Fver the past 10 months, Dean Stevenson has descended deep, deep into the bowels of Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art – Hobart’s underground gallery dedicated to the dark and the strange – to sit in front of a piano and write a piece of music from scratch. No one made Stevenson write 150 compositions; if he’s being completely honest, he wanted to see how far he could push himself until he broke. “And it turned out to be about 130,” he said softly.
Under the constant gaze of curious art lovers, the 50-year-old composer has spent the last 10 months writing a piece every day, stopping around 4 p.m. when musicians from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra arrive to perform this he wrote, good or bad. At the end of the performance, the composition was put aside and Stevenson started all over again.
The 4 p.m. project is “without a doubt the most ambitious thing” Stevenson has ever done, forcing him “to suck on something for a while and own it,” as he wrote on his website at the start. When 4 p.m. was first announced last year, a Mona curator said, “I for one can’t wait to watch him suffer for his art while the clock counts down.”
So, did Stevenson suffer? “Oh my God, yes,” he said. “First it was going to be three months, then it became six, then 10. And I probably could have quit anytime, but either I was writing great music or I just didn’t feel safe. – for the moment.”
In March, after being in the depths of Mona since July last year, “something snapped in my brain and I had to be taken out of the museum,” he says. “I couldn’t come back for a few weeks. To be honest, I’m not quite back yet. It was traumatic. I no longer had control over everything that was happening around me. It was something to be exposed all the time, it was very expensive.
After being pulled from Mona, Stevenson took a short break and went on tour, before returning to the gallery to restart at 4 p.m. for its sister festival, Dark Mofo. He knows he has been changed by the experience, but wonders exactly how; he suspects he has become a braver musician for it. “Was I getting better at writing music?” he asks. “Or was the music improving and I was suffering underneath?
“In the end, I think that’s what happened – the music was getting really good and I wasn’t doing so well. But I made that to myself. I guess it’s experience.
When he first suggested the idea of 4 p.m. to Mona founder and friend David Walsh, “it was all going to revolve around me, look how awesome I am – it was way too self-centered, it would have been terrible. ” The idea never went anywhere. Over the next 20 years, Stevenson toured as a drummer, composed and taught music. In his students, young and old, he came to observe a common “crippling anxiety”; most were “so afraid of doing something wrong”.
Finally, he understood: we all have to yearn for something for a while and own it.
“We stigmatize mistakes so much – if you don’t do it right, you better give up,” he says. “Only those with absolute bloodthirsty passion will continue, for they cannot not do it. And as a teacher, I encouraged people to get into the music industry, which I won’t do anymore because it’s a terrible industry. Seeing where we are in the food chain during Covid, I finally realized that unless that’s all you can do, it’s a crucifix – and I won’t encourage anyone to hang themselves on it.
Some days at 4 p.m. he had only “terrible music, just drivel” to show. Some days he left the gallery with great pride. But every day, after every performance, he was approached by people telling the same story. “It’s funny, but at least once a day they say, ‘I used to play an instrument, and I gave it up.’ You can hear the regret. I always give my time to these people, because it’s a really precious moment.
Surrounded by finished art, he showed them something exotic: the very process of creation. “You rarely see people doing stuff, you always see the end result. And crafting is something you do at home in gloomy desperation, like practicing scales. It’s just a horrible idea, not something fun. But I can be the guy who pulls out his dirty underwear every day,” he says.
Visiting Stevenson in Mona, I spot a message typed on a page on one of the music stands: “Art is never finished. It’s just abandoned in an interesting place. He sees this as the biggest lesson and “the antithesis of the panic that we have to get it right the first time”.
“If we want to do better things and be happier, sometimes we just have to say, ‘Oh, that’s enough,'” he says. “Being good enough is actually good.”
During the two weeks of Dark Mofo, his 4 p.m. sessions were devoted to composing parts of a sinfonietta titled With Ukraine. Tuesday night it was assembled and performed in Hobart in its entirety; an incredibly moving experience that raised $10,000 for Voices of Children, a charity that helps Ukrainian families. And for the first time in 10 months, Stevenson wasn’t performing — he was standing backstage and watching someone else conduct: “Total relief.”