How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally?

The pandemic has been tough. I was supposed to be getting married on March 22, but we had to cancel the wedding which was not the start to the year my partner and I had hoped for. At the same time, I had put a lot of work into organising a concert of works by nine living Australian composers, which was supposed to happen on March 29. As the lockdowns started kicking in, we tried to adapt to the restrictions but they kept changing every few days, and every plan we came up with inevitably became non-viable until we couldn’t even have a string quartet, sound guy and the composer all in the same venue at the same time. At which point I had to admit defeat. I had started planning again for moving forward recently but now we’re in a new wave of lockdowns, so it’s back into hibernation again.

Christopher HealeyChristopher Healey. Photo: supplied

That was just the tip of the iceberg, though. Reduced hours in my part-time job plus the majority of my private students electing not to transition online meant about 40 per cent of my income disappeared, although I was not eligible for JobKeeper. I went down the grant applications route and have had an atrocious time. There were about 10 grants or COVID-related relief funds for artists that I was eligible for, and I applied for all of them. So far I’ve had nine responses, all of them negative. My saving grace in all of this was an unexpected and generous gift from a guardian angel of sorts that has given me the breathing room to keep creating without the ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging quite so near overhead; this work likely wouldn’t have been possible without that unexpected kindness.

What sparked the idea for the Concerto for Isolated Musicians?

A friend of mine wanted to create a virtual orchestra performance of Smetana’s Die Moldau and I offered to make a click-track with a digital orchestral accompaniment to make the process easier. But it also got me thinking about the possibility of creating works that were a mix of live musician and digital accompaniment. The idealist in me thought “no one will want to do that” but the realist in me, fortunately, pointed out that it’s not business-as-normal for musicians right now. They’re at home, wishing desperately they could be out performing and doing what they love. That was good enough for me. I put the possibility of a concerto for soloist with digital orchestral accompaniment in a Facebook post, and within minutes had about 15 people volunteer. As you can imagine, I started writing as quickly as I could!

I understand you’ve composed movements with specific musicians in mind – who are you writing for and what can listeners expect from each of the movements?

The musicians are a real mix of people from different places all around Australia. The trombone movement was written for Ashley Carter who is Associate Principal Trombone with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The piccolo movement was written for my long-time friend and Queensland flautist, Brijette Tubb. The horn movement was for Armin Terzer who plays with Brisbane’s Best of Brass and an orchestra overseas. On it goes. I’m up to eight movements now, each for a different soloist.

Each movement has quite a different character, often to match what I know about the tastes of the performers, or sometimes just because that was what I felt like writing. A lot of them have undercurrents of that restless energy you get, but some are quite beautiful I think such as the movement for viola. None of them are too serious, however. I’ve tried to keep them on the lighter side, thinking that the last thing anyone needs right now is a dirge.

Also, importantly, while they were each written with specific people in mind, the work is freely available to anyone who wishes to perform/record it. I’ve put together a website where everything can be accessed (no sign-up required).

What have been the biggest challenges, both in terms of composing and logistics?

The project itself has been quite straight forward really. I write the music, provide a solo part and digital accompaniment tracks to the musicians and they have fun with it!

For recording purposes, it’s easiest and sounds best to use/follow an accompaniment track with a click in there, which means playing along with the accompaniment over headphones and recording the solo part so it’s just your instrument, and then syncing that up with the accompaniment recording that doesn’t have the click track. That’s what most people have done, but not everyone is comfortable working out how to sync everything up and so forth, so I’m helping out with that too as required so that the musicians can just focus on performing their part. I’m happy to do this though, and love having people send me recordings to share!

What have been your favourite moments so far in the process?

The favourite moments are when those messages land in my inbox with someone’s recording and I get to sit back and listen to it for the first time. Hearing people perform your music never gets old. I also love that moment when you’ve uploaded everything and get to hit “share” or whatever, and out the recording goes into the world for people to enjoy. Also wonderful to watch people’s lovely comments for the performers roll in as well.

What do you imagine the finished product will look like?

This is a very good question, as I am not entirely sure just yet. I may edit the premiere recordings together into one long recording so people can enjoy the work as a whole. I’d love to have lots of recordings from a lot of different performers and to showcase those all on the website I’ve created.

Beyond that, I do have some hopes and plans post-pandemic that would be very exciting if I can make them happen.

Do you foresee live performances in the future, once such things are possible?

There’s nothing I would love more than for an Australian orchestra to program the work, or an arrangement of the work. There’s a real panoply of possibilities here:

1) A concerto grosso consisting of a selection or all of the movement

2) A symphony-esque version but still featuring all the solos (similar to, for example, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra)

3) A shortened concerto-style version with text that could be used in educational concerts (introducing the instruments etc.)

4) A shortened integrated version, also for education, with a narrated story element added

5) A version of any number of the movements arranged for a chamber ensemble

While I’m biased here, it seems like a no-brainer in terms of programming. The work has been resonating really well with performers and audiences. The music is all there in a tested proof-of-concept format, so an orchestra doesn’t have to feel like they’re rolling the dice the way they would if commissioning a new work, and they would still get to give the official premiere. A couple of the movements were written for QSO musicians, and I’ve previously been involved as a young composer with two of their composer scoring-reading sessions, so that would seem like a perfect fit!

Alas, the future of the work is largely in the hands of the universe. It would be a real shame if I wasn’t able to make a life for the work beyond the current crisis, but I’m hopeful an artistic director somewhere will see the value of the project and reach out to collaborate on what comes next!

What do you hope listeners will come away with when they hear the Concerto?

I hope that listeners will get to enjoy hearing a performance of a new work even while the arts have gone into hibernation. I think it’s important that art keeps being made and being put out there. Art is like hope, you don’t realise how important it was until it is gone, and when it is gone is when you need it most. In some movements, there is a definite undercurrent of restless energy, that of the caged human. Other movements, however, are more introspective and seek out the peace and fortitude needed at the present hour. Each movement is different and showcases a different talented Australian musician. More than anything, I hope listeners enjoy discovering or reconnecting with the musicians that are currently unable to perform. The performer-audience relationship is very important for many musicians, and not performing and sharing music can be exceedingly challenging for many. I also hope the work brings a wry smile, or even a grin, along with a slight reprieve from the current state of things.

For more information on Christopher Healey’s Concerto for Isolated Musicians visit his website here