A few minutes into our conversation, Nate Gilkes gives me a solid-gold clue as to what drives his artmaking.

“I was playing second violin in the school orchestra. It was Shostakovich’s String Symphony. It was extremely dissonant, there were these long string sounds – the strings around me, my own violin, even the bow – the sounds went right into my body. Something awakened in me. I was emotional for days after.”

There’s clearly a spiritual aspect to the experience he describes, but Nate doesn’t talk in terms of spirituality, at least not directly.

“I remember a few instances around that time in my life, when you’re struck to the core – you can’t explain what it is, but you know it, and it’s really deep, resonant, you can feel it in your body – somehow really ancient. It happens in the choir, it happens in the theatre sometimes, and it happens with music.”

He often claws for words to encapsulate that ‘something’. And who could blame him? He may as well describe what it’s like to peek through a key-hole and catch a glimpse of the entire cosmos. But most commonly he refers to it simply as That Thing.

© Bruce Daniel

Nate walks me through the plot points of his creative career to date: growing up in a musical family; studying violin and piano at school; straight into a B. Mus. Ed. at Sydney Conservatorium of Music; a few years mixing teaching with performing in musicals, choirs and orchestras; a turning point upon entering the Master of Directing for Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2010; and since then musician, teacher, musical director, creative director and devisor of collaborative cross-disciplinary performance works. I get a clear sense that most of his post-secondary-school life has been a quest to make That Thing central to his art-making.

I always knew I wanted to make things. I do a lot of things, but primarily I like to create, to make.”

Nate Gilkes

“I studied at the Con, but I have to say nothing was really inspiring me there,” he recalls. “My head was more in music theatre. Alongside my degree I did the one-year MT course at NIDA, and loved it. It opened up a new world to me.”

At that time, Nate’s vague ambition was to pursue a performance career in music theatre. “I did open calls; I got close in auditions. I didn’t really consider taking on a full-time course like WAAPA or VCA; having just done a degree I think I just wanted to get on with it.”

After graduating, Nate taught in schools for about a year. I asked him about the relationship between teaching and practicing as an artist: is teaching just the thing you do between ‘real’ gigs?

“I used to think like that, but not anymore. Teaching is part of my practice, it’s all part of the gig, its seamless. But that’s also why I can’t be a school teacher. I love teaching, I love working with kids, I love teaching in a school, but I can’t work in a school. You become part of the system, and it becomes about report writing and chair moving. You lose all sense of why you are there.”

This is unsurprising because, for Nate, it’s very much about working with people rather than instructing or directing them. He calls himself a collaborator, and I am discovering how deeply this attitude is embedded in his artmaking.

He doesn’t fit the auteur-director mould. He says that that kind of leader must have the answer every time. “Not only are you expected to have the answer, but you must also believe you will always have the answer.” Nate, by contrast, is more democrat than autocrat.

“I like to work with people who don’t have the answers and who don’t expect me to have the answers. If I were directing you in an ensemble, I would come into the collaboration open to the possibility that you might have a better idea than me; and if that were to happen I’d jump on it.”

I ask him where he got that sort of humility. “I don’t know. I just think that’s what collaboration is. It’s a meeting. Even if I’m the lead artist, I’m meeting you. Sure, the contract says I am the director, so I’m expected to have the answers, and I need to make the call on things, but overall, no.”

He summarises his approach: “You need to have a plan, and a good body of knowledge, and good training, and a willingness to be open, and see what the scenario presents, and then you make something. I never go into a rehearsal room pre-empting what’s going to happen.”

During his twenties, Nate began to enquire into the relationship between song and lyric, and the special role of song as a form of music that is integrated with text.

“I was trying to understand why we use song to deliver lyric, how the song goes into the body and is then delivered to the listener,” he explains. He became deeply frustrated singing in choirs because often they did not focus sufficiently on the text, despite it being so obviously intrinsic. He would think, ‘Come on! There are words here! Let’s work out what’s going on with them!’

