…from Reason to Notions

Braneworlds – Kupka’s Piano debut album is now released and available for purchase. The CD features music by Liam Flenady (the title track), Hannah Reardon-Smith, Alan Lawrence, Chris Dench, and my work The Sleep of Reason, which was premiered in 2016.
I thought I’d take the time to contemplate what this work has meant, how it has informed my compositional approach, where this approach has now lead me, and to reflect on the year that is almost past.

The Sleep of Reason was commissioned by Kupka’s Piano in 2015, completed in early ’16 and premiered that same year. It’s written for the standard new music/pierrot line up, piano, percussion, flutes, clarinets, violin, cello; taking Goya’s etching (El sueño de la razón produce monstrous – the sleep of reason produces monsters) as it’s title and impetus for the work.

Like much of my work, this piece explores the use of heterophony, microtonality, ornamentation, and pitch trajectories. There is a push and pull between lines as to who leads, who follows, and what seemingly small ornament or figure becomes the catalyst for development. Quarter tones are used to enhance these ornaments as well provide unstable pedal points throughout, while the overwhelming sense of pitch being driven in a forward singular motion is the underpinning structural device. Other than these more technical devices used, the work proceeds through an ‘organic’, animated, and at times changeable first section, before leading to the ‘sleep of reason’ – an uncomfortable lull, a suppressing of energy, a false sense of ease. The energy of the opening attempt to break through – increasingly repressed, increasingly fierce – as the pacified middle section eventually breaks and reason (as brutal and difficult as it can appear) take the fore once again. This idea compliments Goya’s set of works in which this etching belongs; criticising ignorance, superstition, and the influence of aristocracy and church upon late 18th century Spanish society…

Following on from The Sleep of Reason, I next wrote for saxophone duo (Babbling House), orchestra (Ochrelila), and quintet (ob., fl., vln, vc, perc.) (titled Metamorphosis). All three of these works follow directly on from the sound world explored and what I had learnt in writing The Sleep of Reason. Of all, Metamorphosis (listen here) is almost a sister work to The Sleep of Reason, employing not only similar instruments and a similar gestural language, but acting as a kind of bookend to a set of works that all had a similar aesthetic and approach. The Sleep of Reason began this exploration and Metamorphosis in a way rounded it off; marking a shift in focus towards newer music ideas while my previous development/lessons become more naturally integrated into my compositional language.

My latest works this year include Aposiopesis (2017) for BRON (saxophone quartet), and Fragile Notions (2017) written for Syzygy Ensemble (flutes, clarinets, violin, cello). In both these works, and very much what I’m preoccupied with right now, is moving away from heterophony, away from a strict pitch trajectory, and attempting to find a way to reimagine harmony and further refine my microtonal language. Looking back at previous works, my microtonal use has largely been used ornamentally, adding ‘colour’ and nuance, pushing the ear to brief unknown territory, or used to augment a pedal note or single pitch. In my earlier work Unravelling Graphite, there are small moments of microtonal harmony, however for the large part it’s a kind of a Scelsi-esque inflection of a pitch trajectory.

To give a new structure to my harmony and discover interesting intervallic relationships, I’ve been looking at the use of combination tones in deriving pitch material (used extensively by Radulescu, and the more recent Enno Poppe). This has yielded some fascinating results, avoiding the overtly spectral sound-world of just intonation and the overtone series. Through essentially playing with sum tones, difference tones, and frequency modulation, rounding to the nearest 8th tone, I’ve been able to knit together my pitch material and a explore a newer way of thinking about music in a vertical fashion.

Aposiopesis uses exactly this in an almost entirely harmonic fashion. It’s largely a collection of fragmented harmonic statements, punctuated by silence, with a very restrained dynamic range – and across 3 movements – all of which I very rarely do! Whereas Fragile Notions finds a somewhat middle ground, tying together my newer harmonic approach with the previous heterophonic one. Fragile Notions also begins to consider other parameters in the creation of sound, those other than the traditional pitch and rhythm–centric focus. Air vs full-body tone produced by wind instruments is expressed on a separate stave, whereas on the strings this is reserved for bowing positions – allowing for great precision, a more fluid spectrum of possibilities to be explored, and rhythmically independent parameters to exist.

Aposiopesis will be premiered either late this year or early 2018 in the Netherlands by the BRON quartet, and Fragile notions recently was premiered by Syzygy at Macedon Music.

