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31 July 2007

Questions, Questions ...

The Song Company Image: The Song Company  

For composer Brad Gill, the compositional process is a complex negotiation. As one of the seven MODART07 participants, Gill reflects on writing for a cappella ensemble in the context of his overall approach to composing. Gill - along with the other MODART07 composers - will spend at least one week during the second half of September with The Song Company workshopping their ideas to each produce a work for this highly acclaimed vocal ensemble.

A public performance and broadcast of the seven works is planned for 29 September 2007.

Both as a composer and teacher I always begin with questions: What is actually being expressed here? ; Why am I/you composing at all? And so when I was asked to write something for the AMC's web magazine resonate about my MODART07 composition it seemed most natural to focus on the series of questions I ask/ed myself in considering and undertaking this project. I also thought it might be interesting for readers who aren't composers to get a sense of what's involved in a project like this, and my ideas for approaching composition generally.

Why participate in this project?

At face value this may seem a 'no-brainer': a workshop, public performance and recording for broadcast of a new work - what's to consider?! For me, this question is the easiest - the chance to work again with the singers comprising The Song Company and its musical director Roland Peelman, all of whom I found generous, skilled and genuinely sympathetic interpreters of new music. Considerations were mainly of a practical nature, such as balancing the time and energy needed to produce work for an unpaid professional development opportunity against teaching and other necessary work, and life more broadly. While I mention these considerations to give an honest summation of my thought process, measured in this case they carried little weight.

Why compose at all?

We cannot arbitrarily invent projects for ourselves: they have to be written in our past as requirements. (Simone de Beauvoir, quoted in Miller 2005 )

Was he not also in despair, one who perceived the impotence of the artist in his discharge of human duty? […] such flagrant overestimation of poetry! (Broch 2000)

The purpose of art is to resist the world's uglinessPop artist Billy Joel (a.k.a. 'the Piano Man') once said he felt genuine artists don't ask why they do what they do - those that are meant to be artists will simply do it, and wondering why won't even come up. I've been a fan for some time, but totally disagree. It is precisely when an artist stops asking 'why' that they should stand back and wonder if they are on the wrong path. Of course, constant questioning can run the risk of creative paralysis, but I feel this is preferable to endless producing because one simply can or because it is interesting or feels meaningful.

While there are plenty of reasons to compose, whenever I set out to begin work on a project these days, issues and oft-given artistic justifications - some moral, some aesthetic - pummel around my mind. Below are some of these, along with responses and thoughts by some of the creative artists who have influenced me and help to find enough resolution to continue creative work.

Usefulness of art?

It is easy for a composer or an academician to justify funding for their work by stating that it simply is valuable. But why is this so? There is no obvious function as there is with commercial art, or say dance party or film music. To some, this is its value. In reference to writing, Chinese author Xingjian Gao in 'A Case for Literature' says:

Literature is a luxury that is only possible after issues of survival are resolved … this bit of luxury is something both the writer and reader can take pride in as human beings. (Gao 2006)

For him art is also a demonstration of our humanness, each engaged 'of their own volition'. Fair enough, but given the immense upheaval and suffering in so much of the world, the majority of society doesn't have their basic needs met. Nor, realistically, the time needed to exercise their volition to engage in any luxury. Given this, the time and effort spent producing cultural product oriented to a cultural elite by nature seems morally difficult to justify.


Further to the issue of art's function in society is the limited public interest in art, both nationally and abroad. However, this isn't necessarily a problem - 'Art' has historically been the purview of a social and/or cultural elite. It need not be so (especially with some compulsory music education in schools), but I am simply saying that: for me, minimal interest from outside inhibits my creative urgency. Although it is heartening to read of the plights of the 16th century master miniaturists in Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red and realise that it has never been any different.

Art ennobles

No doubt it can and does. But as Hermann Broch writes: 'the most cruel of men delights himself with a flower'.


Trying to perfect the craft aspect of composing is increasingly how I approach the creative enterprise. Partly this comes from an awareness of the way painters often work, producing a series of studies for a given major work, or writers who generally make draft after draft after draft until they are satisfied. As [Irish novelist] John Banville, speaking at the 2006 Sydney Writers' Festival, puts it:

Art is the art of surfaces, of rendering surfaces, and rendering them as accurately and as beautifully as we can.

Paint what you love

I have found the following, expressed by the character Moniek Prochownik in [Australian novelist] Alex Miller's Prochownik's Dream, particularly moving and inspiring:

The purpose of art is to resist the world's ugliness

To work is what matters most to the artist

The dream is to have made sense of one's life at the end (Miller 2005).

