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17 March 2008

Pen to Paper and Music to My Ears

A New Angle on National Music Camp

Pen to Paper and Music to My Ears

In January, resonate contributor Melissa Lesnie attended Australian Youth Orchestra's National Music Camp, directed in its 60th anniversary year by Marshall McGuire. Melissa took part in Words About Music, a course designed to enable aspiring music writers and radio presenters to develop skills in researching program notes, delivering pre-concert talks and producing features for various forms of media. Here she reflects on her two-week stint as intrepid camp journo, and how such a role interacts with that of the young performers, composers and arts administrators thriving within the same musical training ground.

When I applied for Words About Music it was to seek deliverance from holiday languor. The summer break between semesters is a hazy time during which I find it difficult to maintain a proactive writing schedule. I had few expectations of the course but felt I needed a fortnight of intensive musical immersion, a rigorous schedule to prevent rigor from setting in.

I arrived at the Australian National University a day early, 24 hours before the mass convergence of orchestral players, international conductors, and esteemed tutors. This free time was spent largely in isolation, sulking over the Sydney Festival gigs I'd be missing and cursing Canberra's plastic corporate sculptures. It was unlikely, I scowled to myself, that I was going to be a happy camper.

But until I met the staff, alumni and fellow students involved in National Music Camp, I was completely unaware of its impact and magnitude. Not only as an institution, but also as an extended family of musicians who have experienced the tradition and whose paths it has influenced; creative ties that span generations and forge cross-country connections. It was impossible to keep scowling when faced with that kind of history, and with the knowledge that I was suddenly a part of it.

Out of all the events I witnessed during my sojourn in Canberra, nothing illustrates this connectivity as clearly as a performance by the Hazelwood Chamber Orchestra. National Music Camp has created a tradition of heartfelt tribute in naming each year's string orchestra after a luminary of AYO's history, someone who has had an impact on both orchestral and chamber music making nationwide. In 2008 the 35-piece orchestra's namesake was Donald Hazelwood, former Concertmaster of Sydney Symphony (1965-98) and for many years a dedicated tutor at National Music Camp. As longtime leader of the Austral Quartet, he championed many new Australian compositions, including several premieres of works by Peter Sculthorpe, who dedicated his String Quartet No.9 to the group in 1975. This year, the Hazelwood Chamber Orchestra performed the same piece in its expanded incarnation as Second Sonata for Strings. It must have been gratifying for Donald Hazelwood to hear a work he premiered over three decades ago realised today by an ensemble named in honour of his achievements. It is this kind of link, to important musical figures in the AYO tradition, that encourages and humbles participants today.

The design of the camp is modelled on professional strands that exist in the wider musical community, including factions of writers, composers, and arts administrators which each have a role in bringing music to its audience. The two weeks of camp culminate in orchestral concerts broadcast live on ABC Classic FM: those who aren't at camp to perform make their contribution to the smooth running of events by creating, elucidating, and publicising the music, or even by moving chairs, stands, instruments and people as required. This experience of young musicians working towards a common goal - perhaps unlike the real classical industry in some ways - takes place in a purpose-built musical microcosm that is wholly supportive, nurturing and formative.

Words About Music

I've only recently ventured into writing about music outside of my academic pursuits as a musicology student, producing articles, program notes and reviews in my spare time. The concert-going these activities have afforded me is richly diverse and rewarding, but my place in that musical exchange can seem peripheral, even cloistered. I turn up to a performance (often alone if an interested and available companion does not materialise), I scrawl notes in the dark, I organise my thoughts in the seclusion of my home office, and I e-mail the finished product to one of several editors I've never met. (resonate is an exception in that the editor enters into mini-debates with me about issues raised in a submission, and the piece can emerge sharper and more penetrating as a result.) On the whole, there is no feedback, no direct interaction with performers, and the processes of writing and thinking about music are carried out in relative isolation.

Amidst such immediacy, for the first time in a long time, I felt closely connected to what I was writing about and was keenly aware of why... I was doing it in the first place. Figuratively speaking, Words About Music filled that empty seat next to me at a concert. My three colleagues and three tutors witnessed the same rehearsals and performances I was writing about, and the feedback they provided (and that I in turn offered to my fellow writers) was enriched by this shared experience. Six pairs of eyes would be trained on reams of drafts before anything went to print on the NMC website or in its annual newsletter, Musica Fever. I soon discovered it's much easier to agonise over a turn of phrase when someone patient and encouraging is looking over your shoulder. Completely new to such concentrated feedback - both its luxuries and its frustrations - I felt compelled to substantially rewrite pieces I might have been content to publish back at home. In the same way the performers strove for an outstanding concert, we worked towards the common goal of a flawless camp magazine and memorable radio features.

The program's writing tutors this year were Angela Turner of Griffith University (a former 'WAMmer'), and the Sydney-based music historian David Garrett, who founded the program in 1993 and has been instrumental in evolving its content and focus over the last fifteen years. Andrew Dixon, sound engineer for the ABC, introduced the four participants to what were largely unfamiliar workings of radio production. He supervised our work on two twenty-minute feature presentations (about musical journeys and the camp milieu), and was responsible for their broadcast after each concert on ABC Classic FM. Radio presenter Julian Day, himself a 'graduate' of Words About Music, hosted the concerts and accompanied us on a tour of Canberra ABC.

If National Music Camp really is a model of the arts scene a music journalist might explore out in the real world, then it was conveniently and marvellously condensed. There was something uniquely inspiring about writing a program note on Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra and hearing - through the open window and above the industrious clack of my laptop - strains of the orchestra rehearsing the very piece in question. Similarly, when I was assigned to write the program notes for the works of British composer Joby Talbot, I had only to saunter down the hall to where he was teaching in order to clarify name, date or meaning. Amidst such immediacy, for the first time in a long time, I felt closely connected to what I was writing about and was keenly aware of why, in fact, I was doing it in the first place.

Other aspects of camp drew me out of my usual sense of isolation. Tutors, performers and other camp participants were generously cooperative during interviews and took an interest in how we 'WAMmers' would represent them. Through our observations, we picked up details that were irrelevant to our articles but invaluable to us personally (What does the ACO's Aiko Goto pick on a jukebox? Who wins a game of air hockey between violinist Helena Rathbone and acclaimed conductor Baldur Brönnimann? How white are Marshall McGuire's cricket whites?). Engaging in cafeteria conversation proved useful when trawling for stories, with some musicians all too eager to deliver the scoop on any given topic. Some of our younger subjects were nervous while others, I think, were made to feel special.

Through exchanges like these, the composers at camp became something of a pet project for me. Like Words About Music, Composition was a close-knit program with only four participants. Previous classes have written for ballet and opera but this year's focus was silent film. Driven to frantic feats of creativity by tutor and seasoned film composer Joby Talbot, the participants were given only a week to complete their scores, which were then rehearsed by chamber ensembles and performed at a public screening. The unusual footage for this undertaking, provided by the National Film and Sound Archive, derived from the Corrick Collection (1901-1914), a series of wildly experimental forays into a burgeoning cinematic art form. I felt privileged to follow the progression of ideas from hasty computerised scribblings to a live premiere attended by boisterously enthusiastic camp devotees. For writers as for composers, there could not be a more supportive environment to help find and secure one's place in the broader Australian musical establishment.

Further Links

More Articles by Melissa Lesnie

Melissa Lesnie currently studies musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where her main interests lie in early music and 20th century composition. She works at the classical CD specialist store Fish Fine Music. In her spare time, Melissa sings in the Sydneian Bach Chamber Choir and records as one half of an electroacoustic duo, Lady Lazarus.


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