Posts tagged Australia
Mixed feelings: returning home

Hannah, far left, working with Belgian group Ensemble Fractales and English composer Olly Sellwood ahead of a concert in Brussels. Flutist and co-founder of Kupka's Piano, Hannah Reardon-Smith, has been living in Brussels for the past year while undertaking an Advanced Masters in Contemporary Music Performance Practice. She returns to Australia just for the month of July this year, and will join KP in their Wynnum concert at the Imperial Room.

I've got mixed feelings about coming back to Australia.

That said, I've had mixed feelings about living and studying in Belgium too. I've had (and in the next year will have) some incredible opportunities, learning with and playing alongside some of my heroes, making contact with many of the composers whose work I'm most interested in, and realising how small (if widely spread) the global community of musicians playing la musique contemporaine really is. I've been mentored by members of Ictus and Ensemble musikFabrik, two of Europe's leading new music ensembles, and have performed extensively in Belgium, England, Germany and Austria. I've met peers from all over the world who are studying and performing here. But being over here has made clear to me just how incredible a group Kupka's Piano really is, and I miss them like crazy!

So coming home to KP is something I am really looking forward to, not to mention catching up with friends and family and enjoying a bit of Brisbane winter (not all that different to the Belgian summer I'm leaving ... only Brisbane will probably have a bit more sun).

But I can't help but feel how bittersweet it is. The current Australian government is taking a swipe at independent and emerging artists and small to medium arts organisations by quarantining funding previously available to them through a rigorous system of grant application and peer review, putting it instead into a fund that will in all likelihood support only conservative classical institutions handpicked by the arts minister George Brandis himself.

Kupka's Piano is one of a select group of Australian ensembles dedicated to playing newer art music, which by definition makes it one of the few ensembles in the country with a strong focus on Australian composition (Australian works are included in every program). Not only that, but KP plays a vital role bringing the new music of Europe, the Americas, and Asia to Australian shores, offering audiences in Brisbane the opportunity to hear music to which they otherwise have no access. Kupka's has a special focus on young composers at home and abroad, and it's rare to see a program without a world premiere (or two, or three...). Several young composers are directly tied to the ensemble, allowing the performers and composers to develop in tandem - a fascinating process for an audience to witness!

Furthermore, I believe KP to be quite unique in an international context. Due to limitations on touring (in comparison to Australia, European cities are really close together, and also very well connected by affordable and high-speed rail travel), Kupka's plays a great many concerts in their home city, which has also forced them to learn great swathes of repertoire from the beginning. The identity of the ensemble has developed without restriction to a single style, something that has been possible due the small number of ensembles playing similar repertoire, which is unlike Europe where young ensembles often feel the need to carve out a niche before they really know what they want to do, in order to set themselves apart and avoid treading on others' toes.

The result is that Kupka's Piano has developed an excellent rapport, a very high standard of performance, and a loyal following*, something I've watched with increasing admiration from afar (it's always so gratifying to see others step into your empty shoes, and at this point I have to offer the highest praise especially to flutist Jodie Rottle, pianist Alex Raineri, and percussionist Angus Wilson for all their incredible hard work). Such a following is rare in Europe, and difficult to cultivate.

There are two particular sources of outside support which need to be mentioned when discussing KP's success: the Judith Wright Centre, which has given the ensemble a home and extensive marketing support, and the Australia Council for the Arts, which recognised very early on the potential of this ensemble, and supported us through a series of small grant programs from emerging artists through to young professionals. Without both of these government funded institutions, Kupka's Piano would likely not exist, and certainly would not be as strong as it is today.

The ramifications of the changes to arts funding in Australia not only endanger ensembles like Kupka's, they rule out the opportunity for younger groups of similarly adventurous musicians to emerge. The JUMP mentorship program and the ArtStart program, two important grants for emerging artists from which our ensemble members have benefitted, have been completely scrapped. The funding available in future to KP and other groups will be greatly reduced. Particularly in Queensland, where arts funding is yet to recover from the previous LNP government's brutal attacks, there are few alternatives to turn to when it comes to paying the basic expenses that make a concert possible.

