24 April 2017
Six composers at the QSO's Composer Reading Day
Six composers took part in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra's Composer Reading Day on 11 April 2017. Below, the participants - the AMC-represented Mark Wolf and Jessica Wells, as well as Chris Healey, Thomas Green, Isabella Gerometta and Heidi Chan - share some of their experiences 'in the hope that orchestras and their creative teams continue to host, and continue to be supported in hosting, these kinds of events', as a participating composer Thomas Green pointed out. Please note that these texts have been shortened and edited for this summary.
Sketches of my orchestral work Frank Lloyd Wright's Theatre Curtain first appeared on paper back in 2012 after flicking through a copy of Bruce Brooks Pfeifer's Frank Lloyd Wright Designs in a London bookshop. Towards the very end of the book, a large colourful, geometric design caught my eye. Pictured was an abstract image of Wright's Taliesin estate with his home on the hill, the new design for the previously destroyed Hillside Theatre curtain. I was instantly captivated by the image. To my eye, the new curtain design revealed, in detail, a complete orchestral score in graphic form. Fast-forward to January 2017, those initial sketches occupied my desk again. Six weeks later, after being shelved for nearly five years, I had finally completed the work ready for the 2017 Queensland Symphony Orchestra Composer Reading Day.
Scored for the full forces of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Frank Lloyd Wright's Theatre Curtain is a forthright musical rendering of the new Wright-designed Hillside Theatre curtain. A short, light-hearted moto perpetuo, the work takes the form of a mechanical pastorale. The idea of 'mechanical' pastorale suggests that the 'rural' is somehow tempered by the 'manufactured', a reference to the craftsmanship involved in the curtain's construction.
The day arrived. Upon entering the QSO studio I had feelings of nervousness and excitement in equal measure, compounded by hearing familiar snippets of music jabbing and penetrating the sonic chaos of some seventy plus musicians during their warming up. It had been eight years since I last composed an orchestral piece. Only having a short period of time to write this new piece, I had had to brush up on my orchestration skills along the way. All nerves soon dissipated once we were introduced to Alondra de la Parra who briefly discussed with us the day's proceedings and rehearsal protocol.
My piece was second in the schedule, following Thomas Green's Particle Physicists. Under the control of de la Parra's baton, the orchestra swiftly breezed through the first run. De la Parra's focus quickly shifted to prioritising rehearsal time for the more troubled sections. Throughout this process she was never short on offering precious advice and, most remarkably, trialling possible alternatives to improve the clarity in certain highly textured moments in my music. I owe a great deal to de la Parra and the musicians of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for their boundless enthusiasm and collective focus on breathing life into my piece which would have, without a doubt, remained on the shelf indefinitely.
Zodiac Animalia is a twelve-minute work where each movement is focused on an animal from the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese animal zodiac is a repeating cycle of twelve years, with each year represented by an animal and its reputed attributes. In this set of twelve approximately one-minute episodes, I have attempted to capture the personality of each animal, or perhaps the anthropomorphism that humans project onto them. In order, the 12 animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
The full-sized Queensland Symphony Orchestra, complete with triple woodwinds and a battery of percussion instruments, brought this work to life with a vivaciousness and vigour that made each animal leap from the page, ready to pounce, scurry, lumber and slink around the rehearsal room. Alondra de le Parra put the orchestra through their paces with an acute attention to detail and a sense of performance that was suited for the concert hall.
As a professional orchestrator, this was an opportunity for me to flex my muscles with a top-notch orchestra, to try out new concepts and play with textures that I don't often get to use in film recording sessions, or in an arrangement for an album or concert. It was also the chance to write a piece of original music and try to show my skills as a composer - which I have always been, however have often been pigeonholed as an arranger and orchestrator. This rare opportunity to have a new piece workshopped by an orchestra has boosted my confidence a million-fold. I have a new energy to pursue composing and obtain new commissions with this work under my belt.
The 11th of April 2017 was a terrifically fun day for me. Not only did I get to spend a day listening to QSO reading a selection of never-before-heard works, I was fortunate in that one of those works was my own. And not only that, but I had the privilege of spending the day in the company of my extraordinary composer colleagues.
This was a very special occasion for me as it was only the second time I have had a work played by a professional orchestra. It was also a challenging task as my thirteen-minute piece Animals in the Form of Spheres (the first two movements of a planned five movement tone-poem for flute and orchestra) was written fresh for the occasion over about three weeks in January. These same weeks were, unfortunately, spent trying to find an apartment to live in, and sleeping on friends' floors. It was perhaps not an ideal situation for composing as I didn't have much time, an instrument to work at, or the focus I would have liked. Still, the reading day was an opportunity for learning and growth that I wouldn't have missed for anything.
The main focus of my attention on the day was to make notes for myself of anything I determined to be a significant failure compared to my musical intention (there were plenty), and to listen to and learn from the music of my fellow composers. The event was recorded, however, so I will soon be able to go back through my work with a fine-toothed comb, and really iron out any issues, pinpointing more exactly where I need to do better, and working out how to do that.
