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31 October 2013

Insight: Replica and Our Don

Natalie Williams Image: Natalie Williams  
© Megagraphics Photography

Ex-pat composer Natalie Williams may have made her home in the USA, but currently she is returning to Australia frequently, preparing for the premieres of two major orchestral commissions. Replica will be premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra during their November regional tour to Hamilton (19 November), Warrnambool (20 November) and Ararat (21 November), and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will premiere Our Don, based on the life of the cricket legend Sir Donald Bradman, on 14 August 2014.

> More Insight articles by the AMC's represented artists on our Scoop page.

For the past seven years I have been studying, working and living in the United States. I left Melbourne in 2006 to study for a doctoral degree at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and after graduation I relocated to Athens, Georgia to take up a teaching position at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music in the Composition and Theory Department.

While my teaching has been based Stateside, I've had the great privilege of working on two recent orchestral commissions from Australian orchestras (the Melbourne and Adelaide Symphonies) both of which will premiere during the next twelve months. These commissions have been a fantastic way of retaining ties with my homeland and the two states that I lived and worked within for many years.

In 2005 I was chosen to participate as one of five commissioned composers in the Cybec New Music Series run by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. During that process I had the great opportunity of writing a new work for a chamber ensemble, comprising Melbourne Symphony players. Each composer was paired with a composition mentor (in my case, Brett Dean) and we worked together to shape a new work for the orchestra which was premiered by the MSO in May of 2005. For all composers involved, this was an incredible professional development opportunity and a chance to try new aesthetic ideas and work with some of the country's best orchestral musicians. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the workshops and performances were warmly received and the program was a great success.

Replica for the MSO

In 2011 the MSO approached me again to write a new orchestral work for a regional tour which they will undertake in November 2013 - a commission supported through the generosity of Joy Selby Smith. I was honoured to have the chance to work with the MSO again, and I began to compose a new piece which explores the ideas of echo and resonance within the natural world; sound phenomena that I remember from growing up in different parts of regional Australia.

Since working with the MSO back in 2005 I have gained more orchestral composition experience as I trained in the States; working with the Indiana University chamber orchestra in 2011 and also with the Omaha Symphony in Nebraska during 2012, mentored by William Bolcom. These experiences have provided insights and skills that have expanded and deepened my compositional ideas in a plethora of ways and I am pleased to have the chance to develop these new approaches in a new piece for the Melbourne Symphony.

Following on from my two previous works for double woodwind orchestra (Chambers of the South, WASO 2001) and (Mirror Lakes, Indiana University 2006), my new piece for the MSO, Replica, is an acoustic, sonic depiction of the properties of echo in the natural world. The work explores the nature of echoes and replicated sounds (reverberation, refracted sounds) and how these can be depicted acoustically with a full orchestra. My intention was to replicate echo techniques in the piece without the aid of electronic sound manipulation.

Considering the nature of a replicated sound, I discovered that the echo copies lose the intensity of an original sound source, but they do not intrinsically change from that original source - the pitch lowers slightly and volume will decrease, but the rhythmic values and speed remain constant. Within this work I have explored concepts of echo on many musical levels: pitch and rhythmic canons to imitate the echo phenomenon, contrapuntal orchestration, with an exact mimicking of the echo effect within the orchestral layout, spectral delay, using desks of the orchestra (particularly strings) in quick succession, with divisi techniques to imitate echoes, and gradation techniques with orchestral colors, i.e.: layering of multiple sounds and instruments upon one motivic idea, to create a textural build-up and decay.

I am looking forward to working with the MSO as they tour with this new piece through regional Victoria during November 2013.

Our Don for the ASO

A separate commission that I have been working on since 2011 is a large-scale new orchestral piece, with narrator and video media, celebrating the life and achievements of cricketing hero, Sir Donald Bradman. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra approached me about creating this new work, through the support of the South Australian government. The new piece, entitled Our Don is a first of its kind, honouring the life of an Australian iconic figure and bringing South Australian history into the contemporary artistic space. There are few precedent works for a piece of this nature, and I began by studying Copland's Lincoln Portrait (1942) for narrator and orchestra.

