Enter your username and password

Forgotten your username or password?

Your Shopping Cart

There are no items in your shopping cart.

29 January 2018

On composition

Cathy Milliken Image: Cathy Milliken  

Art music practice in today's Australia is a rich and diverse field, and pathways to the profession via education and further professional development are fluid and varied. The language we use, on the other hand, doesn't accurately reflect our contemporary practice. We also need to be able to communicate effectively with those outside our sector.

This is why the AMC is commissioning a series of articles about being a composer today, for publication over spring and summer 2017-2018. We're calling for new, bold and positive definitions and redefinitions of the word 'composer' in our contemporary context. We invite you to respond to these articles with your commentary, here in Resonate, and on social media.

So far in the series: articles by Cathy Milliken, Cat Hope, Gordon Kerry and Jim Denley. See also responses by Rhys Gray (Resonate) and Andrew Ford (Inside Story).


My background is in performance. The event, the concert, the performance, and the action of playing chamber music with others are all important to me in the way that I appreciate and sense sound. I love the physicality of sound for its colour, its weight, its tension, the way it transfers in space. Composing is being a sound-architect, an experimenter....

...sound tenuously bowed, particles of sound, fragile, uncertain in their stream, break up to reform. Close to the body of the instrument, we hear in this hushed, breathed, fragile sound a world of high harmonic other-whistled melodies and light rhythmic groups of sound as each hair of the bow rejoins the string.


As a founder-member of Ensemble Modern, I was entranced by the magic of combining sounds into architectural moments, into long, woven transitions, into surprising instrumental and sound combinations, into short sound-bursts. It was a wonderful way to appreciate first-hand the craft of the many wonderful composers we performed.

Good craft is achieved through listening thoughtfully, reading scores, listening again, informing, questioning, trying and re-trying. It is an ongoing quest, entirely personal. Just as important is the question of source material - what to write and why? If this source is not strong, the substance of the piece will not come to life from the page; it will not become physical, palpable. Sometimes composing is fuelled by curiosity, a wish to hear a particular sound at a particular moment. Sometimes it is a text or a particular space, an idea, a locality or occasion that inspires. Sometimes it relates to the environment, sometimes to society.


I am not exactly sure when I began to call myself a composer. At some point all my music-making seemed to be fuelled by a basic wish to concoct sound in space; to construct sounds and soundscapes, to transform sound structures into musical scores for performers, to create improvisational frameworks and compositional projects which facilitate group authorship.


The perceived differences or borderlines between these wishes lessened as I began to widen my compositional framework to include music for different forces, in different contexts. 'Participatory composition' is the term which I use to define music making which facilitates or encourages group participation and sometimes also collective authorship.

Germany's entry at the recent Venice Biennale was by Anne Imhof: a 4-hour immersive performance for spectators and performers. Performers brought the space to life using voice, movement, dancing, wrestling, by head-banging, playing dirge-like music, climbing up walls, and perching on pedestals as living sculptures. It also created a seamless invitation to the audience to participate as performing spectators. For me as a member of the audience, it was a wonderful and cathartic experience.


Leaving dogmas and 'isms' behind, new music has moved from concert halls to homes, halls, factories or to outside spaces. The concert format has often been transformed into experiential curated sound worlds. It has also begun to develop a sense of locality, of community, of exchange rather than focussing on one individual's compositional perspective.


Today, composers are able to be abreast of each new foray into new musical spheres almost instantaneously. Through the internet, a global community and understanding of new music has been achieved that introduces many diverse languages and styles of composition, international as well as local. We hear alongside music from the latest contemporary festival, compositions by local choirs or soundscapes performed by local sea shell conch players on beaches.


I am enjoying the flow between all compositional projects and welcome their different challenges. My last composition was performed in a garden, the next project will be creating a participatory contemporary opera for Umculo in Johannesburg, South Africa, together with a director and opera singers.

Australian writer Gerald Murnane's 1982 novel The Plains contains a wonderful description of a composition that does not yet exist:

The members of the orchestra were stationed far apart among the audience. Each instrument produced a volume of sound that could be heard only by the few listeners nearest it. The audience was free to move around - as quietly or as noisily as they wished. Some were able to hear snatches of melody as subtle as the scraping together of grass-blades or the throbbing of the brittle tissue of insects. A few even found some spot from which more than one instrument was audible. Most heard no music at all.

Perhaps it is time.

Other articles in the series

Cat Hope: 'What it means to be a composer today' (Resonate 11 December 2017)

Jim Denley: 'We Compose' (Resonate 17 October 2017)

Gordon Kerry: 'There are composers, and people who compose' (Resonate 17 October 2017)


Add your thoughts to other users' discussion of this article.

You must login to post a comment.

Cathy Milliken typifies the accepted attitude of contemporary composers

"I appreciate and sense sound. I love the physicality of sound for its colour, its weight, its tension, the way it transfers in space. Composing is being a sound-architect, an experimenter...."

Cathy may be musically gifted but she is a lost cause to other than peer professionals. Why? Because for her music is all about her tastes, her interests, her experiments. For Bach, Telemann, Haydn, Beethoven, Grieg and Tchaikovsky music was for other people and for higher spiritual causes. The waste of talent and loss for audience is one of the saddest stories of the 20th and 21st centuries.