I haven't found any answers, but in my continuous exploration of why I choose to compose, these sentiments and ideas by Miller, Gao and Pamuk provide me with enough encouragement for the moment.

What is the piece about?

I am primarily interested in composing abstract musical compositions of a modernist bent...I am primarily interested in composing abstract musical compositions of a modernist bent - my works are not generally 'about' anything. When working with voice, however, one inevitably comes up against this question. Perhaps an answer of sorts will emerge from reflection on my process of engagement with text.

Does the text matter?

I am only too aware of objections raised by composers - Ferneyhough's argument that it is disrespectful and artistically immature to subjugate the semantic integrity of one art form (a poem for instance) to another (the 'setting' of a poem to music); Boulez's notion of a text's 'absence' in music, as if the music is 'set around' a text that may not actually be annunciated; or Schoenberg's reputed assertion that he only read the first few lines of a text and did not subsequently worry about its meaning and just composed.

In response to these notions, I ask: why use a text at all if it will not be clearly heard? If the text is absent, its meaning irrelevant, or it is fragmented beyond recognition, what is the point of using it, or claiming to use it in the first place? So for me, the text does matter, as does its meaning and its audibility.

Text, music and meaning

Having decided to use text and that its meaning will be of significance to the work, I chose several ideas that by good fortune resonated quite strongly. My last work, also for The Song Company, had strong religious themes, and was a setting of short Buddhist texts. Subsequent to this, I read Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. This made a big impression, as did his Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he suggests poetry would be more meaningful today if inspired by science rather than religion and superstition. He gives as an example the opening lines of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a world in a grain of sand […] and Eternity in an hour', showing how for him this is a good poetic summary of his world view, Blake's own notwithstanding.

I found this notion initially inspiring, but as I considered it more deeply, disingenuous. At the time, I was reading Kenzaburo Oe's novel Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age, which is littered with Blake quotes and ideas. And the following:

Every man has the right to his own illusions even if they are nothing more than that, and the right to express them powerfully (Oe 1983).

But do they? To quote Dawkins (2006): 'If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it'. Also, I would say, if something is not true.

This line of thinking coalesced with two other ideas. I was also intrigued by the idea of setting the Salve Regina of the rosary, partly because this could function as a preliminary study to a larger work dealing with the 'holy man/woman' - a project I intend to undertake next year. This text tells how we weep and sigh, mourning in this valley of tears while crying to Mary, 'our life, our sweetness and our hope'. It stems from a tradition of bearing suffering to experience spiritual bliss in union (The Imitation of the Christ is another, more extreme example), but it seems to me to be an empty cry, an undergoing of pain in the hope of salvation where there is nothing.

Also, by happy coincidence, while thinking through this I was reading John Carroll's new book The Existential Jesus, which focuses largely on the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus is presented as a man:

...with no occupation, nor worldly power. He chooses followers, tries to teach them…they remain foolishly obtuse. Everything he attempts fails […] the climax to his life is six hours of torture nailed to a cross. It ends with a colossal scream. There is no resurrection from the dead (Carroll 2007).

The book also made me aware of the link of Jesus's death cry to Psalm 22, which begins with the same words and similarly laments the lack of response by God to his people calling by day and by night. Bleak. And the title of my piece - Senza Speranza - and what my piece is about: No Hope (literally 'without hope'). Questions, Questions. I hope my weaving of the psalm, death cry and 'Salve Regina' in the context of my musical setting will move at least some of the audience to reflect on these themes.

Musical considerations

Of course, there are also technical musical matters of significance to this project - primarily concerning form and distinguishing transitional material and principal musical episodes which I'll not go into now … except to say that they are another answer to the question: 'Why Compose?'.


Blake, W. (this selection 2005), Selected Poems, Penguin Books.

Broch, H. [tr. Untermeyer, J. S.], 1945, 2000, The Death of Virgil, Penguin Books.

Carroll, J. 2007, The Existential Jesus, Scribe, Melbourne.

Dawkins, R. 1998, 2006, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin Books.

Gao, X. [tr. Lee, M.], 2006, The Case for Literature, Fourth Estate, Harper Collins Publishers, Australia.

Miller, A. 2005, Prochownik's Dream, Allen & Unwin, NSW, Australia.

Oe, K. [tr. Nathan, J.], 1983, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age, Atlantic Books, New York.

Pamuk, O. [tr. Göknar, E.M.], 2001, My Name is Red, Faber and Faber, London.

