Overcoming string-quartet-phobia

September 9 2011

(As published in the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate Magazine)

I have always been terrified of writing a string quartet – what could a developing Australian composer possibly have to offer the genre which boasts hundreds of masterworks by luminaries such as Beethoven, Ravel, Shostakovich, Haydn, etc. Perhaps my love for the string quartet repertoire was the reason I had avoided it for so long. Fortunately, the opportunity to have a piece workshopped and performed by the Australian String Quartet was too great for me to pass by – it took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to face my fears and put notes on the page.

And so emerged ‘So she moaned, and as she uttered her moans…’. It is an adaptation of a work I had written several years earlier, The Raw and the Cooked – an impression of an Amazonian myth explaining the origins of death and disease. Adapting a pre-existing work was ideal for me: I had always known, in the back of my mind, that it could be turned into a string quartet, and this allowed me to concentrate primarily on the colours and combinations that have been so well developed in the string quartet for the past 250 years.

The Australian String Quartet had done an amazing job in interpreting what I had written, and in the workshops I was able to focus purely on the technical elements of the piece – hearing a different tone colour here and there, perhaps a change in tempo, dropping an octave once or twice – greatly increasing my understanding of the string quartet dynamic.

Watching five of my colleagues work with the quartet in a similar way was equally (if not more) valuable – a tactile awareness is so important for composers. Future hints will hopefully be stored in the memory banks for a while (for instance: did you know a second violinist strings their instrument differently from a first violinist for a deeper tone colour in the bottom strings? It seems so obvious now…)

Over the weekend I made a few alterations – nothing substantial, although upon reflection I have been toying with the idea of making some more fundamental changes to the piece. I think this is one of the hardest things for a composer – to know when to change something and when to leave it alone.

The Australian String Quartet performed my piece magnificently – that murky quality which I wanted, coupled with a melodic ground that was more or less in-stasis, and a gradual dynamic rise from beginning to end. But as a composer, at what point does murky become too ambiguous? When does melodic-stasis become too repetitive? I know I will never find answers to such subjective questions…

The hunt for definitive answers can be a risk of such occasions where peers and mentors meet – that every comment and suggestion made can become permanently ingrained in your consciousness, forever dictating the way you write as you aspire for that chimerical ‘perfect’ piece of music. Fortunately I was lucky enough to be in the company of not only inspiring musicians and composers but wonderful people – reminding me that after all ‘it’s only music’ – and departed with what feels like a greater musical freedom of expression. It was a joy to share my music with such fantastic people, and to have learnt much along the way.

birds from East Africa

August 15 2011

I wish I read more. I just don’t seem to read enough (although ironically, almost everytime I do read something I’m inspired to write a piece of music about it – funny that). One of the few times I do tend to read is when I’m away travelling – I’ve recently been in Adelaide working with the lovely Australian String Quartet and 5 other ‘young’ composers, and whilst waiting around at airports read cover-to-cover (another thing which I ashamed to admit that I infrequently achieve) a charming book by Canberra-based author Nicholas Drayson A Guide to the Birds of East Africa.

P.G. Wodehouse once said something along the lines that his writing was a ‘light musical comedy’ compared to other more ‘serious’ endeavors, with a flippancy that is moving and at times mysteriously profound. Birds of East Africa has that Wodehouse charm about it. It tells the story of two competing Indian Kenyans – Mr. Malik and Harry Khan, competing for the right to ask out Scottish bird enthusiast Rose Mbikwa out to the Annual Hunt Club Ball through a competition proposed by the esteemed men of the Asidi Club: who can identify the most species of birds first hand in the space of the week.

Although there may be no Jeeves, post-colonial Kenya is evocative of Wodehouse’ colonial England with a gentleman’s club and all (although I doubt Bertie ever got attacked by Somali militia). The premise sets up an incredibly unbelievable series of incidents midst the race to count as many birds as possible. It is hilarious, charming, sweet, and thrilling, and I (obviously) found it hard to stop reading.

It sometimes amazes me how many talented artists we have in a place as small as Canberra – for someone who thinks that a light musical comedy is just as artistically valid as a Wagnerian opera, I found Drayson’s Birds of East Africa tremendously inspiring… so to stay true to form i have to wait for a pair of binoculars to write my next work… maybe for guitar duo… the Birds of North Canberra anyone? Someone please stop me…

Musica Viva Festival

April 29 2011

I’m currently up in Sydney for the 2011 Musica Viva Festival, taking some quick & dirty video snapshots as an insight to what’s going on. For a full list of the videos click here, or you can check out ABC Classic FM’s microsite. Videos feature a range of musicians – Festival artists, AYO students, audience members, and a look behind the scenes.

