Around and between the sounds: an interview with composer Corrina Bonshek

On Sunday 10th July, Kupka pianist Alex Raineri will perform 'Nature Spirit' by Brisbane composer Corrina Bonshek. They sit down to talk about inspirations, birdsong and overseas adventures!   Corrina_Bonshek_Composer_with_Score_Photographer_Nick_Morrissey

Alex Raineri: Your music is strongly influenced by Eastern cultures and musical traditions. Could you tell us what draws you to this and how it manifests in your compositions?

Corinna Bonshek: I’m really drawn to different aesthetic approaches to time and space. For instance, the Japanese have the concept of ‘ma’ or the space around or between sounds (actually it applies to different art forms too). But with music, this concept can help create momentum despite a very slow tempo. Tension and release comes from playing around with the space between/around the sounds. Another example is South Indian Carnatic music where set rhythmic phrases (tala) help create an inner pulse that can be felt by the audience and performers even when the musicians are playing highly syncopated, offbeat rhythms/phrases. This means there is a subliminal rhythmic framework that’s perceptible even when the performers are going for it in almost free-jazz style!

These concepts really spark my creative thinking. A big passion for me is writing music is very spacious yet has a sense of directionality or dynamic energy or movement. For example, the opening of Nature Spirit using overlaid rhythmic phrases that are expansions of a 1 | 1.5 | 2 ratio. This creates a subliminal rhythmic framework that, even at a very slow tempo, has dramatic tension. I like experimenting with ideas like this. This is how I express in music experiences I’ve had while meditating.

AR: Nature Spirit was written specifically for a recent solo performance I gave at Gretel Farm (Bangalow, NSW). This was an outdoor show which was presented alongside a choir of varied Bangalow birdsong! Given that this was such an important feature of the works conception, how do sense the transition will be from this setting, to an indoor and slightly more formalised presentation? 

CB: Ah yes, it would be lovely if the wild birds of Bangalow felt like joining this Brisbane performance, but somehow I don’t think they’d enjoy swapping their tree perches for a stage indoors.

With Nature Spirit, I wanted to write a piece that could be performed indoors or out, with or without birds. I think it works well both ways. Of course, there is a transcribed brown goshawk call from Gretel Farm in the piano music, so that bird will actually still be with us just in a different form!

AR: It’s been really great working on this piece with you and it’s a joy to know that any pianistic advice I give you is immediately taken on board! How have you found it, writing for an instrument which you don’t play yourself, and did your conception of the piece change through the course of our workshops? 

CB: Thank you! I really enjoyed collaborating on this piece with you and I have learnt a lot about the piano, especially in regards to pedalling and sympathetic resonance.

A lot of my composing happens in the realm of the mind/imagination and I do have to continually remind myself that the sounds I’m imagining are going to be created by bodies (playing instruments), and the effort/work involved in producing a note will shape the resulting sound quality/timbre etc.

I remember when we were working on the middle 'water' section of Nature Spirit, it was really important for me to understand how easy or hard it was to play those figures and how much of a pause was needed to create a sense of effortless flow.

You were able to give really clear advice on this that helped me shape the phrases in this section and ultimately led to a restructuring of that section as a series of wave-like sequences.

What was fascinating to me was realising that some of my early sketches for that section were very guitaristic. I played classical guitar for 15 years. Of course, what is easy on the guitar, may not be so easy on the piano and vice versa.

Another moment that stood out for me was when you instinctively added a little extra dynamic drama with the very soft ‘pp’ in bar 64, likely from your experiences playing 19th century piano repertoire! This decision really helped bring out the overarching shape of the phrase.

My experiences collaborating with traditional musicians from Thailand and Chinese music traditions has taught me that wonderful things can happen when you invite performers into the creative process. I aim to be open to those moments, and the magical, unexpected things that can happen.

AR: You’ve got some really exciting composing adventures ahead, tell us about whats next for you!

CB: Next week, I’m off to Cambodia for 21 days to participate in Nirmita Composers Institute / Cambodia Living Arts 2016 Workshop and receive mentoring from Chinary Ung. My trip is being funded by a Power Up Your Arts Mentorship grant, a joint initiative of the Queensland Government and Gold Coast City Council.

I’m honoured to be the first visiting scholar for Nirmita Composers Institute. I’ll be collaborating on a new piece with Susan Ung (viola), Yim Chanthy (Cambodia wind instruments) and Ip Theary (Roneat Ek or Cambodian xylophone), and attending lectures and presentations from composers and performers from the Pacific Rim who have a strong interest in Asian aesthetics including Kate Stenberg (violinist formerly of Del Sol String Quartet), composer Koji Nakano (USA/Thailand), composer Sean Heim (USA), tenor Sethisak Khuon (Cambodia) and many more. The workshop participants include traditional musicians from Cambodia, Laos and Burma as well as young composers of western art music from Cambodia and Thailand. It is going to be fantastic to have composers and performers from western art music and Asian traditional music backgrounds spending time together to workshop music within and across traditions. I expect there will be many fascinating conversations, and lots of new and exciting music.

