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13 March 2013

An attempt at a terrifying chaos

MODART diaries 2013

An attempt at a terrifying chaos

Owen Salome continues our series of blog articles by composers taking part in MODART13 composer development program. The first stage of MODART13 took place in Annandale, Sydney, on 25-28 February. For more information about the program and its participants, and for more blog articles by them, please see the MODART subpage.

Since I finished my Honours at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music just over a year ago, I have written a few small pieces (including a nice little chamber piece with voice for Chronology Arts), but a lot of musical energy has gone into my Argentine-tango quintet Tángalo. MODART is the first of a number of (non-tango) projects I have planned for this year, and it has been a lot of fun to get my teeth into something a bit more experimental in nature.

I have consistently found working with vocalists to be one of the most sublime, and most challenging, experiences as a composer. The choice of text, the manner in which text and meaning is approached, ideas of characterisation as well as the unique technical challenges inherent in vocal technique give vocal writing a unique status.

One of the aspects I most liked about MODART was the way in which the ideas presented by the various composers evolved over the course of the program. Not all of us brought fully completed pieces, or even had a fully-fledged concept, however each person came with something to present to the ensemble.

Being given the time to go away and come back with something more fully developed led to some fascinating changes. Roland, and the ensemble, never said 'this is bad' or 'this can't be done'. They encouraged us to be certain that what we had created was what we had wanted to create, offering alternatives, advice and suggestions the whole way through the process.

During this initial stage Roland, in particular, strongly encouraged us to be daring and to take risks. One manifestation of this was that, following a discussion about the challenge of setting tonal languages, Daniel was urged to try and set his mother tongue (Cantonese, which has no less than nine tones), and this led to the development of some beautiful and interesting musical material.

For my text, I have chosen a short paragraph of prose from the short story Bluebeard's Egg by Margaret Atwood. The story deals with the rising panic of a woman as she realises her perception of reality may not be accurate. I am writing for the three female vocalists.

I am very interested in the way that we give subjective judgements to sounds (culturally specific judgements, by the way) and whether certain sounds can be recontextualised to change that perception. What I had intended to attempt to achieve in the music was to have the text and the sound palette of the piece gradually devolve into a terrifying chaos.

During my final session with the ensemble, I found it an interesting experiment to give the singers two different sketches, both of which used some unusual vocal techniques, but one of which had the text presented in such a deconstructed manner as to be completely devoid of any meaning, or of any comprehensibility. The second sketch proved difficult to the extreme, whilst the first was almost entirely readable. The interesting point is, however, that when I mentioned that the apparently arbitrary stream of consonants and vowels was in fact extrapolated from the existing text, the vocalists found the musical material more manageable (although, I must concede, still tiring and difficult).

A major consequence of my various 'experiments' through the week is that I feel the need to delve a bit further into the text I have chosen so that I can approach my musical ideas in a more cogent way. I am very excited about the next stage of the program.

Further links

MODART composer development program (AMC Online)
The Song Company - MODART (www.songcompany.com.au)
'First week of MODART: what is in store?' - blog article by The Song Company's Clive Birch (www.songcompany.com.au)

Owen Salome is an emerging composer and performer based in Sydney.


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