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6 September 2018

Shards, Chorales and Dances – a tormented teenager finally gets a premiere

Paul Stanhope Image: Paul Stanhope  

Paul Stanhope writes about his Shards, Chorales and Dances, a 'tormented teenager of a work', forgotten on the bottom shelf for years through no fault of its own. The Australia Ensemble will premiere this 2002 work in Sydney on 15 September, along with music by Robert Davidson, Phillip Houghton, Schubert and Schumann.

When a composer sits nervously through the first rehearsal or performance of a new work, the ink is often still quite fresh, the ideas still in a plastic state, the negotiations with performers coming to the fore. In the case of Shards, Chorales and Dances for clarinet, guitar and string trio, written in 2002, the first performance has had to wait sixteen years! This tormented teenager of a work has remained in the bottom shelf (or, to be truthful, etched into nine or ten different hard drives) since 2002 when it was composed for a combination of guitar virtuoso Karin Schaupp, with members of Brisbane-based Perihelion and Ensemble 24, who joined forces to record a CD of works with guitar and ensemble. My piece was rehearsed and recorded but remained 'in the can' for years, unloved, unedited and unperformed. I remember that day in the studio quite vividly - the Bali bombings were being reported as we all trudged wearily from the Queensland Conservatorium.

Recordings can take time - months, years - so I'm used to playing the long game, surprised when something actually comes out. You learn patience and disappointment so regularly, as a composer, that things easily become forgotten. I know I'm not the only one in this boat: at least I've heard most of the works I've written unlike poor old Schubert who died not having heard many of his masterpieces. (And I certainly don't make that claim of any of my works!)

So it was a surprise when the studio recording of Shards, Chorales and Dances turned up in my email inbox one day about six years ago. I'd remembered a few things about the piece, forgotten a bunch of others. It was a strange experience to hear it all again. In my mind, the piece is still not quite formed and there were a couple of twists in the piece that wrong-footed me as a listener. Usually in the 'sit and shiver' mode of a performance you are replaying that ideal version in your head and hoping to high heaven that the performance sticks together. When I listened back to that recording of Shards after over 11 years passing, I was listening as a more objective listener perhaps than ever before.

Fortunately, I really enjoyed the slightly discombobulating experience of re-encountering this work after so long, and a second listen was more enjoyable still. The piece lives up to its title, beginning with a series of sharp-edged fragments realised as popping 'Bartók' pizzicatos (which sound ferocious on guitar!) and percussive tapping, then contrasting back and forth with a smoother, hymn-like transformation of the 'shards' ideas. In the second half of the piece, the chorale tune morphs into klezmer-like dance figures (I'd forgotten those!) and driving rhythms, hurtling towards a conclusion.

When formulating the Australia Ensemble's September program, my starting point was Karin Schaupp, who enthralled audiences in 2015. Schubert's connection with the guitar was the overall theme - after all, he owned at least two guitars and was apparently quite a proficient player. Keen to present some contrast in the first half, Karin very kindly remembered my piece and suggested that it be included. We were both a little surprised to realise the performance would be a world premiere! It's one thing to edit a piece together in sections, quite another to have it performed live. I'll have to wait and see how it goes, but with Karin and the members of the Australia Ensemble, the world premiere of the piece is in the best of hands, even if it is 16 years overdue!

Shards, Chorales and Dances will be premiered by Karin Schaupp and the Australia Ensemble on Saturday 8 September, 8pm at the Clancy Auditorium, UNSW. Also on the program - Landscape for guitar and string quartet by Robert Davidson, Phillip Houghton From the Dreaming for flute and guitar, plus music by Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Pre-concert interview between Genevieve Lang and Paul Stanhope in the Clancy Auditorium foyer from 7pm.

AMC resources

Paul Stanhope - AMC profile

Australia Ensemble: Schubert and the Guitar, 15 September at 8 pm at John Clancy Auditorium, Sydney (event details in the AMC Calendar)

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