There is quite a diversity of activity here – the Australian Youth Orchestra are running a chamber music program in conjunction with the Festival, with masterclasses from Festival Artists Pekka Kuusisto, the Eggner Trio, Takács Quartet, and Goldner String Quartet. I’m particularly looking forward to the Takács’ complete Bartók cycle (who wouldn’t?!?!); and George Crumb’s Black Angels on Sunday – I’m not sure when it has last been performed in Australia, but I presume the opportunity to hear it doesn’t come too often.

sculpting sound?

December 9 2010

Artist Susan Philipsz has received the Turner Art Prize for a sound installation Lowlands. She records herself singing a Scottish lament in three different locations, under bridges in Scotland, and then layers them on top of each other. She doesn’t describe herself as a musician, or a ‘sound artist’, but instead, she ‘scultps sound’ (apparently this involves an awareness of space that musicians don’t employ….)

… so really,…. does this award have any point other than trying to earn a cheap headline????. Lowlands is clearly a musical work. It is no more ‘sound art’ then Beethoven’s 5th being played in urban train stations to discourage youth loitering, or Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters being played on the loudspeakers of a local pub.

the work seems pleasant enough although I have never ‘seen’ it – the lack of any visual element or dependence on a particular space doesn’t really inspire a need to fly over and ‘see’ the $40,000 prize-winning work. in a Cagean way, Beethoven’s 5th at the train station would seemingly be more visually engaging, assuming the existence of some graffiti and moving billboards. but, according to the Turner judges, the work expressed an ‘intelligibility’ as well as an ‘unknown something’ that all great works of art have.

so, how adventurous, how daring, of the Turner prize to include ‘music’ in ‘visual art’, and celebrate a recording of Scottish folk songs as “new developments in contemporary art” (can you hear Pierre Schaeffer moaning and playing from his grave an selection of musique concrete??). I’m sure there will be many skeptics who agree with British art critic Richard Dorment who mentioned in his blog:

“I’ve often noticed that people who don’t have the talent to make a TV commercial have no trouble passing their static black and white films off as high art. Maybe that’s what’s happening here and with her Turner Prize money Ms Philipsz will go off and start a choir.”

mmmm… hear the sound of artists from all over the world collectively sigh…

riot or not?

December 2 2010

For the first time, I’ve been watching video footage from Stravinsky/Nijinksky’s ballet Rite of Spring, and have asked myself, what would happen if the work was premiered today?  The premiere of the Rite of Spring by the Ballet Russe in 1913 is famous for being the scene of one of the most significant artistic riots in Western history, and is often used as a textbook example of art being ahead of it’s time, unappreciated by it’s contemporary audience – but amidst the boos and hisses it somehow emerges as being recognised as one of the great works in the Western canon, virtually becoming a symbol of 20th century art music.  This in itself is odd – somehow we identify 20th century art music with a piece that is most famous for the fact that it started a riot – the symbolism is telling!  Composers Unite – even the most famous of all pieces was hated once by a misunderstanding public who just didn’t ‘get’ it.

Or are we the ones who misunderstand it?  It ashamedly occurred to me that I had never actually seen the Rite in it’s ballet context.  Somehow ‘Music’ has taken all the credit for the 1913 riot.  So I watched it.  For me, the Rite, in it’s proper context, is a confronting work.  The ballet is violent, it is sex, it is unnatural, it evokes the same feelings inside you that you get watching The Exorcist. It is brilliant, but it is not light entertainment.  It is masculine, it is feminine, it is primitive, it is scary, it makes you want to move – and the choreography seems to be the driving force behind this artistic confrontation.  Yet, we seem to focus on the music – i guess what exactly caused the riot, we will never really know.

So if the Rite was performed today would it cause anything close to a riot?  Probably not – I was talking to a music-lover today about this, and his response was ‘well people would be too scared to say they didn’t like it’ (Composers Unite! – see how far we have come!).  But what would people think?  Would the audience feel confronted in the same way?  Possibly.  Critics and academics would have a field-day criticising the work for it’s orientalist depiction of pagan Russian culture, that’s for sure.

