A stimulating lecture in more ways than one…


In closing I would like to thank composer Rosalind Page and my husband Phil for encouraging me to take up this residency.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to NSW Arts who supported me financially.

Jennifer Eriksson

Jennifer Eriksson is one of Australia’s best known professional viola da gambists.  She was educated at Sydney Conservatorium and undertook three years post graduate study with Jaap ter Linder at Rotterdam Conservatorium, The Netherlands.  She is founder and Artistic Director of “The Marais Project”, which she formed in 2000 to perform the complete works of Marin Marais and other ancient and contemporary works for her instrument.  She has released 4 commercial CDs the latest of which is “Lady Sings the Viol”.  The Marais Project presents an annual concert series in Sydney and tours regularly. 

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