Embracing Uncertainty - Samantha Wolf

Sam wolf Samantha Wolf is a featured composer at next month's premiere of the 'The Human Detained' at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts on the 30th of October. The project is a collaboration between Kupka's Piano and MakeShift Dance Collective. Sam has written about her approach towards collaborating on this new work with Kupka pianist Alex Raineri, and MakeShift dancer Gemma Dawkins.

Collaborative projects always offer unique and interesting questions for composers. This particular project, with Kupka’s pianist Alex Raineri, and Makeshift dancer and choreographer Gemma Dawkins, posed some particularly interesting challenges. Firstly, I had never written a work for dance before. How could I ensure that this was a true collaboration between equals, and not just dancing to music? Secondly, how would we respond to such an evocative, complex theme as ‘The Human Detained’? Last but not least, the three of us lived in different cities – Gemma was in Sydney, Alex in Brisbane (and travelling a lot), and I had just moved to Melbourne. How was this collaboration going to work, artistically and practically?

It was clear from the outset that approaching this as a (stereo-)typical composer – ie, writing the score on my own, sending it off, and expecting the performers to follow my instructions – would be woefully inappropriate. Nor would I want to approach it this way – it would defeat the entire idea of collaboration, and I had been growing weary of this model for some time anyway. For this project to work, I needed to carefully reconsider what my role was going to be.

The first step was to discuss how we would respond to the theme. Although ‘The Human Detained’ had obvious political significance, Alex and Gemma were eager to explore a more abstract interpretation of this. In particular, Gemma was interested in the ways we confine and limit ourselves. Our brainstorming sessions soon included much broader concepts, such as inner conflict, solitude, introversion, agoraphobia, rationalising the irrational, fighting one's own instincts, resignation and resistance.

With such attractive, albeit difficult subject matter, my job became mulling over the ideas we had as a group, and finding the sonic potential within them. For example, Gemma wanted to incorporate ‘walking on eggshells’ into her movements, either figuratively or literally (those who attended the preview will know how this turned out!). I responded by exploring piano sounds that were ‘crunchy’, like the sound of eggshells being stepped on. Low-range chromatic chords had a particularly crunchy quality, so we ended up using those as the opening materials, and as the harmonic basis of the piece. I also wanted to capture the sense of unease encapsulated by the expression ‘walking on eggshells’, so Alex and I experimented with unpredictable rhythms and continuously changing dynamic and expressive qualities. We would record some examples and send these to Gemma, who would improvise movements around the musical ideas. Gemma would then send us a video of her movements, which would inspire more musical materials. This feedback loop of ideas, responses and materials was a useful way of building a work gradually from a distance. By the time we arrived at the workshopping phase, and were finally in the same room together, we had a wealth of ideas and materials to build on.

The biggest challenge for me was deciding what to include in the score, and what to leave out. On one hand, fully notating a conventional score from the beginning would have run the risk of discouraging input from Alex and Gemma. I purposely wanted to leave some aspects of the music open to interpretation and discussion, particularly in the early stages, to allow room for group input and experimentation. On the other hand, too little detail and the work could become unfocused, and the creative process directionless. It was important to strike a balance between asking questions and offering answers, and ensuring everyone had the opportunity to speak and be heard. I had to surrender a significant amount of control over the work, which can be challenging for someone who’s used to having her way!

However, the reward for doing so was The Binds That Tie Us, a work that was truly more than the sum of its parts. Alex and Gemma had ideas and suggestions that I would never have thought of, and took my ‘dots on the page’ to places I would never have imagined. Embracing uncertainty allowed room for greater possibilities, and produced a work that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Now, we have the rare privilege of revisiting and expanding The Binds That Tie Us for a second concert in October. It is uncommon for new works by emerging artists to get a second run, but almost unheard of to be offered the chance to fully delve into an idea over such a generous time frame. I am hugely grateful to Kupka’s Piano and the Judith Wright Centre for facilitating this wonderful project, and for having me on board, as well as to my brilliant collaborators Alex Raineri and Gemma Dawkins, who are an absolute joy to work with, and who never cease to inspire me.