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12 September 2017

Lisa Illean and Cantor

Poetry, pure sounds and degrees of subtlety

Lisa Illean Image: Lisa Illean  

Lisa Illean's new work Cantor is about to be premiered in Sydney at a Carriageworks concert by Ensemble Offspring (23 September). Funded among the 12 successful composers and projects of the first round of APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund in 2016. Illean's work already has multiple international performances lined up: in the Netherlands, Canada, the UK, Hong Kong and New Zealand. In this interview, Lisa Illean talks about Cantor and the musicians it's written for, other recent works of hers, as well as her keen interest in the human voice.

Q. Your new work Cantor takes as its starting point poetry by the American writer Willa Cather (1873-1947), from a 1903 collection entitled April Twilights. Can you tell me a little bit about how you worked with this text - how you found and selected the texts, and what in Cather's work spoke to you so strongly that you wanted to it in your composition?

A. I draw on three of Cather's poems from the collection that you mention; each poem underpins one of the movements in Cantor (titled 'stirring', 'stealing' and 'closing' respectively). I've known of Willa Cather's work as a novelist for a long time but was not familiar with these texts until I began working with them. I had previously been sketching ideas with folk songs and some very early poetry, with which Cather's writing seemed to share a striking directness and clarity. The texts I have chosen are also quite open. Expressed better than I could, A.S. Byatt writes of Cather's work: 'their newness is contained in an extraordinary lucidity…'

I recorded myself reciting them - I wanted to hear the sound of the words and contemplate the images they evoke at a pace much slower than that of silent reading. Singing is of course a slower pace again, so I knew I would likely need to adapt each poem into a shorter form. This was both a practical and aesthetic decision: just as the slower frame-rate of silent cinema can lend a strange poetic gravity to images, so the singing of a text transforms its weight, and I conceded that some poems might risk sounding laboured if they weren't attenuated. What I put on the page in each case was, I hope, a coherent and representative aspect of the original text. Cather herself speaks of an impulse towards 'finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole…'

There is a strong consistency in the voice of the poems I chose, a gentle resilience through which the protagonist observes beauty in the land around her, contends with loneliness and finds peace in solitude. All set in twilight (either dawn or dusk), Cather creates striking images of water ditches glinting like 'swift, bright' lances flung across the land and the 'trackless dust' of the mid-west plains.

At the level of pure sound, the poem set at dawn contains a plenitude of open 'a' phonemes, while that set at dusk is littered with murmuring 'mmmm' and 'nnnn' sounds. I found this a fascinating marking of time in the voice and attempted to strengthen this very concrete aspect of the texts in their setting.

The lines you have chosen have beautiful descriptions of changing light in a landscape, and subtle natural sounds - you've spoken about your interest in French spectralists and American experimentalist composers, and I'm wondering if it was the spectralist in you that was particularly drawn to this text? Would it be possible for you to summarise your compositional style in a few words?

Willa Cather's descriptions of the natural world, especially (as you say) of light, water and sounds are beautifully rendered. They seem invested with a sense of wonder that persists from childhood. While I was working on Cantor a friend gave me a book of photographs, a pictorial essay of the places featured in her life and work accompanied by corresponding texts. A memoir of this style makes abundantly clear her gift for making finer - through writing - our perceptions of the natural world.

This idea of 'making finer' is perhaps, for me, the most salient link between Cather's work and the music you mention. For example, my interest in microtonality stems from the way it expands a palette of tones into infinitely greater, and occasionally unsettling, degrees of subtlety. This sometimes requires a patient ear, and (from the performers) a discrete kind of virtuosity. I'm attracted to a quietude that allows one to perceive (even savour) such incremental shifts in colour or harmony.

Cantor, like several of my other works, superimposes cycles of lines, waves or impulses (sometimes compressed, sometimes dilated). This creates a convergence of layers comprised of very simple elements. Musically, the texture is like a tableau upon which the voice carves its line.

The field recordings in Cantor provide another, parallel 'fresco', and function (both in terms of structure and mood) a little like someone opening a window and briefly permitting the cool air of another place in for a time. The 'radio' is almost a second protagonist, a disembodied voice, and a marker of the isolation and solitude implicit in the scenes of these texts. There are some sounds shared: a sound that could be radio static, or rain - or both - and I like this ambiguity, the soft delineation between inside and outside worlds.

Breathing sounds and gestures permeate the work, there are also traces of other elements - a polka? a hammered dulcimer? - never explicitly mimicked but colouring the fabric of the music. I took a similar approach to writing for voice. While composing Cantor I found myself listening to my voice, which - while singular and coherent - is not entirely fixed. This notion that a voice is porous - that mannerisms can be contagious and that an endless variety of sounds are folded and absorbed in subtle ways into an individual voice - underpins Cantor. Aligning myself with the locale of Cather's texts, I draw in an imaginative way on some of the vocal traditions brought by the huge wave of transatlantic immigration to Nebraska in the 1890s.

