The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

Another musical interlude this week.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Hall, one of the best venues for live music, thanks to its acoustic design and sonic ambience. I have seen a number of events there – chamber music, jazz, vocal, electronic, avant garde and contemporary classical – and the sound quality is invariably superb. Not all the programming works (a few of the support acts I have seen feel like they are trying too hard – maybe the sense of occasion has overwhelmed them?), but it’s a valuable addition to Melbourne’s cultural landscape. In recent months, I have seen a number of singularly powerful concerts, but each of them very different.

First was Julia Holter, who for me is one of the most interesting and more compelling singer-songwriters of the current era. I had seen her on her previous Australian tour (at a club venue), but I was still unprepared for her latest performance at the Recital Centre. Although she composes and writes all her own songs, Holter relies on the interplay between her close-knit band of backing musicians to give dynamic life to her music, as she leads and plays keyboards from the front. Her singing voice is a particularly striking instrument, and unlike many of her contemporaries she doesn’t “over sing”. She avoids the annoying habits of histrionics and over emoting, or resorting to vocal gymnastics and sterile vocalisations that many singers deploy to compensate for a lack of depth, warmth or soul. Rather she lets her natural and sometimes low-key voice stand in its own right, and when unleashed in the space of the Recital Centre, it really fell like she was “playing” the venue, as an extension of herself. At one point, just as the band launched into another song, Holter stopped abruptly – turned to the double-bass player and asked, “Wait, was that really the F?” because she thought he had come in on the wrong note. Despite being a seasoned performer, it seemed that she had never really “heard” her own music that way. It was clear that this experience inspired her to go even further, but there was nothing forced, contrived or artificial about her performance.

Next came Grouper, probably the most introverted live performer I have ever seen. As a solo artist, Grouper clearly does not fully relish being the centre of attention. The stage was already very dimly lit as she come out to perform, but she immediately asked for the lights to be dimmed even further. Using piano, guitar, electronics and effects Grouper proceeded to play a continuous series of mainly instrumental pieces, with no audience interaction or between-song patter. This was live music as pure performance. It was also incredibly soporific – OK, so I was a bit jet-lagged, but it was like listening to music designed to put you to sleep, and I’m sure I was not alone in the audience in drifting off. There was a palpable stillness in the auditorium that we rarely experience in our “always on” and digitally intermediated world. It was also (ironic?) confirmation that we need these sorts of experiences to recharge our own batteries.

Finally, Hauschka played a non-stop sequence of pieces for prepared piano and electronics – for around 80 minutes, despite suffering his own jet-lag, he mesmerised with the intense but fluid dynamics of his playing style, complemented by some simple but highly effective lighting design. In complete contrast to Grouper, he prefaced his performance with a 10-minute spoken introduction, where he commented on the ways he deals with life on the road as a musician (including the jet-lag), the context for his recent work, and his gratitude that on a previous visit to Melbourne, he made a chance encounter that changed his life for ever, as it launched his career as a soundtrack composer – and in that regard, putting him on a par with Max Richter and Ryuichi Sakamoto. But what is also appealing about his performance is that, notwithstanding its impact, it is modest, understated, and above all authentic – with none of the faux-authenticity that many folk, rock and soul performers have to seem to resort to.

The Melbourne Recital Centre has the ability to reveal the “true” performer, while giving rise to a type of performance that only succeeds when it is natural, honest and not contrived, forced or inauthentic.

Next week: My Top Ten Concerts of All Time

Sometimes it’s OK to Meet Your Idols

This week’s blog forms another of my occasional musical interludes.

I went to my first rock concert in the mid-70s. Since then, I have probably seen several hundred live performances; at one time in the 80s, I was going to as many as 3 or 4 gigs a week. I have also had the opportunity to meet a large number of professional musicians – mostly from the UK independent music scene. While I don’t particularly subscribe to the notion that you shouldn’t meet your idols or heroes (simply because I don’t see musicians in that light), I’m generally more interested in the music than the person. Admiration for and appreciation of the work is how I would characterise my love of music. So it was something of a departure when I found myself talking to Robert Forster, co-founder of The Go-Betweens, after one of his shows during his recent Australian tour.

During those alternative 80s, while I was living in London, The Go-Betweens (along with fellow antipodeans The Triffids, Nick Cave, The Moodists, The Scientists, Ed Kuepper, The Chills, The Apartments, The Bats and Jim Thirlwell) were regulars on the UK concert circuit. I first heard The Go-Betweens via a semi-obscure 7″ single they released on a minor Scottish label in 1980. But it wasn’t until they released the song “Cattle and Cane” in 1983 that I really took any notice, and started to see them whenever I could when they toured London.

