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26 April 2019

Jennifer Fowler: Writing, revising and finally satisfied

Jennifer Fowler: Writing, revising and finally satisfied

Composer Jennifer Fowler, based in London for most of her adult life, has undertaken a remarkable journey that started 80 years ago in Bunbury, Western Australia. The daughter of a musical mother - who had herself tried against all probabilities to study music in a University via a correspondence course - made her way to the University of Western Australia, where, through luck as well as effort and talent, doors began to open for a long career in music. Fowler's output includes orchestral works, chamber pieces, works for voice and instrumental ensemble, solo music and vocal ensembles, and her works have been heard at some of the world's most prestigious new music festivals, winning many international prizes.

At the age of 80, Fowler finds herself still revising many of these works, and finally feeling satisfied with them. Her first-ever profile album is only just about to come out, recorded in late 2018 by the Lontano ensemble. We caught up with the composer a couple of days after her 80th birthday in April.

Q Can we talk at first about your current and recent work - I'm aware of at least a solo bassoon work and a solo viola work completed in 2018, what else has been on your desk? And is it possible to talk about what your music sounds like at this point of your long composing career, and how does this relate to your style as it has developed over the decades?

A This year, 2019, is when I turn 80, so I am aware that I don't have much time left. At this time of life I am indulging myself in writing only what I want, when I want, rather than responding to requests. This means that I am not just writing new things, but revising old pieces. I am not easily satisfied. Whenever I think of earlier pieces I am itching to have another go, often with quite ruthless cuts, and also by re-imagining everything. I am having fun!

It has been an interesting time re-thinking into the basic ideas of each piece. They are all quite different, but with ideas which are still of interest to me and flexible enough to allow me to play with again. One of these is a new piece: From the Cave Mouth which is based on an earlier piece, but completely re-thought. It has three closely intertwined lines, and begins with just a few notes. Very gradually new notes are added, all in a very controlled way, until the whole available notes are used, and then reduced again to very few at the end. It is a simple approach, but (I hope) effective. This is one of the pieces in my new CD, which brings me to your next question.

Q There is a new CD coming out of your chamber works, recorded recently in London with Lontano and their director, Odaline de la Martinez. Can you tell us a bit more about this release and the works featured?

A I haven't had a whole CD of my music before, and it has been a wonderful experience! All the players were marvellous, and I don't think I have ever heard my music performed so well before. Everyone was so enthusiastic, and I was on a high! The CD will be released by the Metier label shortly (Metier MSV 28588). Since several of the works involve a singer, one of the trickier things is to find the right singer for the part. I had a lovely British mezzo in mind for one of the pieces, and she was keen, but on the dates needed she was otherwise tied up. The director and I approached several other people who couldn't fit the dates and finally I suggested an Australian I had seen good reports of - Lauren Easton, now living in the UK. None of us had ever heard her sing. She turned out to be perfect for the part! She is the voice of Charlotte Brontë in a gut-wrenching letter Brontë wrote, in 1845, to her friend and teacher, M. Heger, in Brussels. I set the text of this letter because of the intensity of the emotion conveyed, combined with a balance and control in the actual use of words. I thought this was something one could do in music.

The other works on the CD come from different stages of my life, and all have been re-worked, sometimes several times. I think I can say that I am finally satisfied - especially after hearing them all performed so well. It is a great way to celebrate my 80th. Now I am itching to get on with more work - both re-writing and developing new ideas.

Q You've lived in Europe now since the late 1960s - it's a remarkable journey that started in Bunbury, WA, where you were born. Is it possible to identify some of the most significant events in your development as an artist, and the opportunities you were able to take advantage of, or opportunities that you wished that you had had?

A I count myself very lucky because I am so conscious of things which were nearly not available. For instance, I went to university (University of Western Australia) expecting to study other subjects, but found that the music department, which was very new, had just been opened to students of an Arts degree. Up to that point, music had been a private thing for me - studied outside of school and as part of my family. It meant so much to me, but I knew very few other people who would have understood. It wasn't rated by teachers at school, for instance, as a possible intellectual subject comparable to other school subjects.

So, I added first-year music to my other choices as a toe in the water. I was hooked! How wonderful to find other people of similar enthusiasms; to find that to study music was a life-long possibility; to find how little I knew and how much there was to discover. There were so few of us music students at that time, (only two of us doing the Honours year!) so the course could be adapted for our own needs. For instance there wasn't really meant to be a composition component, but that didn't stop the lecturers giving me full encouragement to try things out. Without their encouragement, I would never have followed that path. Later, there was a music degree possible also. This only happened just in time for me. (My mother, for instance, working totally on her own in Bunbury, had bravely enrolled in a music degree taken by correspondence from Adelaide University. How lonely that must have been! Judging by letters I only saw after she died, she was being actively discouraged from continuing, as they complained of the cost of catering for the few outsiders.)

Later, I felt the need to go overseas to a bigger centre, where there would be more opportunities and experiences in contemporary music. But I still feel grateful for those who gave me that first encouragement. Thank you, UWA.

Q What about people - can you tell me who helped you along the way, mentored or inspired you?

A Apart from all of the teachers I had at university, there were performers - some much older and more experienced than me - who were willing to take part in activities I was arranging. There was a more senior composer in Perth at that time - James Penberthy - who, as a music critic, was always supportive. And there was John Hopkins, Head of Music for the ABC at that time, who gave me my first real professional exposures.

Q Would you like to talk about your involvement in Women in Music events and contexts?

A I was fortunate not to have experienced much open prejudice as a woman, but all of us were under the disadvantage of what appeared to be normal - that all concerts consisted of male composers. Even at a time when people were discovering that there were compositions by women, concerts featuring a woman were felt to be outside the norm. I remember sending some scores for consideration to an ensemble in US which specialised in contemporary music. They promptly sent the scores back with the explanation that they had already done a concert of women's music earlier that year and didn't have plans for any more. It seems it hadn't occurred to them that it might be possible to include an occasional piece by a woman in any of their other concerts. Male composers were simply the natural order of things.

At that time in the UK, most of the small pot of public money for performances of contemporary music went to one main ensemble, rather than the funds being distributed in tiny ineffective amounts to several groups. Suddenly, in the 1980s someone pointed out that this ensemble had never played a single work by a woman. No, I hadn't noticed either. On one of those occasions when one remembers exactly where one was when something happened, I was in a friend's kitchen and happened to hear the director of this ensemble being interviewed on air. He was challenged by the woman interviewer. He explained that there had never been any great women composers because women's brains were wired differently and the female sex was incapable of achieving anything remarkable or original in musical creativity. He was so sure of this that he said he would never consider his ensemble performing a composition by a woman. I could only be grateful for his honesty. It certainly provoked some of us to form a Women in Music organisation in the UK. At the same time similar groups were forming in different parts of the world. Things have changed a lot in the perceptions of all of us about women's contributions to all fields of endeavour, but we still need to point out that women's talents are still being wasted. Most funded commissions still go to men.

AMC resources

Jennifer Fowler - AMC profile (works, recordings, articles etc.)

Threaded Stars 2 (1983/2006) for solo harp - listen to a sample and purchase an MP3 (of the original version, Marshall McGuire, harp) from the AMC Shop - also available on the CD Awakening.

Blow flute (1983) for solo flute - listen to a sample and purchase an MP3 (Kathryn Moorehead, flute) from the AMC Shop - also available on the CDs Unearthly Music and The Flute Ascendant

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