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13 December 2016

Soundstream Emerging Composers Forum - five composers, five different experiences

Dan Thorpe and Leah Blankendaal rehearsing Cat Hope's <em>Fourth Estate</em> Image: Dan Thorpe and Leah Blankendaal rehearsing Cat Hope's Fourth Estate  

It's been five months since I moved from Melbourne to Adelaide. When I arrived in July there was one question everyone asked. 'Have you met Gabriella?' Sure enough, Gabriella Smart, the driving force at the centre of Soundstream, was one of the first people I met. She is also one of the greatest champions of new music in this city. It wasn't long before she had me playing improv gigs as a part of the Soundstream 'Blue Touch' series. She encouraged me to enter the Soundstream Emerging Composers' Forum. When I was accepted into the EFC she took samples of my work to radio interviews.

Despite Gabriella's encouragement, I was surprised and humbled to be selected as a part of this program. Five of us - myself, Dan Thorpe, Mark Wolf, Mitchell Mollison and Alex Turley - were given the same opportunity. We spent three days workshopping and developing a piece. We listened to presentations and seminars from the mentor composers - Cat Hope, Alison Isadora, Gao Ping and Simon Emmerson. When the days were over, we went home and refined our work in preparation for a culminating performance on the final night of the forum.

Forum participants from the left: Mitch Mollison, Alex Turley,
Leah Blankendaal, Dan Thorpe and Mark Wolf.

For each of us, the experience developed in different ways. For Mark, whose work was strikingly complex, this was a process of stripping back his ideas and figuring out what was possible. Mark's work is challenging and smart. In the words of one reviewer it was 'not audience friendly'' - really only the case if we have low opinions of our audiences.

For Dan, this process was more about figuring out how to make the performers comfortable with the piece he had written. His work Front Pockets, Back Pockets, Jacket Pockets was incredibly candid. In its final moments Dan asks all performers to sing, stripping back pretence and revealing the humanity of the players.

For Mitch there were technical issues with stop watches that were resolved through the use of the Decibel Score Player. For Alex, whose work was probably the most complete upon initial playing, it was a matter of practice and rehearsal to achieve the best performance possible.

For me, I started the week with a score that was very simple and very free - something that was, for the most part, different to the other pieces on the program. Similarly to Dan, my process was about making my players comfortable with what I had written, although that's where our similarities ended. Overlap trusts in the creative ability of the performers, beyond their capability as technicians. It asks them to develop cells of music, situated in Venn diagram-like structures, and overlap these developments. More than this, it asks the players to be comfortable enough to sit and occupy the space without needing to rush to the next idea.

For players unused to this process it's a challenging exercise. At the beginning of the week, I was unsure if it could be realised. What helped me was the willingness of all of the mentor composers to spend time with me outside of the rehearsal time, to look over my score and to suggest ways in which we could provide parameters to make the performers more comfortable exploring their own creativity. Simon Emmerson's suggestion that we consider signals to either anticipate upcoming material or to remember previous material gave cohesion to the work. Similarly Cat Hope's proposal that I consider visual colour as a parameter for tonal colour gave the players a clearer sense of the direction of the piece.

All of this said, what always catches me off guard in these types of forums, is the learning you don't anticipate. I knew I was going into a setting where I would workshop a piece of music and that piece would be performed. I came prepared to ask questions about my work and about how to support the players. What I didn't consider was that I would have my personal politics challenged, and that I would come away considering how I would voice those politics through music. Through their workshops and presentations our mentor composers questioned our motives and our reasons for writing music. In particular Cat and Alison spoke with incredible self-awareness about the importance of being politically active through music. As a writer, broadcaster and administrator, I work consistently to make sure I am facilitating the work of diverse communities. As a composer, I have come to realise that I'm not working in this space as well as I might.

It's incredibly humbling to be ranked alongside four exceptional emerging composers. It came as something of a shock to be one of three - alongside Mitch Mollison and Dan Thorpe - who were awarded a $5000 commission to develop a new work for the Soundstream Ensemble. This is one of the largest commissions for young composers in Australia and - for those considering applying next year, I would highly recommend this forum.

Further links

Soundstream Emerging Composers Forum - general information (soundstream.org.au)

Leah Blankendaal - homepage (leahblankendaal.com)

Mark Wolf - AMC profile

Dan Thorpe - homepage (www.danthorpe.net)

Alex Turley - homepage (alexturley.com/)


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