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30 July 2018

Insight: Hipster Zombies from Mars

on reconciling different worlds

Nicholas Vines Image: Nicholas Vines  

Nicholas Vines writes about his compositional practice as part of a series of 'Insight' feature articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists. A new album of Vines's piano music, Hipster Zombies from Mars, has just been released by the Navona label.

For a while now, I've been living a double life. Sydney is my home; it is where I was born and grew up, and where I live and work for much of the year. My main gig is at a private, selective high school, teaching a general music curriculum with opportunities for extension. Consequently, I've ended up embracing the whole Gebrauchsmusik thing and written a lot of 'educational' music. This includes chorus and orchestra pieces designed to engage the wider community, large chamber works tailored for school tours and special events, and solos and duets suitable for student performance exams.

In stark contrast is my American experience. I spent a decade studying and working within the US tertiary system, in high-minded environments with a focus on contemporary 'art' music. Over the course of my PhD and work life, I met and was taught by major proponents of that tradition from North America, Europe and Asia. My cultural engagement continues today through ongoing commissions and collaborations, and a faculty position with SICPP (Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, an annual new-music festival at New England Conservatory in Boston). It stands to reason my musical contributions to that scene are at the more challenging, experimental end.

So how to reconcile these two very different worlds? Recent history is full of composers with more than one proverbial hat: Dmitri Shostakovich was a serious artist who wrote light music, while John Williams, famous for his film scores, also pens works for the concert hall. Nevertheless, I don't see my approach in that siloed way. For one, there is considerable slippage between the two worlds, especially when writing for mainstream concert-going audiences. I did, at one point, come up with three contextual categories - 'Utile Dulci' for schools, 'Ambrosia' for concert halls and 'Esoterica' for academia - but a piece can happily inhabit two or even three of these, making them more perspectives than styles. It therefore seems best to understand my aesthetic as a single, sliding scale of myriad possibilities.

The breadth of that scale is particularly well outlined in the album Hipster Zombies from Mars - Piano Music for a Post-Ironic Age. Released earlier this month, this anthology features three substantial piano works, reflecting some eighteen years of creative output. The piano sonata Terraformation (1999) was composed before I moved to the US, idealistically combining an extramusical program, traditional classical forms and an uncompromising high-modernist surface. Written after an intense decade in America, Uncanny Valley (2011) explores its namesake - a perceptual phenomenon associated with robotics and animation - through theme & variation form, non-conventional piano sounds and elaborate gesture. The twelve 'scapes' of Indie Ditties (2017), which are solidly in the educational camp, allude to an array of more or less popular genres to portray the material and metaphysical complexities of hipsterdom. Consistent instrumentation aside, I feel the kaleidoscopic nature of this album makes it an excellent encapsulation of my multivalenced style.

To the casual listener, however, this may seem a strange claim. Each of the three pieces has a sonic world so distinct, the album could appear to feature three different composers. At some level, I'm OK with that. The idea of doing the same thing for eighteen years, let alone the sixty plus years of modern adult life, makes me uncomfortable; the idea of indefinitely pushing a standardised product in the name of 'personal voice', even more so. Nevertheless, for various artistic reasons, I think it's important to show (potential) listeners the musical and intellectual paths which interconnect my works, regardless of ostensible style, and in turn how they all originate from a single philosophy.


I often refer to myself as a 'transmodernist'. This is confusing to many, because, while neither the term nor the philosophy is my invention, both are too new to be in common usage. What's more, transmodernism's central premise - the simultaneous embracing and critique of both modernism and postmodernism - can also be confounding. For those not into 'isms', I like to think of it as giving both certainty and uncertainty a fair go.

This has all sorts of exciting resonances for a musical aesthetic. For instance, it is possible for a tradition and its deconstruction to coexist. In Uncanny Valley, I use an historical form, theme and variations, with the structure of the theme reflected in each variation. That's certainty. Nevertheless, the model is concurrently eroded by the theme being unrecognisable in the variations, the variations atypically preceding the theme and three of the variations being spliced together. That's uncertainty. This dialogue also allows for layering of meaning and a corresponding cognitive depth. For example, the third movement of Terraformation has a definable form (certainty), which can be understood in multiple, discrete ways (uncertainty): historically as a passacaglia, metaphorically as a description of the cyanophyte primares bacteria, kinetically as a prolonged accumulation of energy.

In short, transmodernism is liberating. It allows the juxtaposition of old and new, ordered and unordered, simple and complex, with the individual the main arbiter of taste. For a composer such as myself, whose globalised context requires varying levels of accessibility and affiliation, this is a godsend.


Before the 'what' of my music can be properly discussed, further attention needs to be paid to the 'how'. I see composition as a form of communication, where particular ideas or feelings are transmitted musically. This may seem self-evident, but many musics don't work like that. For some people, the notion of clearly communicating anything is old-fashioned, too reminiscent of an 18th-century Western bourgeoisie. And yet this kind of thinking is behind the recent global success of 'serious' television, and from an educational perspective, best practice in the classroom. Whether as artist or teacher, I find this approach compelling.