I'm really looking forward to coming home to play with Kupka's Piano. But I also hope that when I finish my degree this time next year I can return to continuing opportunity for my ensemble in Australia. And I hope that other young musicians can afford to be adventurous in the future.

*I'm not the only one saying this!

Kicking Goals: An interview with Stephen Newcomb

unnamedSteve Newcomb is one of four Brisbane composers to be featured in Kupka's Pianos first Brisbane performance for 2015, he is also married to our wonder flutist, Jodie Rottle. Steve took some time out of his busy schedule to let us know a little bit more about himself and his upcoming collaboration with Angus Wilson and Caitlin Mackenzie from MakeShift Dance. See Steve's new work this Friday 10th of April, 7:30pm at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. Angus Wilson: Firstly, You have one of the most interesting and diverse careers of any musician/composer I know. Could you tell us a little bit about some of your current and upcoming projects? What is the focus for you at the moment? Stephen Newcomb: I balance performing (as an improvising pianist), composing, arranging and teaching. They all intersect in different ways and inspire one another. I’m currently arranging music for a show at the Queensland Conservatorium in May (where I teach) which will combine the Con Artists Jazz Orchestra with strings, harp and french horn section. I’m also editing some arrangements that I’d previously completed for Chris McNulty and her recently released album ‘Eternal’. I’m currently collaborating with drummer Isaac Cavallaro in a duo project that explores beats, electronics and improvisation. I’m kept busy with my role as Head of Jazz and Program Director of the Bachelor of Music at Griffith University, but there are a lot of writing projects on the go with Queensland Music Festival, Bernard Fanning, and others. AW: I've really enjoyed collaborating on your piece Kicking Goals that will be performed in it's first permutation this Friday night. Could you tell us a little bit more about it?  SN: I’ve enjoyed the collaboration too! I find the thrill of collaborative work the same feeling no matter what the genre or setting. I get the same buzz from mixing a record where there are different creative decisions to discuss and agree on. I started on this piece with a plan to develop some audio manipulation techniques (using Max/MSP) I had used in an earlier solo flute work, but the process of collaborating with yourself on vibraphone and Caitlin (dance) has allowed the work to grow and adapt. The title is a play on the word ‘gaol', and the work explores the concept of ‘the human detained’ which is a theme for the collaborative work between Kupka’s Piano and MakeShift Dance. In arriving at the Kicking Goals title I reflected on the slogans we often see in the media relating to the asylum seeker detainment, which are all too triumphant when you think that they relate to the lives of families in asylum from war-torn countries. AW: Is it your first time working with a dancer and/or solo percussionist? What parts of the collaboration have been interesting to you?  SN: It is the first time working with solo percussionist, so the immediate question concerned is which instruments (or objects) would be used in the piece. In the end I chose only vibraphone to be symbolic of ‘the human detained’ theme as it applies limits to both myself as a composer and yourself as the performer.  I have worked with dance and movement (in a work for Circa) before, but this was a chance to really collaborate on minute structural and specific emotionally linked concepts in the work. Caitlin brings a totally different perspective to the work with staging concerns, such as how a slight movement here of there can translate to meaning. I suppose the visual element is something I consider less when writing music as it’s concerned mostly with sound so that realisation has been interesting. AW: Having studied and performed and collaborated across the world, including an extensive amount of time in New York, what is it that excites you about the Brisbane music scene?  SN: I think the Brisbane scene is constantly growing so there are always options for new pathways to be created. There seems to be more underground activity and people just doing their thing, just the same as they do in a large city like NYC. The population scale is just always going to be greater in the bigger cities. I’m excited by the diverse experiences you can have as a musician here, because many players straddle styles, genres, etc. AW: Finally, what are your three favourite places in Brisbane? SN: I like food, so Mondo Organics West End needs to be in this favourite’s list. Also, Fundies whole food store in Paddington is a winner and I feel like a kid in a 'healthy candy store' when I’m there. When I’m not eating, the Brisbane bike paths are another favourite place.

