You have a new work premiering at the Coriole Music Festival. Can you tell us about the commission?
Anna Goldsworthy, who is the Artistic Director of this year’s Coriole Music Festival, approached me about writing a piece. The Board has started a commissioning program for the festival with the intention that every year there will be a new work commissioned and I am very honoured to be the inaugural composer for this program. What I really liked about this is that I got a lot of freedom. Anna mentioned “these are all the musicians we have available so go for it, whatever you want to do.” She said, “we have a tenor, two sopranos, two quartets and three pianists but only one piano.”
So, I’m writing a song cycle for two sopranos, piano four hands and string players. The performances take place in the barrel room. When I saw my first performance there a number of years ago at a previous festival I immediately noticed that there was a ladder at the end of the room leading up to a balcony, and I started imagining it would be really cool if you had some musicians up there. So, this piece is going to be more site specific, with sound emerging from different parts of the space as well as outside of the space. This will be the first time I’ve really explore that idea and I’m keen to see how it all turns out.
Why did you decide on piano four hands?
I have a background as a string player [a cellist] so writing for piano is like trying to speak a different language. There are these fantastic pieces by Debussy and Ravel, who were virtuoso pianists, which make use of the whole piano. [But with piano four hands] you can think much bigger in terms of harmony and texture in terms of layering. Your range is much wider. That appealed to me. And you can really choreograph how it is going to look; the first player reaching over to the other player’s side, you can play games like that. And this was the restriction that Anna mentioned, “we have three pianists but we only have one piano,” and I thought, well it would be a shame to just write for one pianist in this instance.
Are you working with a librettist?
The singers are not singing text as such. I am not inventing a language but I am stripping the language of all its semantic content so it’s just sound. The model I am taking is the last movement of Debussy’s Nocturnes where you have this female wordless choir. In my mind this piece is of that lineage and of that kind of world.
Do you still play the cello much?
I am playing less and less, but it would be a shame to lose that. It’s just a case of developing better habits I suppose. When I am really working intensely on a composition project unfortunately I tend to neglect everything else in my life. I allow my conscience the ease of “that’s OK you don’t have to practice until you finish this.”
Is composition your main focus now?
I’d say so. I’ve been doing a bit of conducting as well and I’d like to do more of that. Composition is really slow-burning; you are searching for something. And conducting is the opposite in a way, the piece already exists, so you have to embody that and communicate that. And the obvious distinction is that composition has to be done alone, but with conducting you are dealing with lots of people. So, I have started studying with Luke Dollman in Adelaide and I will see where it goes. I like it. I feel that desire to be actively involved in music in more of a performance way.
The Coriole Music Festival runs at Coriole Vineyards, the McLaren Vale, SA, May 4 – 5