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20 June 2011

Carl Vine on his new concerto and the boundless energy of the AYO

Carl Vine Image: Carl Vine  

In July, 90 or so young classical musicians of the Australian Youth Orchestra will take the stage at the Sydney Opera House. The AYO will perform three concerts as part of the Sydney Symphony's Meet the Music series, with SSO's concertmaster Dene Olding as their soloist for a new violin concerto by Carl Vine. The composer talks about his concerto in this interview, originally published in the Fortissimo magazine by Faber Music and reproduced here by permission.

The Australian Youth Orchestra has gained a reputation as one of the most prestigious training organisations for young pre-professional musicians. How will the new violin concerto reflect their talents?

Carl Vine: Although I didn't set out with this explicit intention, the work has emerged as something of a concerto 'for orchestra' as well as for solo violin. It contains tricky solos for almost every instrument in the band, with the only real exceptions being trombone, tuba and contrabassoon (although these do make great contributions to sonic texture). The compositional material kept drawing me into territories of rich counterpoint and harmony that needed a number of melodic lines that keep weaving around the soloist in a mobile partnership. Although many parts of the work began life as simple accompanied monody, they often became bordered with multi-layered complexity.

Ironically, if I'd written the work for a professional orchestra, likely to give a new work a couple of 'half' rehearsal calls before the premiere, I would probably have reduced the technical demands on the players. But my past experience with youth orchestras [Vine's first and fourth symphonies were both commissioned by the Sydney Youth Orchestra] suggests that the boundless energy and enthusiasm of young musicians is a formidable force, and a great ally to living composers. They generally have more time to prepare, have better support systems for problem passages, work harder and are more interested in tackling a good challenge than their older counterparts.

With the Australian Youth Orchestra, as the premier performance training facility in this country, the benefits multiply exponentially. The standard of young performers emerging from its training programs, particularly in the last decade, has been truly exceptional, with many of the finest players in full-time Australian orchestras, and several in other countries, being recent AYO alumni.

What were the main challenges for you when writing a new violin concerto?

CV: I have played a number of musical instruments, but never any stringed ones. I have a decent grasp of bowing, finger placement, double-stopping and other extended techniques, but without an intrinsic physical connection to the process I have always found it challenging to produce string parts that are going to feel 'natural' to the player. I am always concerned that passages that I expect to be simple turn out to be unidiomatic and needlessly troubling. A composer's greatest sin, in my book, is to write music that is impossible to play but sounds like it should be easy. I always aim for the obverse.

When you begin a new composition, how do you start the process?

CV: Over the last decade I've evolved a method that starts with collecting small musical ideas - a simple combination of rhythm and harmony, for instance, or a germinal notion of sound texture implied by an interplay between different instruments. These can come from anywhere: a couple of chords overheard on background music in a restaurant, a moment of particular emotional effect on a film soundtrack, or a moment of genuine surprise in the concert hall. I work on these fragments independently, within the logistical confines of the current project, until each starts to develop a distinct character and their potential begins to expand. At this point they begin to borrow from each other and often develop unexpected relationships that lead towards a larger whole. I usually try to leave the architectural ordering of these components to a late stage in the process, since many ideas I'd considered 'openers' turn out to be better near the end of a work, and vice versa.

But all rules are made to be broken, and the second movement of the concerto, which I'd always thought should be a 'fast' movement with a languid pool at its centre, was written mostly in exact consecutive order from start to finish.

You are a pianist, and you have created many beautiful works for the instrument - is the piano a tool for composition, or do you tend to compose away from it?

CV: I have composed exclusively at the piano since I first began at the age of ten. When I play a sequence of notes at the keyboard I don't 'hear' piano, but rather the instrument it is being written for. Even though I always write now with computer assistance, I can't get started without a MIDI keyboard that makes a convincing piano sound.

What is your most important musical memory?

CV: The important memories are marked by moments of spine-tingling musical transcendence. One day as an adolescent I was playing the pipe organ in the school chapel, and the sequence of chords wafting around the ceiling touched, just for a moment, something undefinable and sublime at my experiential core. It was sensate but not sensual, neurological but not intellectual - a vital sensation that defied analysis and that nothing other than music will ever evince. Since then I have had dozens of similar musical experiences, and they are the reason that I compose. I don't want to sound pompous or specious, but such a powerful force linked so closely to the essence of the human experience surely demands our most devoted attention.

When you compose, what other art forms are your main sources for inspiration?

CV: When I hear a piece of music is inspired by a painting or poem, I always prefer to cut out the middle-man and go to experience the original work of art. What inspires me about music is its ability to make us think and feel things that have no parallel in any other form, and can often not even be explained by a deeply affected listener immediately after the event. Why would I want to take this magical, amorphous power and straightjacket it by sensations that are better seen or read in another medium?

Arts journalists, however, invariably feel uncomfortable talking about abstract music that has no parallel in other mediums. They love talking about music based on poems or narratives because it reduces the abstract to nice, comforting, familiar levels. My seventh symphony, for instance, was subtitled 'Scenes From Daily Life' largely to give a talking point for interviews. And it worked. It doesn't depict any real scenes from my life, but like everything I write, is intrinsically linked in some indeterminate way to my life experience.

I thought of subtitling my Violin Concerto 'Algorithms of Love and Loss' for much the same reason. Although undefinable, magical and amorphous, the effect that music has on us is still bounded by the human condition, and nothing affects our being more than love and loss. So the subtitle would also be true of just about every piece of music I write. But, as I said just before, 'I don't want to sound pompous or specious'.

Further links

Event details in the AMC Calendar
Carl Vine - AMC profile
Carl Vine - Faber Music
Australian Youth Orchestra (www.ayo.com.au/)

The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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