'My building blocks are variations': An interview with Melody Eötvös

meotvos_profile Kupka pianist Alex Raineri chats with exciting young Australian composer Melody Eötvös, now based in Indiana. Come along to 'Modern Music in Exile' this Friday night to hear the world premiere of her new work!

Alex Raineri: We're really excited to be giving the world premiere performance of your new work Wild October Jones at Friday night's concert. Could you tell us a little about the piece? What does the title reference?!

Melody Eötvös: Wild October Jones has been quite a while in the making.  Several summers ago (which was actually winter in Australia) I spent some time in Melbourne.  I was at one of my first record fairs and happened to be curiously browsing through several albums of playing cards these people there had accumulated and were selling.  They were rather special cards because of the particular edition and 'frontispiece' each had.  So I was flipping through pages and pages of these cards and then one suddenly jumped out at me (as pictured above).  It was a reproduction of a beautiful painting that depicted a train passing a carriage at full speed, and the carriage halting to avoid a collision, and a young woman falling off the back of the carriage.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Wreck of old '97" provided the spark of inspiration for Eötvös' new work "Wild October Jones"

The whole image has a very animated perspective to it.  I bought that single card there and then for $3. Anyway, several years later I found it while cleaning out a box of souvenirs I'd gathered over the past 5 years or so, and decided to research it a little. After some intensive googling I discovered the painting belonged to an Indiana artist Thomas Hart Benton, and that we have several of his works throughout the IU Bloomington campus. For me this was too serendipitous to ignore and I knew I had to write a piece based on this painting one day, but it had to be a piece with a particular kind of energy and sound... something I hope I've captured. It was strange though, because I knew I didn't want to use the title of the painting "Wreck of old '97". So I brainstormed a little while staring at the picture for hours. To me the painting has a wild, untamed look about it - I started seriously writing this piece back in October - and of all the references my crazy, film saturated brain instantly connects with Indiana (even after living here for 5 years)... you can probably guess..

AR: Already at such a young age you've got a very impressive list of achievements to your name! After completing a BMus at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music (Griffith University) you went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music (London) and you've just finished up a DMA at the Indiana University (USA). On top of this you've had a significant amount of successful grants and funding opportunities, including a substantial one recently from the Australia Council for the Arts. What are some upcoming projects for you and where to now?

ME: I remember listening into the online streaming of the Soundstream Collective broadcast by the ABC in 2012, and Julian Day saying something quite similar about my collective activities and how they're contributing nicely to my 'mantelpiece' - it's always flattering when somebody points out these advances (so, thank you!).  I'd have to say though that the foundation of that mantelpiece is structured around an uncompromising outlook - for each success there has probably been about double the number of rejections! So, we composers develop very tough hides over time and need to have a very quick bounce-back rate.

I am thrilled about the Aussie Council of the Arts grant - given the changing climate in Australia at the moment with arts funding (and just funding in general) I feel exceptionally lucky to have received one of these - I'll be using it for a collaboration with Bernadette Harvey (Sydney) to develop a large piano work, most likely a Piano Sonata, and this project will carry through in to 2015.  In the meantime I have a wonderful collaboration with Musica Viva and the Red Room in Sydney that will be coming to an exciting conclusion in October this year, and in a few weeks I have a reading/workshop with the New York Philharmonic as part of the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings program.  After these I have to make a decision about teaching applications to universities beginning with the 2015-16 academic year... so very exciting times ahead with lots of change!

AR: Extended techniques play a large part in the instrumental writing of Wild October Jones. There's now quite a tradition and a 'repertoire' of sorts for these techniques and I'm interested to know how you personally approach this as a composer and what kind of a role they play in the compositional process? 

ME: For me it's been a gradual building up towards using extended techniques like I have in Wild October Jones. It was also a very dangerous decision as there is only so much you can indicate on the score, and couple that with a brand new piece without a recording to refer to, there's a lot of room for interpretation and many different directions the sound of this piece could be taken in.  So I'm very excited to hear what Kupka's Piano does with it! As for the compositional process, as I mentioned earlier I wanted a particular sound and energy for this piece, and the extended techniques are a crucial part of that.  I think it comes down to a common desire with composers to expand the timbral plane that they're working with.  For me, I wanted both more transparency and a thicker, harsh-block sound as part of my palette.  What happens in between those two extremes could be anything, as long as it works with the structure etc.  My building blocks are variations, and through these I can alter the tone colour around a basic theme, while leading the piece towards its high-point, then releasing that tension away at the end.  That's a really simple, wordy way of putting it though... actually doing that in the music required a lot of thought and fluency/fading of colours across the variations

AR: Lastly, what are some desert island pieces? Top five?

ME: No. 1 is always going to be Bartok's 3rd String quartet.  It's also my "if you have 15 minutes left to live" piece. No. 2 is Shostakovich's 2nd Piano concerto (my mum was learning this when she was pregnant with me... so it kind of stuck) No. 3 Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin No. 4 all of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier (both books) No. 5 probably Stravinsky's Firebird (1910 version)