…I suppose the narrative of this post is realising the importance of key works – The Sleep of Reason undoubtedly, and also my string quartet Unravelling Graphite, as being the somewhat roots in which the rest of my pieces have grown from – and as a sort of update to my latest works, discussing where my compositional thinking has currently been.

Also, I am so indebted to all the dedicated musicians who perform, workshop, and rehearse my works, especially Kupka’s Piano with whom I have a long standing relationship – I am now listed as an associate artist, plus do listen to their debut album Braneworlds! A new work for Kupka’s is coming mid 2018, as well duo’s for Phoebe Green & Ben Opie, and Tamara Kohler & Kaylie Melville, stay posted!

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Shanghai New Music Week

In mid-September I had the privilege to travel to China to attend the 2017 Shanghai New Music Week as part of the international masterclass programme. The composition tutors were Liza Lim (Australia), Yann Robin (France), and Narong Prangcharoen (Thailand) with Quatuor Tana (France) performing the selected composers works as part of the festival.

It was an absolute honour to hear my work Unravelling Graphite performed for the second time, performed by a different ensemble, and receiving fresh feedback from a panel of internationally renowned composers. This was also a unique chance to hear what both the younger and older generation composers are writing in China, plus hearing and meeting the other 4 immensely talented composers selected for the same programme: Catherine Robson, Stevie Jonathan Sutanto, Jifang Guo, Tianyang Zhang. The festival also featured an extensive selection of the tutor’s works performed by the masterful Elision, Quatuor Tana, Shanghai Opera Orchestra, New Zealand Trio, and Berlin Piano Percussion, and famous selections from Europe’s late 20th century.

Quatuor Tana

Quatuor Tana

Metamorphosis: a complete and utter change…

Metamorphosis – defined as a transformation, a complete and utter change into something new.

Metamorphosis – 1915 novella by Franz Kafka. Depicts the overnight transformation of a Gregor Samsa into a gigantic insect. His family attempt to adjust, however repulsed by him and ultimately a burden, Gregor eventually dies, a stranger in his own home.

Metamorphosis – Opera by Australian composer Brian Howard, based upon Kafka’s original work. Set design and model by Nigel Triffitt. Miniature set model located in the bowls of the Melbourne Arts Centre.

Metamorphosis – short work written by myself for oboe, bass clarinet, percussion, violin and cello. Commissioned by the Melbourne Arts Centre for the 5x5x5 Programme where 5 selected composers are asked to write a short work, responding to an item within the Arts Centre’s archives.

It was Triffitt’s striking set model (seen below) and it’s correlating subject matter (metamorphosis) that inspired my work for this programme.

The staircase, a ‘vehicle’ that provides access to another location, is seen here fragile and contorted – unwilling. It’s this dichotomy that I took as an overarching concept. The musical material works it’s way moving between various pitch centres, often unstable and deviating for periods of time before returning on track. The idea of metamorphosis is used somewhat ironically. Instead of a complete transformation, the work actually remains in a constant state of unstable and slow change, without ever reaching remotely new material or ideas. The resulting sound world I believe echoes the absurdist and nightmarish (however arguable real) world that Kafka conjures, one of disconnect, disorientation and alienation.

The individual musical gestures are fluid and somewhat slippery. These adjectives have applied to all of my output of the past two years, something I have increasingly become aware of and now trying to move away from, or at the very least, be certain of my intent and not merely the default. This ‘language’ includes frequent leaps between octaves and especially of the minor 9th and major 7th. A littering of microtones, used either ornamentally or harmonically, as opposed to a linear level such as a ‘melodic line’, or in a quasi contrapuntal treatment. Gestures could be described as meandering, freely using neighbouring notes and ornaments such as turns, trills and grace notes. What little harmonic layers exist are unstable, sliding in and out of equal tempered intervals, with the majority of the texture probably falling within a heterophonic description.

My next work, a saxophone quartet for the Bron Quartet, attempts to move away from these approaches, or at used them much less overtly, and explore newer ways of organising pitch (especially with regards to microtones and treatment of the equal tempered system), development of ideas (or lack thereof), pushing away from heterophony, and reconsidering octave equivalents and certain favourited intervals.