Then right after that I will visit the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh to do a workshop with a pinpeat ensemble (traditional Cambodian court music ensemble) and operatic tenor Sethisak Khuon. This will be the first time I have created music for mixed ensembles with different tuning systems and different traditions. I’m very excited about the sonic possibilities. I hope this experience will give me many new creative ideas for the future.

AR: Thanks Corrina, looking forward to playing your piece! 

Don't miss the concert! 4pm, Sunday 10th July at 'The Imperial Room' (Wynnum, QLD). To book tickets please email to reserve a seat and secure some of Helen's 'out of this world' afternoon tea. 

Program notes from Ben Mark's percussion solo

Below is the program note for Ben Mark's new percussion solo 'Passage 4 Artefact 1' from the Circular Ruins 2. It will be presented by Angus Wilson tomorrow night at Pierrot! 7.30pm at the Judy.  Passage 4 Artefact 1 could be considered an artefact in terms of both definitions of the word.

The first definition comes from the archeological context:

"An object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest".

Passage 4 Artefact 1 is essentially reassembled material from Passage 4, a percussion solo that was one of four overlaid solos in my outdoor work The Circular Ruins 2. This piece sourced its material from a slowed down recording of a noisy, resonating gate that was found in the performance location at Oxley Creek Common. Passage 4 had eight sections all drawing upon the same rhythmic and pitch template. The shifting colour of the various instruments used on each articulation of the template (hi-hat, glöcken, 3 cymbals, 3 drums, bass drum), and a change in tempo of each rereading of the template, was an attempt to retell the ‘story’ of the closing gate, as if these colourful retellings could somehow change fate and the deny the inevitable closure.

While Passage 4 had this loose narrative its expressive purpose was very much tied to its relationship with the distant layering of the other solos, that made up The Circular Ruins 2, and the various environmental sounds that surrounded it: birds, planes, trains, a leaf blower, a gate, and traffic. To present Passage 4 as it is, as a denuded artefact, would be to strip it of its expressive functionality. In considering it as a stand-alone solo in a recital context, I felt a need to break the piece and reassemble it to suit its new environment. New processes were applied in its reconstruction. The larger sections were reordered and, given its loss of environmental accompaniment, new internal layerings of materials were worked in. Windows were cut out of each layer to reveal other layers, creating occasional recurring refrains, often disguised by attack or instrumentation. Within these windows are different time scales, reflecting the tempos of the various parts of the original.

The second definition of artefact is a follows:

"Something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure."

All the Passages from The Circular Ruins 2 functioned very much like environmental artefacts. They were each composed after an investigation of the sonic space and, in performance emerged from this space as ephemeral bursts of expressive energy, much akin to various light distortions (artefacts) one might find in certain photographs. In this sense Passage 4 Artefact 1 is an artefact of an artefact: a re-assemblage of an environmental emanation. The closing gate is still fundamental in some way but it's direct sound is now absent. The gate can become either much more or much less in our imaginations: a long lost story whose importance is subject to conjecture. What is of importance is what continues to resonate within the piece. It is not just a closing gate that gave life to the original but my response to it, and the artefact carries something of that response. As the gate and outdoor context is lost, the musical intent is emphasized, exposed and refined through the new, broken structures whose relationship to the original becomes ever more coincidental.



A Symbolist Nervous Breakdown Cabaret with Tabatha McFadyen

TabathaMcFadyen Kupka's Piano welcomes guest soprano Tabatha McFadyen to the stage once again, this time for a scintillating performance of Arnold Schoenberg's modernist masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire at PIERROT! on June 10 at the Judith Wright Centre.

Jodie Rottle: Tabatha, I have run into you in Brisbane a few times over the past six months, but it was never for long; you were always jet-setting elsewhere for a musical adventure. Can you tell us what you have been up to regarding travel and performing?

Tabatha McFadyen: Jodie! Hello! I’ve been about, mostly singing and trying to become better at singing, which is a joy and a pleasure. I did a La Boheme in NZ at the start of the year, and then went to Tel Aviv to do a residency at The Israeli Opera, and have gotten to do some great recitals with my fellow musical terrorist, (KP pianist) Alex Raineri. Have to say, 2016’s been a great year; but it’s about to get exponentially better on June 10!

J: Where do you consider to be your "home base" for the moment? Do you have any upcoming performances in Australia other than PIERROT! with KP?

T: Look, I’m mostly homeless, but Sydney’s where my books are and Auckland’s where the cat is, so it’s a deadheat between those two. I actually have a performance with Alex here in Brisbane this coming Friday for the 4MBS Festival of Classics, in which we’re doing a pretty hefty bunch of Russian ditties. (Tatiana’s Letter Scene = ditty.) My next operatic role though is the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro in late June in Hawaii, because I’m allergic to staying in one country for longer than a minute.

J: How do you prepare for diverse singing roles? Is there a difference to preparing Pierrot Lunaire from a traditional operatic role?

