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11 June 2015

Eve Duncan’s Butterfly Modernism

Eve Duncan Image: Eve Duncan  
© Siri Hayes

Composer Eve Duncan talks about her interest in space, architecture and East Asian aesthetics and their influence on her music, especially works on the double CD Butterfly Modernism (Move). Duncan was interviewed by a younger colleague, Corrina Bonshek.

Corrina Bonshek: When did you first start using space [inner space, physical space, architectural space] as a springboard for music ideas?

Eve Duncan: I have to say that looking at space has really come through going to Asia. I've always felt very at home in the Asia-Pacific area, and I grew up with Japanese relatives. I am interested in exploring the extra resources that you have in Asia to do with microtonality, timbre and Asian psychology. And I think participating in so many music festivals in the Asia-Pacific region threw me back on my own sense of space-time in music, and I realised that it was very particular.

CB: Particular to Australia?

ED: Yes. My travels to Europe, Asia, America, really brought home to me that I experience space and time quite differently. It is as though the huge space of Australia is carried in my consciousness as a psychological space. That's how I feel about it. Then, as the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki says, space doesn't differentiate between inner and outer space. That psychological inner space is just as important as the outer space. The Japanese call this inner space oku.

In Australia we are always faced with nature. Even when we are in crowded cities on the coast, there is a sense of the interior space of Australia. I think we carry that inner space of Australia in our psyche. Having a small population means that nature looms larger for us.

CB: Fascinating. And yet, it's urban spaces that you've been exploring in your recent 'butterfly modernism' pieces.

McCraith House - also known as the Butterfly House.
© John Lloyd Fillingham.

ED: Yes, I'm not someone who goes out into the desert and writes music. I wanted to explore being a city-dwelling Australian on this very old landscape. And so, for me, looking at the modernist buildings was quite a pivotal experience. When I did my 'butterfly modernism' pieces I wanted to look at Australian beach houses because I think that coastal experience is very much my experience of being an Australian. Also, I think Australian modernist architecture is an exciting part of the Australian outlook. Australian modernist architects were among the first to put bush gardens in with their buildings, or to place buildings in natural bushland. They recognised the importance of Australian landscape, and were putting bush gardens into buildings that, at that time, had a sense of the future. Of course, the buildings of 1930s, '40s, '50s are historical in 2015. So modernism has a whole different meaning now. Melbourne is riddled with pockets of modernist architecture, and it is very much a part of the character of the city.

CB: Can you tell us how you turned the architectural structures of these modernist beach houses into music?

ED: The Butterfly House (2011) uses the architectural plans of the modernist McCraith House, designed by architects Chancellor and Patrick in 1957. The house is sited high up on the Mornington Peninsula, overlooking Port Phillip Bay. The design encapsulates post-war optimism and the modernist architectural movement that flourished around Melbourne in the fifties and sixties.

The linear and angular proportions of the house were given a parallel in the musical elements, both mathematically and non-mathematically. The six angles at the base of the triangular sliding doors measured 65 degrees, and were given an intervallic equivalent of A to F (a minor sixth), with the minor sixth featured strongly in the music. The poles that form the upper outer edges and the distinctive 'W' shape were measured, and the subsequent pole ratios were incorporated as musical rhythms. The geometric division of the house front section into three large triangles, and five triangles overall, was alluded to in quintuplets and triplets in the music. The geometric mirroring from a central axis was given a parallel in the use of reflecting scales.

CB: You've just completed an opera, The Aspern Papers, with a libretto by David Malouf that is based on a story by Henry James. Have architectural ideas found their way into that too?

ED: Yes! The Aspern Papers was written when James was living in Venice, and David Malouf said that Venice needed to be an actual character in the opera. I used the tide levels of Venice - as in several of my Australian works [Sydney Opera House, Dredge]. I also used the architecture of the alleyways, and the Palladian buildings in Venice that are so majestic and beautiful.

David Malouf is an excellent writer of opera libretti. He knows how to structure an opera so that it is both musical and theatrical. He understands opera deeply. He has a great sense of humour, so that comes through in the libretto as well. It was an absolute joy to write this opera.

CB: Speaking of collaborations, you have created several works with visual artists - I'm thinking here of Dredge (Dredge Dragon, Seahorses, Time and the tides, 2009) for percussion quartet and Four Blackboard Pieces (2007) for piano quintet. These works were both premiered in gallery spaces and have a visual dimension. What attracted you to these projects?

ED: Both my sisters and my two daughters are visual artists. I've worked with my daughter - photographer Siri Hayes - a couple of times. We are both very much into the environment. We did Dredge, which looked at the effect of the dredging near Melbourne. This work was also a metaphysical exploration of the lifting up layers. The act of dredging suggests disturbing something that has been stable and untouched for many years. And we wanted to look at what happens when that is disturbed.

I think it is very useful for composers to work in art spaces because we are freed from the expectations of the concert audience. People can walk around when they hear our music. Collaborative projects like this are a way of opening up, testing and extending your own boundaries. Looking at the relationship between what is visual and what is heard: where does it overlap? Where does one area simulate the other?

CB: Do you find this happens in your concert works too? I am visual spatial person. I often get musical ideas from artworks.

ED: I need the visual artist to be the eyes. I don't do that naturally. When they do that, they lead me in a new direction. I am extremely inward and philosophical in my approach to music; I'm almost non-visual.

