8 November 2017
Diana Blom - composer & animateur
Our warmest congratulations, this month, go to composer Diana Blom who turns 70 on 10 November 2017. We asked a long-term friend and collaborator Michael Hannan to write down his thoughts about Diana Blom's music and the many projects and collaborations where she has been - and continues to be - a driving force.
I met Diana Blom in 1969 when she first arrived in Sydney from New Zealand. Having received a BMus in composition from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, she enrolled in an MMus in composition, studying with Peter Sculthorpe at the University of Sydney. At the time I was a BA undergraduate student in the same department and was also working as Peter's personal assistant/copyist.
In 1976 I had my first professional contact with Diana. She was the producer of an ABC radio series Composers Play, where composers were asked to record their own music. For one of the programs, Peter Sculthorpe recorded his keyboard-based piano works, and I was co-opted to record his Landscape, and Koto Music I and II, works based exclusively on extended piano techniques. All the recordings Diana produced for this Sculthorpe radio program were eventually issued by Move Records.
Diana spent a decade overseas from 1978, living in the USA, Hong Kong and Malaysia. After returning to Australia she was appointed, in 1994, to the newly formed Department of Music of Western Sydney University. She is still a key figure in its operation and, from that base, has organised many creative collaborative projects. She has become a legend in the area of mobilising composers and performers to create, perform and record new repertoire.
I first encountered this side of Diana's work when I was convening a conference on the education of professional musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Diana, who was part of the research group, suggested organising a concert of new piano music as part of the conference. Her idea was to ask Australian composers to write pieces which responded to Chinese culture, and to ask Chinese composers (she had already established contact with some) to write music responding to Australian culture. It ended up being a one-sided affair as the Chinese composers pulled out, not because they didn't wish to write Australian-influenced pieces, but because they expected to be paid substantial commissions. The concert went ahead with only Australian pieces, but, soon after in Beijing (at another music education conference), Diana met an Italian pianist, Antonietta Loffredo, and persuaded her to take on the project, which resulted in Italian composers being asked to contribute pieces, a recording, Shadows and Silhouettes, being issued, and quite a few performances in Australia and Italy.
But the collaboration with Antonietta Loffredo didn't end there. In addition to being a pianist, Antonietta is also a famous toy piano performer. In 2014, Diana and Antonietta curated a CD of toy piano music, Antarctica, with new pieces by Australian, New Zealand, Italian and Portuguese composers.
One of Diana's most recent projects, 'Multiple Keyboards' is a collaboration with me. Our idea was to write, perform and record new music for more than one keyboard or for multiple players on one keyboard. Once again, Antonietta Loffredo was involved as there were works involving two toy pianos as well as piano and toy piano. On 8 December 2016 there was a concert at the Theme and Variations Piano Showroom in Sydney, where fourteen new works by five Australian composers were premiered. A double CD is due for release soon, with additional works that involve extended piano techniques, prohibited by the venue.
Another notable project, a collaboration between Dawn Bennett (viola) and Diana (piano), is 'Australia East and West', funded by an APRA grant. The aim of the project is to expand the repertoire of Australian music for viola and piano. Ten new Australian works in this collaboration have been premiered in Western Australia (where Dawn is based) and in several eastern Australian states; and a CD is in the works. The project evolved from a conversation where Dawn, a research professor in the field of graduate employability, told Diana that she was giving up professional performing because of academic work pressure. Diana told her she couldn't do that as she (Diana) had just written a new piece for her.
Looking at Diana Blom's list of works one notices an emphasis on keyboard works. This is not surprising as she has a career background as a pianist and harpsichordist (and now toy pianist) in addition to being a composer and music researcher. However, another prominent aspect of her compositional output is her song-writing, including works for music theatre. For her Master's degree in 1971, she wrote an opera with a libretto by David Malouf, his first attempt at this literary genre. Early in her composition career she was composer-in-residence for the Australian Opera, during which she wrote a children's opera, The Pied Piper (1974). A series of music theatre works for children followed.
