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10 August 2021

Uncovered Ground

Why I made a composer portrait album

Felicity Wilcox Image: Felicity Wilcox  

With the release of Uncovered Ground (Move Records 2021), an album consisting entirely of her own chamber works, Felicity Wilcox shares some insights and explains why this was a good time to record a portrait album.

This album represents the cream of my concert work from 2014 to 2018, and a new stream in my compositional oeuvre, which, until around 2010, consisted chiefly of electroacoustic music for screen productions. Since then, I am extremely grateful to have captured the attention of a list of performers whom I admire, and to have been asked to compose new works for them - they all feature on this album. Ensemble Offspring have been my collaborators across a variety of projects, in particular their clarinettist Jason Noble, who performs on most of the tracks contained here, and for whom I composed People of this Place - a solo bass clarinet work that continues to garner many national and international performances. Ironwood co-commissioned the album's titular work Uncovered Ground, together with Ensemble Offspring, as an exploration of the interconnected spaces between early and new music. Their focus on early music also seemed a perfect fit for the interpretations, contained here, of select movements from my suite Gouttes d'un Sang Etranger - my recomposition of a 1717 French Suite by Marin Marais. Sydney Art Quartet were midwives for my first string quartet SON-ombra; the Australia Ensemble's 2017 'Sound of Pictures' program resulted in the composition of Vivre Sa Vie, Composer's Cut; and Jason Noble and Freya Schack-Arnott perform with me on Falling.

Flashback just over a year to May 2020. We are in the middle of the first lockdown and the Australia Council for the Arts has repurposed their funding into smaller 'Resilience' grants, capped at $10,000 to enable more artists to continue creating. While many argued this would spread the funding too thin, I felt offering more people the opportunity to take a smaller slice of the pie - call it rationing in hard times - made a lot of sense. Having been knocked back for larger grants time and again, as a not-quite-established concert composer in a competitive, high-stakes field, I thought maybe it was time for my luck to change. I also knew I had a solid body of work behind me, which many in the new music scene were unaware of; music that was the result of careful tending by my mentors, individual collaborators, and grass-roots organisations who had sourced scarce funds to commission me. I believed that our shared story in music was worth telling. So from these works I put together a CD-length collection that I thought would make interesting listening and showcase a variety of styles, approaches and musical personalities.

Felicity Wilcox: People of This Place, premiere by Jason Noble in the Phoenix
Central Park 'Behind Doors' series in May 2020.

I was fortunate to get funding in a very competitive round, and went immediately into production. The value of the funding I received from the Australia Council cannot be over-estimated; without it I simply could not have made this record. It was necessary, not just to pay my exceptional interpreters, but to hire the studios that would do the project justice. Trackdown Scoring Stage was my choice for the larger ensemble works, with its beautiful acoustic, which engineer Rose McKenzie-Peterson captured in detail. Free Energy Devices studios were my choice for two of the smaller works, with engineer Richie Belkner teasing magic out of his spaces and equipment. Once again, my trusted collaborators leaned in and got behind the project. Claire Edwardes and Danny Yeadon willingly offered grant-writing guidance, ensemble direction and their own amazing performances. The Australia Ensemble gave me the go ahead to record without them, as they were split across several states and unable to come to Sydney due to the national lockdowns. The Sydney Art Quartet, with recording engineer par excellence, Ian Stevenson, readily approved licensing of the live recording of their extraordinary world premiere performance of my string quartet.

All the world-class performers who played on this recording did so with passion, dedication, and intelligence. I am extremely humbled to have them commit so completely to my music and felt privileged to be able to offer them a good gig in hard times. Without the funding I received, the performers and facilities that make these recordings sing would have been beyond my reach.