T: In some ways the process is the same. Text first, then rhythm, then notes, and getting little thoughts about the character all the way through that rudimentary process and then putting it together. The main difference I suppose is that this rudimentary stage of learning for Pierrot takes longer because the music’s harder than most commonly presented operas, and therefore the entire process is littered with confusion and sporadic self-chastising that I didn’t pay more attention in Aural Skills at uni. However, the effort is worth it, because the deeper I go into this score the more I marvel at it, and the more I’m astounded by Schoenberg’s capacity for drama, which I think is something he took right the way through his oeuvre. (Something, incidentally, people forget about when they’re blithely blaming him for the annihilation of Western Classical Music; an egregiously erroneous claim, by the way, but we don’t have time to get into that here.) He captures every passing change in thought, and flits between irony and deep pathos with such a deft hand, and, with a penetrating psychological knowledge and a fearless compositional language, he renders our darkest human thoughts in sound. So, the process of preparation becomes thrilling because I get to explore that and figure out how I’m going to bring it to life. But I'm still furious that I continually missed Wednesday morning aural because of the legacy of Plough Tuesday.

J: Schoenberg's piece uses the Sprechstimme technique, which requires you to blend singing and speaking. How do you think this technique relays the drama of the music? Do you think it strengthens the poetry and themes more than traditional singing styles? Give us your take on how you assume character in Pierrot Lunaire.

T: The bizarre thing about Sprechstimme, I find, is that it ostensibly ought to be a more ‘realistic’ approach to text because it’s closer to speech than the highly stylised operatic sound that we mostly use for songs. However, something about it not fitting neatly into either category makes it discomforting (still, more than a century after its composition) and grotesque, which fits the poetic material perfectly. As a singer it gives you a huge spectrum of colour to work with, but Schoenberg is tremendously specific, and the character comes out of seeing how he’s set the text and how I can best play with that. Without giving too much away, my take on Pierrot is that the night is a kind of Symbolist Nervous Breakdown Cabaret (if that description doesn’t sell tickets I don’t know what will).

J: Can you write us a haiku or provide us with a picture as to why our readers should book a ticket to "PIERROT!"?

T: I have summarised the salient points of the story in that most wonderful of contemporary hieroglyphs, the emoji.

🌝 🍷 👀 🌚 💐 🌚 🙅 🏻 🌚 🛁 💄 🌚 👩 🏼 🌊 💉 💋 ⚰ 🚶 👵  😭  🌚  🤒  🤕  🦃  🌞 🚫 🎭 😄 😟 👑 💍 ⚰  💉 😱 ✝ 🕯 🙋 ❤️ ❌ 🌛 🔪 😀   ❌ ✝   💉 ⚰  😔 🇮🇹 🎭 💀 🔩 🚬 🏸  👵 🏻 🌛 👔 😱 😡 🏹  🎻 🌛 🚣 💨 💭 😄

Yes, the turkey and the badminton racquet are somewhat inapposite, but there is a severe lack of giant, soul-sucking, black butterflies in the emoji software. Knitting needles made of moonlight also glaringly absent.

Also, here is a Venn Diagram illuminating the nature of the work, in relation to other events in people's lives, which I assume look exactly the same as mine.

Tabatha's graph

J: Wow ... that's spot on!

Witness Tabatha and Kupka's Piano portray all of these things plus a world premiere by Ben Marks at PIERROT! ON JUNE 10, 7:30PM at the Judy. Tickets available now!

Interview with THE MOON

Kupka's Piano international correspondent and flutist Hannah Reardon-Smith interviews The Moon (a.k.a. Jodie Rottle), who will be extensively featured in our performance of Pierrot Lunaire at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts on June 10 at 7:30pm. vintagemoonwomanish11 Hannah: Hello, Moon.

The Moon: Hello, human.

Hannah: We are delighted to have you appearing in our upcoming presentation of "Pierrot Lunaire". Please tell us about your involvement in the show.

The Moon: I am the intoxicating light shining in the early hours of the night. Through the tone and timbres of the flute, I court the clown Pierrot through the darkness of night, illuminating all that is both good and evil, dream-like and nightmarish. I am the source of comfort to the fear of night, but I am the fear itself.

Hannah: That sounds quite serious. How do you manage such volatile roles in one musical piece?

The Moon: I concentrate on my inspirational qualities. My delicate moonbeams flicker on shining crystals in the night. I intoxicate Pierrot with my beauty and excite him with my presence, and then kindly I lead his wayward drunk self home at the end of his evening of shenanigans. You have to wonder: is it me, or is it actually that silly clown Pierrot that is the volatile one? I'm simply resting on the night sky, or "Heaven's blackened pillow", if you will, and Pierrot is the one galavanting throughout town and creating mischief.

Hannah: Pierrot seems to think you illuminate things that shouldn't be seen. What is your response?

The Moon: If Pierrot thinks I am a threat, then he shouldn't be drinking in my beauty and teasing Colombine in the wee hours of the night. I am lonesome up here in the night sky, so I must shine on the land below, otherwise I become sick with sorrow. I eventually fade into the day, so Pierrot will get over it. Pierrot is a lunatic, anyway. He is obsessed with me and we all know it.

Don't miss out on PIERROT! Book your tickets now.

A continuous line drawing: An interview with composer Samuel Smith

Kupka's Piano has been busy lately! Just one day after our concert at the Judith Wright Centre last week we launched into rehearsals for our next show, a performance at QSOCurrent for the second year running. KP flutist Jodie managed to catch up with Melbourne composer Samuel Smith for a chat about his sextet set to feature in this concert.

