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25 February 2019

My year in Peggy's House

Rafael Karlen Image: Rafael Karlen  

It has been an absolute pleasure and a privilege to have been the 2018 Composer in Residence in the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House as part of the Prelude Residency scheme. Peggy gave her house to the nation as a haven for composers, and each year a new composer is invited to live in the PGH House to focus on creative pursuits. A long, diverse and inspiring list of composers have lived there since the mid-1990s. Moving into this space, which has experienced and inspired so much music, was both incredibly exciting and slightly terrifying.

At the front of my mind, when I was figuring out how to set up my very long wish-list of activities for the year, was this question: if you're given the opportunity to spend a year doing what is most creatively meaningful and important for you, what will you do? I set out to use this year to study, regroup and compose for a wide variety of projects, connect with new creative people, and to work on my craft as a composer, performer, arranger and director. Over the course of my residency, I composed works for big band, choir, string quartet, piano trio, a new jazz quintet and music for the Berardi/Foran/Karlen Trio, in addition to performing in several collaborative projects.

Rafael Karlen at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in front of a mural painted by Peggy
© David Collins

As a composer, saxophone player and arranger, I am fortunate to work in many different corners of music. It's nice writing a piece for a jazz big band one week, working on a piece for a chamber choir another week, and then finding myself playing saxophone in a rock band. I feel lucky to see different perspectives on what music can be to different people and the way in which they connect and engage. Jazz was what I originally studied, but I have spent time exploring, studying and bringing influences from many other styles into my creative practice. For me, one of the great things about initially studying jazz was the freedom and openness that it both inspired and demanded from the performer and composer. In a way everything can be up for grabs, so you can choose what you would like to be musically sacrosanct.

The Peggy Glanville-Hicks House has a lovely music room, and I was able to present eight informal open rehearsals and performances of new works during the time I was there. With the exception of the first event, with Supriya Nagarajan (UK) and Alister Spence, I used each evening as a platform for my new music. The musicians featured were very strong, and it has been a pleasure hearing my music come to life with the help of so many wonderful players. These performances were attended by people from the local community, students, musicians, and people from the cultural sector of Sydney.

A large part of the music that I have been composing grows out of a curiosity to create stimulating musical environments for an improviser to explore, while still being descriptive enough to represent my compositional intentions. I like controlling the overall progression and steering the direction of the music, while at the same time allowing space for the soloist(s) to contribute in a personal way. This approach informs my writing for both my classical and jazz projects.

Open rehearsal at the PGH House, September 2018.

It was a pleasure working on and performing new works for string quartet and piano trio with some of Sydney's finest players at Peggy's House. Glenn Christensen, Ike See, Michele O'Young, Nathan Greentree and Freya Schack-Arnott joined Matt McMahon and myself to explore these pieces together. Footage from the open rehearsal/informal presentation of a string quartet piece can for string be found here (also embedded, left), and a new piano trio piece can be found here.

Composing for choir has been on my wish list for many years, so I was very happy to have written my first piece for The Australian Voices in 2018 and for it to have been included in their tour book. There is something very pure about the sound of a choir, especially TAV, so I am looking forward to writing more for this lovely ensemble and working with Gordon Hamilton again. When they passed through Sydney we put on a small informal performance at the Peggy House which was recorded by Fine Music FM. It was a tight squeeze, fitting 18 or so singers, a conductor, a saxophonist, microphones and a few guests in a living room.

Between Places by Rafael Karlen, Brisbane International Jazz Festival 2018

Writing and arranging for large jazz ensembles hasn't kept me as busy as it used to, so I was pleased to have had a few jazz outlets in 2018. One highlight was composing and conducting a new work for jazz soloist and big band commissioned for the opening of the Brisbane International Jazz Festival to be premiered by James Sherlock (Melbourne) and the Enthusiastic Music Orchestra (see embedded video). It was also great hearing the Sydney Women's Jazz Collective perform arrangements of some of my pieces for their concert series leading up to their Sydney International Women's Jazz Festival appearance.

