The Hush Foundation’s latest commissioning and recording project, Collective Wisdom, saw six emerging and six established composers pair up to write music inspired by their time spent with young people with chronic illness and mental health challenges in children’s hospitals across Australia. The project has resulted in an album, recorded by the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ACO Collective, directed by ACO’s Principal Violin Helena Rathbone, which will launch at events in Sydney and Melbourne. The composers commissioned are Matthew Hindson and Katia Beaugeais, Paul Stanhope and Natalie Nicolas, Stuart Greenbaum and Caerwen Martin, James Ledger and Olivia Davies, Elena Kats-Chernin and Rachel Bruerville, Maria Grenfell and Thomas Misson. Limelight spoke to Grenfell, composer, senior lecturer and Head of the University of Tasmania’s Conservatorium of Music, and Misson, a Hobart-based composer and pianist.
Composers Thomas Misson and Maria Grenfell. Photo © Bridie Mackay
Work: Knitting Unicorns
What were your experiences at Royal Hobart Hospital?
When Tom and I visited the hospital we were given a list of the current pediatric patients by the ward manager, and we went to each room and spoke to the patients. Some were not up to having a conversation, but several of them were and we talked about why we were there. The conversation often turned to music and what might relieve the boredom of being in hospital. There were patients ranging from age three to late teens. There was a 14-year-old girl doing homework and a lot of knitting and she told us she was knitting a unicorn. Then later in the day we returned to the hospital to find friends of mine with their three-year-old daughter who had had an accident, and she was playing with the toy unicorn in the hospital toybox. Fortunately she made a full recovery, but it was very scary for the parents. Being a parent myself, I am in awe of how they coped with such a traumatic family event. So it was those two linked interests that inspired my piece Knitting Unicorns.
How did those experiences influence the way you approached or thought about your composition?
Talking to the patients about the type of music they listen to, we found that many of them talked about rap and hip-hop, and were not interested in many other styles like country music, or generic female pop-stars. Some patients were really interested in talking about music in great depth. I thought about how rap works, as it focuses on a half-sung half-declamatory melodic line, over the top of a fairly steady accompaniment of simple rhythm and harmony. The accompaniment is really there to keep the pulse and give a rhythmic feel to the song. The patients talked about preferring music that isn’t too fast, when they are not feeling well, and music that is not dissonant or too loud. Those conversations really influenced my thinking about my piece – which has a fairly simple steady pulse and rhythmic accompaniment pattern, and a melody above the texture. The solo violin is intended to be that declamatory melodic line. I’m a big fan of Burt Bacharach and the way his songs are constructed, so I tried to think about that type of form and feeling in my piece, the relaxed bass line from songs like Walk On By and the pop-style harmonies under the melody. Actually someone told me that they thought the repetitive rhythmic pulses in my piece reminded them of the ‘click-click’ rhythm of knitting needles; I hadn’t thought of that at all.
Was this different from the way you’d normally write?
Yes it was – it was really fun being able to structure the piece around a singable melody, and being a string player I loved being able to write lush harmonies and string textures for the ACO Collective, knowing that whatever they played would sound beautiful.
What kinds of roles do you think music can play in health care?
Music can calm anxiety and provide a healing distraction from the difficulties of being in hospital and being unwell or stressed. Music is such a universal language and the amount of variety in all the Hush recordings, not just Collective Wisdom, is testament to its power and ability to reach out and touch people’s hearts, regardless of what kind of music they usually listen to.
What were your strongest impressions spending time at the hospital?
The environment was anxious, full of activity, lacking in privacy, freedom, and fresh air. Despite these challenges, there were some touching examples of patients reaching out to help others. My mentor Maria Grenfell’s piece Knitting Unicorns is reflective of this phenomenon of finding strength and sometimes generosity in struggle.
What attracted you to the image of bioluminescent plankton for your work?
My first train of thought was that the close natural presence Hobartians are blessed with was absent from the hospital environment. I was determined to bring the optimism of nature back into their world and perhaps make a local connection as well. As most of the patients weren’t interested in classical music, I began with a pop-music structure for my piece. After some research, the band Phosphorescent resonated with me musically and their name brought about a goal for my music to be bright and glimmering. The combination of these aims and thoughts gave me the title Glow, a reference to bioluminescent plankton which can often be found in the ocean around Hobart.
What did you learn working with Maria?
Along with her experience and musical craft, Maria is a generous and warm person and her humanity has a tangible presence in her previous Hush pieces. This inspired me to think carefully and to work hard to try and deliver something the patients would want. Maria is also experienced in playing and writing for violin so her advice helped me to write and notate more effectively for the ACO Collective.
For you, what has been the most important thing to come out of this project.
The Hush Project has instilled a wider and more varied sense of community responsibility in being a composer. Since writing for the album, I’ve started writing music more programmatically, sometimes as a reason to educate myself about subjects or causes I care about. I’m more determined than ever to, in my own incredibly small way, augment and supplement attempts to make the world a better place by collaborating with a diverse range of people, including other musicians, artists, dancers, and scientists.
Hush Vol. 18 – Collective Wisdom is out now on ABC Classics. The ACO Collective launches Collective Wisdom at City Recital Hall, Sydney, on September 16 and Melbourne Recital Centre on September 17