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26 October 2016

5 Questions to composer & songwriter Christina Green

Christina Green Image: Christina Green  

2016 has been busy for the Melbourne-based composer and songwriter Christina Green, with premieres from Sydney to New York, performances in two states of the No Excuses! suite - based on material contributed by women about their experiences of family violence - an installation, and a new song cycle Nomadic Journeys at concerts arranged by the Melbourne Composers' League and the Western Sydney University. In the final months of this year she will be completing the recording of a double CD of acoustic folk songs, and giving songwriter performances including an appearance as a shortlisted finalist in the Roddy Read Memorial Songwriting Award at the Maldon Folk Festival in Central Victoria. A performance of No Excuses! is also coming up on White Ribbon Day, November 25th, at Melbourne's Federation Square, in conjunction with the Walk Against Family Violence.

> You can listen to Christina Green's work, including many of the compositions discussed here and her own performances on her Soundcloud page. An earlier and shorter version of this article was published in the LOTL magazine - you can read it here.

Q: You are active as both a composer and songwriter. Can you tell me about how these areas combine and work together, and perhaps ways in which they are separate, in your creative practice?

A: I have been involved in both composition and songwriting from schoolyears onwards, with the focus shifting between the two areas. I studied French at school and was inspired by French popular chanson; I also listened to a lot of musicals growing up, and this music has influenced me as well as the rock music of the period. My composition study began during undergraduate years at Melbourne University with Peter Tahourdin, and through this, and the musicology I studied, I came into contact with many 20th-century composers, sounds and ideas that have become part of my musical life.

The composer Meredith Monk has talked about how one of the things she wants in writing music is to develop the form for each piece she does, and that this is why songwriting is of less interest to her. I resonate with her desire to be the creator of form, and that's a big part of what I enjoy about composition, too. So, I enjoy writing both in song forms and in other forms.

From mid-2015 I was able to bring my songwriting skills to a composition commission through Melbourne's School of Hard Knocks in a very satisfying way. I wrote in my usual way, with guitar and voice, producing songs that could be combined with the songs of my collaborator on the project, Dr Kathleen McGuire, in a suite we titled No Excuses!, which is based on material contributed by women, particularly in Melbourne's West, about their experiences of family violence. I wrote and arranged my songs for the No Excuses! choir and band, and with the melody in the alto rather than the soprano, created a stylistic and textural contrast with the songs contributed by Kathleen. Being able to work as a performing songwriter in a choral/concert context was a dream come true for me.

Q: What is your compositional process, and related to that, your creative process?

Eileen's Vision (2015) by Christina Green, premiered by
Kaylie Dunstan. Poem by Eileen Myles (Youtube).

A: My process is different for composition and songwriting. In songwriting I virtually never write from the music first, although I am beginning to experiment with that a bit more. To write a song I usually need a viable subject idea, though content may also appear during the writing process. In my work in the acoustic folk genre, I try to develop the music and the words together. As a songwriter I enjoy writing observational, quirky, and story songs - I aim for textured, multi-layered work in which story material, images and emotional elements come together, and also for variety in feel, key, groove, and guitar/ukulele accompaniment styles (strummed/fingerstyle, etc.). For art songs, I am working with poems, either by myself, as in my recently completed Nomadic Journeys cycle for alto voice and baritone ukulele (2016), based on a selection of my own short poems - haiku and related forms, quatrains, etc. - or with poems by others, such as two sets I wrote in 2009 on poems by Australian art dealer and writer Judith Pugh.

The creative process behind my songwriting is an actively cultivated 'life's work' which involves reading, meditation, travel, time in nature and connection with contemporary life. I do writing exercises with small groups of collaborators, find similar things in books and on the internet, and so on. I also actively learn new playing techniques and these become part of the mix as I bring elements together.

When writing for ensembles such as chamber groups I often write directly onto computer notation program and develop the work that way, and this was my method for the wind quintet, Five Journey into Smooth Space Together (2015), as well as for my more recent work Stone (2016), composed for NYC-based contemporary music quartet Loadbang and performed by them at the National Opera Center, Manhattan, in May of this year. I also listen to music in many styles and genres, explore new instruments as a performer (for example, the focus I have had on the ukulele family since 2011, moving into composed works for this instrument as well as songs), read and work with conceptual material, images, texts and practices (such as meditation-type practices), and make use of opportunities to write for a particular performer or ensemble.

I aim to capture an immediacy from my response to the things that give me inspiration, often beginning with improvised ideas. I work to craft my material, looking for an integrity and completeness for each piece. Much of my music, both instrumental music and songs, is inspired on some level by the idea of journey, and is often underpinned by a sense of relationship with place. I wrote the haiku and other poems for the Nomadic Journeys cycle through a practice of being very present to place and from close observation of details in the stream of life around me. They chronicle my experiences of moving through spaces, places and contexts in London, Melbourne and New York City, between the 1990s to the present day, and form a commentary on some of the changes in spaces, the liminality of spaces, interactions with art in various spaces, and the changing way people inhabit public space, as well as more personal vignettes. This kind of observation has in part come from my Buddhist practice. Since 2003, elements of inspiration from Buddhist thought, writings and imagery, and from my involvement in Buddhist practice, mostly in the Zen tradition, have become a strand in my work. My hope is that the connection with moment-to-moment awareness that I try to cultivate and bring into my work will be conveyed - with space for that to be different for each listener.