So I feel my work Metamorphosis is a sort of summary of where my compositional thinking has been for quite some time, with the next few pieces to come (a quintet, duo and solo [tba!]) exploring newer avenues and other ‘musical’ parameters. The concept of parameters – what we as composers (or any artist) choose to control and what we chose to relinquish, and what is left up to tradition, performance practise, or intuition, is a concept that is at the forefront of my thinking for these next works…

Metamorphosis can be listened to here

A big thanks to the performers Hamish Upton, Andrew Fong, Eve Osborn, Caleb Wong, Lily Higson-Spence, and the Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Unravelling… whims…

2 weeks ago I attended the premiere of my string quartet Unravelling Graphite. Commissioned by the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, as part of the 2014 Silver Harris & Jeff Peck Prize, it was so incredibly bizarre and intriguing to hear a work I began so long ago. Having composed half and mapping the entirety by early 2015, the next 12 months I slowly and gradually revisited, finished, edited, re-worked, re-wrote, re-edited, and re-revisited over and over again. As expected, every time I revisited this piece it became more and more alien, more and more difficult to pick up where I left off, at war with myself when faced whether to or whether not to add that new idea.

What resulted was a work dictated by an accumulation of more than a years worth of compositional whims.

Ultimately a slowly evolving spectrum of sound, the work follows an overarching pitch trajectory from pitch class E. Up until about halfway (4’30”), Unravelling Graphite works its way very slowly and sometimes rather roundabout, from E, ascending to A. A is reinforced via a short cello solo, before becoming more and more unstable, proceeding upwards again, eventually up to B. At two-thirds in there is an unexpected event whereupon the pitch leaps up to F, collapsing in a matter of seconds to Eb, a semitone below where the piece began. This slowly builds again but only ever reaching F.

Alongside this very macro-level pitch trajectory, is the constant emerging interval of a third (major, minor, and microtones in-between). Beginning rather bluntly as a minor third in the cello towards 1’30” it acts as a germ in the piece, reappearing, morphed, sometimes frequently within a short space of time, and sometimes after much time has elapsed. Most unstable at the two-thirds mark after the ‘collapse’ (the glissando gesture), here it morphs into the major third, which most strikingly dominates the end of the piece (Db-F).

The last structural device I used in constructing this piece is a sketch I made during a few dry spells of musical creativity. Starting as mere scratchy lines and shapes, it soon became a visual embodiment of my work. Although not used to dictate gesture and development from the start, as I reached further into 2016 of editing and rewriting, this became increasingly useful and a reference as to what realm this piece might occupy visually.

Unravelling Graphite Sketch

Unravelling Graphite Sketch

As far as specific micro elements of the score, how I decided on use of microtones, rhythm, how quickly the pitch would rise or collapse, this was the most difficult part and difficult to pin down in words (and generally what I earlier referred to as whims). Through constant editing and revisiting over almost 2 years, I slowly refined where I wanted pitch to be more stable, where I didn’t want stability, where it would build, and where it would slow in momentum, and the role of register – by how many octaves are the instruments displaced, how erratic are gestures utilising leaps and harmonics, and when are the instruments all compacted in unison etc.

Typical of where my compositional thoughts are and have been for the past few years, this piece further explores my push and pull with heterophony, use of microtones and harmonics, and somewhat excessive use of ornamentation (an excessive decoration of a gesture, idea, or line).

Big thanks to Kurilpa String Quartet (Graeme Jennings, Brendan Joyce, Yoko Okayasu, and Katherine Philp) for premiering my work! Recording is here via my barest of bare skills utilising a Zoom H4n.

Unravelling Graphite Sketches Spring

Sketches from Unravelling Graphite – outside, spring has arrived…

 

Hobart and back…

Earlier in September I had the honour of being accepted into the Symphony Australia TSO Composers’ School. Below is an excerpt from a CutCommon article in which myself and the 3 other composers (Chris Williams, Stephen de Filippo & Timothy Tate) reflect on our experiences:

” Symphony Australia’s Composers’ School has been a programme I’ve had my eye on ever since my undergrad. With an intense 5 days working alongside the TSO (when does a composer ever get access to a symphony orchestra for this length of time!), the ‘school’ taught me to refine my orchestral writing: from notational issues, to harnessing the most from each performer and instrument. Alongside the combined expertise and experience of James Ledger, Richard Mills, Hamish McKeich and the staff at TSO, I also learn just as much from my fellow composer participants, more often than not over a few drinks. The school culminated in the performance of my work Atmosphoria (a sort of textural tone poem depicting a Brisbane summer downpour), reworked for the TSO forces, and an orchestration task (we were each given) of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue no. 9, Book 2. No Hobart trip was complete without a visit to MONA, which I squeezed in before flying out, and equally compositionally insightful; a vast cavern of confronting artistic ideas and practices. ”

