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22 December 2010

Speak Percussion's Emerging Artists speak for themselves

Speak Percussion's Emerging Artists speak for themselves

The participants in Speak Percussion's Emerging Artists Program for composers and percussionists jotted down their impressions immediately after an action-packed Creative Development Week in December. In the Emerging Artists Program, a mentor and peer supported each young composer in creating sketches for a new composition that was workshopped during the week. A rehearsal period and final performances of the resulting new works will take place in April 2011.

Eugene Ughetti (Speak Percussion)

The inaugural Speak Percussion Emerging Artists Program is now halfway complete and has already exceed our expectations. Our goal was to create a highly focussed environment where talented emerging artists could take big risks and delve deeply into the art of percussion composition. It was essential to establish a nurturing environment where mistakes and new problems would be both encouraged and embraced. Through such challenges came a wealth of material that extended our notions of acoustic, notational and conceptual percussive phenomena.

Central to this program has been the crucial relationship between performers and composers, not only as the platform for knowledge-sharing and troubleshooting but, more importantly, as an opportunity to create trust, cross-pollinate creativity and establish advocates of each others' work. We formed such collaborative teams, and these became the mechanism through which the artists developed their work. Each team was a carefully selected coupling of composer and percussionist, with regular support from the Speak Percussionists and composition lecturer Thomas Meadowcroft.

The structure of this program is such that the first of two meetings was framed as a Creative Development Week. Through this week, our emphasis was placed on possibility and dreams and hence pathways towards realising them. There was no emphasis on completed or fixed ideas, and this left the opportunity for the composers to revise and finally confidently complete their compositions afterwards.

During this program I have been inspired by our 10 Emerging Artists, each with a distinct and fearless approach to contemporary music. The level of openness and enthusiasm was unwavering, and the quality and genuine engagement with the tasks at hand were of the highest degree.

I am now very excited to see where the new compositions, currently being completed, will take us for our final part of the program next April.

Thomas Meadowcroft (composer tutor)

What I think has been really productive about the 'Speak Percussion' workshop is that each of the composers have been teamed up with one of the percussionists right from the outset of the course. This has meant that the workshop has been run with the 'practical' part of composition in mind (i.e. the testing of sounds, working on new notation with players, discovering new sounds and forms together), as well as making for a collegial atmosphere where composer and performer are at ease to share ideas and experiences. Composers chewing the fat on academic issues for a few days and then some ensemble dropping by to sight-read through the scores (as can sometimes be the case with these kinds of workshops) has thus been happily avoided in favour of relationships between peers. In turn, it is hoped that these relationships will continue in the (professional) future, after the course is finished.

Anna Ng (percussionist, VIC)

Week Speak, instalment one.
Emerging artist status, check. Butterflies in stomach, check. Bouncy bright yellow top to boost my confidence, check. Umbrella, check. Okay, ready to meet some people.

I had the exciting chance in early December of being part of the Emerging Artists program run by Speak Percussion for young percussionists and composers. I was already a big fan of Speak, and the chance to work with composers who would not only want to write for percussion but would be actually interested in the ideas of percussionists was very, very cool. I arrived at VCA Secondary School twenty minutes early on the first day, all pumped and ready to go.

The first day is always pretty scary. At least the program was held in my home city, in which I am lucky. I've never been an emerging artist before, so having a familiar location made the leap a substantial bit easier. Introductions happened in almost no time: most of us got there twenty minutes or so early. Of course this would change through the week, but it was nice to meet people on the first day before the formalities began. Before long they had us rolling about on the floor playing the game 'machines', where you form groups and pretend to be a machine together. When you look around the room and see the artistic director and the lauded guest composer crawling on their hands and knees, you know this week is going to be fun. And you try to outdo them in looking like a fool.

The group activities were wonderful. Getting-to-know-you games are so much fun when you give yourself permission to be as silly as you like, which everybody did. The talks and forums with both Eugene Ughetti and Thomas Meadowcroft were enlightening, inspiring and empowering. My favourites were the ones where the mentors told us their personal stories, showed us their work, and gave us a glimpse of what it must be like to be them. After all, all of us want to be them. It's true, even if only a little. I am still astounded by the loneliness they must have gone through during all the in-between times where things weren't going well. We're always warned that success can't come without failure, but I've never quite appreciated how much failure can hurt. We got to see the human side of celebrity.

I must admit, I was scared of the composer-percussionist collaboration. When I received my score about a week before the program began, I thought I could never have anything to contribute. My collaborator's writing personality was completely different to mine, it was all drumming and rhythms, some cool stuff, but I confess that I didn't look into it very deeply. It wasn't my project, it was his. By the end of the week, we had both opened up to each other and talked about life, music and the percussion piece we were supposed to be working on, and we both had a lot to say. By the end of the week, we had begun to learn to express what we had to say together.

