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16 July 2015

The life story of a diva as told by a string quartet

Joseph Twist Image: Joseph Twist  

Joe Twist writes about the music on his new album Dancing with Somebody with the Acacia Quartet and Sally Whitwell - see album & work details on AMC Online or purchase via CDBaby. The project was supported through APRA's Professional Development Awards - these Awards are now open for applications.

'The dirty little secret is that we're not musicians - we're dramatists' was Hollywood film-scoring legend Elmer Burnstein's advice to composers of film music. Drama and storytelling is obviously a major focus of my film scores and operatic works, but I like to adopt Burnstein's frame of mind in my purely instrumental/orchestral concert works as well. Typical to my style, storytelling is front and centre in the music of my new album of chamber and film music Dancing With Somebody.

Being a composer who straddles the 'concert music' and 'film music' arenas is exhausting and exhilarating. The two mediums each have their own challenges and peculiarities, but working in both worlds suits me nicely. I'm easily distracted and constantly fascinated by any musical style, and music for TV/films/games often requires a composer to be highly eclectic and fluid in their approach. My work as an arranger is often just as eclectic. The Wiggles Meets The Orchestra was released recently on CD by ABC Kids (DVD to come later in the year), featuring orchestral arrangements of The Wiggles' greatest hits performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Naturally, these orchestrations range, as the Wiggles' songs do, from '60s rock to big-band jazz to traditional folk songs. Similarly, the demands of a film score can require a composer to juxtapose mariachi with bossa nova in less than a minute, and this kind of never-ending exploration and experimentation with well-known musical styles is one of many aspects of film scoring that I love.

I approach 'concert music' with the same kind of stylistic fluidity. More importantly, I utilise this approach in order to serve a more fundamental artistic purpose: to tell a story.

My 'musical story-telling' methodology isn't strict, however. While I try to heed Burnstein's advice and think like a 'dramatist', I prefer to leave the practice of story creation to the experts: the wonderful writers and directors with whom I collaborate. But when creating music that is abstracted from any kind of film or staging, I prefer to be more reflective than 'programmatic.' Rather than contriving some kind of unfolding narrative, instead my concert music focuses on characters and emotions in a kind of extended instrumental aria or musical 'portrait'. For the first track of my new album, Dancing With Somebody, the protagonist in question is the late Whitney Houston.

Dancing with Somebody, for string quartet, is a musical celebration of the life, music and persona of diva sensation Whitney Houston, one of my favourite pop artists. Embedded subtly within the work's thematic language are fragments of her hit tunes 'The Greatest Love of All' and 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody'. This string quartet explores Whitney's rise to stardom and glamour, her superstar talent and prowess, as well as her gradual decline from grace, her struggle with drugs and her eventual, tragic death.

The overriding musical character of Dancing with Somebody is ironically jovial and buoyant. Despite this, the work juxtaposes light-hearted music with moments of eerie grotesqueness, culminating in an intense 'dance macabre' with allusions to heavy metal and dub-step. These musical juxtapositions might be considered as a reflection of society's flippant, hedonistic obsession with tabloid scandal and rumour, overshadowing the celebrity's raw talent, potential and humanity. Ultimately, Dancing with Somebody expresses my admiration for Whitney's unforgettable voice, her enchanting persona, and the lasting impact of her legacy on millions of people around the world.

Dancing With Somebody was written and developed while living in New York City and studying with recent Pulitzer-Prize winner Julia Wolfe and Hollywood film scoring luminary Ira Newborn. Thanks to the support of the APRA Professional Development Award and ABC Classics, I was able to record my work with one of Australia's finest string quartets, Acacia Quartet, and two-time ARIA award winning pianist Sally Whitwell at Studios 301 in Sydney.

Performed by Sally on this album is my work for solo piano, I Dance Myself to Sleep. Originally written for Sally back in 2010, she has performed it many times since, and I later adapted it for a commission from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The story-telling in I Dance Myself to Sleep explores sleep and unrequited love. Specifically, the inspiration is a perplexing recurring dream that involves the central 'female companion' characters from some of my favourite childhood movies like Superman, the Indiana Jones films and the Star Wars saga. Representing this is a repeated, romantic melody - a 'love theme' written at the age of twelve. The simple melody is played in contexts made bittersweet by complex jazz-based harmonic language that shrouds and taints the unadorned melody.

It was an incredible honour and privilege to record such eloquent, powerful performances by these brilliant musicians, and I am forever indebted to Acacia, Sally and the many generous donors who made this happen.

Further links

Joseph Twist - AMC profile
Joseph Twist - homepage
Dancing with Somebody - album details on AMC Online
Dancing with Somebody (CDBaby - purchase CD or download)
APRA 2015 Professional Development Awards

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Here we have a perfect example of the deleterious affect that popular music has on art music when the latter is infected by the former. The old saying "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear" remains forever true. Despite what certain postmodernist pundits claim, there is an insurmountable barrier between 'high' and 'low' art: the latter's primary motivation is financial 'success'; 'high art', in contradistinction, has other, more noble preoccupations. Those who, like Twist, try to build a bridge between the two succeed only in falling between two stools.