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31 January 2011

Trans-Tasman Residency: Norris's first visit with Ensemble Offspring

New Zealand composer Michael Norris Image: New Zealand composer Michael Norris  

New Zealand composer Michael Norris visited Australia in late November 2010 to begin his Trans-Tasman residency with Ensemble Offspring.

Kick-starting my 2010 Trans-Tasman residency with the Ensemble Offspring began in late November 2010, with a week of warm rain and grey skies spent in Sydney. It was a short visit, yet serendipitous: it turned out, for example, that I had arrived at Kingsford-Smith Airport merely an hour before Liza Lim, albeit arriving from a completely different direction. We had dinner with our generous host John Davis in Chinatown, during which we discussed the world and its problems over an excellent crispy fried duck. A chance encounter, but nice to finally meet a composer I had admired for some time.

Liza's lecture the following day not only provided a window onto her research and compositional perspectives, but also gave me a chance to meet up with a number of other Sydney-based composers and music-industry personalities. Amongst them were Alex Pozniak of Chronology Arts, Jim Nightingale of the New Music Network and Nicole Canham who introduced me to the tárogató.

I next attended a rehearsal by the Ensemble Offspring for their show Sounds Absurd, an homage to composers who take a holistic view of writing music: that to compose is more than just the organisation of pitch, sound and time, encompassing also the act of choreographing the whole biological mechanism of a human being or group of human beings within space. As such, the scores, including those by Kagel and Globokar, expand outwards from mere dots on a page to include directions for action, voice and dramaturgy. The notation was therefore unconventional, typically with graphical elements; the musical results were confronting, sometimes amusing, often disturbing.

As I arrived at the rehearsal venue-a wonderful, if noisy, concrete warehouse near the Red Box in Lilyfield-Jason Noble and Katia Molino were in the midst of making their way through Matthew Shlomowitz's Letter Piece, a work that both entranced and irritated in equal measure. Later, rehearsals for Thierry de May's clever Musique de Tables got underway, a piece conceived as essentially a sonic dance for three pairs of hands. A long, detailed discussion ensued between Claire, Bree and Jason concerning the exact angle of the fingers, the location of the elbows and the speed of movement of the wrist-there was no discernible difference from a dance rehearsal.

It struck me that beginning my new work for the Ensemble Offspring will probably be difficult to get underway. The performers' complete openness and flexibility, allied with their seeming comfort within many different musical (and theatrical) situations, means that the field of possibilities is wide open for me. Their professionalism and willingness to try anything is a real luxury-a treat that I feel blessed to have been provided with.

While I have not yet settled on much, other than an instrumental line-up, one aspect of the ensemble that I'm keen to exploit is their willingness to perform on unconventional or 'auxiliary' instruments. A very recent interest of mine, one that I have not yet had the opportunity to fully explore, is the use of spectrally 'pure' yet unstable sonorities arrayed in a spatialised manner (a recent orchestral work of mine featured bowed flexatones mixing with string harmonic tremolo-glissandi). Instruments such as penny whistles, flexatones, ocarinas, mouth organs and accordions come to mind, as I seek to build more of a sonic 'environment' than a conventional narrative teleology. (Though I'm always a sucker for a bit of structural goal-orientation.)

As co-director of the new music ensemble Stroma, based here in Wellington, I was equally interested to compare notes with both Ensemble Offspring and Chronology Arts. It was gratifying to note that they share similar problems as us, but also gave me heart that relationships across the Tasman can easily be strengthened through the sharing of information and, hopefully, performances. In fact, I came away from Sydney almost fervent with a disbelief that two countries so close together and sharing so much Antipodean cultural history have managed so spectacularly not to share more ideas or resources, especially in the domain of contemporary music. I thank SOUNZ, the Australian Music Centre and the Ensemble Offspring, therefore, for providing an exemplar of how relatively straightforward it is to open up this process of sharing that can surely only enrich us all.

Further links

Trans-Tasman Composer Exchange Program (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/about/transtasman)
Trans-Tasman Blog # 1 by Stuart Greenbaum on Resonate
Trans-Tasman Blog # 2 by Stuart Greenbaum on Resonate
Making Trans-Tasman Music - article on SOUNZ website
Trans-Tasman Exchange: report from Tasmania - a blog article on Resonate by Kenneth Young

Michael Norris is a Wellington-based composer who holds composition degrees from Victoria University of Wellington and City University, London. He has held the positions of Composer-in-Residence with the Southern Sinfonia and the Mozart Fellowship, and currently lectures in composition at the New Zealand School of Music. In 2003, Michael won the Douglas Lilburn Prize, a nationwide competition for orchestral composers.


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