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10 March 2008

An Exercise in Similar Differences

An Exercise in Similar Differences

In the past six months I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in two different projects: the premiere event of Chronology Arts in Sydney and the 07-08 Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers program with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. In some ways the two could not be more contrasting: a fledgling new music performance body built from the ground up by its founders (Alex Pozniak and Andrew Batt-Rawden) versus the young composers program of one of Australia’s leading orchestras (graciously funded by the Cybec Foundation).

At the same time, both experiences allowed me to embark on work in fields for which I’ve great interest and enthusiasm. For Chronology Arts, I wrote a vocal piece (for soprano and piano, on words by Angharad Davis), and for the MSO, a ten-minute orchestral work (for an ensemble of twenty-five players). On a personal note, both pieces have in some ways been studies in transition: a chance to settle certain old arguments from my previous years of discovery and to move onwards (post quarter-life crisis) to what are hopefully positive future developments.

Without recognising that these failures are going to occur – even if they are as small as a poorly voiced chord – one might never learn and continue to take risks...The words for the two songs were penned by Angharad in 2003, and while my first settings are now happily in the trashcan, my eagerness for the text remains unchanged (as have one or two salvaged musical ideas). Being able to work with soprano Michaela Hodgson and pianist Jocelyn Ho (who performed the songs) and composer Elias Constantopedos (who workshopped the piano parts) made for an extremely in-depth and luxurious preparation period, and gave me the chance to finally deal head-on with certain long-standing challenges where vocal writing is concerned.

Writing for Chronology Arts allowed me to not only work first-hand with a singer with whom I connected personally and creatively, but also to share positive relationships with the others performers, the poet, and the concert organisers within an environment of shared understanding (or mutually assured destruction, as a cynic would put it).

In contrast, the MSO’s program involved venturing into a realm with which I’d had no previous contact, alongside fellow young composers Nicole Murphy, Robert Dahm and James Rushford. I admit that the experience was infinitely more terrifying, as, regardless of the fantastic support of those involved, the easily understood realities of orchestral writing – such as limited rehearsal time – meant that if something was not working by the time the concert came around it was my fault, but I would not be able to fix it.

My work for the MSO, Aurelian unturning, was (as mentioned) very much a case of seeking to close old doors and open new ones. The first impulses that guided me were elemental desires to write what I loved (a very vague and inarticulate thing to try to justify); from day one I knew that there were colours, textures, and sonic possibilities that I wanted to explore. More specific compositional parameters came later, and it was only then that I was able to approach possibilities which made me curious, or uncomfortable. In this I was frequently cheered on by my mentor, Nigel Butterley.

Beyond the specifics appropriate for program notes, Aurelian unturning is an internal meeting-place of sorts. There is the old me, who has been asking a few questions for a while now and has at last had the chance to get a satisfactory answer. There’s the new me, who has been slowly coming up with another set of problems that I’ve hardly been able to even consider. And then there’s the me that’s always been there and possibly always will, driven by something less conscious. It’s this me that’s probably led all three facets of me to music and composition. But the real challenges and rewards lie in connecting with the external realities of being a composer.

Ultimately, my experience may or may not reflect that of others, but I think there’s always going to be this sort of dichotomous obstacle for any young composer: the desire to succeed versus the need to learn. The reality of composition as a long road could not be clearer at times, but the real challenge – whether writing a piece for a close friend or presenting a work to an ensemble of professional strangers – is in accepting the ever-present possibility of failure (both small and large). Especially considering that as a composer you’ll be ‘young’ until you’re in your forties, which in some ways is a nice thought rather than a cruel reality.

Without recognising that these failures are going to occur – even if they are as small as a poorly voiced chord – one might never learn and continue to take risks. Without even these small risks, success as a forward-looking contemporary composer seems completely out of reach (to me at least), regardless of whether one identifies as a modernist, a post-modernist, a neo-traditionalist, a post-post-modernist, or anything else. Being able to take these risks with both a small group of performers and an orchestra has been a fantastic opportunity.

Further Links

Paul Castles is currently completing his Masters of Music (Composition) with Trevor Pearce at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he also completed his Bachelor of Music (Honours I) with teachers Nigel Butterley, Mary Finsterer, and Michael Smetanin.


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