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24 May 2010

Trans-Tasman Blog # 2

Volcanos, Road Trips and a Cantilena for those long absent

Stuart Greenbaum with NZTrio during the World New Music Days in Sydney in May 2010 Image: Stuart Greenbaum with NZTrio during the World New Music Days in Sydney in May 2010  

My return trip to Auckland to work with NZTrio coincided with the eruption of 'that' Icelandic volcano which closed down European airspace. My piece, The Year without a Summer, incidentally contemplates a somewhat bigger eruption in 1815 with catastrophic consequences the following year in the Northern Hemisphere. Maybe the antipodes really are the place to be! Certainly my flights from Melbourne to Auckland were on time and trouble-free.

Having finished my score in November last year, returning to it almost six months later for rehearsal and premiere felt like a reunion with a long lost brother. It shouldn't be surprising - delayed gratification is common for composers. But I orchestrated my second opera since writing this new piano trio, and fishing out the score at the departure lounge of gate 7 for a quick read does in hindsight seem slightly neurotic.

At the first rehearsal in Auckland, the trio (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins) played through the piece from beginning to end. I marked about a dozen points in the score, including a couple of subtle but critical tempo changes and we worked through those. I re-voiced two piano chords, altered some string bowing, added a few extra dynamic markings and, another hour later, we were done. We did discuss feel and tempo; but in reality, we had worked together for a week in September last year, and they performed my two earlier trios in four performances, so the trio already had a very strong ability to play my music idiomatically.

The following day, the four of us (plus manager Liffy) climbed into a car for the two-hour trip to Hamilton for the premiere. Road trips should not be underestimated as bonding exercises. It's a chance to talk music away from instruments and music stands; but also to talk about food, nuclear power (NZ don't have it / don't want it) and hidden speed cameras.

The premiere performance was powerful, beautiful and as close as I can think of as a perfect performance. As I type this blog I am listening to the fifth performance in Wellington, streaming on the internet from Radio New Zealand. It's a privilege to receive multiple performances of a work, but actually, this is usually what notated music requires in order to come to life in vivid, unfettered power.

On my day off, in between the Hamilton and Auckland performances, I took a ferry out to the local volcano, Rangitoto. The trio assured me that it was a dead volcano - totally safe. As the ferry approached, I figured that if it stopped being dead I could just make a run for it and dive into the harbour (geologists please do not write in…). Great harbour views - perfect conical crater!

Back in the safety of my hotel room, I started an analysis of the piece. I keep handwritten sketches for pieces these days and I like charting out the structure in graphs and tables. I have an early sketch of the cantilena, which in retrospect became the beating heart of the piece - the voice of those long absent. Somewhere between the ephemeral gesture and the intellectual grafting lies the flow of the music.

Further links

Trans-Tasman Blog # 1 by Stuart Greenbaum on Resonate
Analytical notes: Stuart Greenbaum's The year without a summer - AMC Online
Trans-Tasman Composer Exchange Program (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/about/transtasman)
Stuart Greenbaum - AMC (http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/greenbaum-stuart)
NZ Trio (http://www.nztrio.com/index_home.asp)
Making Trans-Tasman Music - article on SOUNZ website
Trans-Tasman Exchange: report from Tasmania - a blog article on Resonate by Kenneth Young

Subjects discussed by this article:

Stuart Greenbaum is a Melbourne composer. He is Senior Lecturer and Head of Composition (Parkville) at the University of Melbourne.


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