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30 September 2013

From quarter tones to Dictaphones - report from MODART13

MODART13 rehearsal with The Song Company and Roland Peelman Image: MODART13 rehearsal with The Song Company and Roland Peelman  

The final concerts of MODART13 composer development program took place on 27-28 September in Sydney and in Canberra. After an intense week of rehearsals, five emerging composers from Australia and three from overseas heard their new works performed by the Song Company.

The Song Company's young composer forum, actively supported by the Australian Music Centre and ABC Classic FM, takes place every two years. MODART13 participants were: Michael Bakrnčev, Adam Cook, Owen Salome, Dylan Sheridan and Marcus Whale (all from Australia), Daniel Lo (Hong Kong), Yeo Chow (Malaysia) and Celeste Oram (New Zealand). Michael Bakrnčev sent in his report straight after the final concerts of MODART13.

We began the week filled with nerves, anxiety, adrenalin and pure excitement, knowing that within a matter of days the six voices of The Song Company would be singing our new pieces to Sydney and Canberra audiences, and - on a much more nerve-wracking scale - the whole of Australia, via ABC Classic FM. I think back to what stuck in our minds from MODART after the first couple of days of rehearsal, and what seemed to be the most common uniting factor amongst us composers: how exhausting and simply draining listening and thinking can be! Follow this by winding down with a couple of cold beverages, a delicious home-cooked dinner, beautiful views of the city and long, entertainingly serious chats well into the wee hours of the morning, and you have yourself a classic MODART experience.

Singers of the Song Company and Roland Peelman at MODART rehearsal
MODART13 rehearsal with The Song Company and Roland Peelman.

Apart from the exhaustion that comes from thinking and listening to our own pieces, we had the unique experience of hearing everybody's pieces in a relentless rehearsal process. It was wonderful to be able to sit back, listen to the singers sing a piece, and then have them and Roland Peelman discuss the intricacies of each work, which was then dissected, discussed and often changed in consultation with the composer. What proved to be quite common was the fluidity of ideas and how these were changed: rhythms, phrasing, breathing, and even notes. Some of the changes were quite drastic, and yet they always enhanced the music, and not once did it detract from the integrity of the music or the composer's original intentions.

One of the more interesting aspects of composer development programs such as MODART is the final outcome of the musical program - will it be diverse and interesting enough for an audience to enjoy? Live music does have an entertainment factor, after all (something discussed with fellow MODART composer Dylan Sheridan), and The Song Company takes a risk when dedicating an entire program to new music by young composers. Yet, in the end, each composer brought something different and unique to the table, which resulted in a truly entertaining and diverse musical program. Everything from whispering, 'shh' sounds, highly virtuosic displays of avant-garde vocal techniques, quarter tones, Chinese, Macedonian and Welsh folk-inspired melodies, wheelbarrow sounds, spoken text, old-school Dictaphones, transgender-inspired vocal lines influenced by Canadian pop television, and even musical ideas stemming from weather data and the evening news - one could hardly call such a program uninteresting.

Did everything turn out exactly how I imagined? Like life, things happen that are simply out of your control. One of my pieces was unfortunately cut from the program: a duet that would have offered listeners a different aspect of my compositional development and output. Does it really matter? Yes, and no - we have a saying in Macedonian, sho e pisano, e pisano - what is written, is written - and, as discussed with MODART mentor, Nick Vines, such experiences inevitably happen, but the beautiful thing is that it's character building. I was fortunate enough to be in a group of composers who were all so down to earth, caring and supportive, and I like to think that, in some way, my experience was character building for them too.

It can be daunting, working with professional musicians as a young composer, so it was very refreshing to have a link between us composers and the well-established singers of The Song Company, which was of course the young artist-in-training, bass vocalist Richard Bell. Young composers reading this article: catch him while you can.

The final dress rehearsal was in Sydney Grammar's beautifully designed concert hall, carved out of Sydney sandstone. It was there that we could gain a sense of the finality of our compositions, and also hear how they sounded in a different acoustic. The nerves rose to an all-time high after that rehearsal, but already we knew we would soon begin our lives after MODART.

AMC resources

MODART - information about participants and works; blog articles

Further links

The Song Company: MODART (www.songcompany.com.au)

Michael Bakrnčev (b. 1989) is an Australian contemporary classical composer, conductor and educator.


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