Composer Nat Bartsch on Creating Hope

ARIA-nominated, multi-award-wining Australian pianist Nat Bartsch has always written music with the intention to comfort and soothe. Her new album, Hope (ABC Classic), took what she calls ‘a slight detour’ as she responded to the unexpected challenges of 2020.

Here is Nat Bartsch, on Hope, in her own words.

Hope, the new album by Nat Bartsch, is out now

It’s hard to know where to begin, describing an album made during a once-in-a-century pandemic. I don’t really need to paint the picture of our world in much detail, do I? We have all lived through this, albeit with different hardships, different governments, different statistics, different restrictions.

Here in Melbourne, we were affected more than the rest of Australia. We went through two lockdowns, with the second 15 weeks long. And while our experience still pales in comparison to many others in densely populated countries, it has still left an indelible mark on us.

But the story of this album is bigger than that. It began with my lullabies – albums that succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, played by many people across the lifespan. Forever, and No Time At All, now three years old, confirmed to me why I make the music I make. If my compositions can serve a useful purpose in times of vulnerability, stress or grief, then I am most satisfied.

In late 2019, I began to think about what my next album might be. The predictable ‘follow up album’-itis began to creep in. What on earth do I write next, when what my last release is literally played as people enter or leave this world? How do you match that creative outcome? What on earth is there else to say?

But then the bushfires began, and I realised I had a lot to say. I could smell the smoke in my house, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest fire. Billions of animals were lost, 24 million hectares of land, 3000 homes and livelihoods. Meanwhile, our government couldn’t even bring themselves to say the words ‘climate change’ for the first few weeks. Trumpism was seemingly at its peak, in election mode, and you couldn’t hear those words there, either. Then there was #metoo. #blacklivesmatter. And Covid-19. So much upheaval, heartbreak, fear and anger.

I thought at the start, perhaps naively, that the best thing I could do was to create an album to inspire hope. Simply titled, Hope. But the events kept darkening. It was hard sometimes to write music inspired by it. I now see Hope as a title that abbreviates both hopefulness and hopelessness. I never gave up hope – I am, at heart, a very joyful and optimistic person! But it would be insincere to say that my compositions were born from this place alone. It was such a complex time – deep uncertainty about the future, my family in crisis, toxic and polarised public debate.

Hope’s track order was selected to fit the musical narrative, but without realising it until afterwards, the arc of the album also represents my journey through 2020. For the Koalas, a climate change lament. The End of the Decade, a reflection upon the monumental journey we have to fight it. Fight Not Flight, written as I realised our world was about to stand still, due to Covid-19. Brightness in the Hills, written for my childhood piano teacher, who passed away during lockdown. Untitled, written about the sheer cacophony of online debate about Melbourne’s second lockdown. Over the River – feeling the impact of lockdown on my family. But then came Emerging, just as restrictions started to lift. I finally had the chance to make the record – in a short burst of sessions, in small spaces around Melbourne, with my dear friend Luke Howard and a beautiful string quartet.

The album is bookended by a collection of descending chords: musically resolving, gentle, kind and joyous. This is the theme from Hope. Because despite it all, what I wish is that the listener will still feel what I originally hoped they would.

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