Currently I’ve just completed a new work entitled Ochrelîla for a reading and recording session with the MSO (as part of my Masters at the Melbourne Conservatorium), and yesterday heard Kurilpa String Quartet rehearse my work Unravelling Graphite for it’s premiere this Friday (21st, October). Promise a proper blog post is coming soon in which I’ll talk more about these 2 pieces!!!

Marvellous… May…

An update as to what I’ve been up to…

Winter is finally here! Which means single digit temperatures at night, grey, drizzly, overcast days, mostly spent in front of a heater, with excess hot chocolate and coffee consumption… Melbourne in May is truly magnificent… May brings the cold, the scarfs and coats are out, warm cafes, bookstores and homes look all the more enticing, and festivals such as Next Wave and Metropolis brings 2 weeks of new music, new art and everything in-between (plus some 20th century favourites)…

May also saw the premiere of 2 new works of mine.

Babbling House, commissioned by saxophone duo Halfsound, is a 2 movement work that will be toured (along with 9 other newly commissioned pieces) across South-East Asia. This work calls to mind the squabbling of politicians, often descending into nonsense and noise. This was my first work for a small line up of saxophones and first where I really immersed myself into what this instrument can do. Using the idea of babbling politicians and the disappointing fact that the major parties are never far from one another on more important issues, the musical material each saxophone have, are likewise always similar and never far from what the other is saying – however, neither are they ever in complete togetherness (or at least not for long), constantly in a state of conflict. The first movement is very explicit with this idea, both Altos playing rapid passages of grace notes, and futter-tongue, all centred around an Eb. As the piece progresses we have short interludes of cooperation, and quiet, before the process begins again, each time becoming more agitated and moving more and more away in a central pitch.  The first movement ends with the Alto finally departing from the ideas of the Soprano, before both screeching out on indeterminate highest pitches. The second movement see players on the Soprano and Tenor, having more space for each line to speak, and more of a to-and-fro dialogue. In essence there is a mimicking between the two instruments, with excess ornamentation and reiteration of pitches (need I spell out the parallels with politicians). Constantly we have moments the material evolve into soft erratic overtones, until at the end this is all that remains from both player’s original material. This was premiered at the Grant St Studios of the VCA and was also performed live on 3MBS on the 20th of May.

The very same night of Halfsound’s concert, was the Song Company’s Go Into The City concert as part of Metropolis, which featured the Cries of Melbourne project interwoven with various other new and old works. The Cries of Melbourne involved several composers from the Melbourne Conservatorium, in which we made short recordings from various locations around the city then either using, responding or musically translating these recordings into a short composition, in essence collecting a diverse sample of the sounds of the city. For mine, I used the La Trobe Reading Room, creating a piece with a gentle drone interspersed with the various sounds one hears in a ‘quiet’ timber floored, vaulted, 100 year old central space in the State Library. These included, coughing, footsteps, murmuring of voices, white noise, sound of clothes and shuffling about, opening of doors, and the occasional high pitches squeak from what I’m actually not sure of. The Song Company obviously performed all this to a masterful degree, and wonderfully interweaved each of the ‘Cries’ and other works together to create a sonic kaleidoscope of Melbourne.

Latrobe Reading Room

La Trobe Reading Room State Library

May also brings two pieces of AMAZING news…

I have been accepted into Symphony Australia’s TSO Composers’ School (3rd time lucky!!!). This will be a week of intensive compositional and orchestration training in Hobart, with Director Richard Mills, Conductor Hamish McKeich, and Tutor James Ledger, culminating in a performance of my (and inevitably revised) work Atmosphoria, which was commissioned by Matthew Schwarz and premiered by the Queensland Philharmonia Orchestra. This is a programme I’ve kept my eyes on and applied for many times before, so I’m over the moon to have been accepted and look forward to it in September this year!