Jodie Rottle: Hello Sam! We are excited to be performing your work things are become new in Brisbane at QSOCurrent this Friday on the 29th of April, 8pm at the SLQ Auditorium 1. Can you elaborate on your inspiration for the piece? What can our listeners expect to hear, and how did you achieve your desired sound using the instruments of the traditional Pierrot sextet formation?

Samuel Smith: When I wrote things are become new in early 2014, I was trying to reinvigorate my music with a stronger sense of line. Prior to that I think had been dealing primarily with vertical arrangements of pitch – dense textures and static blocks of sound – as the principle method of developing form. I came to things are become new wanting to explore a stronger horizontal narrative and develop a more heterophonic and polyphonic aspect to my language.

To do this I split up the sextet into a series of duos – percussion and piano, flute and violin, bass clarinet and cello – and more or less cycled through these combinations, each taking it in turns to heterophonically decorate a single line. This nearly unbroken line runs throughout the entire piece as though it were a continuous line drawing. The narrative trajectory and larger registral contours are then altered by the orchestration alone.  

JR: Speaking of instrumentation, do you have a preferred ensemble size or formation to compose for? I have had the pleasure of hearing your works live for both orchestra and small chamber ensembles. What can be best achieved with large ensembles, and what are the benefits of working with smaller ensembles? 

SS: Both large and small have their joys and challenges. I’m currently working on a solo guitar piece and I am really enjoying the limitations of a single instrument after writing for orchestra. However, I miss the ‘laboratory’ aspect of an orchestra – all those harmonic devices, registral and timbral extremes and the scope of combinatorial colour is a joy to imagine.

My true preference though isn’t so much about size or formation as people. I will always be happier writing for a musician, or group of musicians, that I know personally, that I have heard play and, probably, that I have shared a few drinks with. Music is a very social experience for me and the more I have worked, talked, workshopped and spent time with the players, the more I will enjoy writing the piece. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the larger ensembles, but with my limited experience of orchestral writing, I’ve found it to be pretty lonely.

JR: You have mentioned to me that you are greatly influenced by the work of Gérard Grisey.  Can you tell us why, and do you consider yourself a composer of the spectral style? 

SS: In 2012, about the time I began composing, my brother and I spent six weeks canoeing down the Murray River. Starting in Albury in the flat, green pasture lands and ending 900 kilometres away, west of Swan Hill in the red dirt of the Mallee, I was struck by the analogue of landscape and musical form. Viewing the beginning and end of the trip in isolation, one would not equate the two at all. However, whilst travelling down the river the difference is intangible as it happens at an imperceptible rate.

This sense of organic, immanent development is something I have always tried to achieve when constructing my pieces, and when I first heard the work of Gérard Grisey I realised that his approach to musical time is a devastatingly good example of that. His attention to formal process is so complete, but the music always sounds spontaneous and poetic. His article ‘tempus ex machina’ on the poetics of musical time was a real eye opener for me.

I don’t consider myself a spectral composer. I think of myself instead as a composer whose horizons were expanded significantly by the spectral school, but I’ve probably got feet in several camps equally.

I’m currently thinking a lot about ways of reconciling my interest in cluster and set based harmonies with harmonic devices derived from the harmonic series, ring modulation and frequency modulation.

JR: Thinking back to my days in NYC and the apparent divide between the Uptown and Downtown music scenes, it seems as though we in the new music genre rely on classifying ourselves into different camps. Do you think there is a benefit to identifying with a sub-genre or style in new music? Or perhaps this doesn't exist in Australia? Do you recognise any stylistic differences within different regions of Australia? 

SS: I think there is a rule of diminishing returns for this type of classification. It can be immediately useful to ally yourself aesthetically with certain composers or artists and in some contexts it can be helpful I guess. But, at least in my experience, it seems to descend so quickly into scrappy partisanship that I find really uncomfortable and disheartening. This hasn’t been helped at all by recent changes to arts funding either. I’d like to think that composers of new musics, old musics, jazz, post rock etc. still have more in common than not and I’d love it if we could all just get along and be more appreciative of difference. I guess that’s a sunny optimism I’ve inherited from my Mum and her love of Kropotkin, but I hate to think of musicians and artists fighting among themselves while politicians continue to make such frightening choices.

I think Australia does have some really interesting and exciting regional differences. Broadly, I’ve noticed that a lot of music from Sydney seems to be working with open forms, with a large scope for improvisation. Perth seems to be producing a lot of musicians with an incredible and original grasp of technology. And Brisbane has you guys!

JR: Aww, thanks!!!!!

Finally, what music are you listening to at the moment? Are there any composers or musicians that you can recommend our Brisbane audiences to check out? 

SS: I’m afraid to say that since finishing Masters earlier this I have a bit of listening fatigue for new music. Instead I’ve really been enjoying listening to bands like the Dirty Three and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well as Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings who I was lucky enough to see a few times in Melbourne earlier this year.

If you’re after some Melbourne specific advice though, I’m always hoping to hear more music by Alexander Garsden or Luke Paulding.

JR: Thanks, Sam. We look forward to having you in attendance at the concert.