At the same time there was a growing feeling that performing was not enough.

“I find performing a bit frustrating, actually. I even feel it’s a bit insulting to a performer to be asked simply to reproduce a work. There’s so much more to it. ‘Here, take this book, and stand here and sing it.’ This is not taking anything away from what performers do, and I loved doing it myself for a long time. Performance is wonderful, but there is more, and I wanted more.”

In January 2010 Nate sang with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex – an acclaimed production by American director Peter Sellars which brought space and movement deftly into the mix. The experience turned out to be another one of those ‘deep’ moments for Nate. Appropriately, it came at a point of inflection in his life; the very next week he would move interstate to attend the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne.

Photo: Gerard Assi

The VCA directing course came just at the right time; it provided the perfect environment for Nate to pursue his creative hunches.

“You have a feeling about the sort of work you want to make, but you have absolutely no idea how to make it. The VCA gave me the language to understand and express it. This language gives you permission to do something, to say something, which you already knew but only subliminally.

“So I’d be saying, I want to make something that’s maybe like Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach— sort of about J. S. Bach— I don’t know how, but it will be about the universe, and maybe about fugues. I’m seeing lots of stuff at STC and MTC, lots of plays, and they’re great, but I don’t want to make that— and then there’s opera, I’m working in opera and teaching kids about opera, but it’s not that either, it’s that other thing, over there, it’s like dance theatre, but it’s not, it’s like a music version of dance theatre— what’s that? Who’s doing that? The VCA lets you make a work, say, with just a person and a torch.

“It was notionally a directing course, but it was much more than that. I didn’t do any music that whole year— it was so liberating!”

Since graduating from the VCA Nate has done various site-specific works with a diverse range of collaborators. In 2011 he co-founded the Present Tense Ensemble. He is now comfortable enough to make.

“I can now say, let’s break open this thing we call performance, and see if we can smash it altogether.”

Nate doesn’t consider what he does in terms of self-expression. “I just have to do,” he says. Making, doing: action words; it’s as though his attitude is outward, facing the world, rather than inward, towards the self. But when the gaze is so expansive (he mentions the universe quite often!) perhaps outward and inward are the same thing?

“I want to look at what’s big in the world, the big questions, like why are we here? I’m on this planet, I’m alive, I won this lottery, what the fuck is that, you know? That’s what I want to pursue!

“And maybe other people have thought about the same things— maybe Bach was onto it, and then Peter Sellars is doing that thing, Stravinsky is doing that thing, Shostakovich— it’s like all these little pylons, and you are trying to work out what your pylon is. I don’t know. I don’t have much interest in describing social things, or political things— I want to go for something really deep. That’s what I want theatre to do, it’s what music does— but I’m coming to the conclusion that live music is the thing that can deal with it.”

Nate is among the more progressive of artmakers. He is troubled by the weight of history placed on the great musical scores, and the reverence given them; he believes instead that we should be able to apply our own imaginations more freely when interpreting them.

“The score is not the law. With five-hundred years of history a score gets loaded, weighted, hefty, it becomes a gospel, and it must be done in a particular way. I don’t think that at all. I don’t think Bach would ever have said, ‘Mate, that note in the third bar, you don’t play it like that, you dickhead.’

“A score is just a gesture, a mark, an etching. It’s a reflection of something else, something that’s not within view. Bach lays it down and we pick it up. We’re the artists, in this time and place, so let’s work out what to do with it.”

Pounding on the score in front of him, Nate exclaims, “Let this be a reflection of what we do, not the other way around. Sure, it gives us some guidelines. But let us lead it, not let ourselves be led by it. And let’s not be intimidated by it.”

The battered score in question happens to be Puccini’s La Bohème. “Yes, it’s a work, it comes in a book. But do I have to do the whole book? No. I want that bit and that bit, and I want another song by that guy, I want this tune that I remember from when I was three— and that’s what my Bohème will look like.”

