You worked with Southern Cross Soloists as a Next Gen artist in 2017. What did you learn through that process?
Ah, was that 2017!? It feels like no time ago! Though 2017 was the first year when I was an official Next Gen artist my relationship with Southern Cross Soloists actually goes back quite a bit further. My first work with the ensemble was actually back in my first year of undergrad where I arranged Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela for the group. Since then I have been consistently working as an arranger with the ensemble and for the last two years I have been lucky enough to be their composer/arranger in residence.
John Rotar. Photo: supplied
The relationship with the Soloists has been one of great creative challenge and joy! Being able to consistently work so closely with such a fantastic group of musicians has been pretty much a composer’s dream. As a composer it can be easy to become very insular and inwardly focused but in working with real life people one must out of necessity think of musical ideas with their real world function in mind, and not just as messily calligraphed blots of ink on a manuscript or clusters of pixels on a constantly crashing computer screen.
How did the idea for your new work for the ensemble, Ginan: Songs of Knowledge, evolve?
Initially the idea for writing a work based around the story of the newly officiated name of the fifth brightest star in the Southern Cross (the constellation, not the fifth brightest star of the ensemble!) originated in the mind of Tania Frazer, the musical director of the Soloists. In 2016 the International Astronomical Union organised a taskforce to catalogue and standardise the given names of stars. One such star that was under question was the star formally known as Epsilon Crucis, which for thousands of years had been known as Ginan by the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory, and as of November 2017 this is the official name of this star.
Tania approached me with the idea of writing a work for the ensemble and didgeridoo, based on the mythology surrounding this heavenly body. I was of course delighted to oblige and slowly the work formed around the ideas of nature, space, place and song.
How did the ensemble/line-up itself influence your compositional decisions?
This is actually the third original work I have written for the Soloists and also having arranged a great number of works for the Soloists I feel I have a good idea of the sound of the ensemble and the energy they bring to music so I felt very comfortable approaching the ensemble compositionally. The addition of the didgeridoo though is something to keep me on my toes. The Soloists have a way of doing that! Another great thing about working with the Soloists is the amount of fantastic guest artists they have, sometimes from outside the western tradition. This is something that has always been a feature of the ensemble; one of my first big arrangements I did for the group back in 2014 was Till Eulenspiegel with James Crabb on accordion, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to work with the stellar Erhu soloist George Gao. I haven’t yet heard the work but I’m really excited to hear what the fantastic didg player Chris Williams brings to it!
Do you feel this work carries on threads in your previous output, or do you see it as representing a departure in some way?
I think as a contemporary composer one cannot box oneself in to any particular stylistic paradigm and, in a way, I feel each new work represents both a point of creative departure as well as an extension on your integrated artistic tendencies. That being said, this work does fit into some of the idealistic frameworks I have explored in the past. Scenes from the natural world are something that I have always found incredibly inspiring and something I have written a number of works in regard to in the past. In this piece I not only see the exploration of Aboriginal culture but also a sort of exultation of the natural world which is often inherent within in that. Also I have always been interested in the narrative quality of music and so working around the imagery of the Dreamtime story of Ginan has been very natural for me. I have written many works based on stories from cultures around the world, including those from China, Ancient Greece, India and Mexico so it sort of seemed inevitable to eventually turn to some of the oldest stories in the world from right in our back yard!
How involved was Indigenous musician Chris Williams (a descendent of the Wakka Wakka people from Queensland) in the composition process and what are the challenges of writing for the didgeridoo?
Working with Chris has been great, he has been really helpful in letting me know what works well on the didg and how it can be used in the ensemble. Being the didg-ital age most of communication has been over the phone and email. He would send me clips of his playing and I would integrate that into what I was working on in the piece. I think that in the process of rehearsing the piece the didg part will really come to life!
Ultimately, what do you hope the audience comes away with?
I’m not really sure that is for me to say. Everybody brings their own personal experiences when listening to a piece and in this way each individual audience member takes away their own interpretation of what they have heard, and I think this is especially true with first hearings. Music can be incredibly powerful and when it resonates with a person then the effect it can have can be indescribable and I think that this power comes from its inherent ability to be emotionally ‘read’ in a multitude of ways. Whenever we encounter a new piece we are called to honestly react in real time, with no prior knowledge of the journey that the piece may take us on we can only listen and make each new discovery as the music unfolds. It is my hope that the concert Maps and Journeys will take the audience on such an adventure!
Southern Cross Soloists’ Maps and Journeys: Navigating by the Sky is at QPAC July 21