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6 March 2009

Notes on Art - composers at AYO's National Music Camp

Left to right: David Lang, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, tutor James Ledger, Amy Bastow and Timothy Tate Image: Left to right: David Lang, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, tutor James Ledger, Amy Bastow and Timothy Tate  

In January 2009, the 61st annual Australian Youth Orchestra’s National Music Camp convened at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music, playing host to a vibrant community of 250 musicians, composers, arts administrators, music journalists and broadcasters. During two weeks of intensive musical activity, young composers Amy Bastow, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, David Lang and Timothy Tate were asked to compose works based on an artwork currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Inspired by a speech made, on the opening night, by the camp’s music director Paul Dean about taking musical chances, these composers strove to branch out of their comfort zones, utilising techniques and approaches outside of their normal practice. The tutor for this year’s composition program was the West Australian composer James Ledger, who also encouraged the students to break free from their stylistic mould. ‘The visual works that [the composers] have chosen are really quite exciting and intriguing’, Ledger said.

Amy Bastow

Frank Hinder’s Subway Escalator forms the basis for Amy Bastow’s composition. While she feels it is difficult to truly define her style, Amy has found that, since graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2007, her compositions have adopted minimalist techniques. Amy was drawn to Hinder’s artwork due to the ‘angular’ shapes and intertwined layers which appealed to her rhythmic nature.

‘I originally intended to base my composition on rhythmic layers in a quasi-Steve Reich style, however James encouraged me to rethink and try something a little different.’

While Amy describes her composition as ‘challenging to [her] regular approach to music,’ Reichian principles still appear in the compositional process of the first section. Using time-space notation for the first time, Amy gives each instrument their own melodic loop, representing each individual on the subway. As these loops are layered the result is, as Amy describes, ‘chaotic, just like a subway in peak hour’.

The imagery of an escalator also strongly appealed to Amy; ‘The way it continuously evolves around and around is something I hoped to capture.’ To truly depict the continuity, Amy sampled the sound of an escalator along with the clacking of train tracks, train brakes and whistles to form an electronic backdrop, another of her compositional firsts. The second ‘atmospheric’ section encapsulates the screeching of train breaks, wind rushing and metallic sounds, particularly in the percussion as well as the oboe multiphonics. Meanwhile, pitch material is derived from Amy’s own take on Shostakovich’s DSCH motive, FHSE (Frank Hinder Subway Escalator); ‘I did not go looking for it [the FHSE motive], but I was amazed at how useful it was because it contains tritones, minor seconds and suggested dominant harmony. It forms the entirety of my musical material.’

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh

Originally intending to base her composition on a photograph by Bill Henson, Annie was disappointed to find the work had been taken off display. Her second choice was Fred Williams’s Silver and Grey. Annie was drawn to the way the earthy colours depicted the dry Australian landscape in Williams’s creation and how the combination of dots and strokes gave the work foreground and background.

‘I was not attracted to the work when I first saw it, but after doing some research I came to understand what Williams was trying to create’, Annie explained.

To help capture the imagery of the Australian landscape, Annie renamed her composition: ‘When I thought about the painting I envisaged sand and wind swirling around in the Australian desert. I renamed my composition Dust, Sand and Storms. Silver and Grey didn’t really reflect what I saw but instead the etching style which Williams used to create the composition.’

This is the first time Annie has ever composed away from a piano. The result was a composition she describes as more ‘calculated’ than usual. Having just completed her Master’s in Composition at the University of Melbourne, Annie explored many of the concepts she had experimented with during her studies, but with a greater intensity. ‘I was trained as a classical pianist but also grew up with a lot of pop music so my compositional style tends to have a bit of everything.’

Dust, Sand and Storms is mostly based on a B-major chord, and utilises all the notes of the B harmonic series, with the notes closer to the fundamental being used more prominently. Due to the ‘contemporary’ nature of Williams’s painting, Annie was tempted to use innumerable extended techniques but believed that the ‘musical gestures needed to be carefully considered so the music still expressed my response to the painting.’

David Lang

David Lang, who is about to enter his third year studying composition at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, describes his compositional style as ‘chaotic, occasionally dissonant, diverse, bouncy and fun,’ a far stretch, in his opinion, to the minimalist composition he has developed. David’s composition was written in a matter of hours:

‘I was not happy with the direction my composition was taking, so last Sunday [the day before the work was expected to be complete] I went for a walk, bashed on a piano and completely reworked my entire composition.’

The composition is based on Duane Hanson’s sculpture Woman with Laundry Basket. Originally, David planned to juxtapose pop song harmonies with sombre, reflective, static textures to highlight the mundane act of taking out the washing versus the deep thoughts the woman may be thinking:

‘The sculpture has so many meanings. There is a pregnant woman doing such a mundane act … frozen in time, representing how she is trapped in her way of life. But then, as you look into her face, you can’t help wondering what she is thinking about.’

When rewriting his composition, David imagined what life would be like for this woman and drew upon those ideas, along with the static texture of his previous draft, to create motives. He imagined she could hear ‘children playing on a piano… [and] the dissonant pulse of the washing machine,’ which is reflected in the disharmonious ostinato mainly sustained by the piano. The brass play an interesting role within the composition. By using them sparingly, David draws the audience’s attention away from the ostinato to reflect on the bigger picture.

Timothy Tate

Timothy Tate is also about to begin his third year studying composition at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. Taking Robert Klippel’s Metal Sculpture as inspiration, Timothy aimed to encapsulate both the winding scrap metal structure of the sculpture as well as the thoughts which went through his mind when viewing the artwork for the first time. As Timothy explains, ‘When I looked at Metal Sculpture at the Art Gallery I was instantly reminded of the story of Icarus… that is how I got my title: Finding Icarus.’

Originally hoping to incorporate the gong-like sounds of a prepared piano into his work, Timothy was disappointed, but not surprised, when he found out that he was not permitted to prepare the Steinway. Instead, Timothy delved ‘whole-heartedly’ into lyricism, a far cry from his typical mid-twentieth-century modernist, atonal style. The composition is built around descending lines, highlighting the overall shape of the structure. The work also contains a variety of colouristic material, as Timothy explains:

‘I have been a photographer for eight years now, and so the act of taking a photo and capturing the emotion of a scene is familiar to me now. When I compose, I like to think conceptually. Whilst things like motives are still a part of my compositions, it is the union of sounds which preoccupies my thoughts.’

The performers also play a large role in influencing Timothy’s creative process. ‘I feel that collaboration is essential to writing any new piece, otherwise the performer won’t feel they are a part of the work.’

On 16 January, all four works were premiered in Elder Hall by an ensemble consisting of National Music Camp tutors, conducted by James Ledger. When they were asked how it felt now their works were about to be premiered, it was clear that the preceding two weeks had been an intense, sleep-deprived, but fulfilling experience for the group. Each expressed thanks to the staff ensembles for their input in the workshop rehearsals, and to Ledger for his direction. Videos of each of the performances, and some composer reflections, can be viewed on the National Music Camp website.

Further links

Australian Youth Orchestra (www.ayo.com.au)
AYO's National Music Camp (www.nationalmusiccamp.com.au/)
James Ledger (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=3512)
Amy Bastow (www.myspace.com/amyfaithbastow)
Amy Bastow's blog article on resonate (www.resonatemagazine.com.au/article/the-modart-diaries-part-ii.html)
Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh (www.reverbnation.com/anniehsieh)
Timothy Tate (www.timothytate.com.au)

Kimberley Pearson was a participant in the 2009 'Words About Music' program at Australian Youth Orchestra's National Music Camp. She is currently in her Honours year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.


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