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27 September 2012

Insight: SILVA – Something from nothing

Mary Finsterer Image: Mary Finsterer  
© Dean Golja

Mary Finsterer's article continues our series of 'Insight' features by the AMC's represented artists. Her percussion concerto SILVA will be performed by Ensemble Offspring in Sydney on 23 October and in Brisbane on 27 October, together with the premiere of Circadian Tale 7.1. Another new work by Finsterer, Falling for two pianos, is featured in the program of Soundstream Adelaide New Music Festival on 12 October.

Previous 'Insight' articles: Andrew Ford, Ross Edwards, Ruth Lee Martin, Mark Isaacs, Jessica Wells, Peter Knight, Drew Crawford, Gordon Kerry, and Erik Griswold & Vanessa Tomlinson.

Something composers rarely discuss in an open way is the fear of having no ideas. There's both an excitement and horror attached to it - like waiting for a light to shine while staring into an abyss. The only time I have had open discussions about this topic is when I am in the role of a teacher, which of course allows the student a safe environment to face the feeling of emptiness and of feeling small in front of the massive task that unavoidably lies ahead.

Writers or wordsmiths, on the other hand, have very cleverly coined the phrase 'writer's block' to describe the state. This is a powerful thing. With two words, not only is creative paralysis acknowledged as something real, it somehow sanctifies the condition. It gives the writer some 'breathing space' to just sit with that uncomfortable feeling of emptiness. Nothing. And that's a good place to start - sitting with nothing. Because nothing takes on a new meaning. Nothing becomes stillness and silence. It teaches us to be quiet and to wait. It allows us to listen. And when we are listening, we have begun to engage in a dialogue with a blank canvas that speaks of limitless possibilities.

The one factor this process depends on is, of course, time. Time becomes the essential component for allowing the chance to sit with nothing. And herein lies the dilemma. For the composer who makes a living from delivering the finished score to a deadline, time increases in value. It becomes a commodity. And with increasing pressure to produce within time constraints, suddenly the writer's block is seen as a luxury, even an indulgence.

So what's the answer? How does one get to that place that allows something to emerge from nothing while serving a brief that delivers a finished product on time?

The skill of reaching a balance, quite ironically, can only be learned through time and experience. Every composer has their own system. Always present though is a sense of disciplined practice. For my own part, attending to the act of composition as a routine activity throughout the week is essential. I know that if I approach composition more like a ritual, ideas will find their way to my ear more directly.

I must say that one of the most enjoyable practices I have found when facing a new project is that I often begin with a metaphor - a symbol, word or image. The metaphor is like a key that opens a door to sound and movement. By movement I mean how the idea will develop and engage with other ideas in a dialogue or counterpoint, this ultimately serving the larger structures of the work as a whole.

I notice that when I employ a metaphor, my listening becomes more active. I begin asking questions and waiting for responses of how the metaphor is likely to behave in certain contexts. The metaphor becomes like a character in a play, responding to situations that will trigger a reaction or movement of some kind, and in this way feeding into the narrative as it unfolds through the duration of the work.

This is the way that I approached Silva, the percussion concerto I have just composed for Claire Edwardes and Ensemble Offspring.

Silva comes from Latin and means forest. Being a dead language, the language of Latin doesn't evolve. It remains the same. It's like a foundation - a bedrock for other things to rest on and evolve. In this way Latin also becomes a metaphor. It provides a starting point, the soil from which a theme may emerge and grow in much the same way as a tree in a forest.

As Latin is beyond time, it is a perfect complement to the medium of music, which can only be realised as it passes through the passage of time. It also acts as a bridge from one period of time to another. And this is very important to my approach to composition as it brings into play the concept of tradition, of bringing into the present practices from the past.

In the case of Silva, the work is traditional in form - a simple ABA structure. The first section reflects the work I have been developing since my orchestral work In Praise of Darkness, where the idea of memory is played out with recurring thematic fragments inspired by Tallis's Spem in alium and Schubert's Death and the Maiden, a fitting quote for the recent passing of a dear friend of mine.

The thematic scheme for the work aims to give different impressions of the forest. The opening is atmospheric in character. It aims to give a feeling of largeness through space. It looks out, as if to experience the forest through layers of branches and leaves, these represented by the whimsical, faster moving soft gestures of the woodwinds and string harmonics.

The harmonic treatment of the work originates from two sources, the quotes I have mentioned and the language I have been developing from research into the Renaissance period. My aim is for the overall effect to not to be too leading. For this reason I avoid using one major or minor mode, instead opting for an interchangeable 3rd degree note within the scale.

Hopefully this will inspire a feeling of awe that is befitting the theme of the forest and avoids sentimentality.

The second section emerges in stark contrast. With the earthy timbres of the tom toms and gongs, this section aims to give an impression of the forest from a completely different perspective. If the first section represents the leaves and branches and openness of the sky, then this section stands for the timber and the soil that beds the forest, highlighting the percussion as other instruments work to frame and punctuate the texture.

The forest has always figured high in our collective consciousness. Through the stories we first heard as children, the forest plays on our imagination as a place of wonder, escape, danger and adventure. In many folk tales the forest is even seen as forbidden - a place full of mystery and shadows.

In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson,

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Mary Finsterer is recognised as one of Australia’s most original orchestral composers. Her work has won many awards around the world, including the prestigious Paul Lowin Orchestral Prize in 2009 for her work inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, In Praise of Darkness. In 2006, she received a Churchill Fellowship to compose alongside Marco Beltrami for the blockbuster movie DIE HARD 4. She has recently completed an opera entitled Biographica, commissioned by The Song Company.


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