You can find more information about Kupka's Piano at QSOCurrent and buy your tickets by clicking here. And have a listen to Sam's music on his soundcloud.

The sleep of reason produces music...

Ahead of the premiere performance of his piece The Sleep of Reason at the Kupka's Piano concert on April 19, composer Jakob Bragg talks about what inspired the piece and what some of the sonic ideas therein. Make sure to book your ticket today!

Jakob Bragg: 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; 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_sleep of reason

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 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!

Living life with more laughter: Jodie Rottle in interview

When Kupka's Piano performs 'Harrison's Axe' on April 19 at the Judith Wright Centre, we will be giving the premiere performance of a new work by our flautist Jodie Rottle, entitled Wednesday Assembly. In this interview Liam asks Jodie about her piece and about what it means to be a performer-composer today. Have a read, and don't forget to book your tickets!

Liam Flenady: Let's start with the exciting stuff first. I hear there will be some bubble-wrap in your new piece. Tell us about that!

Jodie Rottle: I think I'll preface this answer by stating that humour is a common thread in my music, and that I try to incorporate ideas or elements that make me smile. This is true even if the inspiration for a piece isn't particularly funny, which happens to be the case for my new piece. The bubble wrap – which the flutist and percussionist will step on – serves as a type of comedic relief and also achieves a random shift in sound that I was after. Now that I think of it, most of my music includes some auxiliary element. Wednesday Assembly, my newest work, is only my third composition, but my previous two works have employed the use of wolf howls (The Howl, 2013) and electric toothbrushes (Everyday, 2015). I guess I'm not satisfied with Western classical instruments alone.

LF: You've told me that your new piece Wednesday Assembly is not really written in traditional notation, but moves between graphic symbols and written instructions. What is the creative purpose of this kind of approach?

JR: I think this follows on my last sentence, that I'm not satisfied with only classical instruments... or traditional notation. The written directions indicate certain instruments or sounds, but there is room for improvisation of the material within those parameters.

Perhaps my aesthetic as a composer is to grant performers artistic authority over a provided framework. I would never want to rigidly dictate a musical idea or tell someone what to do, rather I want to plant little seeds of ideas and provide a structure for others to enjoy through their own musical identity. I also love the idea that my music will sound different each time it is performed based on the personnel and choice of interpretation. Then, it takes on an entirely different idea.

jodie in woods_quality

LF: It's a mainstay of contemporary philosophy that the subject is split (between action and reflection, between self and other, and so on). You have the added joy of being split between performer-Jodie and composer-Jodie. How do you experience the relationship between these two halves of yourself? Is there competition, creative tension, a continuum?

JR: There is definitely no competition between the two roles, although I can confirm that I enjoy being a performer more than a composer. Having said that, thinking like a composer has exponentially assisted my abilities as a performer.

Composing has been my artistic liberation. I have a newly found confidence as a performer and as a person in general, and I attribute it to realising myself as a creator of music, not just an interpreter. Most of my life, I have second-guessed myself and favoured rational behaviour out of fear. Boring! I think performer-Jodie and composer-Jodie collectively took over rational-Jodie.

I think the premiere of my toothbrush piece (Everyday) solidified this confidence. I had never been more nervous than when I walked onstage with my electric toothbrush, about to "premiere" my new "piece", but it was a situation that propelled me over this hump of uncertainty as an artist. It was such a humbling experience to look around and think, "holy crap, people paid money to sit in this audience and I'm currently climbing onstage with my toothbrush". It turned out to be a hit, and I still have friends who send me videos of themselves (and their toddlers!) brushing their teeth, making music and living life with more laughter.

LF: Of course prior to the late 19th Century the idea that a composer was not also a performer was largely unheard of. Now that we've had a century or more of a fairly distinct 'division of labour' between composers and performers (at least in Western Art Music), it appears that perhaps this arrangement might be breaking down. The fact that the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music this year are running a specific 'Composer-Performer' next year gives some indication of this. Why do you think more performers are trying their hand at composition, and vice versa, composers deciding they want to perform?

JR: I have a lot of feelings on this issue!

I definitely don't think everyone should feel pressured to become a composer-performer, and that it is perfectly fine to see yourself in one role or the other. What is currently being labeled a "composer-performer" is really just another form of being an artist, is it not? As you have pointed out, it is nothing new. What about improvisers, are they composers, too? Does a composition need to be written down in order for it to exist? Why does everything need a niche label?

I will say that I have always thought of myself as a performer. I actually can't imagine a performance of my work where I am not also a performer. I feel such a close connection to the music I write, and when I'm in the process of writing I'm constantly thinking how I will perform it. Perhaps it is a connection similar to the music of a singer-songwriter? That's what contemporary classical composer-performers are, right, singer-songwriters of new Western classical music? I also realise that not many people are knocking at my door for a commission (haha!), so I have to be responsible for the performance of my work.

Your question has made me realise that I have always conceptualised composers as people who are initially introduced to music as performers (or at least learners of an instrument) who take a brave step into writing music. Until recently, I never thought if myself as a composer, nor have I wanted to be one. I'll reiterate that perceiving myself as a composer has been liberating in that it has instilled confidence in my attitude as a performer.