I am also interested in incorporating elements from the environment into my work, such as the bird calls threaded through the six pieces of the piano suite written during my collaborative residency with visual artist Dr Flossie Peitsch at the Bundanon Arts Trust in NSW (2012), which we titled Sighting Silence, Sounding Image - selections from this collaboration accompanied an installation at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville (Victoria) earlier this year. Several years earlier I had the opportunity to respond to video images of jellyfish on a beach, created by Josephine Telfer. She worked with her images to make a visual stream evoking the cosmos, in our collaborative work Cosmos (video images and solo piano). As with songwriting, I look for a coming together of elements in composition, but the material can be more conceptual and the form can emerge in the process of writing.

In the last few years, photography has also become a strand in my process. I love the convenience of phone cameras and I feel a particular sense of connection as I move around and capture things that strike me. I think the place of photography has changed in contemporary life, moving from having a special occasion focus to something more everyday. For a long time I resisted the need to photograph everything and always have to take away something in that way, preferring to work with mental images, and I guess I still do that, too. But I find that if you want to put creative work out there, even on music pages on the internet, the bottom line is that documentation including visual material is now virtually necessary. My work has gone in the direction of incorporating multi-media strands, and I am experimenting further with music video as well as inclusion of photos in scores. I am happy for images to play a part, though I hope very much that people will also bring a listening ear as well as their visual sense, because so much of life is about the visual now.

Q: Earlier you said that you were happy for images to play a part in your work, but that you also want people to listen. How much do you think about your music as a sound object, and about the area of silence in music?

A: The answer to that is 'More than I once did'. I have always thought about various musical aspects like harmony and rhythm, but in recent years I have become more aware of sound in itself through performing, improvising and recording, and through listening to music in the experimental realm, and work by composers whose focus is on the sound field - such as Pauline Oliveros - and also electroacoustic music. I am aware of timbre and the beauty and subtlety of timbral variety in music. Part of my journey has been developing a different listening ear than the one that is developed as an improvising music therapist, where the focus is on the sounds created by a client as an expression to be mined for material about them with a view to client-focused, therapeutic work. I am very interested in growing as a composer and improviser focused on musical considerations, and on working with sound more primarily in some projects to come, as well as continuing what I do now.

The area of silence is in my consciousness and my compositional style has moved from denser to sparer textures over the last few years. I have written a lot more for the instruments whose sounds decay - piano, guitar, ukulele, percussion - and like the 'air' that this puts in the texture. In Eileen's Vision (2015 - premiered on 26 February 2016 by Kaylie Dunstan) I have explored spoken word delivery of the text, a poem by NYC-based Eileen Myles, with a composed percussion accompaniment, and this treatment of a text creates a very different sense of space from a more standard melodic setting. It opens an area that is more open to varied realisation in performance that is welcome to me.

I experience a lot of modern life as wall-to-wall with input and a demand to notice, to take in - the wall of sound that comes from the television, the increasingly present music in spaces that never had that, such as banks and bathrooms. Listening to music provides a place in which there is more choice, more space, the capacity to be a participant listener and to have some awareness of one's emotional life and inner processes, rather than as a 'site' to be inundated with unchosen material. But there are also times when I can view spaces in which unchosen music is being played as multi-layered and potentially somehow transformative and inclusive of all that is happening and existing in it, including myself. My improvisation practice involves playing in and into such spaces, locating myself as both a respondent to sounds and as an initiator of them. I am also aware of the effects of music in physical spaces, and am interested in exploring this in future works, for example, working more consciously with delay.

Q: Can you explain how you combine your improvisational skills with sound and silence in your compositions?

A: Not easily! There is something about improvisation that is deeply about listening, and coming from this place seems to naturally bring silence into the mix, and creating a working rhythm that is different from starting with a project of filling space with notes. I like silence and want to make it more consciously a part of my music; I notice that having spaces in music allows room for experiencing and absorbing. In saying this I am not saying there is not room for some of the more noise-driven music types - thinking here of someone like Merzbow - these offer different experiences.

Q: Can you tell us about what you are working on, both research-wise, and creatively?

A: My research is looking at the work of lesbian composers, considering how the area of sexuality and the fabric of life involved in that is brought into compositional practice, if it is. I have just come to the end of the works to be written for my doctoral folio and am regrouping. I have enjoyed writing a couple of songs in the last month or so, returning to songs for the folk/acoustic context. I have other ideas for works that are just seeds at the moment, and am waiting on a few things to fall into place before proceeding. Leaving space is important - it is easy to push to be productive all the time, without any ebb and flow. I'm listening, reading, improvising.

AMC resources

Christina Green - AMC profile

Further links

Christina Green on Soundcloud

Subjects discussed by this article:

Hanli Botha is a composer, sound artist, researcher and freelance writer. She is currently a PhD student at Western Sydney University  - School of Humanities and Communication Arts. Her music background include piano and classical guitar training. She holds a Bachelor of Music (Performance - Classical Guitar), and completed her honours studies at Western Sydney University in 2015. She composes electronic works by means of improvisation which include voice, noise and sound recordings, and experimental works for classical guitar. To learn more about Hanli please visit her website at www.hanlibotha.com 


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