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30 August 2011

Brighton to Bondi - how I got the composing bug

Brett Weymark Image: Brett Weymark  

When I was at school, in art class from the start of Year 7, we were encouraged to create our own masterpieces. It is odd, then, that as a professional musician I have never written a work that has been performed in a concert setting. Last year, when we were selecting the songs for our concert 'Brighton to Bondi', we decided we really needed a work to pull the concept of the concert together, and to bring all the performing elements together. Unable to find a piece about the English/Australian connection that involved piano, organ, large choir and youth chorus, I decided to write one!

In the foyer of the Sofitel Hotel in New York, over quite a few cups of average coffee, I sketched the outline for my piece Brighton to Bondi which features the poetry of New Zealand poet Tim Jones. His poem 'Tuesday Poem: Impertinent to Sailors' seemed like the perfect text for my piece:

Curved over islands, the world
dragged me south in a talkative year

slipping Southampton
as the band played a distant farewell.

It was better than steerage,
that assisted passage: ten pound Poms

at sixpence the dozen, promenading
in sun frocks, gathering for quoits,

angling, in an understated way,
for a seat at the Captain's table -

while I, a child, roamed decks, became
impertinent to sailors [...]

I knew, when I was writing the outline, that I wanted to suggest both the Northern and Southern hemispheres in the work, as well as the space in which the piece will be performed. The Sydney Town Hall has a wonderful sense of grandeur and suggests something of 'old' Sydney. It is also a wonderful space to arrange the choir in.

So, firstly, I knew that the structure would be a little like a da capo aria - the first part is departure, middle section journey and last section arrival: a mirroring of the departure but with more elements. So, the work starts with a plaintive melody on the piano that sort of revs itself up like an old steamliner, while VOX, arranged in groups of three around the hall, create a soundscape defined by the low-sounding pedals of the grand organ. The middle section text is largely given to the Festival Chorus who then join VOX at the end with a more fleshed out and optimistic version of the opening hemisphere - the sense of a new and better life - optimistic despite the tribulations of the journey itself.

It is quite a nerve wracking job, creating a piece for the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs who have had so many great works written for them. Putting aside my procrastination, I eventually sat in the foyer with some manuscripts and started creating.

The concert also features works by some of Australia's best choral composers: Paul Stanhope, Stephen Adams and Ross Edwards. While I will leave you to be the judge of the work's quality, the combination of writing for a specific occasion, venue and concept made the composition part quite easy and somewhat liberating.

As a result, I now have the composing bug and am keen to write something else. I found that the text very much suggested the music - following the rise and fall of speech both melodically and rhythmically. More importantly, I understood a concept that I once heard expressed in the play Six Degrees of Separation. In it, a primary school art teacher has a class of young geniuses and, when asked how she teaches them, she simply replies that it is all about learning when to take the canvas away.

I don't know how composers do it, as the process of fine-tuning, for me, took the longest amount of time and there was a tendency to want to keep making small corrections and adjustments. At some point you have to just make a decision that the piece is finished - oddly enough, this was on the day when the first rehearsal took place! I won't hear the piece until rehearsal number 7 so I am scared and excited!

So there it is. If for no other reason, come to our concert 'Brighton to Bondi' and let me know what you think about the piece. I had a great deal of pleasure writing it.

Event details

Brighton to Bondi
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Friday 16 September at 7pm
Sydney Town Hall, Sydney NSW
Festival Chorus & VOX
Conductors: Brett Weymark and Elizabeth Scott
Organ: David Drury; piano: Josephine Allan
Full event details in the AMC Calendar

Brett Weymark is the Artistic and Musical Director of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.


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