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29 August 2018

TSO Australian Composers' School: Developing an orchestral voice

Holly Harrison Image: Holly Harrison  

Holly Harrison writes about her experience as a participant in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra's Australian Composers' School, recently restructured into a 2-year program. We also asked her to give an update about her latest work, including a string quartet for the recent Melbourne Chamber Music Competition and a new work to be premiered by Ensemble Offspring on 29 September.

The revamped Australian Composers' School is a two-year program (2018-2019) with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, run by composer Matthew Hindson as its director, with the TSO's Outreach and Education Executive Jenny Compton. The orchestra is conducted by Elena Schwarz, with composers Natalie Williams (in 2018), and Paul Stanhope & Jessica Wells (in 2019) as tutors. The participating composers are Mark Holdsworth, Ella Macens, Harry Sdraulig, and myself.

One thing I've discovered about composers (and perhaps any artist) over the last few years is that we almost always have a special dietary requirement. This week was no exception: we're a sensitive bunch. It was a mostly meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free week, but certainly not fun-free!

TSO program staff and participants in Hobart, from the left Natalie Williams,
Mark Holdsworth, Holly Harrison, Elena Schwarz, Ella Macens,
Matthew Hindson and Harry Sdraulig. Larger view.
© Alastair Betts

This year's program saw us each write three pieces: a short 'calling-card' or fanfare work, a longer work of 8 minutes, and an orchestral experiment. Before arriving in Hobart, I calculated that I had prepared and proofed approximately 450 pages of score and parts - a humble dynamic marking was bound to go astray!

Daily activities included rehearsals with TSO, feedback session from principal players, and end of day debriefs with the ACS staff. We also had a session with librarian David Harvey and an orchestration seminar with tutor Natalie Williams. In addition, on the Monday night (13 August), we saw Ray Chen and Julien Quinten perform Matthew Hindson's violin sonata Dark Matter at Hobart Town Hall! It was an incredible performance of an extraordinary piece.

Having mostly written for chamber groups, I learned a ton about orchestration throughout the week, big and small. My music draws freely from jazz, rock, funk, and metal influences, and it's been a fascinating experience to experiment with how my musical voice sounds in an orchestral setting.

After school hours, there was more work to be done! Making changes to parts was time-consuming but well worth the result. There were moments of literal 'cut' and 'paste' onto players' parts in the early hours of the morning, as we battled with scissors, tape, printer, and manuscript. I've never been one for arts and crafts, and naturally have messy handwriting... I vow to work on that for next year.

One aspect of the week that was especially enjoyable, was our orchestral experiments. Matthew Hindson suggested we explore orchestral sounds that we had always been curious about, but had never tried in a piece. In contrast to my short and long works, I opted to experiment with some softer, lighter textures, which was quite a challenge for me. I found this a particularly useful exercise, and hope to continue developing some of these sounds in an orchestral work for next year.

The week culminated in a concert of our eight works for the public, in the order of the program: War Cry (Holdsworth), Melting Glaciers (Macens), Vortex (Sdraulig), Jammed (Harrison), Colourscapes (Sdraulig), Ascension: Ode to Stephen Hawking (Holdsworth), Lamentation (Macens), and Splinter (Harrison). The concert was recorded for archival purposes by the ABC.

Stay tuned for next year's projects, which include concertinos for piccolo (Lloyd Hudson), cor anglais (Dinah Woods), bass trombone (Mitchell Nissen), and viola (Stefanie Farrands), as well as collaborations with singer-songwriters. I'm thrilled to be writing for Stefanie and curious about working with a singer-songwriter (I'm secretly hoping for something rock-y, but remain open-minded).

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and conductor Elena Schwarz,
with audience and four composers present. Larger view.
© Alastair Betts

The great benefit of the ACS being a two-year program is that we can continue to build on what we have learned, and act on new ideas while they're still fresh in our aural memory. I also feel that it's important to start to develop a rapport with Elena and the orchestra, as well as being mentored by established composers with diverse perspectives.

But my musical week wasn't over just yet! In the last couple of weeks I've been busy launching two albums, culminating in a Hobart launch at UTAS: Scout, with my improvised rock duo Tabua-Harrison, and Tinderbox, composed by John Encarnacao and performed by Espadrille. Both albums are released on Psychopyjama - you can check them out on the Bandcamp page.

I've been up to lots of musical things so far this year. Other highlights include the premiere of my children's work A Mad Hatter's Tea Party for narrator (Lewis Carroll), flutes (Alice), clarinets (Mad Hatter), violin (March Hare), cello (Dormouse) and percussion (Time) at Canberra International Music Festival on 6 May.

I also spent an exciting week in Melbourne at the beginning of July for the premiere of my string quartet Balderdash at the 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. Balderdash was written as the required work for the string quartet division, and was performed by eight quartet finalists across three days. The work explores musical ideas inspired by electric guitar, as well as a combination of bluegrass and punk rock techniques, including distortion, white noise, whammy bars, power-chords, dive-bombs, wah-wah, phaser effects, slap bass, and of course, speaker feedback.

There's plenty more happening soon (and more to be announced!), with my next premiere by Ensemble Offspring in their 29 September concert, Spectral Tech. Come along to hear my new sextet Bend/Boogie/Break!

AMC resources

Holly Harrison - AMC profile

Ensemble Offpsring: Spectral Tech 29 September 2018 - event details in the AMC Calendar

'A new direction for the TSO Australian Composers' School' - a news article on Resonate (30 October 2017)

Further links

TSO Australian Composers' School (https://www.tso.com.au/tso-australian-composers-school/)


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