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11 June 2014

Under Visby's spell

A winter morning in Visby. Image: A winter morning in Visby.  

So what did I do in my summer holidays? I spent two weeks in a composers' centre in Sweden in the middle of winter, working around the clock, creating a solo music-theatre piece about a Danish astronomer I had learnt about in Copenhagen a few days prior: researching his life, writing a libretto, composing a score, rehearsing the score, and then performing it for a group of composition students. Why?

I blame it all on ISCM World New Music Days in Sydney in 2010. There I met Swedish composer Henrik Strindberg, and we talked about his work, teaching composition at the Gotland School of Music Composition in Visby. In 2012 I travelled to Visby to attend their annual festival of new student compositions, and I also visited three other music education institutions around Sweden.

Then I was hooked - totally inspired by Visby, Swedish music, and Swedish music education. Before I knew it, I was signing up for a beginners' Swedish course, listening obsessively to Swedish choral music, and applying for a residency at the Visby International Centre for Composers (VICC).

In February 2014 I found myself in the composers' house, crossing the icy car park each morning to work in my studio. Gotland School of Music Composition and the VICC are both housed in the Composers' Hall, an elegant old waterfront building.

Back in 2012, I had spent hours exploring Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage Listed medieval, walled town on the island of Gotland. However, this year I was so immersed in my composition project that I barely had time to admire the sun glinting on snow-covered rocks in the Baltic.

Leafing through the guest book, it is clear that this total immersion in compositional projects is the norm for composers staying at the VICC. Composers write lyrically about the environment that inspired them: the rich history of Visby and its picturesque town centre; windswept landscapes; a warm, supportive atmosphere created by executive director Sten Melin and studio manager Jesper Elén; four superbly-equipped studios; the stimulation of meeting other composers; and the bubbling energy generated by young students from the composition school.

This mixture has proven extremely conducive to music composition, with 800 compositions being produced by 500 composers in residence since the VICC began in 2001. There have been around 50 composers in residence every year, from Sweden and 45 other countries.

I was interested to learn that the local Gotland community can hear what is happening at the VICC via the recently-inaugurated 'sound chair' at the Visby municipal library. An iPad and speakers installed in the chair are connected directly to the VICC sound library, enabling visitors to listen to recordings of works by VICC composers.

2015 will be an exciting year for Gotland, with leading sound artists coming from around the world to create a large Sound Art project, curated by the VICC. Gotland will become a 'sounding map' with sound installations at locations around the island.

Actually, that sounds so intriguing, perhaps I had better start planning another trip to Visby.

Further links

Visby International Centre for Composers http://vicc.se/
Gotland School of Music Composition www.gotlandstonsattarskola.com/en

Melbourne-based singer, choir leader and music educator Jeannie Marsh has been promoting, facilitating and performing new music for 25 years with organisations such as Chamber Made Opera, the Seymour Group, international arts festivals, the ABC, the Garden Project of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Opera Project at University of Melbourne, Canto Coro community choir, and Dandenong Ranges Music Council. Jeannie has produced and performed in major new works such as Matthew Hindson's opera Love, Death, Music and Plants, and is currently working with Icon Trio commissioning Melbourne composers to create settings of Scots Haiku poems by Scottish poet Bruce Leeming (premiere October 2014).


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