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29 November 2011

First Stones - from ideas to fruition

Elliott Gyger with First Stones participants Image: Elliott Gyger with First Stones participants  

Having participated in numerous composer development programs myself, it is a pleasure and a delight now to be able to pass on the favour to younger composers through taking on the role of teacher and mentor. Halcyon's First Stones project has been particularly rewarding, as it's the first program I've been in on from the beginning and helped to design.

It has been fascinating watching the ideas of our participants come to fruition over the six-month course of the First Stones project. The nine composers we chose differ in their level of experience, but each of them has a clear and distinctive musical personality. As part of the introductory sessions in May each of them completed a pair of overnight compositional tasks which Jenny and Alison sightread the following day - but even the brief exercises produced under those highly artificial conditions had characteristic fingerprints which reappear in the fully-worked pieces performed in the final concert in November.

The core of the First Stones process, from my point of view, was the four intensive days of workshop rehearsal in July. Some composers came in on the first day with a virtually complete draft, others with sections or even isolated ideas; but whatever they arrived with served as a departure point for trial and experimentation, rather than as a fixed and authoritative text. The composers' own revisions and alternative versions were complemented by spontaneous interventions and suggestions from the performers and myself, all secure in the knowledge that the actual performance was still several months away. 'What if … ?' is a phrase that should be heard much more often in rehearsal rooms than is usually the case - after all, what is composition itself but an act of creative, risk-taking speculation?

Australian composition students are fortunate to have a relative abundance of such projects open to them already, but I still feel that with First Stones we have created something special: a rich nexus of voice and instrument, text and music, addressing many of the basic compositional questions in microcosm. The intimate scale and extended, multi-stage process have meant that we can lavish attention on tiny details as well as the bigger picture - and it moreover becomes apparent in this context that the details and the whole are intimately connected. Adjusting dynamic balances or fine timbral distinctions may bring a dull texture to startling life; registral or rhythmic choices may affect how clearly a key word is audible, thereby influencing a piece's dramatic impact; the insertion or removal of a bar or a beat may have profound consequences for sense of flow or arrival.

Understanding where and how to make this kind of fine-tuning is an aspect of compositional craft that can only really be learned through experience and interaction with skilled and dedicated performers. Jenny Duck-Chong and Alison Morgan are singing musicians of remarkable versatility, precision, and expressive range; and they put together an ensemble of playing musicians with comparable skills - clarinettist Diana Springford, cellist Geoffrey Gartner, harpist Genevieve Lang and pianists Jo Allan and Sally Whitwell. All have been exceptionally generous with their time and expertise, in some cases involved in lengthy discussions via email or in person outside the scheduled rehearsals, helping the composers to clarify their ideas.

First stones - part one from Halcyon on Vimeo, video: Liz Duck-Chong,
music by Nicole Murphy, Owen Salome and James Wade.

If I were to identify a single recurrent theme across the whole project, that theme would be bringing voices and instruments closer together. Coming from a training that is overwhelmingly focused on instrumental writing, many composers approach the voice either with reckless disregard or extreme caution; they understand neither its inherent limitations nor its abundant potential. One of the interesting paradoxes of musical composition, however, is that the more one explores the unique characteristics of any given sound source (vocal, instrumental or electronic), the easier it is to combine it with others in an engaging and imaginative way. We generally call this art of combination 'orchestration' - but it is even more crucial in dealing with small forces, and something of a revelation when applied to voices.

Not one of the First Stones pieces could accurately be described in terms of vocal line with instrumental accompaniment. Voices duck and weave into and around the ensemble texture, or are hybridised with instrumental gestures to produce something new. Even when voices and instruments are kept distinct, it's in the service of a dramatic dialogue between equal partners -instrument-as-voice, complementing voice-as-instrument.

These enriched sonic resources may then also be brought to bear on the most powerful extra element available with voices: the presence of a text. I think the phrase 'setting words to music' has some unhelpful connotations - one can be led to think of the text as an inviolable gem being shown to best advantage, or as something fluid and free which has been solidified or closed in. The most effective musical treatments are those that truly interact with their texts, illuminating and sometimes reshaping them while simultaneously pursuing sonic and structural imperatives of their own. The texts chosen by the First Stones composers range from short, stand-alone poems to excerpts from scientific or literary prose; some composers wrote their own words or even managed without text altogether. In every case, though, the choice was guided by musical requirements, and the results were correspondingly satisfying.

Halcyon's aims in initiating the First Stones project were twofold: to build awareness, expertise and enthusiasm for writing vocal chamber music in the Australian compositional community; and to spark collaborative interactions between musicians (whether singing or playing) and younger composers that will hopefully bear fruit in years and decades to come. It's obviously too early to gauge the long-term impact, but from my perspective, the immediate results look more than encouraging.

The First Stones workshops were organised with the AMC as a supporting partner.

AMC resources

'First Stones - a new composer development initiative by Halcyon' - a blog article on Resonate by Jenny Duck-Chong (28 February 2011)
'First Stones - compositions taking shape' - a blog article on Resonate by Alison Morgan (6 July 2011)
Blog articles by First Stones participants: Lachlan Hughes, Nicole Murphy, Anastasia Pahos, Peggy Polias, Owen Salome, James Wade, Chris Williams, Pedro Oliveira Woolmer

Further links

First Stones 2011 (Halcyon website)

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