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28 February 2008

Connecting with the Past: Thoughts on Earlier Compositional Journeys

Interview with Natalie Williams

Natalie Williams Image: Natalie Williams  

Natalie Williams is one of Australia's most exciting composers. As the holder of an APRA Professional Development Award, she is currently studying at Indiana University. This interview explores her interest in the music of various composers working in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Michael Hooper: What do you think the study of Australian music from the 1950s, '60s and '70s has to offer composers now?

...as an Australian who has made 'the trek' up north, I now have a much more refined awareness of what it means to be an Australian composer...Natalie Williams: One of the primary attributes of [contemporary classical] music from this period is its aesthetic explorations in style and technique. There seemed to be a great diversity of voices, speaking in many forms, each unique in their own way. Once the serialist aesthetic had loosened its grip, so to speak, [many] composers felt freer to explore their own unique voices; becoming aware of their connection to Europe and how that played a part in the geography of where they were writing. [Many] also began to respond to the Australian landscape (thinking particularly of Peter Sculthorpe's Sun Music series etc...) at this time and it's really during this period that concern for this approach became a strong consideration. This issue remains perhaps an under-explored aesthetic in Australian music but there are composers who certainly continue to contribute steadfastly to this idea of an Australian identity.

MH: Do you feel like there is a tradition of contemporary classical Australian music that connects to those who worked in the 1950s/'60s?

NW: [It seems to me] that there has been an evolving tradition, which first began to gather a significant momentum around this time. This laid the aesthetic background for a great diversity of languages, which continues to the present day. Perhaps the approach of 'we are similar in our diversity' best characterises the path (and tradition) of Australian music that stems from this era. Composers establish their own unique styles and approaches, competing for commissions and opportunities alongside each other but while working in a plethora of styles.

As a body of work, it seems that pieces from this time are not often performed, or perhaps overlooked in favour of later works from the 1990s or even the past 7-8 years. The '50s and '60s informed what we do today, but Oz is a sounding board for what happens in the rest of the world, about 20 years behind. There is a fragrance of Australian-ness in the works of most Australian composers; attributes which are still being studied and codified; and on which we perhaps don't yet all agree. It is easier to suggest that this era was the beginning of a tradition of diversity, rather than a chronological tradition in itself.

MH: The first works by Peter Sculthorpe that I heard were his string quartets. The same for Nigel Butterley. Do you think of this medium as having a particularly lively place in Australian music?

NW: Australian literature for the string quartet is strong and is perhaps known most readily by Sculthorpe's 'flagship' works. Also of note are Richard Meale's two quartets and Carl Vine's works. The Australian String Quartet is performing one Australian work in each of its concerts in their 2008 season, and the Grainger Quartet has also been a pioneer of this repertoire.

I don't see a specific string quartet tradition as much as an Australian tradition. Works in this medium are diverse and eclectic and while stylistic shifts can be seen, more unique are the approaches of individual composers, and the fact that they co-exist in a relatively small musical environment.

MH: Could you comment on some aspects of those string quartets you have studied that have seemed remarkable?

NW: Definitely Richard Meale's second string quartet, featuring the lovely Cantilena Pacifica movement.

MH: Leaving Australia to work elsewhere is hardly a new idea. Do you see the reasons for your study in the USA as markedly different from those of earlier generations?

NW: Not really. My reasons for leaving Australian shores are twofold, and ally strongly with the motivations for other Aussie composers who have taken that same step: namely, to gain the best training possible, and to develop and network as a composer on the international stage.

Firstly, I'm seeking to train as an academic and composer in a variety of contexts. The coursework training that I'm undertaking in the USA gives me in-depth, professional level skills in analysis, harmony, counterpoint and music history; this type of training appealed to me more than a research degree option, and I'm enjoying the intensive level theory courses very much.

I also recently trained in Paris with the European American Musical Alliance at the Ecole Normale de Musique. Here I was able to network and study with students from across the USA and Europe and learn from European and American composers at an intensive level.

Secondly, as an Australian who has made 'the trek' up north, I now have a much more refined awareness of what it means to be an Australian composer. One of my own teachers, Brenton Broadstock, also experienced something similar in that the perspective attained by distance can often redefine one's aesthetic approach. I remember listening to the third movement of Ross Edwards's violin concerto (Maninyas) in the Indiana University music library last year, and I was struck with a sudden and deeper awareness of the reality of what Australian music really is and its unique qualities. It was my first real experience of musical 'homesickness'.

My aim is to work as prolifically and efficiently as possible in the Northern Hemisphere, broadening my personal outlook as a composer and widening my network of contacts and training. I hope to bring these pivotal connections back home in the future, to expand the hemispherical connections and contribute to the development of Australian music in the process. I miss Australia very much, and I now see its musical traditions through very different eyes than the pair I left with last year. I hope this continues to develop and refine during my next three years in the USA.

About Natalie Williams

Natalie Williams is currently a Doctoral Student in Composition at the Jacob's School of Music at Indiana University, in the United States. She completed a Masters Degree in Composition at the University of Melbourne in 2002 and holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Adelaide (Elder Conservatorium), graduating with first class Honours in 1998. In July of 2007 she furthered her studies in composition at the European American Musical Alliance summer school at the Ecole Normale in Paris. She has studied under composers; Claude Baker, Robert Beaser, Brenton Broadstock and Graeme Koehne.

Her works have been commissioned and performed by national and international ensembles, including the Adelaide, Melbourne & West Australian Symphony Orchestras, the Australian and Sydney Youth Orchestras, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Song Company, the Zephyr String Quartet, Adelaide Youth Orchestra, the Cameo Trio, Melbourne University Orchestra, Elder Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, Fiorini Trio (UK), Syntony and the Brenton Langbein String Quartet. Her output includes music for film, theatre, chamber and orchestral genres.

Further Links

Natalie Williams (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=4802)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Michael Hooper is a performer and musicologist. As a mandolinist, he specialises in the performance of the instrument’s recent repertoire and is active in commissioning new works. As a musicologist, his PhD at The University of York considered the music of Britain in the 1960s and '70s, and specifically the Australian-born, but long-time English resident, David Lumsdaine.


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