The other huge boon to the project was when Move Records agreed to release it. Of the very few labels releasing Australian art music, they were top of my wish list, and I was so thrilled to get Martin Wright's email informing me that they thought my project was something they would like to get behind! It strikes me that composers like me are in a very precarious position, where the labels who will even consider putting out our music in this country can be counted on one hand. One of the key messages I have taken away from this whole venture is that our record industry must diversify to support locally grown art music - it must find a way to energise our market, even if it is smaller. I am one of the lucky ones, and being accepted by Move for release felt like a huge endorsement of me, my music, and this project.

My decision to refocus my compositional energy towards the chamber music idiom, mid-career, was to open up space to cultivate and express music that was truly mine, after 20 years composing under externally imposed constraints; my curiosity simply got the better of me. After working consistently at this endeavour for ten years, I hope I have by now learned to follow the beat, not just of my heart, but also of my inner ear - and the diverse languages you will hear across this record reflect that impulse. Here are ostensibly tonal pieces that suddenly push into dissonance and experimentation; others still that seek to frame an idea in sonic terms; electronic music maintains a shadowy presence also, reflecting a lifetime of playing with gadgets, and within diverse realms of sound-making. Visuals underpin much of the music I write - whether imagined or real - no doubt a result of my long service to the image in my commercial work, manifesting in obvious ways in certain pieces; in others more subtly reflected in their economy of design, linear or episodic structures, and internal drama. The craft I learned as a screen composer certainly propelled my emergence into the wonderful world of concert music, and I am eternally grateful for that skill. However, this collection marks new beginnings whose possibilities excite me; what you hear on this album is the honing of a voice finding its place in contemporary Australian chamber music, and a loving tribute to my performer-collaborators who contribute so much to Australia's musical landscape.

Some of the music on Uncovered was composed for live performance with silent pictures (Vivre Sa Vie- Composer's Cut); some of it composed with the pace and feeling of a scene in mind (Falling; Le Tourbillon); some underwrites a narrative (Gouttes d'un Sang Etranger); the more 'absolute' works even have their roots in graphics that give rise to musical gestures, shapes and trajectories (SON, Le Tourbillon electronique); some of this music muses self-reflectively on the beauty of motifs composed long ago, reworking, recycling, and turning them inside out until they form new shapes stamped with modernity (Fragments 1-4). Both the title work, Uncovered Ground, and my best-known piece, People of this Place, seek some kind of resolution between opposing forces - not so much synthesising disparate musical elements as developing a respectful dialogue between them, to shine a positive light on their differences, and to rejoice in their confluences.

People of this Place always had to open the album, because it is my own musical acknowledgement of country. In composing and sharing it, I pay my respects to First Nations Australians as traditional custodians of the lands I live and make music on. The work was conceived in awareness that I live on unceded Aboriginal lands, and reflects the echoes of nature and the blend of lives lived for millennia and continuing to live in the Sydney region - a beautiful place of birds, bush, grasses, sandstone and sea. I am grateful to the First Nations advisors who provided invaluable counsel as this work evolved.

Gouttes d'un Sang Etranger - excerpts & interview with the composer

Uncovered Ground was commissioned jointly by Ironwood and Ensemble Offspring for their 'Broken Consorts' program in 2015, to draw together the strengths and sensibilities of these separate specialist groups in early music and new music. It explores a richly ornamental language that contrasts the character of old and new instruments, conventional playing and extended techniques, and plays with our perception of tonality. Its compositional kernel, the ground I composed for Ironwood at the end of the piece, emerges like a delicate mural revealing the design abiding underneath - a tribute to the incredible, ancient musical legacy we composers of new music draw on every day.

The full, 75-minute version of Gouttes d'un sang étranger was originally composed for saxophone, viola da gamba and spoken word during my doctoral studies with Damien Ricketson. It was developed with performers Anthea Cottee and Nathan Henshaw, whose generous input and mesmerising world premiere performance at Vivid Festival, in 2014, brought so much to this work. I have re-versioned it for clarinet and cello, and for clarinet and viola da gamba - combinations heard in the movements contained on this album, performed by Jason Noble and Danny Yeadon.