Apparently after the work was written, Jean Cocteau insisted on having a typewriter and foghorn in Erik Satie’s Parade, performed later by the Ballet Russe, with the aspiration of inciting another riot in Paris.  Although the typewriter featured in the score, the riot never ensued, and at the end of his life Stravinsky proudly proclaimed he was responsible for the biggest ever musical riot.  We don’t really associate Nijinsky in quite the same way, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has kind of developed in the popular consciousness in isolation from the choreography.  This is a shame, and perhaps misleading composers into a false sense of comfort that all music was hated once.  Irony.


obituary: the world’s most famous oboist

August 15 2010

American musical icon Mitch Miller recently passed away at the age of 99 a couple of weeks ago – which has given me cause to reflect the rich 20th century musical history and culture which is barely passed down to my generation (whether it be through institutionalised education, the artistic elite, or through popular culture).  I first learnt about Miller around 12 months ago through my fascination through the music of Alec Wilder, and was shocked that I hadn’t come across someone so significant before.

Miller will best be remembered through his iconic Sing Along With Mitch t.v. show in the 1960s, which was credited for popularising the ‘bouncing ball’ as an audience guide to following lyrics.  He ‘discovered’ Aretha Franklin, and produced/signed iconic singers such as Doris Day and Tony Bennett.  He was a noted conductor and for at least one generation was a household name.  There is an obituary for Miller here.

I think Miller exemplifies the chasm between institutionalised art and the real world.  Mitch Miller was a musical identity – familiar to many, and someone who brought music into the homes of everyday people.  On the other hand, within the culture of the artistic establishment he is someone who is rarely mentioned (if even thought of).  Mitch Miller began his career as a classical oboe player (and it was his performance in the Alec Wilder Octet’s where I first came across him).  In this sense, it’s ironic that Miller is possibly the ‘real’ world’s most well known oboist, at least amongst those who remember Sing Along With Mitch.

Gerhard Rosenfeld’s Balkan Suite

August 7 2010

Around this time last year, the Canberra Mandolin Orchestra – an amazing community orchestra which I’ve had the privilege of directing over the last few years, started working on a piece by the little known German composer Gerhard Rosenfeld called Balkan Suite. It has a kind of earthy impact in the same way that the folk-influenced works of Bartók and Kodály have, and is very well written for mandolin orchestra. The CMO have started work recording their first CD over the past few weeks, and you can hear a sample of the work by clicking


Rosenfeld, who passed away in 2003 was best known for his opera works (you can find an obituary here), but other than that there seems to be very little information about him.  However, all roads lead to Canberra, and late last year I was very interested to learn that local harpist Alice Giles met him when recording his beautiful Requiem fur Kaza Katharinna for chamber ensemble, mezzo-soprano, and folk instruments.  It stands as one of the only recordings of his work, so hopefully the humble CMO can add to that in the near future – everything I’ve heard so far of his is interesting, and wish there was more out there…

heaven, hell, mikis, and silvestre

August 3 2010

The response to our Heaven and Hell concert at Belconnen Arts Centre was fantastic – thanks to all those who were able to attend.  Everyone in The Griffyn Ensemble, felt that it was certainly a defining performance for us, and we hope to have opportunities to perform the works again in the near future.  Kiri performed my piccolo concerto beautifully, and you can read a couple of reviews of the piece here.  I’ll be posting some video footage of the performance shortly.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the concert was the gesture from mentor Jim Cotter, who after the concert passed on as a gift to the Ensemble his first edition copy of George Giannaris Mikis Theodorakis – Music and Social Change.  Anyone who knows Jim will know that his passion both for first edition books (particularly on music and textiles) is unrivaled, so we were all very touched that he passed on such a treasured possession in response to the concert.  For me, for so many reasons, Theodorakis stands out as one of the world’s greatest living artists.  Check out this beautiful song Χαρταετοί from Yitonia ton Angelon.  In a different vein to the Crumb and Górecki we performed last week, but all music that makes you happy to be alive.

Our Griffyn activity now moves towards our next project, The Griffyn American Songbook, which will hopefully uncover some not-so-known connections between so-called American ‘art’ and ‘folk/pop’ music.  One interesting piece of trivia for those who may have attended some Griffyn concerts in the past – you may remember quite a few pieces we have played by the great Mexican avant gardist Silvestre Revueltas.