'One need not be dictated to by an overbearing sense of tradition': An interview with Brett Dean

BrettDean600In our last concert at the Judith Wright Centre - 'Modern Music in Exile' - Kupka's performed Brett Dean's epic sextet, Old Kings in Exile. The work will be heard in Australia several times this year - Melbourne's Ensemble Cathexis also recently performed it in their May program 'Reckless Abandon'. In a special collaborative interview Kupka pianist Alex Raineri and Cathexis flautist Lina Andonovska both posed some questions to Brett about the work, his life in self-imposed 'exile' in Germany, and his reading list. ALEX RAINERI: The theme of our last Kupka's Piano concert was 'Modern Music in Exile' which is derived from the title of your sextet Old Kings in Exile, a work which is receiving a considerable amount of airtime, with SYZYGY also performing the piece later in the year! Much of the Australian repertoire we play (by established and the younger generation) are by composers who have relocated either to Europe or America and I'm always interested to know whether there is for composers a conscious intention to find a musical language which still represents a uniquely Australian sound, and what kind of role this plays. What are your thoughts and is this something you would associate with your works?

I am interested in creating a sound that is uniquely mine, that expresses something specifically personal. However I'm not sure that necessarily constitutes something uniquely Australian per se, nor do I pursue that consciously. When I consider what sounds around us are absolutely and uniquely Australian, however, then indigenous music and language, the Australian-English accent and birdsong come most readily to mind. Aspects of all of these things have been sources of inspiration for me one way or another; indigenous culture in rather oblique ways, the latter two quite overtly at times in specific pieces. In fact, the last movement of the sextet wouldn't have come about in the way it did without a timely encounter with my most favourite of Australian sounds, the song of the pied butcherbird. There's one particular song that I seem to hear every time I visit my parents' place in Brisbane which closes the piece.

LINA ANDONOVSKA: Following on from this, I'd like to know what excites you the most about Australia's contemporary/newly composed music scene? You obviously spend a lot of time in Europe and know the scene there intimately, but what do you think is different or perhaps unique about the Australian new music culture?

For musicians growing up in Europe, there can be a sense of tradition constantly looking over one's shoulder. Whilst I've loved coming to grips with this wonderfully rich cultural heritage throughout my professional life, it can be a heavy weight to bear and can manifest itself in a very profound conservatism, not only in orchestras (where it's not so surprising) but to a certain extent even in new music circles. In German orchestras for example, the standard repertoire and the western canon seem set in stone for all time, never to be questioned or tampered with. Many players wish, with an almost messianic zeal, to "protect" their cultural heritage and seem to perceive anything "modern" (in some cases this means anything post-Schönberg, even post-Brahms!) as a threat to their long-perfected ways of making music. The new music scene in Germany can, however, also seem stuck in its ways; specifically in the post-war period of innovation where cutting ties with a weighty and troubled past and a redefining of artistic purpose were of such importance. I feel that times have changed and yet new music in Germany still seems to have to fulfil certain expectations and parameters born out of that period. At times, the lack of acceptance of different voices that don't fit in with the overriding, "Darmstadtian" aesthetic can seem every bit as reactionary a world view as that of their symphonic-orchestral counterparts. By contrast, Australia's "outsider" position in the musical world means one need not be dictated to by an overbearing sense of tradition. Whilst the music scene, including the new music scene, has some very conformist aspects to it, In many cases this "traditionlessness" has led to the emergence and flourishing of some highly original thinkers and sonic explorers, genuine mavericks and nonconformists; artists such as Anthony Pateras, Jon Rose, Ross Bolleter, Liza Lim, The Necks and Richard Tognetti come to mind, for example. That is one of our great strengths and something to be cherished.

ALEX: The middle movement of Old Kings in Exile is called Double Trio. It's not uncommon for composers to feature groupings of instruments within works for this 'Pierrot' sextet - such pieces come to mind as Elliot Carter's Triple Duo, Franco Donatoni's Arpège, Gerard Grisey's Talea - and I wonder with this kind of history of core repertoire how you as a composer would approach writing for this instrumentation which seems to have become the 21st century piano trio?!