Through some friends who worked in the music business (and who used to put me on guest lists, get me backstage passes, or give me promotional copies of records) I vaguely recall being in a bar after one Go-Betweens gig, and having a drink with Grant McLennan. Another time I saw them perform a “secret” gig in a tiny North London pub, where they were mysteriously billed as “The 16th Century”. I even have a bootleg cassette of a concert I attended in December 1985, which previewed many of the songs from their breakthrough album, “Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express”, released the following year.

After The Go-Betweens split in 1989, I didn’t keep up with either Forster’s or McLennan’s solo work, nor the records they made when they reformed the band in 2000. But I often revisited that first body of work, especially the albums “Before Hollywood” and “Spring Hill Fair”, which are still my favourites.

Fast forward to 2019, and there I was in the audience at Meeniyan Town Hall, in South Gippsland. Around 200 people filled this tiny venue, which has an amazing sound-system, enjoying Robert Forster and his band play songs from his recent solo albums, as well as some less obvious choices from The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue. It was a great performance.

After the show, as we filed out through the foyer, my significant other prompted me to buy some merchandise, have it signed, and meet the artist. I talked about the times I’d seen The Go-Betweens in London during the 80s, and Robert was gracious and charming. He even posed for a photo, and encouraged me to get that bootleg cassette out again (“that was a significant show for us”).

So sometimes it’s OK to meet the artists and musicians whose work you enjoy.

Next week: The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

 

Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night

The theme for last month’s startup pitch night co-hosted by Startup Vic and LaunchVic was Health Tech and Med Tech. According to recent data, of Victoria’s 2,700 startups, 20% are in health services and technology. The judging panel was drawn from HealthKit, ANDHealth, MHX and Pfizer.

The startups in the order they presented were (websites embedded in the names, where available):

Hearables 3d

With the vision of “making custom-fit the new norm”, Hearables 3d is developing personalised and customisable ear devices. In  many cases, users give up on hearing aids because the purchase process is slow (it can take 2 weeks to place an order), expensive (average price of $300), and often of variable quality. Plus, providers are relatively inaccessible. Instead, using a combination of smartphone scanning, design powered by machine-learning and a 3D production process,  Hearables 3d aims to get costs down to $50.

The team are already developing working prototypes, running user trials, filing a patent, setting up a B2B distribution pilot, and have recently raised seed equity and been admitted to the Skalata Ventures accelerator programme. This will be followed by further fundraising in 6-9 months’ time.

The judges were interested to understand more about the business model – especially the payment system, and distribution structure. Hearables 3d aims to be a service provider to existing distributors, leveraging their automated design process. Given that the medical device registration process is currently done by manufacturers, of which there a six global firms, it would appear to make sense to become embedded in the current manufacturing eco-system and a key aspect of the go-to-market strategy..

The team is also looking at other verticals, such as sleep apnea devices, but the judges wanted to understand whether there were any plans for a direct to consumer model, and whether they were actively engaging with audiologists. There was also a suggestion that some competitors were making more of a fashion statement about their products, incorporating elements of  jewellery into their designs.

Stelect

Aiming to “take guesswork out of stent selection”, Stelect is changing the way PCI procedures (Percutaneous Coronary Intervention, formerly known as angioplasty with stent) are conducted. Currently, 4.1m cardiac stents are fitted in patients each year, but according to the founders, more than 70% are incorrectly sized.

Stelect has developed a balloon catheter with spatial sensors, which ensures a more accurate fit and a less invasive procedure because measurement and fitting are done in a single step.

Claiming that competing products are expensive (non-reimbursable), complex, not and integrated to current workflows, the team are initially targeting more acute cases, which account for 15% of procedures.

A previous winner of MedTech’s Got Talent, Stelect is aiming to complete a US FDA 501(k) pre-market submission for new devices by July 2021, with the likely exit of a trade sale once that process is approved.

A key benefit of this device is that it will combine two existing reimbursable codes, resulting in both initial cost savings for patients, plus downstream economic advantages for health service providers. Asked about clinician feedback and potential take-up, especially when compared to current imaging processes, the team stated that by removing the interim step of having to use a separate imaging catheter will significantly reduce the procedure time. The product overcomes the engineering constraints of traditional balloon catheters by drawing on the expertise of a microscopic transducers expert.

As to selling into hospitals, the team plan to partner with existing manufacturers and suppliers, and license the sensory capabilities. And while there is potential to commercialise data & analytics (for predictive purposes, for example) the current focus is on the device.

Consentic

According to the founders, the completion, collection and management of medical consent forms results in 40% dissatisfaction, just 20% retention and only 9% compliance. Often the cause of legal claims (due to limited patient understanding, poor form design or a lack of clarity), Consentic plan to challenge the status quo using video content, a checklist (to reinforce understanding) and a simplified consent form.

The team already claim a 20% improvement in patient comprehension, 80% patient preference for this model, and a 15% reduction in patient anxiety. It also saves clinician time. The product will be supplied under a subscription model with scale rates, and having completed successful trials in their own field of dermatology, the founders are looking to extend the service to other medical and consent verticals.