There was a wonderfully casual atmosphere within the group. Everybody felt free to speak up and to contribute, everybody was respected. Yet, there were no lapses in focus or attention. Everybody was switched on the entire time. Also, the food we had at the Malthouse Theatre was very delicious. Conclusion: the week was all-round amazing.

Quote of the week: 'Please don't ever forget the things that make your soul smile', by Leah Scholes.

Owen Salome (composer, NSW)

The Speak Percussion Emerging Artists program has been the most engaging and exciting program of its type that I have ever been involved in. I was somewhat unsure of what to expect and did my best to prepare a complete piece for the program. This program is unusual among composition programs as there is a strong focus on collaborative development; each composer is paired with an emerging artist who is a percussionist and we develop our pieces together.

My collaborator, Madi Chwasta, had told me that her strengths lay in the keyboard percussion instruments, however, as my piece developed, I realised that I did not want the piece to be pitch-centric. The first collaborative session was rather nerve-wracking as I had no idea what it would be like to work with Madi. Madi turned out to be a perfect match, approaching the unconventional notation and techniques that I had employed with musicality and enthusiasm.

Over the course of the five days we made a number of large decisions about how the piece should evolve and work, and having had the luxury of such an intensive workshopping period, I feel that I will be able to easily realise my aims within the piece.

One of the things that I became very aware of was that I needed to integrate the concept behind the piece into the piece more strongly in the form, the notation system and the instrumentation. This is something that I would not have been able to see so clearly had I not had this opportunity to realise sections of the piece during the writing period.

I also found this experience to be very valuable, due to the exposure to the other artists working in the program. All four of the other composers presented ideas and techniques that intrigued me and stimulated my creative imagination. I look forward to hearing how each of these pieces will have evolved in the second week of the program.

Emily Sheppard (composer, VIC)

The first week of the Speak Percussion Emerging Artists Program was inspiring, fun and creative. One of the best parts of the program was the collaboration between the percussionists and composers. Each composer was partnered with a percussionist which allowed a close dialogue between the two. As a violinist, and not knowing a lot about writing for percussion, this partnership helped me learn and opened my eyes to many things, including the notation of specific techniques and experimenting with 'found' instruments.

Another part of the program which I particularly enjoyed was the 'Group Workshop'. In this session, we played 'games' (similar to those played in drama classes) which had links, both direct and subtle, to improving ensemble skills. Some of the games also encouraged creative thinking on the spot, a skill essential to both composers and performers. These games could be played within any type of ensemble and would improve ensemble trust and awareness - skills which may be hard to develop just through playing music together.

There were several inspirational lectures throughout the week, given by Thomas Meadowcroft (an Australian composer living in Berlin), John Davis (AMC) and players from Speak Percussion (Leah Scholes and Eugene Ughetti). These covered a range of topics from making money in the music industry to the notation used in modern percussion music. As a high school student, I hadn't been exposed to many of these things so this was a new and exciting avenue for me.

There was one improvisatory session where everyone (composers included) could get up and have a go at improvising on a percussion instrument. As I hadn't improvised much before (and never before on percussion), this was a bit scary at first, but after a few minutes this feeling wore off and I became focused on trying to get as many different sounds out of the instrument I had. This was another new experience for me which I really enjoyed and has inspired me to explore all the possibilities of each percussion instrument when composing.

Madeleine Chwasta (percussionist, VIC)

Having barely any experience in late 20th-century/21st-century percussion music, I was extremely nervous to begin the 'Speak' Percussion Emerging Artists Program. However, I approached the program with the intention to extend my love for percussion, and to learn as much as I could about the contemporary world of music. As expected, I faced various personal challenges throughout the week. I think the largest challenge for myself as a musician was accepting how much I did not know about percussion - the technique, the notation, and the sound capabilities of each instrument. Even common contemporary percussion processes, such as holding a bow and a mallet simultaneously to accommodate a quick instrument change, was a completely new experience!

Developing a new work was also a source of difficulty, yet was simultaneously exciting. All the composers had incredible ideas, and, from a performer's point of view, it was fascinating to contribute to the composer's creative process. Like the other pairs of emerging artists, I got along well with my collaborator, Owen, which made the composition development sessions so much more productive and enjoyable.

However, the 'Speak' Percussion people, Eugene, Leah and Laura, as well as Thomas and the fellow emerging artists, created such a supportive and friendly environment that it was almost as exciting to work through our individual and collective challenges.

