Not one to follow the pack, this classical musician puts his $10m violin aside for an instrument of a different kind - a surfboard, but not just any surfboard.
IT WAS his first session in the water on the surfing trip of a lifetime, but it could have been his last. Richard Tognetti, Australian Chamber Orchestra artistic director, classical music poster boy and pioneer of new-wave surfing, stood on his board in the unforgiving swell of Bass Strait pounding onto the sparse, windswept King Island and planted himself face-first into the sand.
Friends on the beach felt sick when they saw the angle at which he fell, doubly so when he came up clutching his neck, but reports that the ACO would be needing a new lead violin turned out to be premature.
"I landed on my forehead," Tognetti says laughing. "It was nothing — only a graze, but it must have looked pretty bad."
There was no lasting damage done, save for the large red mark on his forehead that is immortalised in Musica Surfica, the documentary commemorating the event of the same name. The King Island trip, which took place during a week in May, had Tognetti, 42, and some big names in surfing such as two-time world champion Tom Carroll, wooden board specialist Tom Wegener and Australia's No. 2-ranked junior surfer, Heath Joske, take part in a radical experiment. The call to join them on the island, a well-regarded if not overly visited surfing spot, had gone out from Derek Hynd, one of Tognetti's closest friends and a former champion pro-surfer referred to by figures in the industry as a "genius" and a "surfing provocateur". The only stipulation was that the boards had to be finless.
A surfboard without fins, which aid balance and movement, is to most modern surfers like a car with no steering wheel. A finless board is in many ways a paradox, requiring fresh thinking or the use of ancient methods pioneered more than 1000 years ago in the Hawaiian islands and largely forgotten in the 20th century with the domination of the quick manoeuvring, foam and fibreglass three-finned board known as the Thruster.
"We had an interesting surf pack down there," says Tognetti. "It was absolutely radical watching the likes of Tom Carroll trying to surf these boards and master them. We had the ancient Hawaiian boards like the olo, koko'o and alaia, and then these radical new devices — these spinning boards, as we called them."
The footage is remarkable, especially to anyone familiar only with competition-driven surfing from the likes of the Bells Beach event. Wegener stands like a captain on a ship on a massive olo, ploughing majestically through the water. Carroll wipes out again and again, reduced to amateur status despite his mastery of the finned board. The nimble Hynd zips through, crouched low on a board that looks no bigger than an Eski lid, and pulls off six quick spins in a row. And Tognetti, in scenes that might have the ACO management committee reaching for the smelling salts, performs a series of perfect 360-degree turns on what looks like a conventional surfboard sawn in half.
It's unusual for a highly trained musician to put his metacarpals — not to mention his head — on the line in the pursuit of sport, but the saltwater running through Tognetti's veins is the legacy of his Wollongong childhood, which was spent following his older brother into the surf at Puckey's, to the north of the city. Things took an unconventional turn when he moved to Sydney at the age of 11 to study violin at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the start of a six-year surf hiatus broken when the lure of Bondi grew too insistent. As artistic director of the ACO since the age of 24, his rigorous touring schedule means he often hits the waves on borrowed boards.
Tognetti is rare among musicians of the classical ilk in attracting mainstream attention. His permanent bed-hair and pierced ear would be recognisable to many people less conversant with composers such as Sibelius and Paganini. The glamour that surrounds him is compounded by his $10 million Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu violin, built in 1743 and one of only 100 in the world, which made headlines when it was permanently loaned by an anonymous benefactor at the start of the year. He calls actor Russell Crowe a friend after tutoring him for his violin-playing role in Master and Commander. His marriage break-up last year, and repartnering with ACO assistant lead violinist Satu Vanska, was reported breathlessly in the gossip column of Sydney's Sunday Telegraph.
An exponent of Socrates' aphorism that the unexamined life is not worth living, Tognetti's philosophy of the surf is Catholic enough to encompass late-19th century composer Eric Satie and 1960s counter-culture icon Timothy Leary. He quotes Leary on surfers, while apologising for the loftiness: "They aren't the black sheep of humanity, but the futurists and they are leading the way to where man ultimately wants to be."
Friction-free surfing, as the finless experience has been dubbed, is rule-breaking, he says, in a similar way to paddling a pink surfboard out at Sydney's Maroubra beach while wearing a yellow wetsuit (he adds that he wouldn't encourage anyone to do that as they would get "the shit beaten out of them"). It's about abandoning the "slash and burn" mentality of modern surfing and opening the mind to the myriad possibilities of movement through the waves. It's about embracing the flow of creativity in any aspect of life.
