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14 July 2008

Capturing Colour - The Red Tree

collaboration by Michael Yezerski, Gondwana Voices and Richard Tognetti

Alex, Gillian and Ella (Gondwana Voices) Image: Alex, Gillian and Ella (Gondwana Voices)  

Angharad Davis talks to composer Michael Yezerski about the challenges he faced when working on the Australian Chamber Orchestra's new collaborative project The Red Tree. The work, based on a picture book by the award-winning Australian illustrator Shaun Tan, was composed in cooperation with the children in the Gondwana Voices choir, as well as the ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti.

(Image © Shaun Tan: The Red Tree / ACO)

Loneliness, they say, is being overshadowed by a monstrous airborne fish.
Ennui, as you may have heard, is an eternal voyage on the shell of a spiralling snail.

Phrases such as these are too whimsical, too absurd, to thrive as clichés - as far as aphorisms go, they are probably fairly unsuccessful. Yet the melancholy ichthyoid and the circling mollusc are among the images that Melbourne illustrator Shaun Tan uses to give unhappiness and isolation a physical form in his picture book The Red Tree. Ostensibly a children's book - a classification that Tan openly questions - the story can, at its most basic level, be read as an impressionistic account of a little girl having a bad day. However, as with much of Tan's work, the deeper connotations of the message lie in the decidedly idiosyncratic artworks that accompany the skeletal storyline. In The Red Tree, the otherworldly element peculiar to Tan's illustrations is often invoked by reality out of place (the everyday taking on strange new forms and meanings) as well as the presence of the author's signature creations, quirky creatures of the tentacular variety. The image of the little girl walking in the shadow of a giant, mournful fish is effective because of - rather than in spite of - its inherent strangeness.

Tan's artworks are characterised by the warped logic of dreams and the blurry elisions of half-light; as such, they elude plain verbal description. They transcend, subvert, and in some instances simply defy rational interpretation, heading straight for an unvoiceable truth on the boundary of understanding. For The Red Tree, a collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Gondwana Voices created by Michael Yezerski and Richard Tognetti, this is potentially the very quality that could allow the project to go beyond word painting to become a whole work, one that is truly interdisciplinary.

The notion of a co-created musical work tends to disrupt the classical compositional stereotype. In The Red Tree, the role of the Gondwana Voices in the creation of The Red Tree further distances the project from the creative cliché: Beethoven alone in a garret with his genius. At almost the very beginning of the project, the young Gondwana choristers came up with their own musical and sonic ideas inspired by The Red Tree. Some came back with melodies, others with sound patterns, of which 'at least one', Yezerski says, has ended up in the final work. Yezerski, who wrote the score for the film The Black Balloon, supplied additional music for Kenny and has previously joined forces with Tognetti to underscore a surf film, thinks that such collaborative efforts will become increasingly common as cultural changes put a premium on concert time and innovation eats away at barriers to creative communication. Throughout the year-long evolution of The Red Tree, Yezerski and Tognetti emailed Sibelius scores back and forth, and held creative consultations via Skype even while the ACO was on tour in Slovenia:

'Technology, of course, makes the digital composer a possibility… There's no reason why you can't have two composers write a piece together in this day and age. They don't always have to be sitting in the same room, at the piano next to each other', says Yezerski.

The defining aspect of any picture book is, of course, the pictures. Tan's luminous illustrations are drenched in colour - the originals are painted in oils over acrylic paint to intensify the effect. At the heart of the book is the ruby incandescence of the red tree (living proof of the maxim 'hope springs eternal'), which stands out even when surrounded by lavishly tinted pages. A single leaf from the tree, an echo of the protagonist's autumn-red hair, can be found in each of the pictures, although the little girl at the centre of the story remains wrapped in her own unhappiness. The colour of the leaf is also echoed by details in the surrounding world - little birds on the pavement, distant butterflies fluttering among streamers - making the musical translation of Tan's colours a significant, if not crucial, aspect in bringing the work to life.

The issue of 'musical colour' is problematic at the best of times without bringing the limitations of predetermined orchestration into the mix. Yezerski asserts that a forty-five minute work offers sufficient scope to explore the light and shade available to strings and voices, without missing the (hypothetical) celeste. Yezerski describes his approach to musical colour as 'sort of synaesthetic', a term which he appears to remove from the historical and scientific entanglement of Scriabin, Messiaen, and the like, instead using it simply to suggest a personal and subjective colour-music relationship. He is prepared to use any sonic technique at his disposal to capture this, from textural overlays to vocal effects and extended string techniques - 'just anything that will inspire the colour in my head'.

Unfortunately, the colour in the composer's head is not always the colour in the artist's, as became apparent when the high-resolution photographs of Tan's original works, to be projected during performance, were delivered: 'One of the pictures in the book is called The world is a deaf machine', Yezerski explains. 'The picture that I've always been familiar with in the book is a yellow and grey sort of colour. The real image, the one that was photographed, is actually blue, and it's kind of dark and sombre, so from that perspective I've actually written the wrong piece!'

Yezerski was not a stranger to Tan's work prior to the Red Tree project; he even had a favourite Tan book. (Images from The Arrival, Tan's wholly pictorial, pseudo-photographic account of the experience of migrants and displaced persons, will accompany Tognetti's arrangement of Shostakovich's String Quartet No 15 in the same concert.) Although the composer, in his own words, 'jumped at the opportunity' to become involved with a genuine Shaun Tan project, he was initially concerned that the 'dark and unrelenting' atmosphere pervading the book would be difficult to translate into a compelling composition, something that could be satisfying and entertaining as well as moving. The non-linear narrative style of The Red Tree, however, and the comparative freedom of working with a series of static images rather than a prescriptive film sequence, offered considerable scope for interpretation.

'Even the author likens it to a book that you can open to any page and it will give you a discrete set of clues that you can interpret without having to refer to the rest of the book. So this project is interesting in that we're creating the story for it in many ways, just as the reader creates the story for it when he or she reads the book.'

This is wholly in keeping with Tan's conception that not only can the ideas underlying his book 'endure' multiple and varying interpretations of The Red Tree, but that they almost demand them.

'The ideas of the original book,' Tan writes in his commentary on The Red Tree, 'point more to a method of expression - of "emotional worlds" - rather than any very specific content… This seems appropriate, as everyone's experience of "suffering" or "hope" is unique and personal.'

Performance Details

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Angharad Davis is currently completing a Master's degree in musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying connections between memory and the perception of musical collage. She is associated with a number of musical organisations as a teacher, performer, and a writer of program notes.


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