30 August 2011
Brighton to Bondi - how I got the composing bug
When I was at school, in art class from the start of Year 7, we were encouraged to create our own masterpieces. It is odd, then, that as a professional musician I have never written a work that has been performed in a concert setting. Last year, when we were selecting the songs for our concert 'Brighton to Bondi', we decided we really needed a work to pull the concept of the concert together, and to bring all the performing elements together. Unable to find a piece about the English/Australian connection that involved piano, organ, large choir and youth chorus, I decided to write one!
In the foyer of the Sofitel Hotel in New York, over quite a few cups of average coffee, I sketched the outline for my piece Brighton to Bondi which features the poetry of New Zealand poet Tim Jones. His poem 'Tuesday Poem: Impertinent to Sailors' seemed like the perfect text for my piece:
Curved over islands, the world
dragged me south in a talkative year
as the band played a distant farewell.
It was better than steerage,
that assisted passage: ten pound Poms
at sixpence the dozen, promenading
in sun frocks, gathering for quoits,
angling, in an understated way,
for a seat at the Captain's table -
while I, a child, roamed decks, became
impertinent to sailors [...]
I knew, when I was writing the outline, that I wanted to suggest both the Northern and Southern hemispheres in the work, as well as the space in which the piece will be performed. The Sydney Town Hall has a wonderful sense of grandeur and suggests something of 'old' Sydney. It is also a wonderful space to arrange the choir in.
So, firstly, I knew that the structure would be a little like a da capo aria - the first part is departure, middle section journey and last section arrival: a mirroring of the departure but with more elements. So, the work starts with a plaintive melody on the piano that sort of revs itself up like an old steamliner, while VOX, arranged in groups of three around the hall, create a soundscape defined by the low-sounding pedals of the grand organ. The middle section text is largely given to the Festival Chorus who then join VOX at the end with a more fleshed out and optimistic version of the opening hemisphere - the sense of a new and better life - optimistic despite the tribulations of the journey itself.
It is quite a nerve wracking job, creating a piece for the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs who have had so many great works written for them. Putting aside my procrastination, I eventually sat in the foyer with some manuscripts and started creating.
The concert also features works by some of Australia's best choral composers: Paul Stanhope, Stephen Adams and Ross Edwards. While I will leave you to be the judge of the work's quality, the combination of writing for a specific occasion, venue and concept made the composition part quite easy and somewhat liberating.
As a result, I now have the composing bug and am keen to write something else. I found that the text very much suggested the music - following the rise and fall of speech both melodically and rhythmically. More importantly, I understood a concept that I once heard expressed in the play Six Degrees of Separation. In it, a primary school art teacher has a class of young geniuses and, when asked how she teaches them, she simply replies that it is all about learning when to take the canvas away.
I don't know how composers do it, as the process of fine-tuning, for me, took the longest amount of time and there was a tendency to want to keep making small corrections and adjustments. At some point you have to just make a decision that the piece is finished - oddly enough, this was on the day when the first rehearsal took place! I won't hear the piece until rehearsal number 7 so I am scared and excited!
So there it is. If for no other reason, come to our concert 'Brighton to Bondi' and let me know what you think about the piece. I had a great deal of pleasure writing it.
Brighton to Bondi
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Friday 16 September at 7pm
Sydney Town Hall, Sydney NSW
Festival Chorus & VOX
Conductors: Brett Weymark and Elizabeth Scott
Organ: David Drury; piano: Josephine Allan
Full event details in the AMC Calendar
© Australian Music Centre (2011) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Brett Weymark is the Artistic and Musical Director of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.
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