The team have completed 40 trials with 10 paid customers, completed the HCF Catalyst accelerator program, and are currently part of the 2019 MHX cohort.

The team were asked about whether they have integrated with practice management software (not yet), and whether they had plans to address US issues on health care and “financial consent”, and for removing the issue of consent as a barrier to clinical trials.

Hayylo

Hayylo is an aged care home services provider. For many clients, services change often with little or no notice. According to the founders, there is little transfer of client knowledge, a lack of shared team processes, and few common tools. Part of the problem is a communication challenge. This all impacts client independence.

Hayylo is an online platform, working with multiple channels and providers. It can provide clients with automatic updates, resulting in call reduction, and increased satisfaction. Using a B2B SaaS model, along with white label options, the team is targeting a potion of the $4bn-$8bn global market.

To date the team has mainly bootstrapped, obtained some angel investment, and has been in market since April 2018. Their strategy is to offer integration solutions (with rostering and practice management tools) and develop distribution partnerships (reseller agreements).

While there is competition, including from AI/ML and IoT solutions, the team believe that by mapping multiple data sources on to a single platform, and by unifying the team experience, the resulting operating system model gives them an edge. Currently in user testing with 10 providers, and 30,000 clients, the team is also using focus groups to gather feedback.

After the audience voting and judges’ diliberations were done, the People’s choice was Stelect, while the overall winner was Consentric.

Next week: Sometimes it’s OK to Meet Your Idols

The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

As I get older (maybe not necessarily wiser), I feel that as a society, we are becoming far less tolerant and yet far more sensitive – something of a paradox, possibly linked to a decline in personal resilience and a lack of quality and robustness in public discourse. And for a country that is both a secular state and a liberal democracy (and definitely not a theocracy), there has been a surprising amount of debate in Australia recently, about the need for a new or revised “freedom of religion“.

John Stuart Mill – Image sourced from Wikimedia

Much of the commentary has been prompted by the thoughtless and potentially harmful remarks by a professional sports player, who espouses a particularly fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Because the very public expression of his personal beliefs led to the termination of his employment, this has been interpreted as a curtailment of the player’s freedom of religion.

Without getting too legalistic (and there is an administrative review pending), the player’s public statements were out of line with the social values and civil rights espoused by his employer – to the extent that they could bring this particular sporting code into disrepute. It was also a repeat incident. At the very least, these comments could have led to a reduction in the employer’s revenue from sponsors or spectators. (And let’s consider that his comments drew so much attention because he had the privilege of a public platform, one which came as a result of his employment status and his professional profile.)

According to this player’s particular creed, his human-constructed belief system permits, condones and even encourages the use of language that bullies and belittles people who don’t adhere to his own views on sexuality, lifestyle choices or even “belief” itself. While much has been said about the homophobic nature of the said player’s tweet, let’s not forget he also targeted atheists in the same context, simply because they are non-believers.

As I frequently tell customer call centres, who often like to blame the “system” for their own organisation’s failings, a system is only as reliable as the people who design and run it. So, if being an adherent to a particular belief system means you have to hold and profess abhorrent views, especially those that are out of step with civil society, then clearly there is something at fault at the heart of that mechanism.

I recently heard a speech by a retired judge on human rights and civil liberties. He referred to an aphorism attributed to John Stuart Mill, in connection with his treatise “On Liberty”, and the harm principle:

“Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins”

In other words, you may be free to say what you like, but Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative freedom means that (despite Voltaire’s standpoint in defence of free speech) even your verbal punches are not permitted to interfere with or harm someone else’s rights – yet alone instill in them a fear for their personal safety and human dignity.

Nowadays, some might say that too many people are prone to having a metaphorical glass jaw – that they take offence too easily, and seek to find malicious intent in any views or comments that they find objectionable or that do not accord with their own world view. Equally, people can (metaphorically) stick their jaw out, seeking to provoke a reaction by drawing attention to themselves, so that they can claim “foul” when they bang up against a countervailing fist. The boundary between personal rights and freedom of expression is becoming increasingly blurred.

When it comes to calls for the special protection (and even promotion) of religious freedoms, I have something of a problem. Quite apart from the entrenched social prejudices inherent in many organised religions, it seems incongruous that such institutions can claim tax benefits as charitable bodies, and receive public funding while enjoying exemptions from certain anti-discrimination laws.

Although we don’t have a law against heresy in Australia, we still have blasphemy laws in most States. Even though they are rarely invoked, the fact that they exist reinforces the notion that far from needing a “freedom of religion”, religious beliefs are somehow already seen to be above the law. Surely, in a multi-cultural, secular and pluralistic society, religious beliefs will have to take their chances alongside (and rub up against) the rest of human constructs and natural systems – science, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, sociology.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night