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19 September 2011

The future needn't be dire, just different!

Daniel Masmanian Image: Daniel Masmanian  

Daniel Masmanian took part in the Australian String Quartet's National Composers' Forum in August 2011. The workshop was organised with the Australian Music Centre as a supporting partner.

I've been privileged to work with many wonderful artists, and each time I've come home inspired by how great musicians can make a few dots on paper into pieces of truest beauty. But perhaps what made the ASQ National Composers' Forum particularly helpful, to me in particular, was the personal contact with the Australian String Quartet. Through this personalisation of the artists in the quartet, the ASQ demystified the gloss, and replaced the 'musicians vs living composers' mentality that plagues the classical scene with a sense of collaboration, and cooperation towards our shared goals.

During the welcome dinner, generously hosted by the quartet, we listened to how they valued the education of Australian composers - not just as a nice idea, but because they needed it to keep their repertoire living. And how the ensemble was looking forward to playing my music. So, in the time that they could have been perfecting Beethoven, Brahms, and Shostakovich, the quartet felt instead that they should workshop, perform and record music by us: that our efforts were worthy of their time and dedication. We didn't need to be told how privileged we were.

The dedication that the quartet showed us seemed limitless. They'd spent a week preparing our pieces, then spent the weekend rehearsing with us, and then without us. In rehearsals I couldn't help but feel how my comments were probably less help than hindrance, but out of all the musicians' wishes for efficient communication, it was Rachel Johnston's instinct for clarity that always thinned our words into sense.

The National Composers' Forum rehearsals were a window upon a well-honed artistic machine. It was incredible to watch the quartet examine my colleagues' music with painstaking precision. James Ledger and Matthew Hindson adeptly provided the crucial educational context, and simultaneously tried to keep our feet on the ground; but it's difficult to be objective when you're being blown away by sheer, tangible artistry, trying to think clearly as the ASQ was turning our water into wine. When the quartet rehearsed my piece Bad Angel Fire I felt locked in an adrenaline-fuelled blur. I was finally able to process their comments and take in their wisdom long after the instruments were packed away.

The weekend wasn't all cold-sweated fun. There were some moments when we sat in classrooms and struggled not to be demoralised as to how the Australian music scene could have disintegrated from the approachable avante-garde of the '80s into colourful brochures that camouflaged minimal signs of life. A particularly informative discussion was hosted by John Davis, from the Australian Music Centre, regarding career opportunities and the future of Australian art music: that the future needn't be dire, just different; that while the big companies will ignore composers without an agent in London, smaller, focused ensembles were seeking us out.

But most of all, I felt during the National Composers' Forum that whatever the future of Australian music may be, we ought to dedicate our careers to contributing to it, and that in this short weekend with the ASQ, we were in the best place to learn how.

Further links

'ASQ National Composers' Forum - participants and commissions' (a news article on Resonate 9 August 2011)
Daniel Masmanian (http://danielmasmanian.com/)

Daniel Masmanian is a composer and conductor based in Fremantle, Western Australia, currently completing his PhD at the University of Western Australia


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