The Double Trio title of my middle movement is a conscious "doffing of the cap" to Elliott Carter's remarkable Triple Duo, a work that was a particular source of inspiration in writing my own sextet. The colouristic and textural possibilities and instrumental combinations became in and of themselves a significant part of my approach to the piece, especially in that middle movement. I certainly agree with you about this instrumentation becoming a kind of 21st century standard ensemble; in fact, I think that the remarkable sonic possibilities of the Pierrot-plus-percussion combo will see it emerge further as a standard go-to ensemble for composers in years to come, especially as many orchestras retreat away from commissioning new art music in favour of financially more lucrative cross-over projects, live-music cinema presentations and backing-band type appearances, much to our communal cultural impoverishment in my opinion.

The sextet form is a grouping that allows any number of approaches, whereas by comparison it's much harder to liberate the piano trio from its overtly 19th century, romantic salon music laden sonic heritage. It could be argued that Schönberg turned to this highly original and (at the time) unusual quintet formation for Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 because he (and his followers) were either ignored by orchestras altogether, or treated with hostile contempt by them, as they were by critics and audiences as well. He later formed the Society for Private Musical Performances in order to address these problems. Over a hundred works by a vast array of contemporary composers including Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky - as well as by Schönberg himself and his followers - were performed over a three year period before the high inflation rates of the early 20s made it impossible to continue. Even large scale works were presented in specially-made chamber ensemble reductions along the lines of the Pierrot quintet combination, further proof of its durable versatility. (In an interesting parallel to the aforementioned money-making ventures of today's symphony orchestras, Schönberg, Berg and Webern staged an evening of their own arrangements of Strauss Waltzes in 1921 in an attempt to bring some financial security into the society's coffers, with their manuscripts auctioned off after the show. The society lasted only another 6 months...)

LINA: On another topic, I know that your music is often very influenced by the literature you read, so I'd like to know what you are reading at the moment (and what you're listening to as well!)?

I've been delving into the different versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with a view to an operatic treatment in a few years. In fact my most recently premiered new work is a take on aspects of the Ophelia character, scored for string quartet and soprano and to be performed around Australia by the ASQ and Greta Bradman this coming November. Also, Harold Bloom's "Poem Unlimited" provides a fascinating analysis of Hamlet and thoughts on the nature of theatrical illusion. I also recently enjoyed reading Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

I've been listening to quite a bit of new music from Canada in preparation for a residency there as composer/performer/curator for the Toronto Symphony's new music festival in a couple of years and have been enjoying getting to know two new English operas; George Benjamin's Written on Skin and Julian Anderson's Thebans.

LINA: Finally... I would like to ask where your inspiration stems from? Some of us have moments where we are really disheartened with ourselves and our creativity, and it is often hard to find momentum to get the energy levels back up. Do you experience this, and if so, where do you regain the momentum from?

Well, without some honest self-criticism, I don't think any composer or artist of any kind will get very far. But it can be dangerously debilitating as well if it gets the upper hand too much of the time; one has to keep it grounded and real. Three things in the battle with creativity and search for inspiration for which, on a daily basis, I'm very grateful are: firstly, that my wife, Heather, is also a creative artist; secondly, that she has an informed, yet profoundly individual understanding of music and, thirdly, that she isn't a musician herself but a visual artist! The constant, inter-disciplinary dialogue that has evolved between us over the years about what we're up to, where we might be stuck, ways to solve problems, how someone else may see/hear what we're up to, etc, keeps us going and, if needs be, can pick us up from the floor. As a consequence, if something isn't working for me, I find it helpful to distance myself from music altogether and immerse myself in something else creative, be it a film, an exhibition, reading a good book. Not surprisingly, these are common and reliable sources of inspiration for me, to which the titles of my pieces attest. (Cooking a meal while listening to John Coltrane or PJ Harvey also seems to help....!)

Visit Brett Dean's profile on Boosey & Hawkes

'Do the thing that seems not to be allowed to be done': An interview with Genoël von Lilienstern

Lilienstern_Pic_3 Genoël von Lilienstern is one of the four young German composers whose works Kupka's Piano will be giving Australian premieres next Friday at 'Giants Behind Us' - the second of four concerts in a series hosted by the Judith Wright Centre. With rehearsals of his work The Severed Garden well underway, flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith interviews him about his life and intentions as a composer.