The only parameter for my new work was that it should celebrate Sir Don's life in a way that pays homage to his achievements and successes and highlights his unique role in Australian cultural history. With this approach in mind I began many months of research and study into Don Bradman's life and history, his personal and professional journey, and his role as an unassuming Australian 'hero'. I sought out a number of biographies and started researching the Bradman archives at the Mortlock Library in South Australia.

During his retirement from professional cricket, Sir Don created 52 scrapbooks of his cricketing memorabilia which are now housed at the Mortlock Library. These comprise hundreds of photos, letters, newspaper reviews, personal correspondence, official contracts and documents, cricketing equipment and trophies, and other items that Bradman accumulated during his professional career. Such a rich collection provides an amazing source of inspiration for a new piece and I spent a number of weeks shaping the piece into a narrative structure, based on key moments in his professional and personal life.

Sir Don was an intensely private character. While he realised his status in the public eye, he was strongly protective of his private life and desired a low profile in his adopted home town of Adelaide. His preference for this situation raised some interesting questions for me as I composed the new work: how do we publicly celebrate a figure who so often requested that his life not be the center of so much media attention? How can a work be shaped to honor an Australian 'hero' when the hero himself did not view his life and career in such a way? These are some interesting aesthetic questions that I am still grappling with as I complete the score and prepare to work with the ASO during 2014.

While creating this piece I have also been working with the ABC in Adelaide to create a short video of footage from Sir Don's cricketing career. This video will be shown alongside the orchestral work, with a narrator taking center stage and guiding the audience through the scenes of Bradman's professional life, supported by the visual footage behind.

The piece, Our Don, is constructed as a series of chronological scenes of Bradman's life. The work first explores Bradman's early childhood in Bowral and his training as a young cricketer. The piece then focuses on his early professional life and the 1930 Ashes tour of England. The following movements highlight the Bodyline saga from 1932, which saw the English and Australian teams locked in a tense battle both on and off the field. A central movement of the piece is titled 'The Invincibles' which became the moniker for the undefeated Australian cricket team during their English tour of 1948. The final movements of Our Don close with a reflection and celebration of Sir Don's life, focusing on what his leadership and achievements truly meant to the Australian people. At a time when national morale was low (during the Great Depression) his sporting success was more than just 'runs on the board' - his triumphs provided a light in Australian public life that everyone could enjoy, celebrate and acclaim, and it was thus that Sir Don became an iconic part of Australian history and leads to the creation of this new celebratory work.

My research for this piece turned up some unexpected gems, including a short piece composed by Sir Don himself. He wrote a short art song, published in 1930 titled, 'Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me' for soprano voice and piano, with lyrics by Jack Lumsdaine. Bradman loved music and his granddaughter, soprano Greta Bradman tells of his fondness for vocal music and piano music in a recent CD recording of music that he loved (ABC Classics, 2010). Bradman was also a talented pianist and was often found at the piano playing for his teammates during the long tour journeys to England by boat.

Writing the piece has been an incredible journey exploring the history of such an important Australian figure. In November this year I will visit the Bradman museum in Bowral and also the Mortlock Library in Adelaide to gather more primary sources that will shape the final musical work. This project has also been a great chance to link the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with sporting bodies such as Cricket Australia and the South Australian Cricket Association, to raise awareness of the new piece and hopefully reach some new audiences through connections with these associations. Our Don has a potential to attract an audience that might not usually attend orchestral concerts and the opportunity for audience-outreach through this new work is very exciting.

These two orchestral commissions have provided a very special chance for me to continue to develop and explore new sound worlds, new aesthetic approaches and a new musical language for these large ensembles. While I am working away from my homeland, I relish these opportunities to collaborate with wonderful musicians and create works that will enrich and enhance Australian cultural life. For me, this is a very deep privilege and embracing these projects helps me to feel that I'm really not very far away at all. I look forward to the premieres of both new works, in Victoria during November 2013, and in Adelaide during August 2014.

AMC resources

Natalie Williams - AMC profile
'Connecting with the past - thoughts on earlier compositional journeys ' - an interview with Natalie Williams by Michael Hooper (Resonate 28 February 2008)

Further links

Natalie Williams - homepage (www.natworksmusic.com)
'Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to pay tribute to Don Bradman in 2013 season program'
- The Advertiser (24 September 2013)
'ASO concert to celebrate Our Don' - InDaily (24 September 2013)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Composer Natalie Williams is the Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Hugh Hodgson School of Music, University of Georgia.


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