11 February 2009
The Firm: It's not Brain Surgery
'Being an old-fashioned anarchist, I think art should be free to anybody, and in any sane civilised state that would be the case. That would be my ideal, you'd just open the doors...', Raymond Chapman Smith, co-leader of The Firm, says.
The Firm may not quite have realised this democratic dream, but it's a quirky and wilful contemporary music organisation. It is driven mainly by the desire to present new works to its Adelaide audiences but inspired equally by the poetic shape of the perfect program, by the need to provide opportunity to young musicians, and by the inclusive spirit of chamber music: breaking down barriers between audiences and performers.
The Firm, now in its 13th year, is past the teething stage and has settled as a solid member of Adelaide's classical music scene. Formed originally by a quartet of composers – Raymond Chapman Smith, Quentin SD Grant, John Polglase and David Kotlowy – The Firm is now managed by Chapman Smith and Grant, who present their own new works alongside those of a revolving set of composers, including Grahame Dudley, James 'When I see young people of such ability and profound motivation, I feel a sense of responsibility to provide a space for their dreams...'Cuddeford, Luke Altmann and Anne Cawrse.
Thoughtful programming is important to The Firm. Chapman Smith argues that although any kind of series has regularities and commonalities, it's important that 'the actual experience is varied and has a certain degree of surprise. We play with that a bit, because as composers we do what we want to hear, and we don't try to second-guess the audience.'
This care has also manifested itself in the unusual pattern of having a 'composer in residence' – in absentia. Chapman Smith explains that it started as a way to 'focus concerts around existing repertoire, so that the new music acted as, not exactly satellites, but as referenced material'. The first year, a very small piece of Bach ended every program, but this has developed into an effort to include European repertoire that's relatively unknown here. In 2007, for example, The Firm's referenced composer was Kurtág, who, while big in Europe, is rarely played in Australia.
'It's not something we're rigid about,' continues Chapman Smith, 'but considering our own music is so ostensibly reactionary, or at least not modern in an overt way, we find it interesting to program these leading figures who're roughly contemporary but locally unheard. So we're pretty Eurocentric in that way.'
'...the best new pieces have a life of their own beyond Firm concerts. I've actually been able to increase my own repertoire of Australian music, and have performed local pieces outside of Adelaide, and even outside of Australia.'Programs are short, because 'with unfamiliar music, no matter how gorgeous it might be, you don't want to exhaust an audience completely. The chamber environment also has to have a slightly domestic quality', where people feel welcomed to engage with the music.
The Firm are indeed a hospitable and social bunch. After each concert, almost the entire audience will hang around and interact with the players. 'I always think people will get sick of us after a while,' jokes Chapman Smith, 'but they don't! Partly it's the free tipple and cakes of course, but also it breaks down that weird barrier between audiences and performers, and, even more profoundly, between audiences and composers.'
Working in Adelaide, the barriers between various groups are already more flexible than in larger cities, Chapman Smith feels. ' Adelaide's a paradise for people who do what we do. There are lots of different groups like Syntony, the Zephyr Quartet, the Adelaide Chamber Singers, the Kegelstatt Ensemble, all doing different things, but we are all in the same mental space, we are all interconnected. As far as I'm aware, we're not really competing with each other in a cat and dog fashion, but rather intersecting in positive ways'.
The Firm plays, if not a mentoring, certainly a nurturing role in the development of young performers. Professional young performers play a central role in The Firm's concerts – frequent performers include the Zephyr Quartet, Leigh Harrold, Greta Bradman and Kristian Chong, along with various ASO musicians, and many others – but Chapman Smith argues that in nurturing young, very gifted performers 'the traditional repertoire engagement has a double value. It's useful for us as composers, but it allows performers to play a whole program of works, including some major repertoire, which there isn't often such a wide opportunity for.'
In 2009 this means working with young tenor Robert MacFarlane, to do the first of the big Schubert song cycles. 'Robert is a superb young lieder singer,' Chapman Smith enthuses, 'really wonderful, world-class, and although it doesn't really fit with what we're doing, this is one of those times when we've got a young performer who desperately wants to do this, and he's not going to get the opportunity unless a couple of mad old buggers say "we want you to sing Schubert, away you go!"'
'It's one of those things that we can make happen, that's got nothing to do with new music, but we don't care. It's more important than that. Of course it's nice having your own music performed, but more and more it matters to me to be able to make these opportunities. When I see young people of such ability and profound motivation, I feel a sense of responsibility to provide a space for their dreams, because it's something the music world more generally just doesn't allow for. You think that giving a young performer a couple of concerts, a couple of grand, is nothing, but actually to them it's crucial.'
Leigh Harrold, a pianist who has worked with The Firm over a number of years, says that even as an established performer, The Firm's concerts offer opportunities rarely found elsewhere. 'In every concert you get to do a series of premieres, and not only do you have the chance to interpret the music for the first time, you've got a primary source, the composer, on hand at all times.'