I identify my drive to become a "composer", or "composer-performer", as just an evolution in my life as an artist, particularly as a female artist. I'm sick of men telling me what to do, what to play, how to play it, etc. (no offence to you or any other dude composers reading this). Taking the initiative to be a creator of music is a way that I can avoid the bleakness of patriarchy and be my own artist in new music. I think this sentiment comes across in my writing; I said before that my objective in composition isn't to tell people what to do, rather it is to provide a framework for others to interpret as they wish.

LF: One quick final question. Where does the title Wednesday Assembly come from? Is it a reference to some traumatic childhood event, perhaps?

JR: Quite the opposite. My work Wednesday Assembly is in memory of my grandfather, but the title was inspired by my youngest step-daughter, Ava. She is very inquisitive, and one day she asked me what people in heaven do on Wednesdays. I had just recently lost my Grandfather – ironically on a Wednesday, although Ava did not know this – and I couldn't come up with an answer, partly out of sorrow but mostly out of wonder. Two seconds later, she told me that on Wednesdays she has school assembly and asked me if people in heaven have assembly on Wednesdays, too. It was a very beautiful moment.

LF: Thanks Jodie. Can't wait to hear it at the gig!

Parallel Approaches: an interview with Lizzy Welsh


Jodie Rottle had a quick chat to guest violinist Lizzy Welsh before rehearsals for Vortex Temporum next week. Buy tickets for the concert at this link. Friday, November 27th, 8pm at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts.

Jodie Rottle: Thank you for joining us for this concert, Lizzy! This year I have had the pleasure of bumping in to you around the country in Brisbane, Bendigo and Sydney. Can you tell our readers about your life as an Australian performer? Where are you based, and what have been your highlights in 2015?

Lizzy Welsh: Thanks for having me, Jodie! It's been swell getting to know you this year and I'm thrilled to join you and Kupka's Piano next week. I'm currently based between Melbourne and Brisbane and 2015 has been a very full year so far packed with lots of different musics in Australia, Europe and Asia. I've been very lucky to have had so many incredible performances this year, it's tricky to pick out the highlights. I have to mention the many fantastic festivals including the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Shanghai New Music Week, Wangaratta Jazz Festival, Supersense Festival of the Ecstatic- these have all been highlights not just because of the great music I got to play, but also the great music I got to see performed by my excellent colleagues. The world premiere performance of Nyilipidgi with the Monash Art Ensemble at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival was another very special project that deserves a mention.

JR: You are a specialist of baroque and contemporary music. What similarities and differences do you identify with these two genres? 

LW: This fascination with the opposite ends of the spectrum of violin music has had me hooked since I was a child and has led me to my post-graduate research at the Queensland Conservatorium where I'm currently studying extended approaches to the baroque violin in the 21st Century. It seems natural to me that a violinist would be obsessed with sounds that are new for the instrument now and sounds that were new when the violin itself was new at the dawn of the baroque era. I can't help seeing many parallel approaches between composers/improvisors now and the first composer/violinists of the early 17th Century, both driven by a desire for something new and neither hindered by preconceived ideas of how the instrument should sound. There are obvious differences in available technologies and experiences between violinists at these two different moments in history, but, in my mind, the similarities are much more significant.

JR: We will be performing Gerard Grisey's seminal "Vortex Temporum I, II, II" next Friday, which has a total performance time exceeding 40 minutes. How do you prepare for a work of this magnitude, and do you notice any similarities between "Vortex Temporum" and other compositions by Grisey, such as his work "Talea"? 

LW: Vortex Temporum is one of the most significant pieces of chamber music from the late 20th Century and I'm stoked to have the chance to play it with Kupka's Piano next week. Obviously a 40-minute-long spectral masterpiece involves a huge amount of preparation and study before rehearsals even start, so I've been in a Vortex Temporum-vortex for the last couple of months. Apart from all the practice getting the notes into my brain and my body, I'm making sure I exercise lots. I've been lucky to have a lot of extremely valuable experience with Grisey's language having the opportunity to perform his shorter Talea twice this year.

JR: Have you heard any great new music lately that you can recommend to our Brisbane audiences? What are you listening to at the moment?

LW: At the moment I'm listening to lots of crazy early music by Pandolfi Mealli, Farina and Muffat, electronica by Laurel Halo, John Zorn string quartets, new Icelandic composers recorded by Nordic Affect on their new album Clockworking, the list could go on for days.....


Holding Ourselves Hostage: an interview with Gemma Dawkins

unnamed (4) Kupka Pianist Alex Raineri had a brief chat with Gemma Dawkins amongst preparations for our collaboration on the 'Human Detained' showing at the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art next Friday October 30th.

Alex Raineri: It's been awesome working with you so far and I can't wait for the show on October 30th! I'm interested to know more about your artistic background and what else you're up to currently?

Gemma Dawkins: I'm really looking forward to it as well! I work mainly with MakeShift Dance Collective, devising works for festivals, events and other non-traditional spaces. It's been a little while since we created a work for a traditional theatre space so I'm really enjoying getting back into that framework. Now that I live in Sydney I've been working independently as a choreographer and movement advisor. My latest project is a photography series that I'm helping to 'choreograph' - which is very interesting for someone who works with moving images rather than still ones!