In July 2013, Phillip Glass’ great stage work, Einstein on the Beach was performed at the Sydney Opera House. Nate Gilkes was in the audience. He was in for another ‘moment’.

“It was absolutely epic, five hours long, no interval, relentless minimalism, no recognisable story line, bodies moving everywhere— amazing! There were moments when I was transported,” he enthuses.

In trying to articulate the experience, Nate makes an interesting observation. “Narrative tends to cloud that thing, I reckon, that poetic thing. A story tends to draw attention to itself, and it can become what the whole show is about; for me that’s not what it’s about. A song cycle or a poem doesn’t have too strong a narrative, so you can get inside it. But narrative dramatic form takes you mostly horizontally through time; it’s harder to go down into the depths.”

He seems to be grappling to explain why Einstein got so powerfully under his skin; did it affect him more than traditional narratives like plays and musicals? The answer is a qualified yes: most musicals wash right over him; in many operas he could skip much of it because everything is there in a handful of great moments; Beckett is probably his favourite playwright.

There is no question that a naturalistic play and a minimalist epic achieve their ends by very different means: ninety-nine percent of a play might be taken up with the texture and surface of life, immersing us in a representational world, preparing us for that one percent when a sink-hole suddenly opens to the depths (or, if you like, the sky explodes above us). Minimalism can do much the same thing, but instead through mesmerising repetition, leading us into a meditative state, recalibrating the senses, heightening our receptivity to that moment, should it emerge.

The Italian verb, ricercare means ‘to seek’; as such, it might fairly describe the everyday behaviour of Nate Gilkes’ artistic soul. In music the ricercare, or ricercar, is a composition typically imitative in nature, although the precise application of the term varies widely through history. Probably the most famous usage is in Ricercar a 6, a six-part fugue from J. S. Bach’s The Musical Offering, and considered by many to be the highpoint of contrapuntal composition.

Knowing what we do about Nate, we should not be surprised if he were to conceptualise a large-scale stage work based on Bach, the fugue and the universe and call it Ricercar. This indeed he did, in collaboration with Bryce Ives – together co-founders of the Present Tense Ensemble.

It was quite literally a project in search of That Thing.

“You know sometimes you are listening to Bach,” – ah yes, Bach again – “you are listening through the notes to— something else, and you ‘get it’, something clicks into gear, I don’t know what it is, but you feel that you can make sense of— the world. There’s something about its abstract nature, something about the line, about the harmony, it kind of locks you in.

“How do we capture that? Let’s use that idea as the text, use the ideas about transcendence and order and chaos as the centrepiece; what kind of work would it be? Can we write a work about the universe, about the history of the world?

“What we came up with was basically a 24-part multi-form fugue, that happens over two hours, and uses two venues, that is a theatre work and also a church work. It has text but no story.

“We based Ricercar on the Well-Tempered Clavier, but told by actors – there was of course a musical fugue but there was also a physical fugue, there was an aural fugue, there was a visual fugue.”

The ingredients for this work had been percolating for many years. It was a huge project; it took years to develop, and Nate feels that in a way “it’s still not finished”.

Georgia Symons (ArtsHub) found the work “often confounding,” but “nonetheless a thrill for the senses.” She continued, “perhaps this work can teach us… that the theatre can be a place of sensory offers made without any specific communication in mind; a place to reflect upon whatever may arise for us out of the abstract.

If Nate’s objective were ever to make That Thing the focus of his professional life, it looks as though he has substantially achieved it. Still in his mid-thirties, the universe might well be in a bottle by the time he’s finished with it.

NATE GILKES is an award winning musician and artistic director working across disciplines of theatre, music and performance. He is the current Artistic Director at Marian Street Theatre for Young People in Sydney.

Nate holds degrees from the Victorian College of the Arts in Directing, Sydney Conservatorium of Music in Education and Voice and is a NIDA graduate in Music Theatre.

In 2011, Nate co-founded the Present Tense Ensemble which produced cutting-edge, multidisciplinary works.