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18 April 2011

Jack Symonds and Notes from Underground

Jack Symonds Image: Jack Symonds  

Brad Gill interviews Jack Symonds, a young composer whose opera on Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground was premiered in Sydney earlier this year by the Sydney Chamber Opera. Jack Symonds is a composer, conductor and accompanist, and music director of this brand-new opera company. Trained also as a pianist and trombonist, Symonds continues to work regularly as an accompanist and pianist, as well as frequently conducting his own and others' music - including the second production of the Sydney Chamber Opera, Janacék's The Cunning Little Vixen, in July. Brad Gill observed the first production from close quarters, as a percussionist in the orchestra.

February this year saw the production of a new opera based on Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, directed by Netta Yashchin, with libretto by Pierce Wilcox, and music by Jack Symonds. It received three performances and served to launch the new Sydney Chamber Opera Company, which has an ambitious program for 2011 and beyond. I interviewed Jack Symonds, who is a young Sydney-based composer recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I was interested in exploring his attraction to opera as a genre, how this relates to his musical output more broadly, and what challenges and issues were involved in what I think is a significant and original work.

Brad Gill: My first question is, as opposed to music theatre broadly, what drew you to want to compose an opera, particularly when so much has been done to explore more experimental music theatre genres in the last hundred years?

Jack Symonds: It was the subject matter of the novel that suggested only opera could represent and realise that novel and that idea in that the structural divide of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground occurs around the two versions of the same character. And for me, the way to realise that in the satisfying structural and expressive way I conceived it was literally on the stage with people singing the text and, if that's opera, then it's an opera as far as that. Another thing though is that one of my great loves in music is operatic music - not so much the Italian tradition, but I feel a very close connection to the music of the 20th century especially. That's when opera really comes into its own as a legitimate art form after Wagner, as being equal in musical conception to other genres of music that had previously been considered important or predominant… You know, Mozart aside, I don't find any connection to opera until Wagner, and then after that it suddenly for me springs into life, especially with Janáček and Britten and Berg.

BG: What are your feelings about the function of opera in contemporary society? Obviously it's the more philosophically and musically intense post-Wagnerian tradition you're interested in, but where does opera sit for you, building your reputation as a young composer with an audience in the broader socio-musical climate?

JS: Well, opera's a big art form, and you make a big statement with it, but, you know, it wasn't the intention to go out and do something like that. But I think, especially since the beginning of the new millennium, there have been so many significant works that really outweigh the previous twenty years of opera writing, it just seems that plurality and relaxation of extreme modernism that legitimated international music in Europe has allowed opera to flower once again. Composers who have written extraordinary works as operas, like John Adams and Thomas Adés, I think they've found a way to reconnect with an operatic tradition, and that has meant that they can write very extremely musically rich but also very dramatic stage works where by necessity the story has to be on the stage, and that's what I've tried to come to with this piece, which could be on the stage only with the clarification of a production to illuminate. It's a very complex text, and the libretto I was given was very complex as well, and so I think its realisation on the stage is what justifies it as an opera, and I think it couldn't be anything else.

BG: You weren't tempted to create your own libretto?

JS: No, in fact, because I respond very well to the imposed structures and strictures of having a text given to me, and then finding the internal structures of that. In this case I was extremely specific with the librettist - I gave him page numbers of the novel, in the two halves of the novel. So it wasn't as if I said 'write me a nice libretto and come back in six months', it was more specific than that, but it was more the order and the shaping of words; I didn't want to be giving myself a structure that would be almost archly musical.

BG: I'm interested in the strict use of traditional forms in this piece, devices such as recurring thematic ideas, and also the engagement with the controversy of the use of symphonic development in opera. So, taking sonata form as the example, why were you attracted to the strict use of a form such as this?

JS: It's a good question; it's a very loaded thing to do. I suppose I like operas best, and it's the reason why probably my favourite composer is Wagner, certainly my favourite opera composer, where the music develops alongside the drama with a corresponding structure that can illuminate it. It happened that in scene six I saw extremely strong parallels with the metaphysical argument of Underground Man and the actual narrative dramatic argument of Aboveground Man that literally represented to me the dialectical forms of a sonata form. And the text structure also happened to have what I saw corresponding to the proportions to that.

BG: Along with this opera, there's your song cycle Time Unredeemed, setting parts of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Your program notes for this work talk about terror and notions of redemption and suffering and associated concepts; these are also concerns of the existentialism of Dostoevsky and Camus and the like, and this is obviously an important area of interest or theme in your thinking?