      Sound Clip of The Griffyn Ensemble perform Revueltas' Homage to Garcia Lorca 1st movement

Well, one of Revueltas students was the great film composer Alex North, who of course will be forever immortalised for through the following hit (sung by Perry Como in 1955):

Through understanding that the divide between ‘art’ and ‘folk/pop’ music is only an historical accident, the closer we come, as a society, to creating art that both reflects and influences culture in a meaningful way. At least I hope that is the case.

new guinea patrol

July 18 2010

Yesterday at the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema I caught an 1950’s Australian doco New Guinea Patrol, which I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time, primarily because Australian composer John Antill wrote the soundtrack – another example of the influence of Melanesian culture on Australian art in the early-mid 20th century.

The soundtrack was more or less underwhelming, although historically quite interesting.  It featured lush impressionist orchestration over the top of simple percussion lines, similar to Antill’s famous 1946 Corroboree.  The film itself was a fascinating insight into the Australian perception of New Guinea in the post-war period.  It followed a patrol made up of a few Australian officers and local volunteers from Tari (Southern Highlands Province), who were trying to establish another base further West, towards the Strickland River, and who were making ‘first contact’ with communities from the local Duna ethnic group.

The film was more or less ‘the voice of god’, although in some respects, demonstrated a degree of relativism about Western Culture (for example, the voice over mentioned how the Patrol were “bringing civilisation as we know it to the local inhabitants”.  In this respect, the film had not yet caught up to Jean Rouch’s cinéma vérité techniques which were being developed at around this time.  Nonetheless it was a fascinating insight into Australian cultural, filmic, and musical history, and begs the question – what would we do differently now??

Surprisingly, what was more interestingly musically was a soundtrack by a very young Nigel Butterley to Jennie Boddington’s Three in a Million (1959), which was also screened at the NFSA, which told the story of three immigrants to Australia.  I’ve never really found much of Butterley’s instrumental music to ‘grab’ me – but this soundtrack (which was written when Butterley was 24, and a few years before his development as a major Australian composer) was gripping.  It featured intricate chamber vignettes which were perfectly matched to the three main characters and their respective locales (an Italian man in downtown Melbourne, an English woman in outback SA, and a German man working on the Snowy Mountain Scheme).

For me, this only confirms that Australian music has such a rich and interesting history of which is still largely uncovered or hidden, and I’d be fascinated to see other examples of documentaries from this time which involved collaborations with Australian composers.

**UPDATE** ABC have uploaded a clip from New Guinea Patrol, which can be found here.

utilitarian dramatics

July 14 2010

Last night I was fortunate enough to see Boho Interactive’s production True Logic Of The Future at Belconnen Arts Centre.

The show was inspiring.  It transformed neoclassical economic theory into a dramatic 1 act interactive performance piece in a quasi-sci-fi setting.  Back in my first year of economics I was lucky enough to have a man called Paul Chen as a lecturer who was famous for jumping around the lecture theatre in explaining basic economic concepts in an amazingly physical way – he was one of those ‘unique’ teachers whom every student remembers and was inspired by – but Paul Chen has nothing compared to Boho Interactive in explaining economic thought in a creative yet meaningful manner.

The show was loosely based around the theory of 19th century economist William Stanley Jevon’s whose work is often categorised with a group of economists who became known as  the Neoclassical school, for which contemporary microeconomic theory is currently based upon.  One of the basic tenants of neoclassical economics is that each individual makes decisions in order to maximise his or her utility (i.e. happiness).  In a market system, demand, supply, prices, profit, production, etc. etc. are derived from this utility (or marginal utility to be more exact – how much happier would one additional piece of pie actually make you?).

True Logic asked the question:  What if we could give the power to maximise our utility to an artificial intelligence, and When/Why would we choose to do this?  It explored various human responses to this question in an entertaining, personable fashion.  In between all of this, the ‘artificial intelligence’ was essentially giving the audience a lecture in neoclassical economic theory (although it was presented more like an Issac Asimov story at the time).  From what I remember, there are several centres around the world where computers do attempt to ‘measure’ human utility from people’s responses and brain patterns, which raises some interesting questions…

What I enjoyed most about True Logic was that economic theory could be applied artistically.  Only that morning, I made the remark to a friend of mine as to whether economist John Nash’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, or a ‘Tragedy of the Commons‘, could be interpreted musically.  I have known composers who have done this before, but the result has been more interesting from the performers perspective, rather than from an audience’s perspective (see Cornelius Cardew ‘commie’ music). What I loved about True Logic is it was able to convert these theoretical constructs into a meaningful artistic creation which was not self-indulgent, but incredibly stimulating to watch and feel a part of.