Three Questions: MIGRATIONS

Kupka’s is gearing up for our end-of-year performance – MIGRATIONS on Saturday December 15, 7pm, at the Seven Hills Theatre – and we recently threw three questions out to each of our featured composers and guest performers for this peripatetic concert: Jasmin Leung, Sarah Thompson, Matthew Horsley, and Alex Taylor. These were first published on our Facebook page, and here they are all in one place, complete with Liam Flenady’s 🔥 emoji use! Don’t forget, tickets are now available for purchase through Eventbrite (and yes, you can also buy them at the door).

Three questions for Jasmin Leung 🤔🤔🤔

We're thrilled to be performing a new work for mixed sextet by the amazing Queensland-based composer and erhu performer Jasmin Leung at MIGRATIONS in a couple of weeks. We asked her a few questions!

Australian composer and erhu player Jasmin Leung. Photo by  Caleb Colledge .

Australian composer and erhu player Jasmin Leung. Photo by Caleb Colledge.

Question 1. You seem to think a lot about the social dimension of your music making, reimagining the relation of composer, performer, improviser, etc. What is the impact of this on your musical practice?

🎶Jasmin: 'Composer', 'Performer' and 'Improviser' can be useful labels, but my practice is really simple: just try to make a music that feels right, within the means that are available to me.

Question 2. Your new work for us features an extremely unique instrumentation of erhu, uilleann pipes, prepared guitar, two flutes, and violin. How in the heck are you handling this weird combination?

Photo by Wing-Hong Leung.

Photo by Wing-Hong Leung.

🎶Jasmin: The way I have navigated it is to treat them as compound sound sources – a few woodwinds, a few strings. At first it may seem very unusual, but actually the instrumentation is quite balanced, the flutes and erhu/violin combination act as slightly warped mirrors, the prepared guitar is reimagined as percussion and the pipes frame and fill. The guitar preparations also share qualities with extended approaches to violin/erhu.

I’m sure the baggage within the physicality of the erhu and uilleann pipes could suggest all kinds of extra-musical information. Another dimension is the very direct, evocative nasal qualities that they both have – these sounds are instantly recognisable and bring all sorts of connotations I cannot control, so I can either accept or subvert this. There are many alignments between these instruments, so it’s become more an exercise in restraint and finding the parameters to work inside.

Question 3. You’ve spent some time studying and living in Central/Eastern Europe and China – how have these experiences shaped your musical thinking?

🎶Jasmin: The influence is (I hope) not so obvious – I’m uninterested in tokenism in music, but time abroad definitely makes you re-examine your own habits from a different perspective. Perhaps being outside of Western concepts of individualism (but still recognising how I am very much rooted and educated within this ideology) has helped me question how this manifests musically. It is also interesting being a descendant from both European and Chinese cultural/musical legacies, but not fully belonging to either, instead working as ‘Third Culture Kid’. There is still a lot for me to learn and understand within this.

Next in the hot seat for three questions: Sydney composer Sarah Elise Thompson! 🔥🛋🔥🤔🤔🤔

We're pumped to be premiering her flute and electric guitar duo Tiny Little Specks at MIGRATIONS. Check out what she has to say about it!

Sydney-based Australian composer Sarah Thompson.

Sydney-based Australian composer Sarah Thompson.

Question 1. You recently said that your piece Tiny Little Specks that Hannah and Liam will be performing emerged from an improvisation you did with a collaborator. Is improvisation an important part of your compositional approach?

🎶 Sarah: Improvisation is often a really great starting point for me when beginning a new piece. Composing can be quite solitary at times, so I gain so much from working with other musicians, and bouncing off different ideas. I find it a great tool to realise my ideas, and continue on the creative flow. It’s like going back to a giant 500 piece puzzle every day, and working out where the next piece is going to fit. I take excessive amounts of voice memos, and like setting myself parameters to try and get a certain texture or sound with maximal results. When I started Tiny Little Specks in particular, I grabbed my guitar and hit a practice room with my friend and set a brief for us to “make the quietest sounds we can possibly make”, and recorded it not knowing what to expect. That’s what made the piece interesting and engaging for me to work on. I wanted to keep the chance element for the final score, so the piece is structured into small sections, interspersed with moments of improvisation. I also was inspired by Hannah and Liam’s previous improvisations they’ve done together, and I wanted to showcase their impressive intuition whilst playing.