"People following the pack is the worst thing you can do to the imagination," Tognetti says. "And to be creative is the greatest gift we have. It's what separates us from the animals. If you move around in a pack you just rot. Whereas if you use the creative part of your mind you come alive. I would rate our trip as a success from the first day simply by the number of whoops I heard in the water."
Musica Surfica was not simply a meeting of saltwater intellectuals. The three surfing members of the ACO — along with Tognetti there was Vanska and cellist Julian Thompson — were joined by esteemed folk musicians Mike Keran and Danny Spooner for a series of concerts performed for King Island locals. One of the delights of the documentary is seeing some of the surfers, after their first-ever classical music concert, grasping for words to describe their emotions at the playing of Irish traditionals, Paganini and Bach.
The film's director, Melbourne-based advertising art director and surf nut Mick Sowry, was invited along after he contacted Tognetti about scoring music for a separate surf film project. "I see surfing as a modern dance form, and I love classical music, and musically, I just wanted something different from the normal kind of music you get on surf films," says Sowry. "Our initial plan was to film Musica Surfica so they could have a visual background to their concerts later in the year, but it became obvious there was a bigger story. My job was to try and tease that story out of a bunch of guys who were falling off surfboards all day."
Last Monday's ACO concert at Melbourne's Hamer Hall was far removed from the derelict King Island dairy, but the bill shared the Tognetti risk-taking signature, with the lilting arrangement of Copland's Appalachian Spring: Suite followed by Anthony Pateras' exploratory Autophagy, a ragged and discordant contemporary work involving piano, strings and computer that received rousing cheers and giggling bemusement in equal measure.
The bill concluded with Sonic, a spoken-word collaboration with cartoonist and writer Michael Leunig (who, along with Tognetti, has been anointed a National Living Treasure by the National Trust) based on Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals but transposed to human personality types.
Tognetti's favourite lines, naturally, are about the eccentric ("Yet, of all the creatures, the true non-conformist/Is often the brightest, the boldest and warmest"). It sums up Musica Surfica's exploration of parallels between surfing, music and art; not to mention the sometimes hilarious images of the surfers falling off what must be the strangest collection of surfboards ever assembled.
"To stand still and imagine that you're correct and the assumption that you've found the way in art is for me an acknowledgment that you're stagnating. Art isn't about winning. You can't quantify it. It's hard to qualify. The judging criteria on art is very subjective and very different to something with sport," Tognetti says in the film. "You need to accept failure. Look at all the composers, most of them weren't successful, in a conventional sense, in their lifetimes."
His 17-year tenure at the helm of the ACO has been marked by a singular vision not always popular with purists. He has previously collaborated with artists as diverse as rock musicians Peter Garrett and Neil Finn, and photographer Bill Henson. The ACO program for 2008 features popular singer Katie Noonan appearing in a program of works by British composers and children's choir Gondwana Voices performing The Red Tree against images from Shaun Tan's book of the same name.
Musica Surfica is set to continue with the ACO's second orchestra — the emerging artists program — on its tour of the NSW and Queensland coasts this month. Footage from King Island will be the backdrop to a Tognetti arrangement of Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Paganini. Tim Freedman from the Whitlams and an Egyptian wood player are expected to join the tour, as is Hynd and possibly Carroll, the carefully chosen music and presentation of new-wave surfing opening children's minds, Tognetti hopes, to different ways of thinking.
"Think of the surfers back in the '70s," he says. "The surfing lifestyle wasn't mainstream; surfers had reputations as left-of-field thinkers, ratbags and outcasts, total eccentrics. What a weird thing to do, to travel by boat to remote Indonesian islands in search of the perfect wave. Now you've got these big multinational companies and everyone's riding exactly the same boards and wearing the same clothes and listening to the same music and talking the same language, from California to the west coast of Australia. We're just trying to reclaim a bit of the soul — as lofty as that may sound."
There are some unexpected problems combining surfing with music. Surfer's nose — an unexpected saline nasal drip that can gush from the nose hours after leaving the water — can be a problem when you're holding a $10 million violin, he told surfing journalist Tim Baker in his recent book High Surf. Playing standards can suffer after fingers have been immersed in cold water all day. But more often the intersection of surfing and music is, for Tognetti, a thrilling example of creative possibility.
"You've got to be a futurist in surfing because you're doing an astonishing thing on a wave. It's between performance and sport. Like playing the violin, if ever I feel insouciant, if ever I take it for granted I slap myself as hard as I can because it's an amazing gift to have."
Musica Surfica will screen on Foxtel in December.
Larissa Dubecki is a staff writer.