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9 June 2016

A piece half a lifetime in the making

Rebecca Gill Image: Rebecca Gill  

In the middle of working on a new piece for violin and piano, violinist Rebecca Gill, who commissioned the work as part of the 2016 Stefan Kruger Scholarship, sent me an e-mail with an old photo of the two of us. She came across the photo - from the hazy days before Facebook albums - while looking for material for her upcoming tour, Three Horizons, which features the new work alongside an all-Australian program.

'Look what I found!' she exclaimed. We can't quite decide how old we are in the photo, or what the occasion was, but are both struck by how young we look, and how long ago it seems. We're both horrified when I point out that, regardless of whether we were 15 or 16, the photo was taken half of our lifetimes ago.

Also named three horizons, my work is actually three pieces, rolled into one. To give a little insight into the process, and in the spirit of collaboration, we decided to interview one another. Without telling Bec what questions I was going to ask, I asked her to write some questions for me to answer, and then we both sent them to each other.

Chris Williams: Why did you decide to commission a new piece as part of your Stefan Kruger Scholarship win?

Rebecca Gill: When I was thinking of a great performance project, in order to apply for the scholarship, it was important to me to try and take some other musicians 'along for the ride', so to speak. I love playing the repertoire that musicians and audiences have celebrated for centuries but in this project I wanted to generate something new and leave something behind when the concerts are over. Now, when the sound fades at the end of my last Three Horizons concert there will be three pieces in the world for other musicians to engage with and enjoy.

CW: What was your greatest fear in asking for a new piece?

RG: That it might be something so fiendishly difficult that I couldn't do it justice in live performance! I'm now responsible for bringing someone else's creation to life. Luckily, I'm thrilled with the pieces and I think we'll be able to do them justice.

CW: What's been the most unexpected part of the process so far?

RG: Honestly I was expecting to have to spend more time with you working through problems with the score and instrumental difficulties with the writing. The polished form in which the first draft came to me was quite remarkable, I think! Some compositions feel like they fight with the natural tendencies and qualities of your instrument. 'three horizons' works beautifully.

CW: Did you learn three horizons differently to how you learnt the other pieces on the program?

RG: With three horizons I had the incredible opportunity of peppering the composer with questions. In this way I was probably even more careful to be faithful to the markings in the score; checking every dot and line, and questioning exactly what you wanted from them. As performers, we approach Beethoven with as much care but, without the opportunity to ask him directly, we have to use our judgement about performance style and his intentions.

Before I began putting this program together I was relatively unfamiliar with the other Australian repertoire I've chosen, by Margaret Sutherland, Raymond Hanson and Stuart Greenbaum. The style of their writing, particularly Sutherland and Hanson, is closely linked to 19th and early 20th-century composition for violin and piano, so as I was preparing these works I felt a sort of familiarity. This meant I could use my experience and knowledge as an instrumentalist to make different decisions about bringing the music to life.

With three horizons I have the pleasure of starting to understand your compositional language. Of course, as a young contemporary composer your 'style' is not a static thing, but as a performer we can start to get a 'feel' for your creative voice.

CW: And now I'll hand the mic over to you, Bec.

RG: Is being commissioned a usual way for you to start composing a work or do you have the beginnings of pieces come to you and wait for the right project to be developed into a greater work?

CW: Being commissioned is a good way to finish composing, for me. I find that I am always starting pieces, but I'm usually reluctant or just unable to put aside the sometimes large amount of time required to finish a piece, without knowing that it'll be useful, without knowing it will be heard, played by live musicians. It means I've got lots of ideas sketched, and have the hope that I will one day be able to get back to all of them.

In truth, though, often a commission will inspire a new idea or direction, making those sketches good compositional 'exercise' without necessarily being destined to be pieces in their own right. Though it might seem more abstract, I suspect composing has similarities to instrumental performance, and perhaps these sketches are the compositional equivalent of running through your scales, so you're ready for when you need to draw on those skills in a real performance.

RG: Have many of your compositions been written for friends? How does this affect your approach and the process of creating?

CW: This actually reminds me of a letter Nigel Butterley once showed me. It's, understandably, an item of great importance to him: a note to him from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Nigel and a colleague at the ABC sent Vaughan Williams a Birthday telegram and Vaughan Williams took the time to reply. I may be paraphrasing, slightly, but Vaughan Williams thanked them for their note and then said 'Isn't it wonderful that music can make friends of those who would otherwise never meet?' It's such a beautiful and powerful idea, and I find that the best musical experiences make friends ('of those who would otherwise never meet'), and that friends tend to produce the best musical work.

I'm extremely lucky to know remarkable performers I am humbled to call friends, and if I can keep writing for them, then that's exactly what I hope to do. What is perhaps more unusual this time, working with you, is that though music played an early role in our relationship, it wasn't necessarily an instigating force, just a happy byproduct. I'm sure it makes a difference in a thousand ways big and small, but I think I'd be hard pressed to articulate them all precisely.

RG: Do you have wonderful ideas you have to discard because of instrumental peculiarities, or to you find a different sort of creative language for each composition?

CW: I think it can work in two distinct, or blended, ways for me. Sometimes ideas will 'arrive' in an instrumental form, a flute line for example, and there'll be something very particular about the idea, either its colour, or structure that will mean it's clearly for a particular instrument. Other times, however, a 'musical idea' will arrive without this level of specificity, and then there is a real process of working how best to give voice to the idea, of thinking through the instrumental possibilities, in order to find the best way of finding its expression.

> You can read a longer version of this article on Chris Williams's blog.

AMC resources

Chris Williams - AMC profile

Event details in the AMC Calendar for the Three Horizons tour: 31 July (Penrith - a free concert with a shorter program; 13 August (Burradoo, NSW), 20 August (Newcastle - as part of the first Newcastle Music Festival); 25 September (Canberra); 1 October (Sydney)

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