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9 March 2010

New for old - the thrill of commissioning for the viola da gamba

The core ensemble: Jennifer Eriksson, Belinda Montgomery, Tommie Andersson and Catherine Tabrett Image: The core ensemble: Jennifer Eriksson, Belinda Montgomery, Tommie Andersson and Catherine Tabrett  

Art reflects life and life is full of all kinds of interesting paradoxes. One of the delightful paradoxes for the Marais Project, an Australian ensemble formed in 2000 to perform the complete works of Marin Marais (1656 - 1728), is that, while we largely focus on old French music, we have learned at the same time to work actively with living Australian composers. In the process we have become somewhat addicted to the thrill of commissioning new music, regularly indulging in that delicious sense of expectation that comes from acting as midwife to a new work of art.

First commissions

Marais was, and is, famous as one of history's greatest performers and composers for the viola da gamba - the older, fretted, seven-stringed cousin of the cello. Even thirty years into the early music revival, however, the gamba and its core repertoire are a relatively rare sight on Australian concert platforms. In hindsight, then, we should perhaps have given a lot of thought to how we briefed the composer of our first commission, Stephen Yates, before the director Jennifer Eriksson asked him to write a piece for two viola da gambas. The occasion was the 2001 opening of an exhibition of works by well-known ceramic artist Barbara Campbell-Allen and it seemed fitting to perform a work from the 21st century. Perhaps due to the fact that Stephen had written for early music ensembles before, he seemed to have no trouble composing Tombeau pour Marin Marais, dedicated to the memory of the great Marais. It is more likely such ease is a tribute to Yates's talent and craftsmanship.

It seemed logical to turn to Stephen Yates once more in 2003 when the Marais Project combined with early dance experts, the Early Dance Consort, for a concert celebrating the ubiquitous popular dance tune, La Folia. Once again, with remarkable lack of thought as to logistics, Jennifer asked Stephen to produce a short ballet for violin, two viola da gambas, harpsichord and theorbo (bass lute). The result was Love Reconciled, which recently had its world premiere recording by the Marais Project on a CD of the same name (MOVE MCD424). In this 10-minute work, Stephen drew on original French dance melodies from the period circa 1700-1720, music derived from harpsichord pieces composed by Fran├žois Couperin le Grand, as well as fragments by several other composers. Audience reaction was very positive and we performed Love Reconciled several times prior to recording it in 2009.

In 2003, I negotiated the rights to two poems I admired by James McAuley. The first, 'Nocturnal', was set to music in 2004 by friend and colleague from Sydney Conservatorium, Matthew Perry, for what had by then become the Marais Project's most frequent scoring: two viola da gambas, soprano and theorbo. This unique combination creates a remarkable and compelling resonance. In Perry's Nocturnal, each instrument plays an equal part with opportunities for improvisation in the faster-moving middle section where the gambas and theorbo both have moments in which to solo.


The next of our commissions engaged jazz pianist and composer Kevin Hunt. Kevin's involvement reflected the continuing evolution of the Marais Project, a growing confidence to experiment with repertoire and an expanded aesthetic. Hunt is one of Australia's finest pianists in any genre and is known in particular for his sophisticated improvisation on the music of Bach with his ensemble the Kevin Hunt JS Bach Trio. He is also one half of a duo with classical virtuoso Simon Tedeschi, cheekily titled 'I want to play like him'. Kevin's work for three viola da gambas and continuo, Mercy, Air, Joy, consists of reflections on the 'Kyrie' from the Bach Mass in B minor, the 'Air' (on a G String) from Suite No. 3 in D major and 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring'. Along with examples of Marais's still underestimated art, it was subsequently recorded by the ABC and included in the Marais 350th-anniversary broadcast which the ABC had commissioned us to produce in 2006. We thought it important to have an Australian work on a program celebrating the birth of the French master, and Mercy, Air, Joy fitted the bill.

The success of Mercy, Air, Joy led to Kevin Hunt setting McAuley's 'To the Holy Spirit' for two viola da gambas, soprano and theorbo. Both Matthew Perry's Nocturnal and a revised version of Hunt's To the Holy Spirit appear on the Marais Project's first CD, Viol Dreaming, which was released late in 2007. In the meantime, Kevin continues to work on improvisation projects with the Marais ensemble.

Ten years and counting

By this stage, the Marais Project was ambling up to its 10th anniversary. Despite being completely unfunded by external sources, we had lasted a decade performing Marais and his contemporaries as well as managing to self-commission a new work every two years or so. An article on Father Arthur Bridge in The Sydney Morning Herald led me to contact his foundation, Ars Musica Australis, to request support for the composition of a piece to celebrate our 10th year in 2009. Armed with a 'yes' from Father Arthur we approached Rosalind Page who had recently written a solo piece for Marais Project lutenist Tommie Andersson.

We initially discussed a vocal work but Rosalind's preference was instrumental. Page subsequently produced Aquarelle, an engaging evocation for two viola da gambas, theorbo and baroque violin written whilst staying at an artist's centre in France. This was the most rhythmically complex modern work the ensemble had undertaken. We were fortunate to have the assistance of Sydney Symphony associate concertmaster, Fiona Ziegler, a Marais Project regular, to rehearse the work and lead the premiere. On that memorable occasion, Aquarelle received a rousing ovation from the normally conservative early music-orientated audience, many of whom approached the performers afterwards with positive comments. We have since commissioned another Australian composer to compose a 15-minute vocal work for performance in 2011, details of which will be released soon. By length this will be our most ambitious 21st-century work to date.

Learning across ages and genres

Stepping sequentially through the process of ten years of commissions cannot do justice to the inspiration and satisfaction we receive from working with musicians of the calibre of Yates, Hunt, Perry and Page. Each is different in background, technical approach and aesthetics, yet the works they created have become part of who we are as an ensemble. They have enriched the way we think about and perform our core repertoire, much of which is 250-300 years old. This is to our advantage as we see ourselves professionally as contemporary musicians like any others. We don't want to create dusty reproductions of a period long past for display in some kind of musical museum. For example, we sought out world musician and composer Llew Kiek to produce our CD Love Reconciled as we wanted a fresh set of ears to guide us.

Engagement with the new has rubbed off on our approach to the old. We were impressed by the adaptability of each composer - which might reflect the 'have a go' pragmatism a professional composer must cultivate to make a living in Australia. The viola da gamba is not, as one commentator quipped, a cello on anti-depressants! It has its own timbre, technique (the bow, for example, is held underhand), and way of speaking. Sound is best coaxed rather than forced out of its C-holes, and excessive, sustained dissonance seems inappropriate in an instrument so ancient and wise. Although none of the four composers had written for the instrument prior to our approaching them, each negotiated their way through the arcane world of sheep-gut strings and unfamiliar viol family chord voicings and back safely to 21st-century Australia.

A word on commissioning

Commissioning is an act of faith and joy. A relationship of trust must exist between the commissioner and the composer. The former does not know what they will get or even if they will like the end result. And yet, the composition process takes one into a world populated by individuals of great talent that most Australians have never heard of. Based on our own experience, we hope that many more Australians will take up the opportunity of supporting the writing of music of our time and place. The here and now is what we know best as humankind: we should have the cultural confidence to celebrate it.

Further links

Stephen Yates - AMC profile
Rosalind Page - AMC profile
The Marais Project (http://www.maraisproject.com.au)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Philip Pogson originally trained as a classical musician in Australia and Europe. He is director of a consulting company specialising in strategic advice across a range of industries. He also acts as development manager and co-funder of the Marais Project which was founded by his wife, Jennifer Eriksson.


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