This is not to imply, however, that I have no interest in ambiguity. On the contrary, music's ability to inspire many interpretations is exciting to me, and something I vigorously explore in Indie Ditties. The important distinction here is between being ambiguous and expressing ambiguity. In composition, the former is unlikely to create any consensus of meaning, least of all the various discrete meanings ambiguity requires. The irony is, lack of clarity is best expressed musically through something carefully crafted - say, a multi-layered texture or alternation of contrasting material - a position championed over a century ago by impressionist composers. Craft is therefore central to effective expression, regardless of what is being expressed.

So if music is indeed communication, I believe the foundation of good compositional practice has to be craftsmanship. For me, that means ongoing development of compositional skills through innovation, pluralism and a thousand years of Western music history. It's true craft has had a bad wrap over the last seventy years, and I'm on board with that, as a critique of cultural values which in the early 20th century led to many dreadful things. But that historical context has passed. I don't see value in the agenda of a revolution which no longer has impetus and has long since been abandoned by the generation which instigated it. What's more, without the politics, all that's left is hot air and post-Warholian personality cults. Today's composers - insofar as they still exist in the traditional sense - need something other than technical nihilism to traverse the incredible diversity of current music practice. I think that something is craftsmanship.

Extramusical influences

As discussed above, transmodernism caters for an extraordinary array of approach, style and influence. It is less parochial than the multifarious genres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and more accepting than postmodernism of the validity of modernist thought. Nevertheless, for pragmatic reasons, there need to be limits on this freedom. These are provided by individual preference. In my case, extramusical inspiration can be divided into four categories: the fantastical, the scientific, the anthropological and Australiana. It should be noted these are not silos, but, rather, permeable spaces, much like the previously mentioned contextual labels (Utile Dulci, Ambrosia, Esoterica). This means a single work can potentially belong to any number of categories.

Being a big nerd, I was a serious consumer in my youth of the fantasy and science fiction genres. That's not so much the case now, but the fantastical remains central to my artistic outlook. For one, the flagship of my large chamber works, Torrid Nature Scene (2008), is a rhapsodic setting of wildly fanciful poetry, while The Butcher of Brisbane (2005) reimagines in concerto form a scenario from the sci-fi series, Dr Who.

Nicholas Vines: sync_for_me (1) for faux court orchestra
- premiere by Ensemble Apex and conductor Sam Weller in 2018 (Youtube).

I also compose music for my own invented worlds. Dolmen for New Albion (2004) and sync_for_me (1) (2018), for example, are products of alternative Australian histories; Dowager Sheng Is Just! (2013) and Rustling the Deities (2013) each have their own imagined cultural context; and DubStop UnderDrive (2017) and Doing the Suss & Sassy Sway (2014) are in made-up musical styles.

Before music took over completely, I was a bit of a scientist. That connection remains, albeit as an interest and source of inspiration. The science in science fiction informs the structure of Terraformation, where each movement reflects a terraforming process taken from a sci-fi novel, and the opera The Hive (2004), whose refrain is a cloud of electronically manipulated insect sounds. In a more purely scientific vein, the organisation of pitch, rhythm and structure in Economy of Wax (2009) mirrors the mathematics of a beehive, while Firestick explores the theory and implications of firestick farming. There are also pieces which engage more perpendicularly with scientific thought, such as In Defence of Toads (2016), a setting of words by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, and Dysart's Changelings (2014), which is the musical articulation of a modernist building.

For better or worse, I have always used the analytical part of my brain not just for science, but on people. The anthropological is therefore another important springboard for my creativity. Sometimes this is in scholarly form, such as the strange psychological phenomenon which underpins Uncanny Valley, but for the most part, social analysis is the focus. Unsurprisingly, the best forum for that is music theatre: the cabaret The Mysterious Demise of Brody-Marie (2001) lampoons contemporaneous Sydney archetypes, The Sepulchre of Love (2003) highlights the ridiculousness of stock operatic characters, and the opera Loose, Wet Perforated (2010) is a critique of academic politics. A more light-hearted approach is apparent in the affectionate ribbing of Indie Ditties. This is also the case in An Essayist's Prayer (2015) and My iPhone, Where Are You? (2016), which are massively overblown reactions to having to write an essay and losing a smart phone respectively.

Nicholas Vines: The Law of the Tongue (2016) for string quartet.
Gabriel Boyers, Stephanie Skor, Sam Kelder and Stephen Marotto (Youtube).

Given my background and present circumstances, an interest in Australiana is hardly unexpected. I have composed pieces explicitly about Australian subjects, such as The Law of the Tongue (2016, in memory of Peter Sculthorpe), which explores historical whaling in southern New South Wales, and Three Scenes from Suburbia (2008, dedicated to Richard Gill), a look at our extreme state of urbanisation. The reality is, however, Australiana pervades much of my output, as suggested by the content of many works previously mentioned. Histories, societies, cultures, fauna, flora, landscape: a large gamut of our national experience is addressed. There are two things to note here though. I'm not a fan of 'ambulance chasing': rather than events or causes du jour, the focus of my creative endeavour is my own personal experience within the Australian context. And finally, the most Australian aspect of my practice is arguably not its content but its methodology. The glorious indifference our mainstream has towards substantial cultural expression is perhaps the most fertile ground to develop an individual, transmodern voice. For that, I will always be grateful.

AMC resources

Nicholas Vines - AMC profile

Hipster Zombies from Mars (Navona) - album details on AMC Online . For purchase info, see Navona Records website.


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