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30 October 2019

Flight Memory - a narrative song cycle

Flight Memory - a narrative song cycle

Canberra-based Sandra France talks about music and her new narrative song cycle Flight Memory - a narrative work about the Australian scientist David Warren, inventor of the black box flight recorder. The work will have its world premiere on 14-17 November at the Street Theatre in Canberra. This article is based on a blog interview with Sandra France on the Street Theatre website.

My life revolves around music. I feel most alive and uninhibited when I am playing music and creating music. Composing is like a puzzle to me, and I love the challenge of solving the puzzle of every new piece I write. Playing music is like breathing to me, and a more natural medium of communication than any other. Listening to music is a direct line into my heart. I have the great privilege of earning my living in music; composing, playing and teaching music. It is a privilege to be able to inhabit the world of music, and I will forever be in my parents' debt for fostering my passion as a young child.

There was never a moment when I thought I'd like to 'become' a composer. I have always written music. I began composing the day I got home from my first piano lesson, at age nine. I was intrigued at how and why composers put notes together. As a young child, I listened intensely to classical music and enjoyed learning to play the masterpieces on piano. Throughout my school years I composed music, often instead of practising for my AMEB exams, creating piano pieces that emulated the style of the composers I was studying. After high school I studied piano performance at WAAPA and discovered a whole new world of classical chamber music and orchestral music. When I first heard modern classical music and jazz, my world exploded. I was thrilled by the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic freedoms and totally excited by the sonic possibilities that lay ahead of me.

I began working on Flight Memory in 2017 when playwright Alana Valentine and I were commissioned by the Street Theatre to create a work that celebrated science and its contribution to defence. Living in different cities has meant we have had the space to work independently on sections of the work. We have scheduled several intensive creative sessions along the way, where the two of us shared our ideas as well as came up with completely new ones. At times, my musical ideas informed Alana's words, and at other times Alana's words directed the flavour of music I composed.

We wanted to create a new song cycle in a jazz genre. We imagined that the vocal parts would be very demanding and almost instrumental in approach to singing. Three voices allow us to tap into the collective experience of many of the issues we touch on.

Throughout Flight Memory, I have tried to create music that carries the listener on a journey through the breadth of emotions that David Warren endured in his lifetime. During his pursuit to create the black box flight recorder, his creative genius was ridiculed and overlooked, which would have frustrated him and hurt him. However, he did not submit to this treatment by his peers and superiors, but, rather, was driven by a determination to create a machine that would help improve a major flaw in aviation safety.

His pain, isolation, struggle and strength of character are represented sonically throughout the work in different ways. Frequently, dissonance is juxtaposed with melody. The darker shades of Warren's psyche - self-doubt, negativity, guilt and sorrow - can be heard in the clashes in tonality that punctuate the predominantly lyrical work. Counterpoint references a fast-working brilliant mind. The inclusion of musical improvisation is freedom; having the courage to explore and the skills and intelligence to turn ideas into actions. The broad palette of musical textures in the work highlights that there are many different solutions to a single problem.

After a couple years of work, we went through an extensive creative development phase, led by Caroline Stacey, the artistic director of The Street Theatre in Canberra. This included a test performance in front of a small audience, allowing the creative team to know which parts of the work were engaging and evocative and which parts required further development.

I have written for a standard jazz combo of six players, including a 4-piece rhythm section (bass, drums, piano and guitar) and two front-line instruments (saxophone and trumpet). There is some doubling throughout from most of the players, many of whom will utilise music technology in some capacity to enhance the standard ensemble.

Directing from the piano is a first for me. Typically, a composer writes for another musician, or ensemble of musicians, and relinquishes the performance aspect of realising the written score to that of the performer. But because I am playing in Flight Memory, I can respond intuitively to the work as the other players bring their own ideas into the picture. It is a much more natural way of making music, and feels like pure art, fusing creation with performance.

Flight Memory is a glimpse into David Warren's world; a look at an Australia that punched above its weight with creativity in the early part of last century. It looks at how, despite this, we just couldn't celebrate this man's gifts. How people are less likely to encourage someone who questions, explores, tries out new ideas, looks at the world differently and uniquely, and who thinks for himself or herself, rather than someone who tows the line without query. It celebrates David Warren's undying focus and determination to invent this machine, not for acceptance or recognition, but because he knew inside that he could. This is the Australian spirit that we claim to celebrate; being independent, creative and fearless. We just seem to forget it too often.

AMC resources

Flight Memory at the Street Theatre, Canberra, 14-17 November 2019 (event details in the AMC Calendar)

Sandra France - AMC profile

Further links

Flight Memory (event details on the Street Theatre website)


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