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3 October 2019

A week in Missouri with Alarm Will Sound

Nicole Murphy Image: Nicole Murphy  

Nicole Murphy writes about her participation in the 2019 Mizzou International Composers Festival in Columbia, Missouri, and her new work Dust for the Alarm Will Sound ensemble.

Established in 2009, the Mizzou International Composers Festival celebrates collaborations between US and international composers, and the renowned contemporary music ensemble, Alarm Will Sound. Each year for the past decade, composers and performers have gathered in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, for a week of collaborations, presentations, performances and discussions.

The festival is hosted by the Mizzou New Music Institute at the University of Missouri and brings together eight 'resident composers' and two 'distinguished composers'. Past distinguished guest composers have included Steven Sticky, Nico Muhly, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Chen Yi. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the festival in 2019, one of the first resident composers, Amy Beth Kirsten, and a 2003 distinguished composer, Donnecca Dennehey, were invited back this year.

The eight resident composers selected to take part in the 2019 Mizzou International Composers Festival were Theo Chandler (USA), inti figgis-vizueta (USA), Charles Halka (USA), Chelsea Komschlies (USA/Canada), Aaron Mencher (USA), Peter Shin (USA), Kristina Wolfe (USA/UK), and myself. Before arriving in Missouri we had each composed an eight-minute work for Alarm Will Sound's sinfonietta instrumentation. These works were rehearsed, revised, refined and recorded throughout the week, and received their premiere in the final concert of the festival.

My piece, Dust, was written in response to an excerpt of the poem 'The Captain of the Men of Death' by Australian writer Richard James Allen (from The Short Story of You and I, published in 2019). This excerpt describes the erratic undoing of carefully constructed lives that can occur when experiencing a serious illness. Allen describes how 'everything that was so deftly woven... becomes messy, unjoined, disconnected, gaps appear everywhere with no rhymes or reasons'. The form of Dust reflects the structure and pacing of the poem as the deconstruction of the initial ideas lead to the 'hideous cacophony and dreadful silence of before and after we humans pushed our cloven hooves into this dust'. The sonic outcome, however, is not always as dark as one might expect from the subject matter. The opening texture is gradually unwound and eventually overcome by a gesture that is, at times, rather playful. This leads to a vibrant, rhythmic middle section, which is eventually defeated by the chaos of the final section.

The festival is funded by the generosity of the Sinquefields, a local Missouri couple with a keen interest in new music. In addition to this, I was fortunate to have support from the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland that allowed me to travel from Australia to the US.

The festival schedule was both exhilarating and exhausting, with daily rehearsals, revisions, lecture presentations, performances, discussions, and the all-important post-concert celebrations. After landing during a Missouri heatwave, the resident composers were whisked off to the Sinquefields' farm for the first reading of our works by Alarm Will Sound. The green hills and beautiful lake beside our rehearsal room did little to calm the typical first-rehearsal nerves. However, the open-minded and collaborative approach of conductor Alan Pierson, the musicians of Alarm Will Sound, and sound engineer Daniel Neumann made the rehearsal and revision process thoroughly enjoyable.

Throughout the week each of the resident composers gave presentations on their work and had the opportunity to take individual and small group lessons with Amy Beth Kirsten and Donnacha Dennehey. Getting to know the work of fellow resident composers is always my favourite part of the festival experience, and the ability to delve into the minds of Kirsten and Dennehey, whose music I adore, was invaluable.

The festival schedule featured many performances by a variety of ensembles including Alarm Will Sound, the Mizzou New Music Ensemble, Khemia Ensemble, Bels Lontano and Mizzou Percussion. Highlights included a sound art installation by Daniel Neumann that drew on a discarded sample library of recordings of extended techniques made by Alarm Will Sound members, the showcasing of a scene from Amy Beth Kirsten's latest theatrical work Jacob in Chains, and the premiere of the concert version of Donnacha Dennehey's hauntingly beautiful piece, The Hunger.

I am grateful to Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, whose investment in new music over the past decade has established a vibrant contemporary music scene in Missouri, to the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland whose support allowed me to attend the festival, and to the musicians of Alarm Will Sound, for bringing their expertise and artistry to my music.

AMC resources

Nicole Muprhy - AMC profile

'Insight: Stolen' - a feature article by Nicole Murphy (Resonate 4 June 2016)

'Give up control and learn about your work - Intimacy of Creativity 2018, Hong Kong' - a blog article by Nicole Murphy (Resonate 28 May 2018)

Further links

Alarm Will Sound (https://www.alarmwillsound.com/)

Mizzou International Composers Festival (https://newmusic.missouri.edu/micf/mizzou-international-composers-festival)


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