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...