Hannah Reardon-Smith: Let's begin with the basics - where are you from, where did you study and with whom?

Genoël von Lilienstern: I come from a small town in former West-Germany. I studied composition with Korean composer Younghi Pagh-Paan and with Swiss composer Hanspeter Kyburz. I also studied computer music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands.

HRS: For our audience who might not know what it means to be a composer today, give us a quick outline of what kinds of activities you get up to - a 'day in the life' of Genoël von Lilienstern...

GvL: There is no typical day for me. My schedule depends very much on the actual work or project I am occupied with. So there are times when I am more busy with administrative tasks like answering e-mails, preparing presentations, writing proposals for funding, working on a lecture or preparing a journey. Other times I am busy with the more technological aspect of my work - right now I work on a composition for flying loudspeakers - so I go to my workshop and do computer programming and construction work there.

But eventually I will come back to my desk and have to work on a musical score. And that is extremely absorbing work. People that know me well can see when I am into that kind of business: "You are composing, aren't you?" I cannot stop thinking about the music and its notation anymore. So my ability to lead an everyday conversation gets diminished. It is like going to a slightly different world. And when the piece is finished I need one or two nights out with friends and drinks to come back.

But in general I can say - being a composer is not as insecure or painful as many people might imagine it to be. I can make a living from this artistic profession and that makes me very happy.

HRS: We were introduced to your work by members of ensemble interface, who we will be working with later in the year here in Australia. Have you worked much with them? What has been your experience working with young performers (in their 20s and 30s) and emerging ensembles, and how does this differ from working with established groups, such as Ensemble Intercontemporain?

GvL: Each ensemble has its own psychology. So when meeting musicians you don't know yet for the first time you would just be friendly and observe their behaviour the first, let's say 15 minutes before doing or saying too much. With younger performers it can be a very relaxed and casual atmosphere at the beginning, but gets a little more difficult during the rehearsal when insecurities arise, because some of the players might still not have the routine or pragmatism of solving "impossible" problems.  Well established ensembles like Intercontemporain would be more reserved in the beginning, but when you manage to convince them that you have the skills they are open to do or try "anything".

Independent from these aspects what makes the deciding difference for me is when an ensemble is not only very good, brilliantly realizing the note text, but also self-secure and curious enough to make their own artistic decisions within a piece.

I know ensemble interface very well since they are the players of the same year (2008/09) of Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt which I participated in. After some time of not seeing each other we worked together again this January and it was a joy to do so. They are top-league players.

HRS: I have recently returned from Japan where I participated in an Ensemble Modern academy run by Tokyo Wonder Site - a wonderful opportunity to explore the music of the region while receiving support and tuition from some of the most experienced musicians of our genre. I believe you spent some time at Tokyo Wonder Site for a residency in 2011-2012. What did you focus on during your residency? What was your experience of the country, and do you think this has affected your subsequent composition in any way?

GvL: That is true. I was in Tokyo Wonder Site - unfortunately only for a month - which is way too short to really understand and see everything one would love to. I was having a piano piece performed and myself performed a piece for live-electronics. I got to know and talk to artists from south-eastern Asia like Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand - which I had never done before.

Apart from the obvious fascination of this exceptionally intact non-Western culture people were still (and might still be) affected by the events of the 2011 Tsunami. I met a video-artist who had lost his mother and who made a video piece about it. That really aroused questions in me as to why one makes art, under which circumstances and what for. Radioactivity was also an issue, and it was very hard to get information about it, such as how to know how much risk you take if you drink tab water, or eat fish. I was convinced before that one should abandon nuclear power - but the difficult situation in Japan kind of graphically displays why that is absolutely necessary.

HRS: What are you currently composing? What are the musical questions or materials you're trying to develop?

GvL: I am currently working on a piece involving "futuristic" instruments like robot-arm percussion and flying loudspeakers. In the situation in Berlin where we have the luxury of having numerous good ensembles for contemporary music I don't want to stick to a status quo of business as usual, because I have the discomfort of feeling close to applied arts. So I'd rather take a little risk and make an effort to look for an entirely new music - even if one might think that this kind of utopia is not realizable today.