Further Links

Brad Gill is a Sydney-based freelance composer whose work has been performed throughout Australia and abroad. His work encompasses a variety of musical styles and performance forces. He has taught composition and related subjects at various institutions, including the Sydney Conservatorium. Gill also has a strong interest in literature and studies in religion, which have informed much of his past work.


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I gazed at my navel

I gazed at my navel

'till I saw my guts

I asked others to gaze

but they thought I was nuts.

(Unbilicus Portentious - 815)

I gazed at my navel too

by the new music world

i seem to feel jilted

i posed as a jedi

yet my lightsaber wilted

[Obi-Wan Sculthorpe - 2130]

Poetry is nice 'n all


I'm intrigued about why you think Brad's article is just pointless navel gazing. Why do you dismiss the questions Brad asks himself? Do you compose? I suspect you do. Surely you use more than just The Force to create music? Enlighten me...

Words in Mundo's mouth

Pointless never Jedi said.

Sensitive too some are think Mundo.

not sensitive just curious

Sorry Mundo...didn't mean to put words in your mouth! So you're an advocate of navel gazing then? Questions are good? But no one around these parts asks enough questions? There are so many ways to interpret your little poem... tell us more!

oh belly, oh belly

Obi-wan Sculthorpe

with lightsaber drawn

made an arrangement

of djilili

for horn

Format of the discussion section is confusing

Viewing posts on the discussion section for the first time I'm at a loss to know:-

1. How to start off a new topic.

2. Where in the heck this post is actually going to end up.

I wanted to discuss Sculthorpe's recent works, especially after hearing a premier of one by the Tasmania Symphony. I'm curious as to why so many of his recent works aren't being recorded and if they ever will be.

Diss me girl!

Jeez, and I thought my psuedonym was good.

Why a new post title every time adds to confusion

Really, I'd enjoy getting hold of whoever designed the user interface for this forum/discussion thingy and shove their favorite instrument where the sun don't shine.

--------and returning to my original question....I've attempted to access a list of ALL Sculthorpe's recordings on the web but only turned up individual companie's particular efforts. Where do I look for such complete information? A list of his works, recorded or not would help, but I'm not sure where the best place to search for that is either......am I expecting too much?

Kissy Kissy

Princess L

all that is Sculthorpe and painful instrumental handling!


Welcome! We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about Sculthorpe. Perhaps you should consider submitting a blog entry? And by the way, you can look to the Australian Music Centre's catalogue for a list of Sculthorpe’s works (http://www.amcoz.com.au/opac/name.aspx?id=241)

To answer your first question about starting a new topic: you can’t. Readers can post comments and discuss ideas relating to existing articles, reviews, blog entries etc. If readers want to chat about something different we encourage them to submit their own blog entry! You can read about the different sections of the site in the about section (but I'm sure you've already found this) So contact me off the forum if you are interested in doing so.

As for where posts end up? That all depends on their content! If comments relate to the article at hand then they’ll end up in the thread attached to the article. But if they threaten designers with painful and abusive instrumental handling (particular since one of them is a pianist!), they may well end up drowned miserably in the ocean of cyberspace!




all that is Sculthorpe and painful instrumental handling!

I confess to not grasping the logic of what you've revealed. If headings change constantly on threads ( I guess that's the correct term here) how does one keep track of a discussion? As usual I'm missing something here.

Additionally I don't see any method of carrying over the content of a post I'm resonding to (a quote) so one appears to be forced to either copy and paste into another file/program or toggle backwards and forwards to the previous post. Is that true or am I again missing something?

Is it the case that when you say 'If readers want to chat about something different we encourage them to submit their own blog entry! ' that all treads appearing on this section are only ever a means of comment upon something that has appeared elsewhere? If so, I'll be far too shy to start anything off having little or no musicological education that would enable me to speak with anything like cogency in the manner I imagine is expected. Instance, I have very few 'thoughts about Sculthorpe', just a history of enjoying most of his output without ever having intellectualized about it.

Thanks very much for the Sculthorpe link.

" But if they threaten designers with painful and abusive instrumental handling (particular since one of them is a pianist!), they may well end up drowned miserably in the ocean of cyberspace!"

Not even a pre-war Bösendorfer?

blogging away your shyness

I agree with a lot of your criticisms about our discussion section layout...and thanks for the feedback... but we're still tweaking some of these issues so please bear with us!

"I'll be far too shy to start anything off having little or no musicological education"

The group blog is for anyone in the community interested in chatting, ranting, raving and discussing their experiences, thoughts and ideas...certainly no musicology degree is required to have an opinion! email me and we can discuss ideas further.