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9 December 2008

Writing for the shakuhachi

Songs of the Earth and Sky

Johanna Selleck Image: Johanna Selleck  

Johanna Selleck's new chamber work for shakuhachi and two percussionists forms part of the forthcoming Shakuhachi Chamber Music Composition Competition concert. Here, she writes about her work and the challenges of writing for the shakuhachi.

Songs of the Earth and Sky was commissioned by shakuhachi master, Andrew MacGregor, for the inaugural concert of the Shakuhachi Chamber Music Competition, 2008. The work builds on eight years of collaboration between Andrew and me, beginning with the premiere performance of the first movement of Becoming at the Port Fairy Festival in 2000. Becoming evolved gradually into a five-movement multimedia work of over an hour’s duration, composed for shakuhachi, string quartet, soprano, countertenor, and bass. With Andrew’s help, I was able to test my compositional ideas as the piece developed, which provided me with the opportunity to learn about and explore the full potential of the shakuhachi in combination with Western instruments. In the process, I became aware of the shakuhachi’s extraordinary palette of timbral colours, its emotive power, and its magical ability to blend with other instrumental sounds.

Writing for the shakuhachi in Western notation poses many challenges. The instrument’s unique capabilities require an imaginative approach on the part of the composer, but one which is firmly grounded in knowledge of traditional techniques. The composer must find ways to adapt this knowledge to new contexts and to convey the meaning clearly in the score. Issues arise as to how much and what type of instruction a composer should incorporate: the dividing line between performance technique and compositional licence is often blurred. In order to open up the expressive possibilities of the instrument, I have learnt to allow for considerable freedom of expression on the part of the performer, including in the piece optional sections of improvisation.

Songs of the Earth and Sky will be premiered on the 13th December with Anne Norman on shakuhachi, accompanied by Peter Neville and Eugene Ughetti on percussion. Together, Anne and I worked very carefully through my score, listening to every notated gesture (korokoro trills, muraiki breath effects etc.) and determining the best way to achieve the desired effect. Before writing the piece, I also had a session with Eugene Ughetti, exploring the sound world of tuned gongs. The opportunity to work on a piece in this way, with performers who are as skilled and conscientious as Anne and Eugene, is very valuable to me as composer.

The work unfolds slowly and spaciously with tuned gongs, rolled cymbal and tubular bells. The intention is to invoke a primordial and timeless sound world: the ancient earth with a limitless expanse of sky above. The shakuhachi inhabits both worlds, at times floating ethereally above, at other times descending to merge with the sounds of a 'groaning' earth. The middle section builds to a heavy climax of heaving earth and thunderous sky, and out of this, the lone voice of the shakuhachi emerges.

Various colour combinations between the shakuhachi and the percussion are explored, such as the portamento effects of the shakuhachi, which are echoed in the Beijing opera gong’s inherent glissando. The work is structured in three sections. The first explores the shakuhachi in combination with gongs and metal percussion. The second focuses on woods and drums, leading into a cadenza, after which harmony and melody are brought to the fore with the entry of the vibraphone. Finally, all the instruments – tuned and untuned – join together for the concluding 'song'.

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Johanna Selleck is a composer, flautist and writer.


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