HRS: We get a sense in Australia, a very 'young' country, that Germanic composers have a lot of historical baggage when it comes to music. The famous Brahms quote about Beethoven being a 'giant behind him' (which we're using as a title for our concert) sums up nicely this often fearful reverence of such an enormous tradition. Is this an issue for you? How much do you think of historical precedents (and trying to 'overcome' them)?

GvL: Brahms was more likely to get directly compared with Beethoven. Well that wouldn't happen to any currently living German composer. I would say Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann - they are all my good friends. When I want to encourage myself to be more brave in making risky decisions I might have a look at Beethoven's Große Fuge, when I feel I am getting too modest I might stick to some Schumann Symphonie No. 4 hubris, and when I want to bring back to my mind what degree emotion can reach in music I would go and listen to a Schubert song.

However it is true that a certain kind of tradition is hard to escape from in Germany - it is the philosophical direction of Hegelian dialectics and historization of artistic topics. Prime examples of this dialectic approach would be composers like Lachenmann and Spahlinger. Everyone has to relate to that kind of thinking in some way. Some would love to abandon it and play with the material in a natural, innocent way, some think it is absolutely necessary to inscribe the dialectic aspect of perception in their works, and others come up with elaborate constructivist alternative drafts. My approach would probably be the latter.

It all has also to do with the problematic history of Germany in the 20th century. After 1945 the overwhelming qualities of Wagnerian music were considered to be manipulative and dangerous. So a more distanced view upon music, leaving space for the questions and perception of the individual seemed to be necessary. A reason why Stockhausen was poorly received in the last 30 years of his life, was because he started having a religious approach towards music, which was in opposition to Hegelian 'Age of Enlightenment' thinking.

So Hegel probably is the real giant behind us.

HRS: What do you think the key musical questions for young composers are in Germany and Austria today?

GvL: Although I have to admit that Germany and Austria have a special musical tradition, as described before, I don't think that there are key musical questions today related to nationality. We are living in an internationalized, individualized world and we are learning from each other. I see a tendency of younger composers to relate to new situations of media reception, music production and maybe a questioning of the usage of classical instruments. I also think an important thing for young composers today is not to stick too much to real or abstract authorities like institutions, academies, national culture, market, genre.  I admire people that have a clear awareness of what is going on and at the same time really trust in their own musical ideas and perception.

One should do the thing that seems not to be allowed to be done.

HRS: Tell us a little about 'The Severed Garden' - your work that we're performing in our May 10 concert. Is there a specific inspiration for this piece? What are the key ideas in the work?

GvL: If you like you can hear something like a biography of harmonic and rhythmical elements in this piece. At the beginning there is a more vivid, fast, almost agressive characteristic, which later gets mellowed, slowed down. Maybe it is a transition from a pretty abstract construction into a more singing and at the same time symbolic quality. The association of a funeral situation is pretty obvious at the ending. As well, my musical idea was to have structures that could anytime shrink or magnify, like a rubber kind of being. Due to that, the piece has rather complex metrics and every bar is a small challenge. Not easy to play.

HRS: Is there somewhere online that people can go to hear more of your music?

GvL: Yes. At Soundcloud and also at YouTube if you search for my name.

HRS: Just finally, what music are you currently listening to? Any interesting new music that Australian listeners should try to seek out?

GvL: I really like spending time on YouTube digging into remote or arguable genres like early 30s electronic music, Italian progessive rock or 80s commerical mainstream. But I am not sure if that is something to recommend, since it is more my personal sociologic and music historical interest that I have here.

Some composers that have impressed me in the past two years: New York composer Bryan Jacobs, Ecuadorian composer and guitarist Lucho Pelucho, Tokyo composer Yu Kuwabara, Mauricio Rodriguez from Mexico City and Ed Bennett, composer from Ireland.

Currently in Germany there are some younger composers that might be interesting: Alexander Schubert, Johannes Kreidler, Sergej Newski, Johannes Borowski and Enno Poppe.

Best concert I heard this year: The Psychic Ills from Brooklyn.