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24 October 2014

A collaboration worth coming home for

Melody Eötvös with Johanna Featherstone from the Red Room Company (left). Image: Melody Eötvös with Johanna Featherstone from the Red Room Company (left).  

[Updates 27 October: caption corrected, link to visual diary added, now only one performance at 2pm on 2 November.]

Composer Melody Eötvös writes about her involvement in an exciting collaborative project by Musica Viva and the Red Room Company, involving three poets, percussionist Claire Edwardes, as well as the composer herself. See the AMC Calendar for details for the 'Counterpoint' event on 2 November. Eötvös is also acting as mentor in the Soundstream Emerging Composers' Forum, the final concert of which takes place in Adelaide on 4 November.

It's not that I come home any less these days; it used to only be once a year that I got to visit. Now, miraculously I'm making it back to Australia every six months or so. I don't mind the flight, though my knees are starting to notice the cramped economy seat spacing situation more and more it seems. In the past when I travelled home, it used to be because that's just where I went for the long summer break (well, winter break in Australia). Sometimes I'd have a concert to zip off to, or a friend to hang out with, but most of the time I'd be working to try and earn my plane ticket back to the US again.

Things change though and we grow up, we finish school, we get married (if it's in the cards), and this incredible transformation happens where adult life becomes this beautiful, stable but wild whirlwind of activity. You still get to learn through the students who you teach (especially those bright sparks who give you hope for the future), and collaborations and commissions become predominantly professional engagements. To top it off, your first invitation to mentor for a competition you won a few years back arrives as well. Yes, you suddenly realise how old you are, but it doesn't matter 'cause you love what you do, and you get to do it every day.

So, the reason for my next trip down under, next week in fact, is particularly special because it's for a collaborative venture between Musica Viva Australia, the Red Room Company, the brilliant Claire Edwardes, and myself. We began this project last year in December amidst several creative workshops and experimental sessions with our talented poets (Jessica Wilkinson, Margaret West, and Luka Lesson), a reading session with Claire, and a few gatherings to reflect on the educational output we could generate from our creative efforts and the final product. I remember feeling rather satisfied that the scope of this enterprise was also geared towards educating students and people in general about what we were doing and why. It was an incredible amount of fun and it was a great opportunity for me to step outside my normal composery self and get my hands dirty with some experimentation.

After December, we all went our separate ways (Melbourne, the Blue Mountains, Byron Bay, India, and the United States) and began the long process of communicating our art to each other across the oceans. Luka had given me my first words to work with already; several poems he unravelled during our time in Sydney together. So I started there. I had a poem, and I had the memory of Luka reciting his almost rap-like verses with his astonishing characteristic rhythmic energy and passion (seriously, google him)…

You're thinking text-setting right? Normally the poem becomes a libretto, yes? Well, not in this case. The mandate was for all sound and music to be written for percussion, and I kept to it (except for one piece in which I admittedly cheated a little and have Claire singing, just for a moment though). So instead I let the poems inspire me with their subject, the rhythm of their phrases, even by the difference between using the word 'rock' or 'stone' (…'stone' is my favourite). I had to dig deep. Deep enough to write a different percussion piece for each of the six poems I chose, two from each poet.

As a composer who has only really used tuned percussion with any remarkable technique as part of a composition (that or your typical 'other orchestral percussion resonant/rhythmic effects') it was a challenge, and an overdue one at that. To give you a quick example, here is Luka's first poem 'No Man':

No man can ever steal a bird.
Take its wings.
Turn its beak into a boat
& feather himself.

Ignoring the fact that I could still tell you the details of exactly how I first thought of setting this for a singer, the poem itself evokes a tantalising amount of imagery, as well as an intense short story of sorts. That the main subjects are a man and a bird (with the man wanting to possess what the bird is) led me to seek ways of creating a 'scattered' mallet attack sound, similar to what grasping a bunch of feathers/quills together and playing, for example, layered glissandi across the vibraphone (pedal down of course) à la Crumb. I wanted the piece to float or fly or to do something weightlessly, and maybe the man could feather himself and become that boat, or at the very least Claire's mallets could. The final version of this piece became somewhat of a metallic (…steel a bird), light, and unpredictable animal.

So, getting back to the larger picture… thank goodness for the internet and for Claire's patience and brilliance as a percussionist: after completing the first draft of each piece I would email a pdf of it through to Claire, after which she would shortly video record a run-through of it (as well as detail her thoughts and recommendations) and send it back through cyberspace to me and the rest of the group. Margaret and Jessica also mailed me lovely postcards and 'Books of Flying' (a gorgeous text compiled by Jessica that sadly never made it to me, thanks USPS) as well.

After six months in this epic, long-distance collaboration we have a program of 30 minutes, a wonderful collection of scores, videos, recordings, and written materials that have travelled across the planet, all of which will be presented at the showing in Sydney on 2 November.

We still have a lot to do of course - I'll roll into Sydney two days before the event, at 6am in the morning, and then we'll be working for two days to get the entire piece together - the lighting, the projections; the actual concept of the past nine months of work will come together in those final few days. The title of the entire project is 'Counterpoint'. And putting aside fond memories of gritting my way through writing all those fugal exercises in school, there really is no better way to describe what it is that we've all brought together.

Further links

Melody Eötvös - AMC profile
Counterpoint at 2pm, 2 November 2014 at the Giant Dwarf Theatre, Redfern, Sydney (event details in the AMC Calendar)
Counterpoint - a visual project diary
Counterpoint - event details on Musica Viva website


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