Workshopping a new composition with one of Australia’s top chamber ensembles is no mere pipe dream for emerging talents Natalie Nicolas, Clare Johnston and Ella Macens. Alumni of the Sydney Conservatorium’s inaugural National Women Composers Development Program, they’ve just spent the last few days working with the Flinders Quartet and acclaimed composer Mary Finsterer on exciting new pieces to be premiered at a professionally recorded and livestreamed performance this Tuesday.

Composers in the Con’s NWCDP: Ella Macens, Elizabeth Younan, Clare Johnston, and Natalie Nicolas. Photo © Rahkela Nardella.

Taking place in Melbourne, workshops have been open to the public and have taken place over eight days. Although each composer is allowed to workshop just one piece, Natalie Nicolas has been lucky enough to have two works included this year, both of them world premieres. She explains that her piece Exhale is inspired “by the regimen of the last two years of my career and the necessity to breathe and pause for cathartic liberation from the often overwhelmed life we live”. It’s a work that she evocatively describes as languid, with soft and long melodies that enable listeners to “relax into the depth of the strings”.

Her second work, The Rose that Wept, is “quite vastly contrasted to Exhale”, inspired by and paying homage to the films of her childhood. “It pushes the abilities of the players and evokes a world of childish innocence and a dark, Hans Christian Andersen-type curiosity”.

Clare Johnston’s submission Ruby is the second of her ‘jewel quartets’, and originally written for the Goldner String Quartet. “Ruby explores different jewel textures throughout the quartet to build intensity. This quartet was inspired by the second movement of Bartók’s String Quartet No 2,” she says.

Both came to their works in different ways. Nicolas was working with the Goldner String Quartet while composing Exhale and The Rose that Wept, which meant she had the opportunity to workshop the pieces with them in both 2016 and 2017. “This meant I had incredible insight into the limitations of the instruments and the idioms of sound and touch that the best players of their instruments communicated to me”, she explains. “I tried to take all of these into account when writing the works and it was a formative learning process in writing for strings for me that I haven’t had since working with the Australian String Quartet in 2013 on my first string quartet piece”.

Johnston took a little while to get her piece together. “I had the concept for this string quartet over a year ago but couldn’t get the right musical idea to begin the piece”, she says. “One day it suddenly came to me in a session with the cellist Julian Smiles. Once I had the first motive, the rest of the piece flowed quite easily. I also had in mind a dense homophonic section in the middle of the work that helped build intensity and provide variation to the fast, call and answer motives at the beginning and end of the piece. I composed this piece over two weeks in consultation with my composition teacher, Matthew Hindson, who provided wonderful guidance and feedback.”

Reflecting on her time with the Flinders Quartet, Nicolas is grateful that they’re premiering her latest quartets, effusive in her praise. “They’re incredible players and have been so generous to me through this whole process. Being based in Sydney, they’ve accommodated the inevitable strains of interstate communication and have made the workshopping process so much easier for me logistically. I can’t thank them enough”.

Johnston is similarly grateful for the experience. “The Flinders Quartet have spent a lot of time rehearsing these pieces and we all had multiple and individual rehearsals with them. I had plenty of opportunities to provide feedback but they already had a great understanding of what I was trying to capture in the work”.

They also waste no time in crediting their growth as composers to the lessons learnt as three out of four students handpicked for the prestigious NWCDP at the Con. In their time there, they worked with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the Goldner String Quartet and percussionist Claire Edwardes.

“The NWCDP has taught me many, many lessons”, Nicolas says. “It instilled a sense of discipline in me that I never knew existed, and exposed me to the professional aspects of my world in the ‘business’ of being a composer that I would only ever learn otherwise through years and years of experience. I will be forever grateful for that.”

“It also paired me with the most talented players of their instruments, the most learned composers of our time and the most regimented conductors I’ve ever known”, she adds. “Parallel to being all those things however, each and every person I had the honour of working with was kind, understanding and there to give a hand up to the newest generation of Australian composers.”

Johnston is equally enthusiastic about her time in the programme. “[It’s] helped me to become the best composer I could be over the last two years. The highlight of my professional career so far has been having my compositions performed by the high calibre of professional musicians involved in this program and working with my brilliant teacher and mentor, Professor Matthew Hindson. The extra mentoring sessions with several of Australia’s top female composers including Maria Grenfell, Moya Henderson and Anne Boyd have been an incredible insight into the field of composition, especially from a woman’s perspective”.

At such a significant juncture in their careers, both have advice to dole out to aspiring composers.

“Have grit!” Nicolas says. “I’ve worked endlessly at this for the past seven years since leaving high school and attending the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to complete my Undergrad, Honours and now Masters of Composition, and the more I learn, the more I realise I have left to learn. Remember that just because your art is a vulnerable expression of yourself, it doesn’t make the constructive feedback personal as well”.

“Always do your best and write the music that you love and that you are passionate about”, Johnston offers. “Try and improve on each piece but also accept that each work is going to be different and can take on a life of its own. Try to learn from some great mentors that inspire you”.

The Flinders Quartet Composer Workshop concert takes place on December 5. It is free to the public but you need to register. 

More information