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26 May 2016

5 Questions to Rhonda Berry

Rhonda Berry Image: Rhonda Berry  

We caught up with the Far North Queensland composer Rhonda Berry just after her 80th birthday on 23 May. In this little Q & A, she talks about the opportunities she found in a small town, and the people and organisations that helped her develop her talent as a composer. '5 Questions' is a new series of interviews on Resonate blog - please get in touch if you'd like to contribute or suggest topics and interviewees.

Q: You've lived in Queensland most of your live, and particularly in Tropical North Queensland. How has this environment shaped you as a person, and how is it reflected in your music?

A: The wet tropics in Far North Queensland has always been my home. It is a beautiful area with much variation in scenery and people. This has certainly influenced all of my music. My work Communion (1999) is really about the tropical rainforest. Within the Forestry Department, the trees of a rainforest are known as a 'community' - hence the title. Reef Reflections used poems about the Great Barrier Reef by Boonah poet, Aub Podlich.

Q: You came to composing relatively late - can you tell me how this new direction in your life happened, and how it worked out for you?

A: This is a fairly complex issue. I actually composed my first couple of piano pieces when I was nine years old but, somehow, only one person, my friend Marcia, was interested. Really, I think, it was thought that Beethoven, Chopin, etc. were the real composers and on their music I was expected to concentrate.

From the 1970s when I was involved with a small choir that met at our home, I used to 're-organise' some of the choral arrangements that we were working on to make them easier for our singers. This set me to thinking of arranging some contemporary songs for our small choir (later I became aware of the copyright issue here). The first SATB music that I wrote was a setting of the Anglican Eucharist for St David's Church, Mossman NQ, to sing for Christmas 1989. This music is still being sung in both Mossman and Innisfail.

After this I realised that I needed more help with composition/arranging and looked to composer Edward Cowie, then based in Townsville, for private lessons in composition. This did not work out and I decided that the only way help would be available was to enrol in a degree with the James Cook University, Townsville. In 1993, I enrolled in an Arts degree, majoring in music composition and history. For a music degree, I was required to take first-year keyboard skills, and, having been a pianist and accompanist since my teenage years, I was not prepared to waste my time with subjects that I did not need. In my first year of composition studies, Edward Cowie was very encouraging, and I needed this. My third and fourth year, I studied composition in Perth as a cross-institutional student. My time in Perth gave me access to more music performances of a higher standard than in the years before 1995.

Q: In addition to Cowie and your WA teachers (including Ed and Allyson Applebaum, and also Nigel Butterley who was a lecturer there for semester), you've learned from and worked with many other people that have been important for your development as a musician and a composer. Can you tell us more about this?

A: As well as teachers, many other persons and organisations have provided milestones in my life with music. When I was eighteen, my then piano teacher, Vene Parker, gave me a brochure and application form for the Australian Music Camp to be held in Geelong in January of the following year. I applied and attended, travelling by train from Brisbane to Geelong as one of nine young persons from Queensland. The person who supervised the Queensland contingent was John Curro who was also attending the camp. Tutors and organisers at this camp included Prof. John Bishop, Ruth Alexander, Lindley Evans, Jiri Tancibudek and others - too many to remember. At this stage the Australian Youth Orchestra had not been formed but was talked about. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave a concert at the Camp, including the Bruch Violin Concerto with Carmel Caine as soloist. My eyes were opened to find such young people playing so brilliantly. While I would have liked to travel south for further studies, this was not possible but it gave me ideas on standards that I always tried to keep in front of me.

Around this time, as a solo pianist, I was offered periodically a fifteen-minute ABC Radio program entitled Cairns Presents. We played live at the radio station. I did continue for quite a number of years until programs like this were not offered outside the capital cities.

When my husband and I with our family moved to Mossman, FNQ, a German piano teacher, Jahn Daube, travelled to towns in the area teaching mainly piano and singing. Friends of mine recommended him to me as a teacher. He taught me how to play the piano with more finesse and, very importantly, gave me a broader understanding of the classical repertoire and how it should be performed. He also introduced me to other composers, including Scriabin who is one of my favourite composers for piano. His lessons were invaluable to me in later years.

It is surprising how much can be gained by taking opportunities that arise in small towns. While in the past I had been involved with choirs, solo singers and accompanying, the choir meeting at our house was a fast sort of education for me in what to do and, particularly, what not to do with a group of singers. At its peak we had twenty-seven members in our group.

I also had the opportunity of playing piano trios with Colin and Elaine Fox, both previous symphony orchestra members. Colin had been principal cellist with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. I was also able to play accompaniments for some visitors to Mossman, including German singer, Holger van Bargen, and a young flute player from England. Holger had been visiting friends in the area on his way to Japan for singing. The flautist had played with groups in England but was at the Mossman Sugar Mill for educational purposes.

In 1994 Vivienne Olive was at JCU for a one-year contract to teach composition and music analysis. Her music analysis lessons helped me considerably in being able to analyse the music I was trying to compose. We became good friends and still keep in touch. Though she now lives in Nuremberg, she is my present contact when I need help.

Q: You're currently working on some a cappella songs for a vocal ensemble - can you tell us a little bit more about this, and the text?

A: I have tried in the past to compose instrumental music but, while I have a fair knowledge of strings, my knowledge of wind instrument technique is limited. The piece for a cappella voices that I am presently working on is based more on sounds and overall effect rather than words. The few words used come from the Holy Bible, words appropriate to the meaning of the work (really poetry). Also I have some ideas for writing a set of a few songs after I have finished the a cappella work. My biggest problem here is finding the right words.

Q: Voices are your favourite instruments - can you reflect a little bit on why this is, and maybe choose some of your own favourites among your songs and other vocal works?

A: I like writing for voice. I think this is because of my background with choirs and solo singers. Most of my accompanying has been for singers. My song cycle, In the Garden (2005) has been sung six times that I know of, and one of the songs is now printed in an album, Voice of Australia, Volume II. This song cycle was originally written for my friend, Townsville singing teacher, Susan Grinsell, who said she would like a song cycle to include in programs for her advanced students.

In the Garden was also performed at the 2008 Beijing International Congress on Women in Music. The accompanist for the Chinese singer, Chen Bei, was unavailable so I was asked to accompany her on stage at the concert hall in the Forbidden City. This was quite an experience.

I had always intended to write music in my old age in case I could no longer play the piano. My life in music has been a great experience.

AMC resources

Rhonda Berry - AMC profile (biography and list of works in the AMC's collection)

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