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17 October 2017

We Compose

We Compose

Art music practice in today's Australia is a rich and diverse field, and pathways to the profession via education and further professional development are fluid and varied. The language we use, on the other hand, doesn't accurately reflect our contemporary practice. We also need to be able to communicate effectively with those outside our sector.

This is why the AMC is commissioning a series of articles about being a composer today, for publication over spring and summer 2017-2018. We're calling for new, bold and positive definitions and redefinitions of the word 'composer' in our contemporary context. We invite you to respond to these articles with your commentary, here in Resonate, and on social media.

Two articles, by Jim Denley and by Gordon Kerry, start the series. See also responses by Rhys Gray (Resonate) and Andrew Ford (Inside Story). [Update: see end of article for later instalments in the series.]

Most of 'my' creations are made equally with others, (collectivism doesn't fit most definitions of composing), so, if asked, my response is 'I'm an improviser'.

1. I've spent my days creating music and radiophonic art (some of the work is highly determined through editing and mixing).
2. I claim copyright over audio objects and performances I've had a hand in making, (sometimes up to 100%).

Co-creative processes demand complex sociality. The evolving culture of a band is not only deeply engaging, it's part of 'the work', (maybe even a score).

Machine for Making Sense was a spirited multiplicitous exchange. Five of us stayed distinct, our dialogues sometimes battles - creation was rarely an easy birth. The audience mixed their own version.

Splinter Orchestra aims for cohesion - individual persona has less meaning - we swarm.

Both collectives produce loving relationships

• psyche is vulnerable in the act of creation

• the activity demands respect and care for others

• distinctions between social and aesthetic structures dissolve.

Alan Tormaid Campbell writes on the Amazonian Wayâpí, 'A statement such as "The Wayâpí have Shamans" is misleading and I suggest we should try in this case to loosen up our categories of noun, adjective and verb and learn to place more emphasis on the verb.'1

Think we're OK with 'We compose'.

Local / Global

The term 'composer' doesn't easily take in some profound music-makers from this country.

1. In the Kimberley, at Warmun, listening to the Gija Women at their Jumba, the dreamed singing was Earthsong. Who would claim authorship?

2. Ross Bolleter's ruined pianos respond to place and history with multiplicitous resonances. Ross would be the first to acknowledge the compositional input of time and the elements in shaping the works.

I hope my Budawang recordings Through Fire, Crevice and the Hidden Valley (2006) and Splinter's Mungo (2016), reveal something about locality that is not a question of inspiration, but immersion. We play in the continent where landscape was always sentient - when we play well, we hear something of its spirit.

In Sydney, with sandstone underfoot, the Pacific smashing into that rock, the prevailing winds, the calls of our avian co-habitors - if we're truly listening to the geophony and biophony then the land impregnates our music.

But in an increasingly interconnected world, where locality is hard to define and where we have imperatives for global solutions, where is music situated?

Making sense of locality and globality is central to the contemporary creative musician's job description. It's important to remember the World is a place, it has locality, and mine was the first generation to see its image from other localities in the solar system.

The reality of our lives says it clearly. Like-minded artists have intimate creative relationships across the globe, specifically for me, Japan, Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Malaita. Music memes spread virus-like throughout this global community.

At the same time I have intimate relations to places in Australia and Aussies engaging with the sentience of our landscape.

But local and global understandings are what every citizen of the World has to negotiate in our age.

Scientists tell us of the necessity to consider the globe holistically and to be aware of our immediate environment. The two foci are not exclusive and musicians will find ways to make sense of this dichotomy.

In the world

It is a serious matter to interfere with our distinctions - introduce new terms and make ever finer discriminations - but these are serious times.

David Ahern's Journal, a radiophonic composition from 1969 unselfconsciously deals with Aussie issues, taking parts of Cook's Journal - setting it to yidarki, bull roarers and chanting inspired by Indigenous song. There are duos between yidarki and ring-modulated cello. It crashes colonial and Aboriginal Australia. (Ahern was later to repudiate his use of these Aboriginal elements feeling that it was naive appropriation - and it was, but hey, he was 21).

His collaborative improvisation band Teletopa and their work Tokyo 1972 is richer - no explicit symbols, allusions or appropriations - it's mature work, the musicians aware of the issues exposed in Journal, and then some, and it's internationally cogent, but it's not easily tagged with the elevating term 'composition'.

If I take the dawn recording, Zanci Homestead 1 from Mungo, the Splinter Orchestra's transparency in the time/space allows the ecosystem to be content - a Pied Butcherbird becomes soloist. We are part of a dawn chorus, not responding to one. This is an important philosophical position. We don't see ourselves outside nature - we're in the world.

'Composition' conjures unilateralism and hierarchical systems, but, above all, it suggests pure and absolute abstractions, outside the world. The danger is that it is self-referential anthrophony.

In a time where it's screamingly obvious that we need alternatives to the assumed order of putting ourselves at the centre, 'composer' has too strong a whiff of specieal narcissism, sapping its currency.

Time for some new words, or to use the old ones in new ways.


1 Campbell, A T 1989 To Square with Genesis, Casual Statements and Shamanic ideas in Wayâpí, Edinburgh University Press, p. 3.

Other articles in the series

Gordon Kerry: 'There are composers, and people who compose' (Resonate 11 October 2017)

Cat Hope: 'What it means to be a composer today' (Resonate 11 December 2017)

Cathy Milliken: 'On composition' (Resonate 29 January 2017)


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My final chapter in my thesis 'Disperse and Display'

39 - What is a composer?

Disperse and Display seeks to attain a PhD in composition. So, what is composition? During the last twenty-five years, composers have been handed a number of new ‘power tools’ that can be seen as a creative magic wand, or as the sorcerer’s apprentice opening Pandora’s box, or most likely both. The introduction of computers has profoundly changed the tasks and working methods of a composer, whether networking, notational systems, generating sound, recording or post-production. Has the art, standard and concept of ‘composer’ changed for better or worse over the last few decades?

I make full use of recording and editing possibilities provided by software programs, such as ProTools, and have produced a number of CDs in this way. On the other hand, when I used the notation system in ‘Cubase’ during the late 1990s I noticed it subconsciously pushed me in a certain direction that was not my own. Given my preference for space and physicality, and since most of my new pieces call for a new dedicated notational system, I prefer a ‘hands on’ approach, using ink, pencils, paper, eraser, soldering iron, drill and folding gauge. This is reflected in the way my portfolio is presented: some pieces are not accompanied by a traditional score, but they are a result of a working process, either in the form of a collaboration with others or in the form of instrument building, and the scores that are included are open works that come to life ‘in the moment’ as a result of interaction between musicians.

Either way, even if there is no watertight definition of ‘composer’, at least I should know what composing means to me in this moment in time:

‘To compose’ is the creation of sounds with the intention of reproduction in a recognisable form: a formulaic and/or preservational re-creation of aural events.

This definition still leaves many questions. Recognisable to whom? Where does a state of being ‘formulaic’ or ‘preservational’ start and end? Which crafts do you need to learn (if any)? Is knowledge of history a helpful signpost, pointing out to a composer where to go next, or a ‘ball and chain’, restricting the freedom of new ideas? I do not have fixed answers to these questions, but I think it is important to continuously ask them.