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18 February 2009

The MODART diaries, part II

Amy Bastow Image: Amy Bastow  

Amy Bastow continues our series of Modart diaries. The fourth edition of the Modart composer development initiative by AMC and The Song Company was set in motion in Sydney at the beginning of February.

The creative process is difficult to articulate in words. How do you summarise all of your ideas, inspiration, creative experiences and philosophies into 500 words? After being asked to reflect on the MODART 09 project thus far, I have more questions than answers for you, but perhaps some of my incoherent musings will encourage other creative thinkers to continue their artistic pursuits.

For a young composer, there is the continual quest for the next composition opportunity – they are scarce in Australia and you hope that, by some lucky stroke of fate, you will be the next one. First comes the excitement of being accepted, but this quickly turns into uncertainty and panic: 'Now I actually have to write the piece – what if I can’t do it? Can I actually compose or will they find out I’m a fraud? What will all the other composers think of me?' And so on. There is always an enormous amount of self-doubt at the beginning of any new project. We have no idea of how the process will unravel, how we will be challenged and how we will grow as composers and human beings; but, at the same time, that’s what makes us feel so alive; that’s what is so great about being a creative artist: with each new project, we unravel another layer of ourselves and expose it to the world.

Prior to the initial MODART 09 workshops in late January, I was at the Australian Youth Orchestra’s National Music Camp in Adelaide, intensively writing, rehearsing and performing a chamber orchestra piece over a period of 14 days. Ideas had to be down very quickly. There was no time to reflect philosophically, and you had extreme deadlines and many sleepless nights. On a number of occasions during those two weeks, I vowed to give up being a composer. I learnt a great deal and made some great contacts, but it all seemed too hard. However, premiere night comes and your piece is performed. A new layer of yourself is revealed and you immediately start thinking about the next piece. You'd think we’d learn after a while, wouldn’t you! But we keep coming back for more. We keep looking for the next challenge. I jokingly mentioned to the three other composers there that my next piece would be called It’s Organic…With Soy. This had to do with the many hours we had spent in the café sipping chai lattes discussing our pieces and life as a composer.

On returning to Sydney I started to think about MODART. I couldn’t get my brain into that sphere after the journey I’d just been on with the previous piece. I hunted around for some texts – nothing. I listened to vocal music: a few ideas, but – nothing. What was it that I wanted to say to the world? This piece had to be good because The Song Company was singing it. I had to be at my best. Still, no ideas were settling. Two days until initial rehearsals, and still – nothing. Then it hit me: It’s Organic...With Soy. Why not? Does everything have to be so serious?

I contemplated what the word 'organic' actually means and how this could be expressed with music, with language, with voice. I didn’t exactly know where this was headed, or whether it would work, but it felt right. I had no text but started writing some sketches using the words of the title and adding in occasional phrases that you might see in the ingredient listings on food packets: 'biodegradable', 'no artificial flavours', 'contains no chemicals', and so on.

I took my rough sketches to the MODART workshops. I was nervous but also excited to see how my ideas would work, or wouldn’t. Composers don’t usually get the chance to try out ideas before completing a work, so this was quite a treat. They sang through my sketches, and immediately I recognised sections that would work or could be reconsidered. To my surprise, I had too many ideas. It is quite amazing how easily you can sustain only one or two musical notions.

Over the next few days, I cut sections out and extended others. Initially I was thinking about voices as orchestral instruments or at least like a string quartet, merely interested in the notes, but hearing the actual tone colours of the individual voices I would be writing for encouraged me to think about the essence of words, vowel sounds, and consonants and how they can be manipulated organically. I extracted the phonetic vowel sounds from the words 'It’s Organic'. The singers suggested singing repetitions of them in their own time, creating layers of organic sound that was unlike anything I could have thought up merely on paper. I was encouraged by Roland and the singers to let go of certain elements of control – creating a skeleton score with small performance suggestions for fleshing it out. Composers can get too attached to what the music looks like on the page, so it was liberating to be able to break free from this and just work with the sounds of these amazing voices. Technical considerations about chord voicing also became apparent and we experimented with a number of possibilities.

It can be confronting sitting in the hot seat when your piece is being workshopped, questions firing at you from Roland, six singers and eight other composers. It forces you to be confident in your musical ideas but also humbles you to accept constructive criticism and learn from this. All the composers were in the same boat, so it was actually a very nurturing environment. We all learnt from each other. Roland and all of the singers were very encouraging and sympathetic, even when we made technical mistakes. From their constructive advice, we are able to learn our craft and better ourselves technically.

The process from here on is actually the hardest part: being locked away in a room by yourself with your ideas and pages of blank manuscript. At least we are armed with some great musical and technical advice, we have sketches confirming that our ideas work and we have contacts that we can call upon for further guidance. I am excited about where this project will take me musically and personally. I am encouraged by meeting composers from other cities and feel privileged to be establishing relationships with Roland and members of The Song Company. I’ll keep you posted..

Further links

Amy Bastow (b. 1985) was born in a small rural town in outback Australia and began to experiment with music composition at age 15. A recent graduate from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Amy Bastow has studied composition with Michael Smetanin, Anne Boyd, Mary Finsterer and Damien Ricketson. She also gained a diploma of piano performance (AmusA) under the guidance of Daniel Herscovitch. In the near future, she will head for London to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music.


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