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25 September 2012

Trans-Tasman Residency is a rare bird

Michael Norris Image: Michael Norris  

The Trans-Tasman Residency is a rare bird: a very laudable attempt to encourage and promote cultural discourse between New Zealand and Australia - a discourse that has oddly always been a bit more muted than it should be, given our shared histories and relative geographical proximity. The beautiful thing about the residency is the central concept of 'matching' a composer to an ensemble, ensuring that the works created find a natural home and result in the best possible performance.

Such was the case when I was asked to compose a new work for the Ensemble Offspring, an ensemble I'd heard good things about from colleagues, but had yet to actually encounter in performance. In directors Damien Ricketson and Claire Edwardes, I found two like-minded individuals who have devoted a great deal of creative and organisational energy towards the establishment of a core group of performers committed to the presentation of fresh, new musical/sonic works. As the director of an ensemble myself (Stroma New Music Ensemble, based in Wellington), I was immediately drawn to the breadth and depth of music they program, ranging from the most sensual of spectralist sonorities to the most scatological of absurdist musical theatre.

Their propensity to expand what might be considered an otherwise relatively limited timbral palette, especially through the use of auxiliary instruments, suggested some possible ways forward for me. I've recently become interested in the idea of large-scale harmonic form, and was therefore particularly intrigued by the idea of incorporating the accordion into a work for the first time, an instrument I knew was available through Offspring member Bree Van Reyk.

Michael Norris's work Save Yourself was premiered by Ensemble Offspring
in the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, in March 2012.

As I got some way down the track of fleshing out compositional ideas, however, I realised that the accordion sonority within the ensemble was not enough: I needed more free reeds! So, I requested that two of their players also double on melodicas (aka melodeons). Shortly thereafter, I felt that even that was not enough, so I asked for four melodicas. But I didn't want the strings to have to put down their instruments in order to play their melodicas, so I worked out an arrangement whereby they could play their violin or cello and blow their melodica at the same time. Now this is something many players would simply refuse to do - which, frankly, would have been fair enough. But to their credit, they followed my directions to the letter, figured out the physical logistics, and made it work, as awkward as it was. (I enjoyed the slight giggle of amusement from the audience at the point in the piece where this occurs).

Halfway during the composition, it turned out that Bree was no longer available, so the accordion part was in jeopardy. Furthermore, the percussion part I was writing for Claire seemed less and less important to the core structure of the work, and was beginning to feel like superfluous ornamentation, detracting from, rather than enhancing, the core harmonic structure. Claire suggested that she could quickly learn the accordion for the work, something she'd been wanting to do for a while, but in the end we were saved by a deus ex machina in the form of James Crabb, a guru of contemporary accordion recently arrived in Sydney. Sadly, it put Claire out of a job for my piece, although with the amount of work she had to do in the rest of the program, including a devilish work for bespoke finger-cymbal gloves, perhaps she was glad of this.

The final sonic touch required was to attempt to blend the free reed timbres with the strings and winds, something I achieved through a MaxMSP soft-synth which generated spatialised sine waves gliding microtonally to generate audible beat frequencies.

The concert itself was packed to the gunwales, a fantastic result for Ensemble Offspring showing that contemporary music is developing a strong following in Sydney (how I wished Stroma would get such an audience!). I was very happy with the performance of Save Yourself and the overall level of musicianship was world-class; long may the EO reign!

I want to very much thank both the Australian Music Centre and the Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ) for this opportunity, the likes of which only comes once in a very blue moon, and of course the Ensemble Offspring for taking a punt on my music. It was fantastic to work with such consummate musicians (Lamorna Nightingale, Jason Noble, Zubin Kanga, James Crabb, Veronique Serret & Geoffrey Gartner), and I hope that the opportunity arises again in the future to work with them.

Finally, I also hope that this is merely the beginning of Wellington-Sydney exchanges. In this regard, Stroma is hoping to host Claire Edwardes in 2013 as a featured soloist (funding dependent). We also hope one day to commission a new work from a Sydney-based composer, continuing to expand the creative 'offshoots' of the residency. A rare bird the Trans-Tasman Residency may be, but, like all rare birds, we must cherish and nurture it, to ensure its continued survival.

Further links

Trans-Tasman Composer Exchange Program (AMC Online)
Damien Ricketson's blog article about the residency (Resonate blog 24 May 2012)
Michael Norris's blog article about his first visit with Ensemble Offspring (Resonate blog 31 January 2012)
Michael Norris (Centre for New Zealand Music SOUNZ)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Michael Norris is a Wellington-based composer, software developer and music theorist. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Composition at the New Zealand School of Music, where he teaches composition, sonic art and post-tonal music theory. He holds composition degrees from Victoria University of Wellington and City University, London.


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