Diana has written songs with texts by prominent Australian, New Zealand and some international writers including David Malouf, Helen Garner, Jocelyn Ortt-Saeed, Chitra Fernando, Tim Malfroy, Robyn Ravlich, Peter Goldsworthy, Lloyd Jones, Basil Dowling and Jennifer Rumsey. In 2015 she issued a CD, Songs by Diana Blom (all for voice and piano) but she has also recently been involved as a composer in several CD projects around the WWI centenary, resulting in the Halcyon group's release of War Letters: new music commemorating WWI (works by Gyger, Murphy, Sitsky and Blom) and Canakkale - Gallipoli Songs, which includes her five-movement song cycle, Remembrances Four.
Despite the seriousness of the war-commemoration projects, there is a strain of humour and playfulness running through many of Diana's song settings, and indeed many of her instrumental compositions. Quite a few of her songs are settings of prose taken from novels. She treats these texts in a very theatrical way with the accompaniment providing drama, humour and a sense of movement, as appropriate. A favourite of mine is At the end of the world we learn to dance for tenor and piano (2012). Diana explains the idea of the book and her piece, as follows.
'The novel, Here at the end of the world we learn of dance, by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones, tells of a lifelong relationship between two people, forged by the tango, which begins on the West Coast of New Zealand and end in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Three excerpts from the novel focus on dancing and learning the tango by these two and others drawn into the story. The long song adopts the different tango styles and moods referred to in the story through a three-song structure with a refrain and interludes.'
Indeed there are quite a few tango grooves and bass-line riffs that support the sections of the text involving the enactment of the dance, but there are also other approaches to piano accompaniment to add drama and humour, and to contrast with the tango sections. The setting of the text flows well as if it were a setting of measured poetry.
A more obvious comic treatment of a text can be found in the song The Library for tenor and piano (1996), a setting of an extract from Peter Goldsworthy's novel Maestro (1989). The scenario involves a young virginal man in the stacks of a research library overhearing a couple having sex in the next aisle. He also sees some of the action as their movements cause more and more books to fall off the shelves separating him from them. The text is a cue for the composer to incorporate into the accompaniment rhythmic simulations of sexual movements as well as sensual and other sound effects, some involving extended piano techniques, as the auditeur/voyeur recalls his unforgettable experience.
It is fair to say that all Diana's vocal melodies are lyrical in quality, for the most part lacking any extreme angularity, but the accompaniments are stylistically eclectic and often flamboyant, functioning like film music to support the message and mood of the text.
There are also some genres of music that Diana has embraced as part of her compositional aesthetic. We have already discussed the tango in relation to her At the end of the world we learn to dance. The tango also figures in her song cycle, Dance Set (which also involves other Latin dance styles that she likes), Modern Tango for solo piano (2009), Tango Waltz for solo piano (2009) and Tango (February) for solo piano (2011). Blues, folk and progressive rock are also mentioned in her program notes as artistic touchstones for various works. And let's not forget the modern classical influence. Diana did her artistic research-oriented PhD with a focus on minimalism. That said, it is hard to imagine this tradition as an enduring aspect of her work as she has developed a very individualistic chromatic/modal harmonic idiom that is a feature of most of her music.
Diana's background experiences in Pacific countries (New Zealand, Australia, USA, Hong Kong and Malaysia) have also imprinted themselves on her work. A case in point is her cello and piano work, The Whale's Song (2008). This draws upon a range of musical sources from New Zealand, Ecuador, Hawaii, Japan and Papua New Guinea.
One gets the impression that Diana's identity as a musician is primarily focused on composing and performing music but, as an academic within a conservative university environment, there will have been expectations that these activities should be framed by research theories and research methodologies. Diana has taken these considerations in her stride, producing many scholarly articles relating to her composition and performance activities.
Diana Blom - AMC profile (biography, works, events)
Diana Blom - homepage (www.dianablom.com)
Diana Blom - Wirripang (http://australiancomposers.com.au/authors/diana-blom)
© Australian Music Centre (2017) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
Be the first to share add your thoughts and opinions in response to this article.
You must login to post a comment.