'The other amazing thing about playing for The Firm,' Harrold says, 'is that the best new pieces have a life of their own beyond Firm concerts. I've actually been able to increase my own repertoire of Australian music, and have performed local pieces outside of Adelaide, and even outside of Australia. That's really exciting because it means that international audiences are being exposed to the best of Australian music.'
In addition to developing new works, The Firm has created its own ensembles to perform in its concerts: the Langbein String Quartet, the Settembrini Piano Trio and vocal quartet Ensemble Iona all perform regularly for The Firm. Indeed, the string quartet and the solo piano form the backbone of Firm concerts.
Chapman Smith finds string quartet writing the most satisfying thing one can do as a composer 'because it's the hardest thing, and the most fraught, compositionally. In the last seven or eight years of writing tonal music, I've realised that you have to write with an absolute precision that matches that which you expect from the performer, otherwise it won't work.'
In 2009, The Firm will focus on reinvigorating its ensembles, particularly the string quartet, perhaps programming some of Peter Sculthorpe's more recent quartets to acknowledge his 80th birthday.
Conversely, the satisfaction that comes from writing piano music is not just about the content of the music itself, but the intellectual relationship between composer and performer: 'it's just one brain to another', as Chapman Smith says of working with pianist Kristian Chong.
This idea really sums up The Firm: it's an organisation which takes it upon itself to try to engage with composers, performers and audiences alike, and to encourage the flow of ideas between them.
'I remember Leigh [Harrold] showed me a wonderful article last year from The Lancet , which said that the solo concert pianist focuses more intensely than a brain surgeon. That's because a brain surgeon can stop, but if you're playing Bach, you can't stop, you can't make a mistake. And we sort of take this incredible precision for granted. Although there's no life or death riding on playing a piece well, in a way our whole culture's riding on it, in an ongoing way, because if we accepted a low level of performance, gradually it would just cave in.'
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
- Raymond Chapman-Smith (Interviewee)
Emily Heylen is an Adelaide-based writer, bassoonist and teacher. She has just returned home from a year in Paris, and her byline, like her life, is a work in progress.
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Adelaide is a paradise if you have exerted a mafia-like infiltration and domination of it's core educational institutions and funding bodies for the last 20 years - even if any self-respecting and self-confessed 'anarchists' should really be refusing these kinds of offers of assistance from the state...
This idea really sums up The Firm: it's an organisation which claims to represent the interests of the wider new music scene in Adelaide, but actually just represents the interests and pretensions of Grant and Chapman-Smith, in addition to any acolytes who are willing to show them the required level of obsequiousness.
Does the kind of rank propaganda displayed in this article really need to be disseminated (inter)nationally?
I don't think your comments really warrant a response, but I feel compelled to do so.
I have no connection to the Adelaide New Music Scene whatsoever, but it is clear to me that petty-jealousy over certain programs receiving funding can only destroy what is already a small industry in Australia.
As a non South Australian resident I welcomed the article about The Firm - it is critical that such activity be broadcast throughout Australia, as it connects various dots with other groups and individuals doing similar things.
It seems to me that if we had more groups like The Firm promoting contemporary music on a regular basis, the Australian New Music scene would be all the better for it.
It appears I need to elaborate a little from my first post....
Michael, if you have no knowledge of the new music scene in Adelaide, nor the people who comprise The Firm, nor the context for my response, then how can you be so patronising (to me) and so naive (about the 'industry') to imply that I don't have the right to voice a contrary opinion to the content/propaganda of the article, just because it challenges the utopian view that all composers are/should be working together and exchanging ideas freely, without any prejudice, because we do it all in the name of Art? (A utopian view, I might add, non-existant in the reality of music history.)
Their organisation isn't a 'collective' open to everybody, but a business in the commercial sense of the word - their own business - which promotes their own ideals and work, and those sanctioned by them. If this is at the expense of others, then so be it - remembering that every composer is (in reality) running their own self-employed small business, sometimes in competition with each other for various parts of the market.
I don't have a problem with this concept. The problem which I do have, arises from reading articles which nefariously promote the organisation as something which it isn't - and which, given its activities are (for various reasons) often the only new music activities from Adelaide publicised elsewhere, appears to be the representative voice of all new music produced in that city.
Michael, if you felt that my comments didn't warrant a response from you, then perhaps next time you should trust your better judgement and.....don't.
further to your feedback
Thank you for your comments, znikomo and Michael. This is just to confirm that this feature article was initiated and commissioned by resonate, not by the writer. I'd love to receive more contributions and ideas for stories - reviews, interviews, feature articles - from Adelaide and South Australia. The resonate blog is also a good forum for airing opinions and initiating discussion.