The work explores ideas around the migrant experience including issues of displacement and fragmentation of family and identity, drawing inspiration from the story of my great-great-grandfather Pierre Claude Louat who emigrated to Balmain from the Rhône Valley a century before I was born. It also reflects a broader preoccupation with quotation and musical borrowing; selected melodies and bass lines from the Marais source work are quoted and mutated, and certain gestures are extracted and intensified. Extended techniques are incorporated to heighten gesture and to contrast the new material with the old. It is my great honour to share authorship of the piece with Marais.

Vivre Sa Vie, Composer's Cut is my tribute to another great French artist, Jean-Luc Godard, whose stunning, black and white, New Wave masterpiece Vivre Sa Vie (1962) became the visual text for an Australia Ensemble commission in 2017. Godard himself granted me permission not only to rescore his film but also to cut it down to a shorter version for the concert hall. I have manipulated and layered leitmotif throughout the film to entwine characters, shift mood, and express different aspects of the story. I transcribed the speech rhythms and pitch inflections of the original French dialogue into notation for bass clarinet and alto flute, with the piano and vibraphone providing underscore and sound effects to accompany the woodwind dialogue.

Sean Botha commissioned my first string quartet, SON-ombra, for his doctoral research in 2018, asking me to engage with Denis Smalley's concept of 'spectromorphology' (Smalley 1997) in composing a work for acoustic instruments. These words by Smalley seemed to convey what I was seeking to do: 'gesture… is concerned with propelling time forwards, with moving away from one goal towards the next goal in the structure… a sense of forward motion, of linearity, of narrativity'. The Sydney Art Quartet provided generous input during rehearsals and their dynamic world premiere performance of the first movement, SON, is contained in this collection.

Falling is the second movement of my trio for clarinet, cello and piano: Snow - composed during an afternoon of snowfall I watched from my home in the Blue Mountains in 2016. I have tried to convey the reverent quality of calm experienced when standing as an observer of the magical workings of nature. I make a cameo as pianist on this final track in the album, joined by the extraordinary Jason Noble and the wonderful Freya Schack-Arnott, whose delicate cello harmonics are so beautifully executed as to be regularly mistaken (even by violinists) for a violin.

As I write this piece from another lockdown, I also realise that there is a legacy element to all this. Over a decade ago I lost my only brother (who was 46), and I am acutely aware how transient our lives can be. I live with this awareness every day, and arrival of the pandemic last year only brought it closer. I felt like perhaps part of what this bizarre time was asking me to do, was to stop and reflect; on what I had achieved, on the journey I had gone on with the support of so many, on what my mid-career legacy might be, and to bring to a close that chapter in my art music composition that one might call, for want of a better term, 'emerging.'

At last I can claim my entry into the territory of the 'established' concert composer. I believe I have earned that descriptor and that this album reflects what its reviewers are now acknowledging to be my well-honed compositional skill. Now in my 50s, I have never felt stronger, professionally and personally, nor more empowered in my practice as a composer. I feel very lucky to be able to spend equal time creating my own music and passing on what I know to younger composers in my teaching role as a Senior Lecturer in Music and Sound Design at UTS, and half that time again doing research and advocacy for composers who have traditionally been excluded from the very narrow canon that drives so much opportunity in the art music world. There is still so much to be done. It's a busy life and I am very grateful for it.

I hope my story inspires other composers teetering on those edges between career phases and big decisions not to give up, but to back themselves, to go forward, and to keep making the work they are called to make, whether or not they see people like them doing the same. Be the change you want to see; that's what I have tried to do. Keep applying for the opportunities and funding that will allow your music to be heard; it's a hard road, and harder for some than others, but if it's what you most need to do with your one, precious, and very short life - it's worth it.

> Listen to samples and order the Uncovered Ground album via the AMC Shop - see also Move Records.

> Felicity Wilcox - AMC profile. See also homepage at www.felicitywilcox.com.
> Read also Wilcox's 'Insight' article about the work Vivre Sa Vie, Composer's Cut (22 September 2017)


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