I look forward to editing these first movements of the work, and getting stuck into writing the rest of it. For me, however, I think the opportunity to hear the works of my colleagues, which were as diverse as they were excellent, was itself an incredible learning opportunity. It was a wonderful insight into the amazing musical potential of Australia's emerging composers, and I can only hope that audiences will get to hear these pieces and other works of theirs again and again.
A huge thank you to the staff and musicians of the QSO, and to Maestro Alondra de la Parra, who was even kind enough to autograph my score for me afterwards!
My piece was written especially for the QSO reading day, and rather rapidly. Sometimes I enjoy having to write music very quickly - it's like being given the extra permission to have fun. My piece is called Particle Physicists, and is a straightforward programmatic work about the eccentric individuals who work on the Large Hadron Collider. These men and women strike me as artists as much as scientists, with their creative flair - I imagine arts and sciences are often closer than we credit. My piece is an illustration of those personalities.
Working with a real orchestra is, eventually, a necessity for someone who wants to write orchestral music well. A musical score has a geography. Composers and conductors learn it intimately. But for a composer, the score remains abstract until that time when they see it realised by an orchestra. I use the word 'see' on purpose. Because the orchestra also has a geography - conceptual and visual - it is different from that of the score. Watching the QSO play my piece was, apart from being so enjoyable, invaluable for my learning. The various sections popped up almost graphically, like different eccentricities of a scientist's personality.
If I write for orchestra I need to build my imagination (along with 'audiation') to the extent that I can mentally hold music in multiple dimensions at once: for instance, the score as well as an impression of an orchestra, and a mental image of the subject (those scientists). I can't think of a better way to develop this than to be ten feet in front of the real item: the QSO with Alondra de la Parra.
The QSO instrumentalists brought their characteristic verve, sparing no enthusiasm or focus, despite this being a mere rehearsal of unproven works. Tuttis were bold and solos played lovingly. It really seemed to me like they relished the opportunity. In person, de la Parra bristles with energy, as if possessing an electrical halo. Certainly, she has a will of iron and tremendous control, nonetheless her heart is always present. To a group of still-developing composers she was not once condescending but offered invaluable advice and assistance (to me, it was to make sure I am more thorough with my slurs and markings!). I can hardly wait for another opportunity like this.
My piece Figure 8 began as a series of small pictures I drew, each based on a musical texture I had found from different pieces of music I had enjoyed. I wrote miniatures based on each of these drawings, using them as a framework for new musical inspiration. Having witnessed de la Parra's energy and passion in a number of concerts, I took every chance to make these textures rhythmic, propulsive and harmonically expressive. The result was a rhythmically vigorous octatonic fanfare.
My favourite part about watching and listening to an orchestra is to see and hear how the musicians interpret the music to make it their own, within the restrictions that the composer has provided. During the compositional process, I bring what I can to the sound, with an aim to always make it as musical as possible, so that, once in the hands of an ensemble, it can be interpreted, experimented with and brought to life in a unique and inimitable manner.
Having written the piece with de la Parra in mind, it was an extremely special experience to hear her and the QSO bring so much enthusiasm and musicality it, and de la Parra's standout interpretations and compositional advice took the work to a new level. De la Parra and the entire orchestra were incredibly supportive and I am extremely appreciative of the work, skill and time they provided in realising my music.
The first movement of my three-movement symphony Vision is autoethnographic evidence of my quest for my cultural and musical identity through the influence of nature, my Chinese heritage and my Western classical music training in Australia. Inspired by a trip to the Hong Kong Global Geopark, this movement expresses my connection with my Chinese roots among the ever-evolving ancient landscape formed in the Permian Period. Played sensitively by the QSO musicians under the baton of Alondra de la Parra, the bowed crotales, bowed vibraphone, glissandi on harp, tremolo on marimba, and arpeggios on strings were woven seamlessly together, creating a sense of continuity in time and space.
In this piece, the Chinese concept of five elements, traditional pentatonic modes, linear melody and monastic bell sound juxtapose with the sonification of geographic data in contrapuntal texture and the DNA interlocking leitmotif intertwining among Western orchestral pairs. The musicians' receptive minds towards my exploration of new sounds and techniques beyond the usual notations were truly appreciated.
My deepest thanks go to de la Parra, the players, the administrative staff of the QSO and my mentor, Dr Robert Davidson. De la Parra's adventurous spirit, the players' superb skills and Davidson's constant encouragement have allowed my fusion of East and West, the juxtaposition of traditional musical style and innovative media, and the co-existence of the elements of arts and science to be realised.
The Composer Reading Day not only provided me with an experimental environment to explore new sounds, but also served as part of my acculturation process in Australia - integrating my heritage and Australian culture to enhance my quest for my cultural identity, musical identity and artistic voice. For me, as a Chinese-Australian composer, composition is an ongoing process of discovery, reflection, redefinition and revitalisation of my cultural and musical identity. The reading opportunity opened my mind to a new range of soundscapes and infinite possibilities.
Jessica Wells - AMC profile
Mark Wolf - AMC profile
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra (https://qso.com.au/)
© Australian Music Centre (2017) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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