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2 October 2009

Trans-Tasman Blog

Stuart Greenbaum with the NZ Trio Image: Stuart Greenbaum with the NZ Trio  

In September 2009, Stuart Greenbaum spent time in Auckland, New Zealand, working with the NZ Trio as part of the Trans-Tasman Composer Exchange Program.

Against all common sense I am boarding a plane from Melbourne to Auckland. It's not because I'm afraid of flying (which terrifies me on a regular basis), nor that the advertised and incredibly reliable 777 has been replaced by a still fairly safe 747. No, it's that Marianne and I have our 4-year-old boy Aksel and 1-year-old girl Hanna in tow, neither of whom will tolerate being strapped into a seat for more than five minutes. In theory I ought to be going solo and entirely consumed by compositional matters alone. Being a parent certainly has its challenges in terms of free time but somehow the music still happens. I think it's unusual to have a week with an ensemble before the majority of the composing takes place. It requires good will on the part of performers to indulge a composer's speculative experiments that might not even make the final cut. It runs contrary to economic rationalism - that's for sure!

At our first rehearsal, NZ Trio played through my two existing trios (800 Million Heartbeats, Book of Departures). They have been playing together for seven years and in that time have commissioned and performed dozens of New Zealand piano trios. They've also recorded Ross Edwards's Piano Trio among other international repertoire. But it's not just their commitment to new music that singles them out, it's the incredibly beautiful and accurate standard of playing that they bring to new work, both individually and as an ensemble.

We had a brief look at a handful of bars brought over toward a new piece. I am planning to write about the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 and the consequent dust thrown up into the earth's upper atmosphere that further resulted in 'the year without a summer' in 1816. This was by all accounts a devastating ecological event that caused unseasonal cold temperatures and widespread famine. My sketches in short score are introspective and, to me, eerily nostalgic. Both fragments are in 3/4; my music generally changes time signatures more often than I've had hot dinners, so if I can make it work, I will attempt to write the whole piece in this metre alone. Barry Conyngham once said to me in a lesson, 21 years ago, that he tried to do at least one thing that he hadn't done before in every new piece. I think this is good advice!

I wasn't sure if the new work was going to be in one movement (12-15 minutes is the brief) or in multiple movements. I spent the afternoon following our first rehearsal writing a minute of fast music in full score (crotchet = 132) in response to the actual volcanic eruption on the Indonesian Island of Sumbawa - something I wasn't planning on responding to. But it's there now and can be expanded into a short first movement of around four or five minutes. The phrase that keeps revolving in my mind is 'and then the sky was filled with ash'. Did it seem a premonition? How long did they think it would last? In purely musical terms, this is formed out of hurtling downward minor scales containing two augmented seconds. These allude to an Eastern harmonic flavour (a modified Persian scale), which in an altered rhythmic context seem to conjure a certain unpredictable volatility - a premonition of death.

Ultimately, this is a prelude to the real business I started out with - the year without a summer. I'm intrigued by the metaphorical notion of large-scale absence - of having one's world turned upside down in one way or another and having to regroup and adjust to new circumstances. So my initial, moderately slow, sketches will now form a larger second movement of around 8-10 minutes.

I am increasingly attracted to the idea that movements do not need to be of a similar length or 'balanced' in terms of tempo (fast-slow-fast). Of course, this is just as possible as anything else. But I'm thinking of Brenton Broadstock's 4th symphony, the first movement of which has a moderately slow tempo and length of almost 20 minutes, followed by a blazing fast movement of three minutes. This is not conventionally 'balanced' but is arrestingly effective.

Back in 1995, I took part in the National Orchestral Composers School with what was then the QSO. In addition to writing a new work, we were encouraged to write a sketch just for workshop purposes. For this, I wrote a shorter piece (4 Minutes in a Nuclear Bunker) but I remember that Brendan Colbert wrote a brief sketch (less than a minute) for brass and just wanted to hear different mute combinations with the same passage of music. This was a clever idea; because it was his own music, the mute combinations were more memorable for him than an Adler orchestration CD could ever be. So my experience in Auckland, of writing a passage of music for NZ Trio, emailing them a pdf, playing it through the next morning and then altering the combinations (who plays what, in what octave and in what dynamic and colouristic manner), made it possible to shape the music in a very heightened, immediate and particular way.

If it were electronic music, we would adjust the sounds to suit the ear as a matter of course. I think there is an unreal expectation on composers to produce a perfect score, which then is somehow sacred and untouchable. It's certainly advisable to leave no stone unturned in getting a score to be as close to this point as possible. But we are always pushing from the known into the unknown (reference to Donald Rumsfeld certainly not intended) and we don't always have the depth of rehearsal time to optimise that.

Another simple thought occurred to me - a piano trio is not a string quartet! It's not just the instrumental combination (and those differences are big enough) but also the mindset of the players who see themselves as three independent voices.

We repeated this write/email/play cycle throughout the week and there is no doubt that this changed the developmental course of the composition process. The 'content' (rhythms, motives, pitch sets) was not affected so much, but its sonic utterance, balance and the sheer surface of the sound quality took on a particularly satisfying degree of polish. I completed the majority of the first movement in this way. I'm not sure that composers necessarily need this process all the time, but I suspect that it happens less often than it should. After all, the score may be the most time-consuming aspect of the composition process but it is no guarantee of what a composer might wish for when they take their seat in the auditorium before the premiere of a new work.

I was fortunate to be able to do some teaching at the University of Auckland during the week - the music department features spectacular views of Auckland Harbour and a strong composition department with many composition majors. I spent time with half a dozen of their honours and postgraduate students in individual lessons, and I took a large seminar/workshop at the end of the week where NZ Trio performed my existing trios and I talked about how they were created. Like Australian composition students, the NZ students' musical voices are widely varied. Many thanks to the composition staff, John Elmsly and Eve de Castro Robinson for arranging that part of my visit.

Stuart Greenbaum with the NZ TrioAnd special thanks to NZ Trio - Justine, Ashley and Sarah (and manager Liffy) - for picking us up from the airport, taking us food shopping, to the Auckland Zoo and aquarium, dinner in Ponsonby, beach house at Piha etc. It was a rich week in all senses of the word and I can't wait to return for a few days in April next year for the premiere performances as part of their national tour. This time maybe just by myself…

Further links

Trans-Tasman Composer Exchange Program (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/about/transtasman)
Stuart Greenbaum - AMC (http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/greenbaum-stuart)
NZ Trio (http://www.nztrio.com/index_home.asp)
Making Trans-Tasman Music - article on SOUNZ website
Trans-Tasman Exchange: report from Tasmania - a blog article on Resonate by Kenneth Young

Stuart Greenbaum is a Melbourne composer. He is Senior Lecturer and Head of Composition (Parkville) at the University of Melbourne.


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