Colouring In

I liked to draw a lot, when I was little. Before I was musical, my favourite distraction was to get out pencils and paper and doodle away, often for hours without break. As I grew older, my interest in music blossomed, and I spent less time drawing, instead pouring my creative energies into composition. I’d forgotten that for much of my childhood, I considered myself primarily a visual person: someone who was fascinated by colours, shades, and the play of lines and shapes upon a page.

It’s only recently, since I’ve been evaluating a piece I wrote last year, that I’ve begun to fully appreciate just how visual my music has become. I don't just mean the arcs and filigree details of my melodic lines: I'm also talking about colour. When I first started composing, as a child, I wasn’t even really aware of timbre, or musical colour, as something you could ‘use’ when composing. But now, it’s one of my primary fascinations. To me, exploring and organising timbre is a way of getting to the very core of what sound is, as a physical experience.

Gossamer, my trio for alto flute, cello and piano, was commissioned by Elaine Smith through the Glen Johnston Composition Award, and was premiered in September last year (2016), at Macedon Music. The work receives its second public outing in a few weeks time, in a performance by that wonderful bunch of super musos, Syzygy Ensemble. The concert is Subtle Persuasion, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and I’ve looked at the lineup, and frankly I’m beyond thrilled to be featured in such fabulous company: Beat Furrer, Tristan Murail, and Australia’s own Liza Lim.

I’ve had a listen to all the works, and for all their points of resonance, one parallel, that is, their investigating musical colour, or timbre, is of particular interest to me. Gossamer, you could say, is a bit of an essay in timbre – a zooming in on each instrument’s colour properties, and then subtly manipulating those properties. I focus my attention particularly on the cello and alto flute, developing a spectrum of sounds generated through distortions of each instrument’s conventional tone.

I described this approach recently in an interview with Julian Day for an ABC Classic FM New Waves Podcast, as a kind of ‘mishandling’ of the instruments: bringing the cello bow too close to the bridge, making a kind of scratch sound, or producing extraneous air, or conversely not enough air, on the alto flute. The worst (best?) mishandling comes in the form of a drinking glass, stroked across the internal strings of the piano. The resulting squeal is music to my ears.

What makes Gossamer different to my previous works that explore colour, is that I zoom in much further: I create a scale of ‘breathiness’ for the alto flute, and I specify a range of degrees of proximity the cello bow should play to the instrument’s bridge. The instruments must control their tone colour throughout the entire composition, meaning that timbre is treated as just as important a musical element as melody, or rhythm.

In the last few years, my music has shifted somewhat in its focus, taking inspiration from compositional approaches that depart from traditional methods of making sound. One is the spectral school, and there’s also the approach in New Complexity and other methods, where sound production is deconstructed into its requisite parts (left hand, right hand, lips, tongue, etc.), and then given a specific direction. Whatever the method, I find it particularly exciting when the music engages with the poetic in its treatment of timbre.

I think all these approaches to making music can teach the listener how to think about sound – to listen critically, and carefully, just like great visual artworks should teach us how to view the world for all of its nuances. This is what I ultimately wish to impart to my listeners.

While the ambition I nurtured as a child to become a visual artist has been quietly relegated to my memory’s deeper recesses, I still consider myself something of an illustrator. I always seem to feed off some kind of mental image, admittedly quite an amorphous one, when I compose. And it’s one that’s always fantastically wild and completely impossible by conventional standards of reality.

But if I were to describe, in words, the picture from which Gossamer was sprung (or spun?), I would say this:

Imagine a world made of dancing filaments and diaphanous veils, all silver, white, and pale gold, inhabited by damselflies with translucent wings, flitting around with mercurial ease. Solid forms materialise but for a moment, in an otherwise fragile and lucent atmosphere somewhere between silk and fog, woven from fine threads that brush quietly against the skin. It’s as if everything in this world were balancing on an invisible node between tangibility and nonexistence. All feels close and cool, trembling softly in the ghostly ether.

Of course, if that doesn’t make any sense, you could just listen to it and form your own image.  

An excerpt from Gossamer, with lots of zig-zagging and squiggly lines – a different kind of drawing...

Following Blackbirds

My collaborative performance piece, Blackbird in the Garden is right around the corner. Naomi Johnson (flautist) and I have been making various preparations for the concert, and it's going to be such a cool, new experience for us. 

The Australian Music Centre has published a conversation we had about the project, and collaborations in general:

All this week I'm going to be thinking on collaboration and dance: so watch this space for some more ponderings coming up shortly!

Various ideas are hatching away...

Various ideas are hatching away...

Composing a Musical Tree

This week has been full of compositional highlights. My new work for mixed quintet, 'Arborescence' received a preview performance at the inaugural 2015 Melbourne Music Analysis Summer School on Monday – and then its premiere at the Melbourne Recital Centre by Syzygy Ensemble, in their final concert for the year on Wednesday evening. 

The concert was an incredible success, and was also recorded by ABC Classic FM for future broadcast. I am so humbled by all of Syzygy's efforts and hard work in bringing my music to life. The process of working with them and developing my music under their guidance has been extraordinary. 

I discuss the process of writing and developing 'Arborescence' in a blog post on the Australian Music Centre's online magazine 'Resonate'.

We capped off the collaboration last night with a studio recording session at Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC Southbank Studios, with ABC engineer Chris Lawson. Hearing the final cut was really special. There's probably just a little more work to do, and then it'll be ready to share!

Many thanks to Laila, Leigh, Jenny, Robin and Paul for being a part of my musical tree!

Jenny Khafagi (violin), Leigh Harrold (piano), Paul Zabrowarny (cello), Robin Henry (clarinets) and Laila Engle (flutes), tuning up to record my newest musical creation.

Catching a wave and waves

I wrote a short piece for Limelight Magazine about my experience playing in Speak Percussion's Melbourne Fesival performances of A wave and waves, by American composer Michael Pisaro. 100 of us were assembled around the audience in a grid, playing a whole range of traditional and non-traditional percussion instruments (I was dropping dried peas onto a wooden bowl). 

Speak Percussion are an incredible force in Australia's musical culture - it was such a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of this amazing project. Check it out!