Aside from developing the new works, the various activities throughout the week, which included improvisation, a talk from John Davis, attending the launch of Gifford's Exile iPad opera, the Aria Co. and Quiver performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and the extensive discussions on contemporary music, and surviving as a musician, were inspiring to me as a young musician, and dramatically extended my understanding and appreciation of new music.

Overall, I believe the first week of the program was incredibly successful in engaging and developing the ideas of each emerging artist, and I think I have become a better and a more open-minded musician as a result. Over the course of the week, I met many new people, made new friends, and learnt more than I could ever have imagined. I would like to thank absolutely everyone involved in the program, especially the amazing Eugene, Leah, Laura and Thomas for running the first week, and I am looking forward to seeing everyone back for the second week of rehearsals in April!

James Paul (composer, WA)

The opportunity to work intensely with an ensemble towards the creation of a piece (from the ground upward) is a rare and beautiful occurrence. This Emerging Artists Program has, in its first half, been a pretty crazy experience - I don't think I've ever worked on a piece so fast!

I guess the most radical (and sometimes disorienting) element has been the partnering of 'composer' to performer, which has proved to be invaluable (at least for me). Aside from being really helpful to try new ideas with the sort of performance accuracy I cannot possibly replicate, it has allowed me to explore and create new instrumentations starting from little more than sonic concepts - which Lionel can use to produce noises from his knowledge of percussion sounds that I wish I had. Testing notation has also been a really great/really weird experience for me - the piece has mutated through shared or clashing interpretations of directions, which is great!

Having Thomas Meadowcroft sit in and discuss has also been fantastic. He has made me consider a lot of things I'd been trying to avoid (probably for the best, really) and brought a lot of ideas to light. The difference in dialogue with a mentor-figure concerning academic and free work has been really striking, too. Talking to Thomas about an unrestricted project (that sought-after complete internal expression), with nothing to prove has totally restimulated my creative drive. It's intensely refreshing to explore possibilities free from a multitude of practical requirements.

Given that I'm short of words I'll quickly mention that working with 'Speak' has been fantastic. I had not really considered music as a means of physical communication until we'd completed some intense rehearsals/workshops, and there's a really beautiful sense of choreography to their art. Everybody has been really great, and the music is all fantastic. Watching new works unfold has been both fun and really, really informative. I'm looking forward to seeing the results.

Lionel Pierson (percussionist, WA)

The Speak Percussion Emerging Artists Program has provided me with more opportunities, creative output and inspirational direction than I could have hoped for. Spending five intensive days creating music, discussing ideas and exploiting thought processes has proved so very rewarding and exciting. Collaborating with emerging composer James Paul especially has been a great experience. Not only was I able to get inside the creative mind of a new music composer, I felt my creative freedom towards the realisation of the music was comparable to that of Sylvio Gualda when he first learned Xenakis's Psappha.

The atmosphere and environment which we were immersed in was incredibly supportive and friendly - never did I feel judged or made to feel stupid for trying something new. Thomas was particularly interesting for all the knowledge and experience he shared with us, from a creative as well as from a personal development point of view. Eugene, Leah and the rest of Speak were also incredibly supportive, inspiring mentors, and I feel they managed to balance the needs of the group extremely well through all the sessions.

I can hardly wait for the next half of the project, and certainly look forward to exploring composer/performer partnerships much more in the future.

Chris Williams (composer, NSW)

It seems to me that there are two fundamental demands made of a young composer:
1.To create work that is daring, original and inventive, reflecting an individual voice and artistic practice.
2.To create work that is flawless, easily comprehensible to players and the audience, and is comfortably perfectible within three rehearsals, or fewer.

It doesn't take much insight to realise that navigating, much less reconciling these two tensions presents a treacherous challenge. To their credit, Speak Percussion have tackled this dilemma head on, with their Emerging Artists Program. From the outset, we were encouraged to take risks and not to feel we had to do things we knew would work. This approach is a healthy relief!

It might seem strange to design a program that encourages and allows space for its participants to make mistakes, but this is, without a doubt, the most elegant solution to the problem of reconciling the two opposing challenges of being an 'emerging artist'. It is perhaps the safest investment in the future artists and cultural life of Australia.

Having completed week 1 of the program, there is a giddy buzz of what the next stages will bring, as Facebook ads, Skype chats and e-mails fly around the country. Participants ranged greatly in experience and age, but never in maturity, respect nor insight, with the energy and intelligence of all bouncing (sometimes literally!) around the room. There was a genuine excitement for challenging ideas and a communal approach to solving problems that these ideas presented.

There is something very genuine about the music-making that happens with Speak, and being invited inside that process was a wonderful insight into how to make 'serious music', seriously, without ever compromising enjoyment, expression, or genuine sense of fun.

I can't wait for April.

