Steve 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.
Benjamin Marks took some time out from composing, performing and teaching this week to speak to Kupka's Piano percussionist Angus Wilson. Angus performed his new work 'The Circular Ruins' with guest saxophonist Sami Mason last Friday night at Absent, Almost Absent. Angus Wilson: You are a regular audience member and follower of Kupkas Piano, what excited you the most about writing for Kupkas Piano on this occasion?
Benjamin Marks: Writing music to be included in a Kupka programme is a big challenge. The music programmed (Lim, Ablinger etc.) is exceptional so I feel pretty daunted. Coupled with that I feel like I can write with a great deal of freedom, knowing that so much repertoire has been digested by the ensemble over the last few years. I feel like this is an ensemble which can locate the aesthetic or musical concerns a new piece has and articulate that understanding with intelligent and sensitive performances.
AW: Sami and I are very excited to play your new work.... Can you tell us a little bit about the project? Where did it draw it's inspiration from? Does it have a life beyond it's current format?
BM: Best to quote my programme note here:
Two (The Circular Ruins)
This piece takes as its raw material the sound of water running under a bridge. The sound was recorded and slowed down sixty times to reveal intense rhythmic and pitch activity. This was transcribed and became one of the primary means of organizing the piece.
Two explores the problems of creating an evolving musical landscape from a static sound source. Different notions of flow are explored within static constructs, and different notions of stasis are explored in more flexible, expressive constructs. The expressive capacity of the music lies in the movement between these various states.
In the context of the larger scale outdoor piece, The Circular Ruins, this duo constitutes part two. The piece, when removed from the outdoor context, is accompanied by a tape part that draws directly from sounds found in Southbank, Brisbane, the intended location of the four part work The Circular Ruins.
Jorge Louis Borges' story The Circular Ruins tells of a dreamer who dreams another man into existence only to find himself the dream of another. In the outdoor work for Southbank my goal is to bring to life often ignored environmental sounds, or, more generally, to bring about active engagement with our sounding environment. The composed pieces, including Two, engage with specific environmental sounds and acoustics creating an intense listening experience which is gradually expanded to include the limits of the acoustic horizon.
AW: You have an interesting little setup of percussion in the piece, ceramic bowls, temple blocks, woodblocks and a bass drum. Can you tell us what you were envisaging when you selected these instruments?
BM: I was thinking of sounds that most resembled my idea of water noise slowed down, other than the usual wash of white noise. This is purely imaginary, and these sounds also link into quite a ritualistic sound space. There is a naturalness to these sounds (wood, ceramic and skin) that I feel drawn to and a quiet complexity of timbre. The bass drum has a slightly different function to the other instruments in that it articulates a large scale pulse, which runs through all four pieces that makes up The Circular Ruins. Only a fragment of the pulse exists in Two.
AW: I first met you as a trombonist, playing Pines of Rome in a brass band. Can you tell us a little bit about your activities other than composing? How do you find living and working in Brisbane?
BM: I moved to Brisbane (from Melbourne) in 1998 to do my masters in performance at the QLD Conservatorium. My undergraduate was in composition from the University of Melbourne. I've always moved between composition and performance in some way or other, although my professional life has been mostly as a performer with ELISION. When I moved to Brisbane ELISION was also based here so it helped kick off a wonderful time of learning and recording new repertoire and broadening my improvisational experience which has carried through to the present day. I studied with Simone de Haan at the time and this experience changed me in many fundamental ways and brought me, through various activities, into contact with the Brisbane cultural scene. Since that initial period of study I've developed a strong low brass teaching base (which I love) and I continue to strive to play a creative role in the cultural life of my home city.
AW: Finally, what other interesting projects do you have coming up, where can our audience hear you play, or hear other compositions by you?
BM: I'm currently working my way into a Doctorate of Musical Arts in which I'm exploring multilayered spatial composition and performance in an outdoor context. By developing musical strategies that engage with environmental sound (some of which you'll hear in Two) I hope to create, for a listener, a shifting network of perceptual frames. My research should result in various performances, the first being early next year in Southbank. This is the project alluded to above The Circular Ruins. I'll be giving a trombone recital on February 25th next year, at 6:30pm, at the QLD Conservatorium, partnering with my wife Ysolt Clark on French Horn. We haven't quite settled on repertoire yet although Scelsi and Richard Barrett are likely starting points.