AR: 'The Human Detained’, in its various guises, is a strikingly vast thematic concept which aims to link together the various segments of the show together. Within the full group of artists involved, we've each had markedly different reactions to the thematic impetus, ranging from literal representations of current political issues, to it having a much more abstract influence on the narrative of the works. In a couple of sentences, could you explain how the approach our group has taken towards this theme will manifest on October 30th?

GD: Luckily we were all quite clear that we weren't interested so much in a literal or political approach, but rather more intrigued by broader concepts around detainment and stagnation. We are examining the ways in which we hold ourselves hostage - whether consciously or otherwise. We are also having a fun time with props...

AR: What does being a dancer in the 21st Century mean for you? From a musicians perspective, it seems that the world of dance is similar to music in that the influence and popularity of competitions seem to promote attention being placed onto the fastest, most athletic and virtuosic performance, without much considered intellectual engagement with the artistic value of the content. GD: Absolutely. The more our understanding of the human body develops in terms of anatomical intelligence, the more we are seeing focus on an almost Olympic style of dance. There's definitely a loss of expression, subtlety and finesse there, as amazing as some of the physical feats are. Having said that, there are also a number of choreographers and companies taking dance outside of its previous habitats and putting dance in all kinds of contexts that are thrilling and complex. One thing I love about dance in the 21st century is the collaborative element and the way that lines between dance, visual art, theatre, installation and experiment are constantly being blurred.

AR: Taking a step away from this show, what are some of the most powerful performances or shows that you've ever seen?

GD: Last year I saw Hofesh Shechter's company perform Sun and it was one of the most visceral, heart-in-your-mouth things I've ever seen. I always love to see Akram Khan, and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's work Rosas Danst Rosas was totally challenging and at the same time totally absorbing. Closer to home, watching Dancenorth perform Underground was a seismic moment for me as a dance student trying to understand what Australian dance meant, and where it fit. That just perfectly summarised it for me. But ask me again in a few months - I'm going to see Pina Bausch company at Adelaide Festival and I'm counting down the months!

AR: What are your top five favourite things? Desert island list?

GD: This is an impossible question! Can I take the whole of Spotify and its library with me? I am. I'm also taking a book library. I'll require an endless supply of avocado toast, coconut oil because it fixes everything, and a pen and paper.

Politics, Detention and Dance - Michael Mathieson-Sandars discusses 'For Reza Berati'

Jodie, Courtney, and Alethea Below is a little piece about a new collaborative work I've been part of as part of The Human Detained, a project by Kupka's Piano and MakeShift Dance Collective, which will be given its full showing at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane at 7:30pm on October 30th. You can get tickets here.

Reading back into my emails, it seems like it was some time mid last year that, in discussions between KP and MakeShift, we settled on The Human Detained as a theme which could unite our collaborative project. We felt it was open and deep enough for our collaborative sub-groups to determine their own interpretative paths. It was bubbling with possibilities; both abstract enough to approach musically and visceral enough to explore in movement. Part of the reason we settled on The Human Detained above other themes, however, was that we felt it would be particularly pertinent and socially resonant given Australia's policy to imprison asylum seekers in offshore detention camps. While the other groups have taken this theme in a number of exciting directions to create a fascinating array of unique works, I was always enthusiastic to explore the The Human Detained as an explicitly political topic.

In the past twelve to eighteen months, it has been greatly saddening that the situation for refugees has only intensified, with further abuses coming to light at home and anti-refugee rhetoric escalating abroad. In the face of this, however, it has been greatly encouraging to see that the spirit of protest is alive and well, and even more so when considering that the tone of protest has been an uncompromising demand for compassion. It is in this spirit that my group's new work for The Human Detained, For Reza Berati, was first conceived.

Reza Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker, was twenty-three years old when he was killed during an attack on the Australian-operated detention centre on Manus Island in February last year. But how has this translated to music and choreography? Such a tragic death - the result of such arbitrary cruelty designed to divide us as much at home as it is to separate 'us' from 'them' - could certainly lead to a negative artworld. Modern art can often be permitted only to say what is lost or what is alienated; a kind of anguish that what we once had is gone, and we can never have it back. With this work, and in deference to this topic, however, it seemed appropriate to aim for something a little different. Since his death, Berati's image has become a symbol in protest movements around the country: in this context his death has become a demand for all to be treated with dignity and justice, with an absolute respect for life. This is the approach we have tried to take with the piece; we wanted to explore the oppression, alienation, and violence in this situation, but to also demonstrate that there is, in resistance to the situation, long-reaching solidarity and a vision for real and positive change.

Reza Berati

The basic structure of the work reflects the process of coming together. For the two musicians, violinist Alethea Coombe and flautist Jodie Rottle, this happens in a couple of ways. Firstly, there is their physical orientation: the performers begin facing away from one another, but across the work they come to face one another in order to play “together.” Secondly, there is a progression in what is musically asked of the performers. There are three broad sections in the work: in the first Alethea and Jodie are improvising with very limited specific musical direction; the second they perform notated excerpts and are asked to improvise from one to the next so that each player maintains a loose relation with the other; the third section is fully notated and detailed in what they must perform. The aim is to represent a change from alienated individuals, playing at the same time but not together, to two individuals who must work together as chamber musicians, in communication with one another to organise towards a common goal; a coming together to play music as a coming together to protest.

