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Richard Tognetti: A new wave of surf music

Milton Court Concert Hall’s Artist in Residence, and enthusiastic surfer, Richard Tognetti shares his inspirations and passions behind The Reef, an audio-visual tribute to Australia’s coast with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

‘I grew up in the 1970s in Wollongong, New South Wales, a steel town about one hundred kilometres south of Sydney, with its towering smoke stacks billowing man-made clouds, the city stubbornly nestled into the escarpment, with its back to the Pacific Ocean. Surfing was just what you did. I still surf. But I realise now that it’s not the surfing, as such, that is so compelling; it’s the water.

Most people are, I find, drawn to the siren call of the ocean. It’s that urge when faced with it; that desire that sweeps over you; that somewhat suicidal notion to jump in.

Since meeting Derek Hynd, who is featured in The Reef, I have become a finless surfing acolyte. Finless or free friction surfing is about losing control while attempting to remain in control. It allows you to go faster and when you grip it gives a release that finned surfing doesn’t quite have.

Surfing isn’t something that immediately comes to mind when most people think of classical music. There are, surprisingly, three dedicated surfers, including me, in the ACO! – cellist Julian Thompson, violinist and vocalist in The Reef, Satu Vänskä are the other two! The three of us have a bit of a thing about Mondays in Melbourne. We call it ‘Sacred Monday’. When we’re on tour, we ‘disappear’ for the day and chase the southern oceans swells that hit Bells Beach, 100km southwest of the city, returning, of course, just in time for the concert.

Surfing is incomparable to anything else on the planet. I’ve always lived by the coast. It’s part of my life. I live on Sydney’s northern beaches and I surf Manly every moment my crazed schedule allows (my own fault). That’s what it means to surf. Surfing is fully integrated into a surfer’s life. And that interconnectedness is where The Reef comes in to play.

The Reef is an epic multimedia adventure. It explores the links between surfing, the ocean, landscape, and music. It’s set in Ningaloo Reef in outback Western Australia, which has been a go-to spot for hardcore surfers for many years. It takes a hell of a long time and enormous effort to get there – some thousand kilometres north of Perth, straight up the coast – but it really is one of the most uniquely remarkable places on the earth, as the desert pours into the wild Indian Ocean. You’re not even really meant to know where it is. But it’s so far that I know you won’t ever go there anyway!

Losing track of days out on the edge of the desert is something you just can’t do in the city or in the studio

The Reef couldn’t have happened anywhere else but this place where the desert meets the sea. The surf, the aridity, the social set-up – it was all integral to the creative process. Losing track of days out on the edge of the desert is something you just can’t do in the city or in the studio. It gave us incredible space to manoeuvre, both externally and inwardly, and to explore all facets of this unique place.

‘Most serious matters are closed to the hard- boiled. They are un-practised in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring…the hard-boiled are compensated for their silence: they fly planes or fight bulls or catch tarpon…’

…or surf! The narrator in Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man says that. A surfer does require a certain hardboiled-ness. Try staying in the water as a three-metre tiger shark saunters by!

The Reef attempts, among other things, to bring a sense of existential awe and wonder to the hard-boiled – while trying to boil away perceptions that ‘classical music’ is seemingly only for those boiled soft.

One thing about art is that it liberates people’s sense of wonder. You read a book and you’ve travelled the world; you listen to a piece of music and you go to places that you can’t even imagine existed. It makes grand our own stupid lives.

Right from the early stages of making The Reef, we wanted a broad brush of musical styles. And we wanted new music. Not necessarily newly written music – it could be music rearranged and played in another place to people who haven’t heard it before.

If we had gone out to this harsh and alluring landscape just for the water, we would have been ignoring what lies beneath and beyond. I wanted some quite profoundly unsettling moments that make you feel and smell the desert.

I also wanted music that reflected the connection with indigenous Australia. So, we have the restorative music of the great didgeridoo player Mark Atkins, as well as the cohesive force of composer Iain Grandage. We also play Orawa by Wojciech Kilar, best known for his music in Roman Polanski films and a fine composer in his own right, Rameau’s Suite des Vents, the un-worldliness of George Crumb, Soviet Shostakovich, and Russian Rachmaninoff, as well as the holy grail of JS Bach.

The Reef’s dénouement is scored by Beethoven – the Cavatina from his Opus 130 quartet – written as tears flooded his manuscript, with ‘beklemmt’ (anguish) indicated in the score. If you’re a classical music lover, it’s fair to say you’re going to be taken into unfamiliar terrain. Essential.

‘The music is just one part of this adventure, as is the surfing’

The music is just one part of this adventure, as is the surfing. It’s not about selling classical music or educating people with classical music or teaching people about surfing or making another surf film. And I would gently caution people buying a ticket who think they’re coming to a classical music concert because it certainly won’t be. And similarly, I would caution someone coming along who thinks they’re seeing a surf film. Because it certainly isn’t that either.

And for those of you who think that it’s a bit strange to screen something that features surfing when it’s the middle of winter here in the UK, I say, ‘Cold weather surfing is the new sunbathing!’ In Australia, we surf all year round. But then again, it doesn’t ever really get cold enough that you can’t go out, which is a little bit different here I guess…

So, what is it all about then? It isn’t a surf film. But there’s frighteningly good surf and surfing in it. It isn’t a concert. But there’s music in it. It takes in many more places than just the sum of its parts. We hope you hear more with your eyes and to see more with your ears.

And surfing is the portal through which you discover this extraordinary, fragile yet rigorous ancient continent.


Australian Chamber Orchestra: The Reef takes place on Saturday 11 March