I'd like to ask a little bit about your recent orchestral work Land's End, premiered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in March 2016, and played soon after also by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. It must be a very specific challenge to maintain the tension in a work like this, with its gradually changing, microtonal harmonies and subtle changes of dynamic and timbre - how do you go about it, planning the architecture and the dramatic arc? And does the work generally go according to the plan, in your experience?

Several layers of logic converge in composing a work like Land's End, so rather than a dramatic arc, I imagine many superimposed, independent contours underpinning the form and our experience of time. These emerge through the process of composition. The gradually changing microtonal harmonies you mention would be represented by one such contour… For this aspect, I had harmonic plans, resembling diffraction patterns fanning from an origin, or profuse tree diagrams with multiple lacings of interconnected points. Ideally, these function something like a tangible map, across which my finger or eye traces paths, often in cycles. In Land's End, the entire harmonic form is conceived as a diffraction pattern from a B-flat fundamental, with clear patterns of movement towards and away from the fundamental in essentially two waves. While I was always conscious of this harmonic intention while composing, the form became complete only through a complex assembling of sketches, and the draft was written in a patchwork (rather than a linear) order.

Other aspects, such as the subtle changes in tempo, in timbre or in the complexity of the texture, have their own logic. There are also some quite sharp cuts in tempo and texture, as if a skin is being stretched or puckered. And there is space for ideas to unfold, which provides its own sense of drama.

Cantor is quite different structurally, in that the proportions of a musical line sometimes shift suddenly. Ensemble Offspring have titled their programme for 23 September ' Who dreamed it?', and each of the interludes in Cantor could resemble a short dream-sequence… something you fall into and then snap out of, and where the same basic components morph elusively in scale and presence from time to time.

Your soloist in this work is the Australian soprano Jessica Aszodi, and working with her and Ensemble Offspring is presumably quite different from working with a full orchestra. To what extent have individual performers shaped your work - in Cantor, and earlier?

Many of the things I love about live performance (the ephemeral, specific nature of each performance, the collective experience of the audience, the unity of an ensemble playing music) are present in both contexts. But I do hugely enjoy the chance to refine sounds closely with another musician. As I've spoken often about with violist Phoebe Green, this is as much about atmosphere and temperament as it is about technique.

While writing Rose for London Philharmonic Orchestra I worked with clarinettist Tom Watmough, and am very grateful for the time he spent looking at a draft version of my score, for his warm advice and considerate experimentation with some of my more unusual ideas. Due to the nature of the part, the next clarinettist who performs Rose will undoubtedly imprint the piece too. I'm drawn to this idea: that a piece may evolve and accumulate depth through different performers, a little like the way stories recounted and preserved orally are imprinted with the perspective of each narrator. So I'm lucky to work with Ensemble Offspring and with Jess, who brings a really great energy and rigorous creativity to all her projects.

You mentioned your interest in the voice - is this a new direction you're exploring?

Yes, my next project is a work for another wonderful soprano, Juliet Fraser. It's an exciting challenge and, in addition to investigating voice (and her voice) more deeply, I'll be working with electronics and images in ways I haven't explored before. Juliet is full of intelligence and imagination: among a slew of things, she has recently commissioned and performed works by composers such as Rebecca Saunders, Bernhard Lang and Cassandra Miller, and released an acclaimed recording of Feldman's Three Voices. I'm really looking forward to working with her.

Cantor was funded through a grant from the first round of APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund in 2016, and there are performances of the work scheduled in the Netherlands (by ASKO Schönberg Ensemble), Canada (Aventa Ensemble), UK (Ensemble x.y), Hong Kong (Hong Kong New Music Ensemble) and New Zealand (Stroma New Music Ensemble). What else is on your composing desk?

Next year I'll also be writing an ensemble work with live electronics for the London-based musicians of Explore Ensemble. They've commissioned it for a performance at Kings Place in September as part of that venue's Time Unwrapped series, alongside Grisey's Vortex Temporum and short works by Messiaen and Romitelli. Similarly, we'll be working quite closely together to develop a very particular kind of 'double-exposure' through the hybrid medium of electronic and acoustic sound.

The first performance of Cantor will be within Ensemble Offspring's concert on 23 September, which also includes world premieres by two super people: Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh and Anahita Abbasi.

Further links

Lisa Illean - AMC profile

Ensemble Offspring: 'Who Dreamed it?, 23 September 2017 (Carriageworks, Sydney) - event details in the AMC 's Australian Music Calendar

Lisa Illean - homepage (www.lisaillean.com.au)

Lisa Illean interviewed by Stephen Adams, on ABC Classic FM, about her work Land's End (ABC Classic FM's New Waves podcast, March 2016)

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