Question 2. Your ensemble SPIRAL recently performed Philip Glass’s Glassworks in Sydney. What do you feel minimalism’s aesthetic impact on you has been, if any?

🎶 Sarah: Minimalism was the entrance into new music for me, as I grew up songwriting and playing in indie rock bands in Sydney. I’ve always had a soft spot for pop music, and when I heard Philip Glass for the first time, it felt familiar to me and left me feeling inspired to give composing new music a go. I think Glass, Reich, Adams, and Riley are all subconscious influences on my writing, and I try to channel their approaches to rhythm, the infectious energy, and strong orchestration. Also the influence of Bang On A Can is important in shaping my aesthetic. I remember the first time I heard the recording John Luther Adams In A Treeless Place, Only Snow, I was totally mesmerised and thought of what my take would be. It’s really wonderful to play too as a pianist, and from playing minimal repertoire in SPIRAL it gives me new food for thought for new pieces.

Question 3. You just graduated from Sydney Con (congrats btw!) – what’s next?

🎶 Sarah: I’m heading off to Madeira, Portugal for a 2 week intensive residency! I’ll be writing a new piece for flute and pre-recorded electronics for Keiko Murakami, as well as collaborating with artists from all over the world on new musical experiments. After that, I’ll be working closely with the clarinettist Luke Carbon on a new bass clarinet solo, writing a new piece for Ensemble Offspring, as well planning other sweet collaborations in the works. I’m balancing that with planning two exciting concert series with SPIRAL and lost + sound, going on long extended coastal walks, swimming laps, catching up with my family, and taking much needed rest after a busy year of thesis writing. Stay tuned!

Introducing Matthew Horsley, multi-instrumentalist and uilleann pipes extraordinaire 🥁🎷🎸 (tbh no idea if he plays those instruments, but there's a good chance, and there's no bagpipe emoji, which is criminal, really 😤). He'll be giving Liam's 50 minute A Book of Migrations for solo pipes and electronics its first Brisbane airing at MIGRATIONS and joining us in Jasmin Leung's new work. We asked him a couple questions!

Melbourne-based uilleann piper Matthew Horsley. Photo by  Lucy Spartalis .

Melbourne-based uilleann piper Matthew Horsley. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

Question 1. You trained first as a percussionist, and now you’re an uilleann piper… How the heck did this happen?

🎶 Matthew: Ummmm, a series of very poor decisions? My parents listened to a bit of (mostly very cheesy) Irish music when I was growing up. And then halfway through my percussion degree, I started obsessively listening to those albums and tootling away on a tin whistle that was lying around in a cupboard. I don’t quite know why that happened but it was a slippery slope from there!

Question 2. How do you see the relationship between traditional Irish music and contemporary experimental music?

🎶 Matthew: I think experimentation is always contextual - it happens when you subvert or outright reject a syntax or aesthetic framework which was presumed normative. Basically, you need to know the rules to break them or know when someone else is breaking them.

A lot of people find Irish traditional music repetitive and formulaic because they don’t hear what’s going on below the surface. They haven’t put in the hours and hours of listening to appreciate the minute nuances of tonality, rhythm and timbre that the music thrives on. But once you know what to listen for, you can find all manner of idiosyncrasy, risk taking and devilry lurking there. So I think there’s already a hugely experimental streak within that tradition that’s there to be tapped into.

Question 3. Performing 50 minutes of non-stop complex pipe music and spoken text (in both medieval Irish Gaelic and English!) sounds like a bit of an inhuman feat. How do you prepare for that? Do you have to do high altitude training?