JS: Well, yeah, I guess in terms of texts, there are certain texts that attract me the most - I mean Eliot is my favourite poet and Dostoevsky is my favourite author - but I don't try and impose that on instrumental pieces for instance. But certainly, I think it's what parts of the purely technical musical construct of parts of my language are most similar to, and it's also the thought patterns that I am most interested in.

BG: Do you anticipate further explorations of these themes in projects that involve texts? I am interested in this distinction you make, in that you don't impose these themes on your instrumental music.

JS: Yeah, I mean I can't imagine that a single piano line by itself is sort of existential. The two pieces I am writing now for instance are not at all related to anything like that. The big one is a song cycle for viola and piano (well I call it a song cycle), nine movements, each of them based on some of my favourite song composers and almost not quotation, but glosses on entire works like the Strauss Four Last Songs, for instance. So I guess my other interest apart from the 'straight', well apart from the heavier existential crisis or whatever, is in refracting things I love from history so much, especially songs, especially the German Lied tradition, one of my great loves. So yeah, I don't necessarily think of that piece as in any way representing the same themes as Notes from Underground or the song cycle, Time Unredeemed, but there's always going be stylistic and musical similarities… and the inspiration is very very different; one is more angsty and one is more loving, I suppose.

The other piece is a string quartet - which I have to write in a few days actually. Only it's got to be a short one and it's got to be [performed] between Bartók four and Beethoven fifteen, and it's meant to reflect both of them, which very challenging. So this is another, I'd say historical, piece, but this is one where I can really go to town with some things I've wanted to do a lot with rhythm especially, where the four quartet members split themselves up and they're misaligned by irrational meters and have to play in a fugue that way …and I've been wanting to do that for a while.

BG: Back to the opera for a moment, something that might be interesting to readers is your collaboration with some of the cast and musicians in opera and the impact of these close relationships on your process of writing - for example your previous work with mezzo-soprano Anna Yun , and the incorporation of a viola d'amore.

JS: Well that was an extreme example - James's viola d'amore solo which I wouldn't have written if he couldn't play… he tells me it's a very extraordinarily difficult solo, that demands quarter tones between the seven strings. It was just one of those things that happened at the time - I was up to the scene where he appears, and I was wondering, well, having an idea of how I was going to write it, needing something else to be in there, and it just happened to fall into place, and it worked. And the other one was certainly for Anna Yun, who has an enormous range, and the part that she plays here is almost impractical. It's almost three octaves in range and needs an opera singer who can sing in a conventional operatic way and also in a 'modern' music tone, so those two were the two performers for whom there were special things written into the score. Also knowing I would have a great pianist to play it, in Chad Vindin, meant that I could make the piano, which is my own instrument anyway, the piano part that I would want to play myself. And also knowing eventually that I would have - not that I wrote it with the voices particularly in mind - the two male leads who are such intelligent musicians meant I didn't have to worry about giving them, you know, thousands of helping hands along the way. And in fact I did actually write the last two scenes Mitch Riley's voice (Aboveground Man) in mind.

BG: What about the collaboration with Netta Yashchin, the director, and her impact.

JS: Being a largely improvisatory theatre director, she found all the work 'on the ground', or 'on the floor' as it were, with the singers and the actors. Also she's not a musician and she comes from a theatre background which is interesting in that it meant she didn't have any preconceptions of what an opera should have. Her main goal was to realise the piece as if it were a play, as if it were on stage and not to meet the music halfway as opera, but to fully dramatise everything all the time on the stage. And that was the impression I think lots of people got from this piece, that it wasn't a vocal work with a bit of gesture and a bit of set, that it was a fully realised stage work that grappled with what is basically an incredibly difficult and extremely abstract text that essentially isn't at all an obvious candidate for the stage.

BG: So we know you're working on a major viola and piano song cycle, and a string quartet that you've got to finish very quickly, and you'll be going to the Royal College of Music, in London. What's next after composing these two projects?

JS: I've got the offer to do a sinfonia concertante for viola and violin and string orchestra, in the style of Mozart, well not the style of, but to complement the Mozart, which is an amazing piece, but because I'll be conducting the Janáček Little Vixen and starting rehearsals late May, there's not a lot more time before I have to go RCA, so that's the rest of the year I suppose.

Further links

Sydney Chamber Opera (http://sydneychamberopera.com/)

Brad Gill is a Sydney-based composer, teacher and percussionist. He currently teaches at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and recent work includes a song cycle Patterns [Judith Wright Songs], Pneuma for chamber orchestra and a timpani solo to be premiered later this year.


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