The major jazz project for me for 2018 was a new quintet featuring many of my musical heroes. In May, I undertook a crowdfunding campaign with the Australian Cultural Fund to assist with a Match Lab Grant from Creative Partnerships Australia for an upcoming quintet album. This recording featured Kristin Berardi, Matt McMahon, Brett Hirst, Simon Barker and myself. It was recorded in October over two days and will be released in 2019. Most of the music for this album was written during this residency with these lovely musicians in mind.

For the past three or so years I have been involved with a fun trio of voice, piano and saxophone with the amazing Kristin Berardi and Sean Foran. We had a great time performing new music at some lovely performances in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and on a New Zealand Tour. Live footage from the Christchurch show can be seen [here link to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfjwFGZIhAk]

'Ripple' by Rafael Karlen - Berardi/Foran/Karlen Trio live in NZ

Other highlights include performing my music in Melbourne with Andrea Keller and James Sherlock at the Jazz Lab, performing at the Stonnington Jazz Festival with Trichotomy and Expressions Dance Company, performances and a recording with Ed Kuepper and The Aints, performing with Stu Hunter and Jonathan Zwartz, and performances of my jazz quartet and quintet music in Brisbane and Sydney with heavy local players.

Education has been part of my professional life for many years so it initially felt strange not teaching and lecturing during my year in the PGH House. It was hard to step away from some of these roles, particularly from the Queensland Youth Orchestra Big Band which I had been directing since 2012. The one educational activity that I was engaged with was with the Queensland Music Festival. It is a very special experience to be involved with QMF to work with students in Cape York, Far North Queensland. This is an initiative aiming to provide an opportunity for students in remote communities to gain instrumental music experiences on par with metropolitan schools. Since May 2018, I undertook three trips to Far North Queensland and taught in the communities of Hope Vale and Coen and later in the Atherton Tablelands with students from Aurukun.

Being awarded such an amazing residency was an incredible opportunity, and reading more about Peggy's life and also through the list of previous residents was both inspiring and frightening. There is so much history and weight in the walls. I think that it is a very common feature for musicians to be quite hyper-critical and self-effacing about their work. Although it is part of refining and developing a craft, it can be hard to switch off. I did know a few of the previous composers personally so it was helpful to connect and hear about their thoughts and experiences. Each composer used their time and the space to facilitate what it was that they needed most, whether that be isolation to focus on large-scale monuments or something different.

When there aren't many worldly distractions, like finding a way to earn enough money for the Sydney rental market, excuses for not undertaking creative pursuits are harder to justify. This promotes a strong sense of responsibility and motivation and expects answers to questions such as 'what is it that is most important to me and how can I make this happen'. There are immense benefits in digging as deep as you can to try to uncover what is, given the luxury of choice, most meaningful for you to work on and create.

I feel very excited about 2019 as many seeds have been planted which may grow into future musical opportunities. I have decided to stay in Sydney to continue pursuing many activities that have been cultivated during my time in residence. Many projects and details are still firming up but in 2019 I will be releasing my new quintet album, composing for a chamber orchestra, The Australian Voices, big band, piano trio, and writing for, performing with and releasing an album with the Berardi/Foran/Karlen Trio. And I'm also going to be spending some time composing in the amazing Bundanon.

I feel incredibly grateful to have had this year in the Peggy House.

Prelude is a national network of residencies for Australian composers, housed in historic buildings and providing time and space to create new work. It is a collaboration between the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Trust, National Trust of Western Australia, National Trust of South Australia, National Trusts of Australia, APRA AMCOS, Arts South Australia, the Helpmann Academy and Bundanon Trust. Prelude is assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts.

AMC resources

Rafael Karlen - AMC profile

Further links

Prelude composer residencies (Bundanon Trust)


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