On March 21, Kupka's Piano will be joined by Sydney's Ensemble Offspring for a concert exploring the mechanical and organical in new music (tickets available here). KP flautist Hannah caught up with one of EO's artistic directors and percussionist Claire Edwardes to talk about their origins, their busy touring schedule, and passing on acquired knowledge to the next generation.
Hannah Reardon-Smith: Ensemble Offspring has been a Sydney fixture for almost twenty years now! Kupka's Piano is just entering our third year. Can you tell us a little about how and why you formed, and what has kept the group ticking for so long?
Claire Edwardes: We formed the group as the Spring Ensemble to showcase the works of then young student composers Damien Ricketson and Matthew Shlomowitz. We were just a group of 2nd and 3rd year Sydney Conservatorium students trying to do something different and we were lucky enough to be invited by Roger Woodward to perform as part of the Sydney Spring Festival which was indeed an exciting start to the journey. Hmm - what has kept us ticking for so long - I think for me personally it is just a deep passion for what we do - this strange and intangible thing we call "new" music - working with composers (i.e. real human beings) - working with wonderful musicians (eg. Jason Noble and Lamorna Nightingale who are an inspiration as people and musicians) and being able to share my vision in programs that take the audience to a wonderful new place that they may have never been before.
HRS: Like us, EO has a very close working relationship with composers - Damien Ricketson is your co-artistic director, and Matthew Shlomowitz was also involved from the beginning. How do you work with these composers throughout the creative process?
CE: Since the early days as the Spring Ensemble we have kept the work of Damien and Matt at the centre of our programming without it being any sort of forced content. Although the group did form to perform their works, Damien especially has always been very staunch about the fact that we are certainly not only in existence to perform the works of these two composers, which has meant that our repertoire choices over the years have been very eclectic. We as musicians really relish our relationships with Damien and Matt as well as the other composers we collaborate with regularly - having that tacit understanding and not needing to waste time with too many niceties can really not be underestimated in my opinion!
HRS: EO stands apart from other new music groups in Australia in that it doesn't restrict itself to a single style or musical aesthetic. How do you find and decide on repertoire for the group?
CE: We define our repertoire choices purely through innovation - this often means brand new works but it could also have been innovative when it was written and still sound new and innovative to the modern ear (such as Stockhausen's Kontakte and Glass's Music in Similar Motion) - that said we don't tend to go back before around 1960 and we also don't spend very long back there - when we program those older works it is usually to give a context to the new stuff - after all what we are truly passionate about is working with living composers and trying new things!
HRS: How do you balance artistic issues against practicalities when EO is touring so often?
CE: Starting out as an almost London Sinfonietta size, EO has gradually turned into a tight core of chamber musicians over the years and this has in part been touring and funding related. Obviously touring is expensive and we have developed our smaller combo repertoire over the years to service for example our European tour at the end of 2013 where we took just 4 musicians. This is practical, but for me also an artistic decision as I personally really get a lot out of working with just a few musicians who have a very close musical relationship rather than in larger groups where a conductor is necessary. This way I feel we all have more artistic input, awareness and we are in a position to mould the music and the program.
HRS: What is your most "out there" new music gigging experience? Surely after 20 years you've clocked up a kooky story or two!
CE: Of course there are many but strangely enough what always comes to mind is an EO gig many years ago (when we were probably still called the Spring Ensemble actually) where I had to hang these wet towels off a boom stand to capture the sound of dripping water - but anyone who has gotten a towel soaking wet will know how heavy they are and of course it kept crashing the cymbal stand to the ground and we ended up with water absolutely all over the floor of the Eugene Goossens Hall. Other memorable moments are playing the thongaphone in the rain (on a musical ship) with Sarah Blasko and a small group of musos in Cooktown for Queensland Music Festival, performing solo on scaffolding over Amsterdam's most famous canal the Prinsengracht with flames lapping at me from either side, and of course the good old super ball falls off the stick and spends half the piece bouncing about the stage whilst everyone is still attempting to concentrate on the music, trick!
HRS: We're extremely excited to have the opportunity to perform with Ensemble Offspring in our upcoming concert. EO has also just begun a mentoring program - "Hatched" - in which you will be nurturing performers and composers from the up-and-coming generation. What interests you most about working with younger/emerging musicians? What is EO's vision for the next generation of new music afficionados?