Rory Hannan (percussionist, VIC)

The experience of collaborating with a composer was very influential - I had never worked with a composer before. I was intrigued by the time-consuming activities that a composer sometimes goes through in order to achieve their intended musical ideas. This gave me a greater understanding of how strenuous and frustrating writing new music can be. This not only inspired, it gave me the desire to realise the composer's idea as intended but also the desire to offer them contrasting ideas if they were not pleased with the initial outcome.

The ideas varied greatly throughout the weeks as both me and the composer were presented with various challenges. We changed the instrumentation greatly to create the sound experience of the elements Emily had chosen to write about (eg. water, earth). As we continued to experiment with instruments and various sections we thought didn't work, or could become more interesting, Emily gradually started to see what she liked and disliked. This obviously caused revision of parts, and her overall ideas.

Working with people such as Speak Percussion and Thomas was the most inspiring experience I have had in the field of percussion. I have never worked with people with so much knowledge and experience in the music industry. This gave me a realistic insight into the industry and what is needed to become a successful artist. The amount of skill and passion these artists had made me aware of my goals and increased my motivation.

Micah Brown (composer, QLD)

The writing process involved for Speak's program is really quite strange to me, and wonderful. I've been allowed great freedom in my approach, with the first week of events being devoted mostly to experimentation; the material I brought in seems only like a starting point. My piece, tentatively titled Trotsky after the revolutionist, has been tested. This way we may avoid some of the problems that come up in rehearsal by getting out of the way a lot of the uncertainties left in the score.

I've had time to peruse my ideas with my collaborator, Anna Ng, and the chance to test the potential for my piece. Ideas that seem to work on paper can be left by the wayside, and the spontaneous experiments with sound may become more interesting. Pitching ideas back and forth, and having the ability to test them out immediately, gives a young composer immediate gratification or annulment of their vision, and a chance to assess. I would imagine it also gives the young performers a chance to better understand the composer's intention before the inevitable interpretive process begins for the April rehearsals.

There is a lot of depth to this process. We're allowed the chance to see the different approaches of each composer and the results of the week for each collaborative pair. We are each invited for a moment into another person's creative process so as to evaluate our own work. This I find is one of the most important things for a young composer such as me. We see how another works. We gain insight into the workings of another process as it unfolds. There's no resistance to sharing ideas. The composer shows how their ideas are first presented and assessed. The performer allows us into their interpretive process.

The multiple levels of communication between professional and emerging composers and percussionists were very exciting. Beginning work with our one-on-one collaborators, before entering into an ensemble situation, was a very logical way to progress. The learning curve is very smooth, with the following months then to finish the work and continue discussions with collaborators before the final week of rehearsals and performance. Included too, the many discussions on the works, the musical landscape, working as a composer or performer, plans, ideas and generalities are fruitful with information. Even seeing what is happening in Melbourne for a week is a rich experience for those who travelled from other states.

A terrific experience, and one I'm very keen to continue.

Kaylie Melville (percussionist, WA)

The Creative Development week of Speak Percussion's Emerging Artist Program has been a tremendously eye-opening experience. Although I've been involved in performances of new works of music during the course of my university studies, my interactions with composers have always been more focused on a 'finished product' which must be performed on a particular date. For this reason, I've rarely thought about the amount of thought and revision that goes into any one composition - how a piece actually emerges from vague ideas and musical sketches, and how this process unfolds.

In many ways, this week has been like a game of musical puzzle-solving - from brainstorming ways to create a particular sound, to logistics of how to arrange the instruments, to the problem of how best to notate these ideas so that another musician could immediately understand what we are attempting to create. Eugene spoke early in the week about creating a supportive atmosphere, in which we could all feel safe to experiment without fearing the failures that sometimes arise when risks are taken. I feel that this was one of the most exciting elements of the week, encouraging all of us to think beyond our previous musical experiences and to consider new possibilities in sound and notation. It's been really interesting to see the huge variety in the five new works being produced and how the ideas have begun to crystallise in a single week.

Additional workshops and classes organised by Speak Percussion and guest composer Thomas Meadowcroft were also a huge part of the week. We covered a variety of topics, from advice regarding life after university studies, to the history of Speak, to examining Thomas's compositions and discussing his work with groups such as the wonderful Percussions de Strasbourg. I think we all agreed that a particular highlight was the near-twenty person group improvisation session held towards the end of the week, a chance for all of us to spontaneously create something as a group. I'm sure that all of us have returned home extremely inspired and very excited to see what the composers will come up with between now and April!

Further links

Speak Percussion's Emerging Artists program - a news article on Resonate
Speak Percussion website
Thomas Meadowcroft - AMC profile

The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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