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10 April 2014

Insight: The 47 strings of Davey Jones Locker

Stuart Greenbaum Image: Stuart Greenbaum  

Stuart Greenbaum writes about the mystery that is the harp - his early crimes against it, and how, over a series of compositions for harp, he made friends with the instrument. Greenbaum's works involving harp will be heard next in ANAM's Australian Voices concert series in Melbourne on 8 May.

On the morning of 6 September 1997 I was sitting on the banks of the Thames outside the Tate Gallery in London. It was the day of the funeral for Diana Spencer, and in deference, the gallery didn't open until midday. Once inside, however, I was thrilled to find a special exhibition of the works of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. It highlighted a fascinating development in his style from Symbolism and cubism to the so-called neoplasticism that he is most identified with today. On my way out, I bought picture cards of the works I liked most, with the intention of setting them to music. They remained in their yellow paper bag for years.

A decade later Paul Dean commissioned me to write a new work for the Southern Cross Soloists and solo harp (Marshall McGuire). The idea came back to me and the pictures (in chronological order) suggested the eight movements that comprise Mondrian Interiors. The eight movements are miniatures of varied length, scored either for the full ensemble, solo harp (which is featured) or other varied subsets that this sextet allows.

This commission came at a good time, having written a solo harp work for Marshall in 2005 (9 Candles for Dark Nights) - a work he premiered at the 2006 Aurora Festival of Living Music in Western Sydney. Before that, I think it is fair to say that my understanding of the harp could be described as rudimentary. Sure, I'd written for the instrument three or four times previously in orchestral works, but I don't think I wrote for it that well. My crimes against the harp? Writing F# and F natural in the same chord (oops). Mistaking the bass end for a piano (it's softer, slower to speak). Not knowing that harmonics would sound an octave higher than written. Not knowing that the harp is a four-finger instrument (no pinkies). Misjudging the range / speed of glissandi (I wish I had a dollar for every time I've done that). Granted, the standard harp glissando is a cliché. But in the right context, at the right speed and dynamic, it can be subtle, beautiful and compelling. Like all instruments, it does certain things well. And it's not that hard (surely easier than writing for guitar); but getting on top of some basics (starting with the tuning mechanism and the feet) makes a big difference.

Why did it seem such a mystery in my 20s? Maybe this comes down to access. As a kid, I grew up with two pianos in the house. Just because I never practised either for more than 10 minutes at a time didn't stop me getting an unequivocal sense of the sonic properties of the 88 keys. Harps? The 47 strings were in Davey Jones Locker. Just take the elevator down to the basement, turn left, go down the long corridor, take the 6th door on the right and punch in the access code (this is not an entirely fictional description - it is actually how we get a harp up to Melba Hall for orchestration lectures).

It was never a lack of interest. Just opportunity. And working with Marshall on four different commissions between 2005 and 2011 changed all that. Beyond the tuning and the feet, I started to get a feel for the timbre, harmonics and hand figuration. I am indebted to Matthew Hindson for suggesting that I write that first solo harp piece for the Aurora Festival. 9 Candles for Dark Nights has had well over a dozen performances since its premiere. And also to Riley Lee for commissioning Life in a Day (shakuhachi and harp) for 2008 World Shakuhachi Festival. This all led to collaborations with other wonderful harpists including Genevieve Lang (Three Songs of Sleep, Halcyon), Julie Raines (Symphony No. 2, MSO), Jacinta Dennett (The Parrot Factory, Victorian Opera). And now to ANAM alumni harpist, Jess Fotinos, who made the premiere recording of my Four Finalities (soprano, cor anglais and harp) and has programmed that work with Mondrian Interiors and 9 Candles for Dark Nights as part of an upcoming ANAM Australian Voices concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday 8 May.

Four Finalities is a setting of a brand new text by Australian poet Ross Baglin (you can read the text here). It's the newest of the three works and will receive its premiere performance with current ANAM mezzo-soprano, Lotte Betts-Dean. ANAM's commitment to Australian repertoire (new and old) makes it a national treasure. Their partnership with the Melbourne Recital Centre through the Australian Voices series is unique.

At the time of writing this short article, Philip Lambert (ANAM librarian) asked if I would respond to a few questions by email - and these came at a perfect time to round out this rumination:

Philip Lambert: I once heard the Melbourne jazz pianist Tony Gould say that he was running a campaign for the return of quiet music. A lot of your music, even your music for orchestra, reminds me of that remark. It seems to invite the listener in to a place of refuge and reflection, rather than bludgeoning them into submission. Is there just too much loud noise in the world?

