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24 May 2012

Trans-Tasman Residency : Michael Norris and Ensemble Offspring

Ensemble Offspring Image: Ensemble Offspring  

The Trans-Tasman Composer Residency Exchange is a partnership between SOUNZ Centre for New Zealand Music, and the Australian Music Centre, to facilitate opportunities for Australian and New Zealand composers and ensembles. Damien Ricketson, Co Artistic Director of Sydney-based Ensemble Offspring, talks about their involvement in the most recent incarnation of the project, working with New Zealand composer Michael Norris.

For a Sydneysider there are several great cultural centres but a short flight away. You probably think I'm talking about Melbourne or Brisbane, but in this instance I'm thinking of Wellington, Auckland or one of the other areas of New Zealand that is serving up some bold and innovative music. In keeping tabs on interesting emerging work in Australia, Ensemble Offspring often thinks north, south and west, but seldom east. Kind of crazy given that New Zealand's proximity must make it one of our most accessible cultural partners.

Helping to draw attention to this fact is a fantastic program administered by SOUNZ and the Australian Music Centre that brings a composer from one country together with a performing organisation from the other. The Trans-Tasman Composer Residency, founded in 2003, has been responsible for many new works and performances in both countries.

Ensemble Offspring's introduction to the project was a pile of recordings of works by New Zealand composers. What a promising find. Although choosing a composer was no mean feat given the many terrific works, we ultimately had no hesitation settling on Michael Norris, an outstanding composer based in Wellington. I had heard of Michael via some of my own composition students at the Sydney Conservatorium as several of them use his SoundMagic Spectral software plugins in their electronic music (as do the likes of artists such as Aphex Twin and Brian Eno). However, I was unaware of the refined and polished instrumental work that he was also composing.

Following some initial correspondence, SOUNZ flew Michael to Sydney so he could join Ensemble Offspring in a run-down inner west warehouse to observe the preparation of one of our projects, meet the performers and get an intimate idea for the way in which we work. The project Michael observed was Sounds Absurd, an exploration of music and theatricality which saw the musicians taking on all manner of multitasking, multi-instrumental mayhem. Michael's observations of this event undoubtedly came back to bite us in his own work that also required the musicians to perform instruments such as melodicas and flexatones in addition to their conventional instruments (indeed simultaneously in the case of the two string players).

The new work that emerged over the ensuing year is a gem. Save Yourself attempts to realise visual concepts such as colour and hue as sound. The work is both stunning and subtle in its capacity to integrate purity with noise, refined instrumental technique with auxiliary instruments and acoustic sound with gliding electronic sine tones performed on a specially designed soft-synth.

On March 30 Ensemble Offspring musicians Lamorna Nightingale (flute), Jason Noble (clarinet), Zubin Kanga (synth), James Crabb (accordion), Veronique Serret (violin) & Geoffrey Gartner (cello) premiered the work to a sell-out crowd at the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House. We were thrilled to have the composer there with us. Subsequently, we took the work to The Street Theatre in Canberra and we will record the work in the ABC studios later in the year.

The Trans-Tasman Residency provides an excellent model for the creation of new work and the establishment of long-term international collaborations. By working closely with the composer throughout the entire compositional process, the musical score becomes the end-point in a creative dialogue, not a faceless document that severs the act of composition from the act of performance. It also facilitates meaningful development of relationships. We are sure our dialogue with our close cultural partner is just beginning and hope to hit New Zealand shores in the not-too-distant future.

Further links

Trans-Tasman Composer Exchange Program (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/about/transtasman)
Trans-Tasman Residency: Norris's first visit with Ensemble Offspring (Blog article on Resonate)
Michael Norris (SOUNZ website)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Damien Ricketson is a composer, Co Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring and a lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.


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