For example, when I created music for the National Gallery of Victoria's Joseph Beuys and Rudolph Steiner exhibition, my brief was to respond to blackboard drawings made during lectures on esoteric subjects in the 1920s. I thought, how do I respond in music? I read and meditated upon them each day. I had to address the visual aspects; the use of black space, chalk colours and texture. This led me to take a mapping approach that was later a path to using architectural proportions of buildings.

CB: Another new direction has been composing for Korean kayageum. Can you talk a little about that and your piece The Titans (2008) for flute, viola and kayageum?

ED: I'd love to. I didn't write for kayageum until Ji-Young Yi, a virtuosic player with whom I was sharing a room in New Zealand, invited me to compose for her instrument. By that time, I had strong friendships with several Korean female composers. I thought, now I am ready to compose for this instrument, which is very bluesy. It's quite rough. And there is a very strong connection to nature in Korean music that appeals to me. Many villages have kayageum players. The women who sang with them - pansori singers - have these amazing big Bessie Smith voices. Fabulous!

For The Titans, I decided on instrumentation that was a bit Debussy-like: flute, viola and instead of the harp I used the kayageum. I wanted the flute and viola to derive their sound from the kayageum, so snap pizzicato, throat vibrato, glissandi and multiphonics bring a rougher, microtonal sound.

CB: I encountered the Thai relative of the kagayeum called jakae when I visited Burapha University earlier this year. It sounded bluesy to me too! I know just what you are talking about.

ED: Once you notice those aspects it frees you up. You think, 'I know the blues, I can write for this instrument'. It gives you a way in.

CB: You've been involved with the Asian Composers League for twenty years, and are currently on their executive committee for the second time. Can you tell us a bit about this society and its aims?

ED: The focus of the group is encouraging composers to work with the resources of the Asia-Pacific region. Their composers recognise the incredible music resource that the Asia-Pacific holds. Asian-Pacific music is some of the most interesting music being written.

CB: There's an opinion held by some composers in Asia that it's important to engage with the traditional music of your own native culture before you seek to engage with traditional music of other cultures. This makes sense in a country like Hong Kong where Western classical music dominates the syllabus and there's little exposure to Chinese traditional music. Do you think this applies in Australia?

ED: I would never have written for didjeridu, for instance, if I hadn't been to Asia. In Manila in 1997 I met didjeridu player Tom E. Lewis. Also, I went through school with a Stolen Generations girl, and it was these two relationships that led me compose for didjeridu. I composed Remembering Mirrabooka (1999) for string orchestra and didjeridu, performed by Tom. Tom asked me to compose Runner of Light (2001), premiered by Archie Roach's son Amos for the Centenary of Federation celebrations in Melbourne, along with Tiger Snake (2001), a collaboration with Aboriginal poet Lisa Bellear. Many Aboriginal people attended the performances. It was travelling to Asia that led me to think about Australian space, spirituality and the land.

I don't think there should be any 'shoulds' in music. Your life is one big adventure of experiences. I suppose the thing is to be awake to what's around you and what you can do with what you encounter.

Think how much you can learn from the Asia-Pacific region in terms of timbre and timing. You will never sound Asian, but you will have learnt different ways of producing sound with different tuning. Think of a gamelan: the instruments are already on stage - you don't carry the instruments; you walk to it. There are so many stimulating and inspiring aspects of sound in Asia that can only help a non-Asian composer.

CB: We've spoken about architecture, the inner space of the Australian psyche, your interest in Asian music and aesthetics, as well as your recent collaborations with visual artists. This is a diverse set of interests. Is there any one thread that runs through your music?

ED: The one thread through all my works would be my spiritual approach. I've been interested in Rudolf Steiner's esoteric lectures since I was a teenager. I'm not a materialist. Spirituality, and the meditation that goes with it, has always been there in any music I've done, whether it was early philosophical pieces or the later pieces that may appear to be about surface. For instance, when I composed about mosquitos, butterflies and dragonflies, I tried to look at the spiritual aspects of these insects. I wasn't interested in making buzzing mosquitos or pretty butterflies. In fact, in the butterfly piece I have lots of loud, heavy, clanging, because there is a sense of an inherent power and mystery in a butterfly. How does it function in our overall ecology? It's almost an enigma. It is a powerful insect. That's another reason why I like working in the Asia-Pacific region too, because there's more of an acceptance of a spiritual view.

AMC resources

Eve Duncan - AMC profile (works, recordings, events)
Butterly Modernism - Chamber music by Eve Duncan (Move) - listen to samples and purchase CD (AMC Shop)
Curiosities - Chamber music by Eve Duncan (Move) - listen to samples and purchase CD/MP3 tracks (AMC Shop)
Recorded Messages - music by Eve Duncan (Move) - listen to samples and purchase CD/MP3 tracks (AMC Shop)

Further links

Asian Composers League - www.asiancomposersleague.com
Melbourne Composers' League - www.melbournecomposersleague.com

Dr Corrina Bonshek is a composer whose music is inspired by nature, birdsong, meditation and East Asian aesthetics. She has a PhD in music from University of Western Sydney. Her music has been described as ‘beautifully shaped and contemplative’ (Clare MacClean, 2013) and ‘deeply spiritual in intent’ (Anne Boyd, 2002). 


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