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Composer and pianist Sally Whitwell is a musician who packs a punch. Her unpretentious, gutsy, affable personality, paired with her unique personal style and her inexhaustible versatility as a performer, conductor and composer have made her one of Australia’s most likeable and highly regarded classical artists. In her own words she’s “keeping classical music friendly.” Now she’s putting her impressive list of musical friends to work for her latest album for ABC Classics, I Was Flying.
Ahead of the disc’s release this May, she’s joined by the Acacia Quartet to give Limelight an exclusive performance from the ABC studios in Ultimo, and she talks to Limelight’s Online Editor Maxim Boon about composing, collaborating and her creative processes.
Film credit: Thijs Rozeboom for Limelight Magazine
I Was Flying will be your fourth album for ABC Classics, but the first exclusively devoted to your music. Tell us a bit more about this disc.
While it's true that this will be an album of my music, this disc is really more a celebration of my collaborations. My previous discs [Ed: ARIA Award-winning recordings of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman] have focused on solo performance, but ironically performing by myself isn’t really my natural habitat. I’m really delighted that with this new recording I’m able to showcase some of the artists I’ve worked with for a long time, whose work and talent I really admire. It’s quite a thrill for them to all come together on one disc.
Who else is contributing to this recording?
Most of the artists who I have collaborated with for I Was Flying I've know for years. Alex Oomens is a wonderfully talented young soprano who has performed with Pinchgut Opera, but I’ve known her since she was about nine years old with Sydney Children’s Choir. It’s been such a privilege to watch her grow and develop as an artist over the years.
I’ve also recorded with the wonderful flautist, Sally Walker. We went to school together many moons ago, and since then she’s been in Germany playing with the Berlin Philharmonic and several other great European orchestras. She’s recently returned to Australia, and she was very high up my list of potential collaborators, as she’s an absolutely extraordinary musician, excellent on detail and just so passionate about what she does.
I’ve had a blast working with the Acacia Quartet as well. They’ve really built a name for themselves as champions of new music in Australia. I’ve learned so much from working with them, so it’s been a truly rewarding experience to collaborate with them.
Then there’s VOX, the youth choir from Sydney Philharmonia Choir. A lot of these talented young singers are people I’ve seen come through the Sydney Children’s Choir. Working with young singers is really important to me: a youth choir has a very unique sound compared to the mature, adult choir. It’s got a brightness that really appeals to me.
You share a very close relationship with your collaborators. Is it an important part of your creative process to have a strong personal connection to the people you’re writing for?
I’m very fortunate to know a lot of very talented and accomplished musicians, and so their playing abilities are of course very important, but it is much easier to write for people you know well as you can also tap into aspects of their personality. This can produce music that really connects with them and results in a better performance.
"It’s a very surprising, but also very flattering experience to have someone so moved by something you’ve made."
You’re very well known for your performances of the music of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. Have they been important influences for you as a composer?
I think more than anything I really admire their approach towards music making. Both Glass and Nyman are largely self-made and have been really proactive in performing their own music throughout their careers. Performance has always been such an important aspect of my life as a musician that it’s really closely linked with my work as a composer.
What’s your creative process? How does a new piece of Whitwell come to life?
I write a lot quite motivically: melody is very important to me. I really enjoy seeing how much music I can create out of a relatively simple melodic shape, by manipulating it in as many ways as possible. It’s a fairly new thing for me to be writing instrumental works – in the past I’ve always tended to gravitate towards writing vocal music because I read a lot of poetry, especially Romantic poetry like Byron and Keats, and I find text a very easy route into a piece. I have so many good friends who play and don’t sing and I wanted to work with them, so that has really compelled me to expand my instrumental writing.
Winter Love is the title of your Piano Quintet, which you’ve recorded with the Acacia Quartet. Tell me about this piece.
It’s a monothematic piece: in preparation for writing Winter Love I’d been immersing myself in a lot of string quartet repertoire, and one work which really impressed me was the Debussy String Quartet, which I’ve always really loved. It’s also a monothematic piece, and Debussy is able to create over 25 minutes of beautiful, amazing, moving music out of just one melodic idea, so this really convinced me that this was something I wanted to try. In Winter Love the main theme is passed around and everyone gets a taste, regardless of whether that’s just a tiny part of the motif, or its been transformed into something dancing or angular. We premiered the piece a couple of years ago in Sydney, and after the performance a member of the audience approached me, and they were crying. It’s a very surprising, but also very flattering experience to have someone so moved by something I've made.
I Was Flying is released by ABC Classics. Out May 15, 2015.