🎶 Matthew: Yeah, it’s a fair ask for both body and brain! I’m definitely glad that my set of pipes is set up to take less air (and therefore less muscle strength) than most. And my partner’s a trainee Pilates instructor so I’m in good hands if I hurt myself!

Even more than for me, I feel it’s a marathon for the reeds which are delicate and notoriously finicky. And once it starts there’s no opportunity to fiddle with them if something goes awry. So I spend a good bit of time trying to pre-emptively troubleshoot the most likely issues, making sure that things are as stable and predictable as possible. That involves lots of blu-tack, cotton thread, coffee and expletives.

Fittingly for a concert called MIGRATIONS, we've also cast some questions across the sea 🌊🌊🌊 for Aotearoa/New Zealand composer and performer Alex Taylor. The Flutes of KP (aka Hannah and Jodie) will be playing his duo Resistance Study in the December 15 concert.

New Zealand composer and performer Alex Taylor.

New Zealand composer and performer Alex Taylor.

Question 1. Where is the resistance in Resistance Study?

🎶 Alex: It’s about resistance to orthodoxy. It’s an angry piece in a way; I was thinking about what’s happening to our Universities in New Zealand, and there’s a prevailing managerial orthodoxy that music and the arts must pull their weight, become more streamlined, fit the business model imposed from above. The piece was written for Abigail Sperling and her flute mentor Professor Uwe Grodd, who was recently restructured out of the School of Music, after thirty years of service as a hugely respected and popular flute pedagogue. One way of listening to the piece is that there is a prevailing orthodoxy, this homogeneous linear stream, basically horn fifths, which is progressively disrupted and infiltrated by a more interesting rhythmic and pitch language, an attempt to ‘resist’.

Question 2. You recently had your flute concerto premiered by Abigail Sperling and the Auckland Chamber Orchestra. Has the flute become a particular object of fascination for you?

🎶 Alex: I suppose it has recently, yes! One of the things I particularly like about the flute is its flexibility, both timbrally – to blend with just about anything – and melodically – that pitch can be very fluid. So the concerto is a very fluid piece, constantly shifting through different phases and orientations, splashing colour around, playing with microtones. It’s fairly demanding to play, even if you put the microtones to one side, and Abi has been such a generous and accommodating soloist.

Question 3. Two of our members (Hannah and Liam) hung out with you at BIFEM (the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music) this year, and Hannah also caught up with you at the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt (Germany) last July. What do you think are some of the major similarities and/or differences in the art music cultures of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, and how they are situated in relation to the rest of the world?

🎶 Alex: I think this is a PhD topic to be honest, but I’ll have a crack.

I think art music globally is still orientated towards Europe; despite the what everyone says about the internet, we’re still both (NZ and Oz) quite removed from Europe, physically and culturally, and so when you go to somewhere like Darmstadt, there’s not much of a sense of what a New Zealand or Australian musical tradition or landscape comprises. I was disappointed (but not surprised) when a very senior and respected German musicologist gave an absolutely appalling, contemptuous ‘analysis’ lecture on a New Zealand composer who had been the first woman to win the Kranichstein (the lecture was bookended by two terrific performances of a substantial chamber work of hers, featuring Hannah on flute!). This musicologist asserted that nobody in Germany knew about her and therefore she was unknown (even though she had studied for several years with Stockhausen and Kagel); that she could have had a career if only she had stayed in Europe; misspelled her name in the programme; cast aspersions on her recollections; the closest he came to analysing her music was saying it was very precisely notated. From my perspective, her music is radical and idiosyncratic, and arguably couldn’t have been written by a German composer at that time. This musicologist would never have thought to place her not only in a European tradition, but also in a New Zealand one.

None of this really answers your question, but I think in contrast to the orthodox European view that New Zealand and Australia are colonial cultural backwaters, we see each other as more significant than that. In a place like Darmstadt, kiwis and ozzies gravitate towards one another, and back home we’re starting to see more cross-fertilisation: the New Zealand contingents at Bendigo or at ANAM, or the programming of Australian composers by NZTrio. And I think this is worth nurturing.

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