The notated music, meanwhile, can be seen as a “working through” of the tension between the lines towards an arrival point. Each line of musical material is based, very abstractly, on repetitions of the chant “No prisons! No Fear! Refugees are welcome here!” in varied tempos and interpretations. Spoken (whispered and yelled) excerpts of the text are also drawn into the music, transforming from an isolated “prison!” or “no!” to the whole chant. Apart from the symbolism of this linguistic inversion, the chant is included along with marching stomps to capture some of the essence of a refugee rally; a certain kind of sadness turned into positively-charged anger and loud defiance. It can also be seen as the process of being drawn from a situation of turmoil into action to make a change.

The role of our wonderful dancer/choreographer, Courtney Scheu, is perhaps a little more complicated, especially in her relationship with the musicians. At times, Courtney represents the oppressed, and the musicians the oppressors; at the other times her actions are more abstract and allusive, or more reinforcing the music. We were particularly careful to explore possible readings of Courtney's and the musicians' movement. Because of the explicit political content in the work, we wanted to avoid creating a reading where Courtney would be seen as an asylum seeker, with Jodie and Alethea as both the oppressors and the (western, imperial) saviours – a misleading idea given how active asylum seekers have been in organising resistance to their incarceration. We have aimed instead for the choreography of the work (especially Courtney's movements, but those of Alethea and Jodie, too) to depict the oppressive framework that's been established, offer solidarity to those who are detained, reinforce the overall narrative of isolation to collective engagement, and provide a direct human connection to the work itself. While that seems like a very difficult line to tread, I  hope we have been successful in this!

For me personally, it has been a great pleasure to work towards this piece with Alethea, Jodie, and Courtney (who's also put in a great deal of work on co-ordinating the rest of the show!), and quite an eye-opening experience for me as a composer. It has been at times difficult to engage with such a heavy topic, but I am extremely proud of what we have managed to accomplish. I look forward to coming up to Brisbane to finish the work off and (lucky me as a composer) getting to see the whole show. Hope to see you there!

Freedom and Restriction - An interview with Caitlin Mackenzie

Caitlin MacKenzie Caitlin Mackenzie is one of four dancers in 'The Human Detained'  at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art on October 30th. She is one of the leaders of MakeShift Dance and I caught up with her to get her thoughts on the project so far and find out what else she is up to!

Angus Wilson: Hi Caitlin! It's been great working with you and I'm really looking forward to our show in October. We are performing together in Steve Newcomb's 'Kicking Gaols'. Firstly, Let's find out a little more about you! What are your current projects? What are you working on at the moment?

Caitlin Mackenzie: At the moment I am having a ball working for Brisbane Festival as a movement director for the Arcadia space down at South Bank. I'm working with groups of volunteers who activate different areas of the space through movement and street performance. It is really fun! I am also about to go into a short but incredible residency at Metro Arts as part of After the Lights, which culminate in a short showing by Gabriel (who is also dancing in 'The Human Detained') and myself. A bunch of forums and activities will also be taking place throughout the day to shed some light on artists and mental health.

AW: I went to a MakeShift Dance Production earlier this year called 'one two ten' was inspired by a concept introduced to you whilst working in Korea. I had a really great night.... could you tell us a little bit about that project and concept?

CM: Yep! Well it was actually an idea that was gifted to us from the Five Arts Centre in KL, Malaysia. Gabriel and I traveled there in 2013 for a residency through Asialink. making great connections with a group of  producers and artists. They said we should take the structure of the show home to Aus to test on different audiences. So we curated a bunch of hugely talented local artists across music, dance, theatre and visual arts and asked them to devise a two minute solo which they would also need to perform on loop throughout the show. We held the show in the heritage listed building on Shafton Avenue thanks to support from the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts. We had such a fabulous response to the work from both artists and audiences and I hope it can exist again somewhere down the track.

AW: So now to The Human Detained,  how is it being both the dancer and choreographer for Kicking Gaols? What has been your experience working with Steve and myself on the piece? 

CM: It has been awful! No only joking :P It has been great. Choreographing and performing is always challenging because you need to be the outside eyes whilst being the 'body' or performer at the same time. That's why being able to talk with and share ideas across art forms is a really important part of this collab. It seemed very clear from the start of our process that we all have different strengths and I think we are pulling them together really well.

AW: How much do you find such a strong title as 'The Human Detained'  effects your artistic choices for the work?

CM: I think, while it is strong, it is also broad. My take on the title is really about looking at freedom and restriction. I suppose it has become evident through the different works, that those ideas can be approached quite realistically and on a global scale but also abstractly and on a personal level.

AW: Finally, you are a local to Brisbane, what are your five favorite places to hang on a day off?

CM: I am. I would say... 1. Picnicking at Kangaroo Point. 2. New Farm markets on a Saturday morning. 3. Do some yoga at Core Yoga and then grab a coffee at West End Coffee House right below. 4. Antique and vintage shopping at the Woolloongabba or Paddington Antique centres. 5. Hanging out in my backyard ;)

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.