Stuart Greenbaum: I certainly think there is too much music in the world and not enough of it is meaningfully created or deeply heard. It's my one misgiving about being a composer. But perhaps it is also fair to hope that we can make a difference by offering something better. As to loud music: this has dual aspects. In terms of pure decibels, it is understandable that a teenager walking into a nightclub or to the front rows of a death metal concert may feel a visceral reaction to power of an insanely loud speaker grid pumping out drum and bass. But these days, feeling the bass drum vibrate through my heart makes me nauseous. Yes, there is definitely too much loud noise in the world. As a teenager I played electric guitar in bands. A well-equalised distortion chord can be a thing of beauty. Turning it up to '11' might seem cool, but I'm more interested in the quality and resonance of the sound than banal over-amplification.

But what does this mean in the classical contemporary music world? Certainly, some composers have a reputation for being 'loud' - perhaps Xenakis or Turnage come to mind for certain pieces. It's probably not unfair to say that much contemporary music has been classified as 'noisy'. This is partially subjective. I think there is a general trend in all the modern arts towards getting attention. A reactionary stance to shock or unsettle. These are potentially legitimate artistic aims (and some sections of some of my works do seek to unsettle). But I think it is a hand that has been tiresomely overplayed and probably over-rewarded. Of course some musical genres, like 'new age', promise refuge (and might have the volume turned down) but are often the musical equivalent of candy floss - all sugar but no substance.

In regard to my own music, it is often quiet and spacious - texturally transparent; though whether it offers refuge to any listener is not for me to say. There's a subtle but crucial difference between leading an audience and telling them what to think. The latter is inadvisable. Coming back then to Tony Gould's 'campaign': there's a lot to say for quiet music. You have to listen carefully, you have to concentrate. Tony writes beautiful, thoughtful music. And the world could probably do with more of that!

PL: You seem to love the sparse textures of early 20th century music, even recalling composers like Webern and Schoenberg, but you actually write tunes! Your music is highly melodic. Is having a strong melodic line very important to you?
SG: I have always been a melodic composer - even as a 15-year-old. At certain times in my career I have worried that melody might have been too overt in my music. But there's not a lot I can do about that. Once I'm in the middle of writing I'm only thinking about the musical possibilities. All else falls away and then we are left with who we really are. My music is not only melodic but often presents melody in a clearly phrased manner. I think this comes back to singing. One needs to breathe. And that's just as well.

PL: Your suite for harp and ensemble, Mondrian Interiors, was inspired by an exhibition of the Dutch painter's works at the Tate Gallery in London. Mondrian, even in his early pictures, favoured very strong, primary colours and clear lines, but your music seems a lot subtler in nature. Where, do you think, was the meeting point for you and Mondrian?

SG: What captured me most at that Mondrian retrospective was the later works - his so-called neo-plasticism. The white canvas with black horizontal and vertical lines - and just a few rectangles filled in with primary colours. It's not because these works meant anything that I interpreted programmatically; I was just amazed at how successful their design and arrangement was. Those late paintings - they don't seem to require much skill with the brush. But the conception of their dynamic relationship to each other in two-dimensional space is nothing short of masterly. It also reminded me of minimalism in music (which is an important influence for me): not as a rigid process, but a customised minimalism that highlights gems within the grid.

But I was also interested in how Mondrian arrived at this final style from very early in the 20th century through to the WWII era. It's a fascinating and logical career progression. My challenge was to respond intuitively to each of the eight pictures I selected, but somehow to also reflect that chronological progression. Ultimately it is a matter of interpretation. In one sense those late Mondrian pictures are bold. But maybe this is because he had the audacity to be so transparent. You can see all the elements at a glance, yet the eye keeps scanning, finding new inter-relationships, new subtleties. In short, his work is fascinating and holds my attention. And it continues to reward my deepest consideration. That's not a bad aim in any art form!

AMC resources

Stuart Greenbaum - AMC profile (biography, works, CDs, articles and events)
Australian Voices: Stuart Greenbaum (Melbourne Recital Centre 8 May 2014) - event details in the AMC Calendar
'Stuart Greenbaum and the Parrot Factory' - an article on Resonate (27 September 2010)


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