The other piece of news is that I was accepted into IMPULS, a winter 2 week academy and festival in Graz, Austria. Having heard all about it by my friend and composer extraordinaire Liam Flenady who attended the previous two, IMPULS provides lessons from Europe’s leading composers and teachers, lectures, workshops, and even opportunities with resident ensembles and soloists. I am still so hyped about this and simply can’t wait to attend, not to mention somehow finding a way to fund this ha!

Lastly… I am currently working on two new pieces. An orchestral piece for the Melbourne Conservatorium’s postgrad orchestral workshop with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and a set of piano pieces for my partner Sine Winther. Oddly enough, it’s the piano set that I’m most anxious about. Not sure how common this is, but maybe composers have difficulty writing for their own instrument… or maybe this is something I just feel. Anyway the goal is to have a set of small works culminating to about 15-20mins, harnessing both my approach to composition to this point but also in trying to push what this seemingly limitless instrument can do. Although I want to avoid preparing or detuning the piano (something I very much hope to do one day!), other than that I have left all other perimeters open, hoping to go beyond exclusively tapping keys. I have a ton of repertoire to listen to, analyse, and ponder, not to mention endless contemplation on how each ‘movement’ relate to the other, how they flow (or don’t for that matter), and what constraints I place on each. And on that note…

Sleep of Reason – Kupka’s Piano

Reblogging a blog I did for the Kupka’s Blog 😉

As my works delve more and more into that murky subterranean post-tonal world, my art has found a renewed purpose, taking on those worldly issues closest to me.

It was after beginning my postgraduate studies, having learnt with a variety of composition teachers, and experiencing a few extra thought provoking art exhibitions that I finally decided that my music would take a new turn. By no means am I considering this to be the official beginning of my ‘mature’ works; simply that music has now become more than an experiment in sounds and theory, but a vehicle for views, ideas; even a stance.

The Sleep of Reason, composed for ‘pierrot-type’ ensemble, Kupka’s Piano, is one of my first works to address this. Taking its title from Goya’s famous etching: El sueño de la razón produce monstros (the sleep of reason produces monsters), this work is one of 80 satirical etchings and aquatints entitled ‘Los Caprichos’, condemning the many facets of Goya’s 18th-century Spain. These include comments on topics such as the aristocracy, politics, religion and the clergy, superstition, and morality.

Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

Goya’s etching incorporates many concerns of today’s society as it did in his; illustrating that where ignorance outweighs reason, and where sense faults, monsters such as fear, intolerance and superstition emerge, taking on well-known forms in politics and religion.

Like in other works I’m currently writing, these elements are crucial to the development, thoughts, and process of the piece, however they need not rule every component. For The Sleep of Reason, this provided a starting point and a guide to how the piece will evolve. At its simplest level I’ve juxtaposed an intense and fluid opening and ending with a slow static middle section. ‘Reason’ can be complicated and radical concepts difficult to grasp, whereas ignorance and faith lulls, and creates a fabricated sense of reassurance – this is the rather elementary impetus for my work. A pacified middle section ceases the momentum and energy of the work, and an unnerving sense of discomfort develops in the listener. Rumbles and movement begin to interfere more and more until the artificial comfort of the piece break away and reason (as brutal and difficult as it is presented here) takes back the fore.

More explicit musical materials that influence this and many of my works, include my continued exploration of microtonality and my fascination with classical Turkish music. Having delved into music of the Middle East during the end of my undergrad, and then further examining how this could affect my own works in the following years, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t interested in integrating a bastardisation of the makam (quasi-modal like structures) but rather in focussing on heterophony and form. Heterophony is a more complex monophony, a simultaneous variation of a single melodic line. A rather simplistic definition of the textural aspect of Turkish music, I have been fascinated with this push and pull, and slight deviation that play out in largely unison compositions. In many instances in The Sleep of Reason, unison appears to be striving for dominance, however never quite coming to fruition, or constantly being pulled back and forth. Additionally the unique forms in Turkish music and how these develop have provided many possibilities in how my material transform, especially on the micro-scale. Instead of dictating a scalic figure or tone-row, I use certain pitches as mapping points, for example moving from a dominance of C# down to Bb.

A massive thanks to Kupka’s Piano for their tireless work and support and I look forward to seeing the diverse programme of works on the 19th!

Concert: Harrison’s Axe by Kupka’s Piano, April 19th, Judith Wright Centre 7:30pm. Pre-concert Q & A at 6:45pm. See ‘Concerts‘ tab for more info.