CE: Obviously we are not getting any younger and I guess we just feel that it is time to start giving back to the younger generation in terms of the years of experience we have clocked up thus far. In working with Jeremy Rose and Callum G'Froerer (who are both in their twenties just like the Kupka's crew) we hope to impart both our vast administrative experience (the highs as well as the lows) as well as programming concepts and of course musical insights. Jeremy will be writing new works for Callum (trumpet) and ourselves and as both of them come from a jazz background we actually hope to learn a bit from them too over the course of the year. 2014 being our inaugural year we are all just trying to stay really open about what it will be - needless to say we are all really looking forward to it immensely.
HRS: I think for a lot of musicians there is a process of discovery when it comes to playing new music, which in turn sparks a love of new sounds that they want to pass on to both their audience and to other musicians. Speaking more personally, was there a piece that for you made you certain that new music was your thing?
CE: I can't recall a specific piece (although it may have been George Crumb's Madrigals now I think about it) but I do distinctly remember, about the time that the Spring Ensemble formed, starting to choose my solo repertoire in a much more open minded fashion. I championed Hans Wener Henze's Five Scenes from the Snow Country in our concert practise classes and found myself seeking out the new, the exciting, the different - repertoire that the other students and even my teacher had never heard of...some things never change!
HRS: Percussionists play such a wide variety of instruments. What will we be seeing you play in our March concert?
CE: As this is one of our touring shows we have kept the percussion side of things minimal - that said we will still feature the good old vibraphone alongside a lovely set of pitched woodblocks (which is a rather unusual phenomenon) and in the Shlomowitz some weird and wacky 'instruments' alongside theatrical choreography for all three of us.
HRS: I'm sure you've got a super busy year ahead! What upcoming projects are you most excited about, both in EO and as a soloist?
CE: Ensemble Offspring has a busy year ahead including exciting collaborations with Jon Rose and Speak Percussion (Ghan Tracks), hard hitting chamber classics in Plekto (which we will also be performing in Brisbane on 11th July) and also Damien Ricketson's amazing showcase for dancers and musicians called The Secret Noise. I am particularly excited that for the next two years I get to focus on myself as a soloist once again as a result of receiving an Australia Council Fellowship. This means that I am planning many and various collaborations outside of Ensemble Offspring including a collaboration with Brisbane based guitarist Karin Schaupp, a brand new children's show and a solo percussion project with electronics featuring a new commission by Marcus Whale and Tom Smith.
Kupka's Piano and Ensemble Offspring present The Machine and the Rank Weeds, the first of KP's four-concert series 'Il faut être', at 7.30pm, Friday 21 March, at the Judith Wright Centre. Tickets are available here.
In our first concert of the year we're featuring several guests and old friends as performers alongside the Kupka crew. Rebecca Lloyd-Jones and Elizabeth John are two accomplished percussionists with a long history of playing new art music. In our March 8 concert - A new sun rises: Modernist music in Asia - Bec and Liz will be performing Guo Wenjing's Parade alongside our own percussionist Angus Wilson.
Rebecca has worked extensively with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Sinfonia, The Australian National Acadmey of Music, The Royal Australian Navy Band, The Australian Youth Orchestra and as a Freelance musician with many groups including Clocked Out Duo, Isorhythmos, Speak Percussion, various chamber music ensembles and regularly performs at various events and festivals throughout Australia. In 2011, Rebecca toured with Mod Dance Company premiering Graeme Murphy’s Suite Synergy nationally. Rebecca completed her Honours Degree in 2012 at the Victorian College of the Arts, graduating with the Desma Woolcock bursary for academic excellence.
Elizabeth has recently finished her Bachelor of Music in Percussion at the QLD Griffith Conservatorium, studying under Vanessa Tomlinson. In her collaborations with Kupka's local composers she was invited to perform with them in Sydney as part of Australia's New Music Network Mini Series program in 2011. Last year she ventured into event organising with Brisbane's Cage in Us festival where she worked and performed with Swedish percussion ensemble Kroumata, and worked as sub-curator on a local project to bring art into the community. With an appreciation for contemporary music and performance she received the Pearl/Adams 2012 scholarship to travel to the United States and attend the So Percussion Summer Institute at Princeton University.
Don't miss out on Kupka's first concert of the year! Buy your tickets now! You know that four-concert subscriptions are available, right?