What first attracted you to composition?
Like many young adults I’m sure, creativity was one of the few ways I learnt about freedom of thought and expression. The works of other musicians and artists became a place where my own ideas and values began to emerge. Composing was a space of discovery, solace and personal strength.
Where do you tend to find inspiration for your work?
Fantasy, escapism and dreamlike worlds have often been recurring themes of my earlier music. What has recently captured my attention, however, is examining and confronting our current situation – taking responsibility for the world we live in. For me this has specifically been about creating artistic opportunities for new music and composers to be part of the bigger picture.
Pianist and composer Kitty Xiao.
How were you first inspired to create music for old pianos?
My relationship with music began with piano. As a child, hours a day were spent at the piano, a second-hand piano – the cheapest one my parents could afford at the piano store. My first compositions were composed at an old piano, and much of my newest works are composed on an old piano. An old piano is one of nostalgia and a forever binding intimacy that has all the relevance in the world.
Perhaps this is why Australian composer Ross Bolleter’s Ruined Pianos was a huge influence for me as a composer and pianist. The music created on these worn, broken, damaged pianos were astounding in beauty and as new as sound could be.
How did the Six Piano Project in Australia come about?
I was premiering my piano music at a concert in the US presented by the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio where I met Austin composer Nathan Felix. Nathan was presenting a piece for six pianos and this was the second premier – the first being in his living room in Austin with six pianos he had bought off Craigslist!
Here I was presented with two strikingly different composers, both Bolleter and Felix presented new music in daring and exciting ways. For me their music questioned the future for classical music and what kind of relevance it had in our modern society. Both were influences that became the driving force in planning this year long project.
What has the process of the been and what are some of the challenges and rewarding aspects of the Six Piano Project?
The process has been one of commitment, trial, error and spontaneous luck. Nathan and I were in early discussion June last year, and I began to look for ways to source the pianos a month later. After many attempts I was fortunate enough to meet Rhys Boak from Carnegie’s Piano Service and Eddie Tichelaar from abc Pianos who wholeheartedly showed their support for the project. Their expertise and professionalism has been invaluable throughout the process.
The hugely collaborative element of the project has been both the most rewarding and challenging part of the project. Firstly, to have pianists working together – with five other pianists – is something different and challenging! Pianists often work – nearly as much as many composers do – alone. Now to bring a conductor into the equation is a complete challenge! But as with many things, these challenges have been the most rewarding. I’m hugely honoured by the musicians involved, all whom I admire very much for their musical work and careers. Most of them I had met through other projects and I wanted their involvement and input for this one. The musicians of the Six Piano Project are from such diverse musical backgrounds ranging from orchestral, chamber, solo, jazz, electronic musicians – and this was a fabulous creative meeting point for all of us.
The pianos are now in various parts of Melbourne, some returned back to their homes while others were donated to Catholic Chisholm College in Braybrook, and various music venues. We’re now in the process of mixing the live performances captured by Australian audio engineer Tigran Harutyunyan. We’re hoping to produce an album that will best represent the surround sound space. Australian director Jesse Vogelaar will also be making a short documentary about the Six Piano Project which will be released early next year.
The Six Piano Project
What are some of the quirks of composing for (and performing on) multiple old pianos?
Composing for ‘imperfect’ instruments was an opportunity for composers to understand and embrace the individuality and history of these old pianos. Rather than hiding their age, composers were encouraged to write music that highlighted the unique characteristics of each piano. It certainly has been an artistic challenge for myself, and I hope it can raise awareness of diversity and inclusion within our disposable culture.
Having five old pianos spaced in a circle, with the sixth piano in the middle amongst the audience, was something most audiences had not experienced. We wanted to explore this immersive space to its full potential, so each composer had a different formation to work with.
My work The Tenderness of Rain is for five old pianos and was inspired by an artwork of the same name by Sydney based artist Lindy Lee. The piece is an exploration of transitions and timbre, with various musical ideas hocketing throughout the space. The piece is dedicated to The Piano Graveyard and is a celebration and rebirth for the old pianos.
These composition are site specific works that require a huge amount of sensitivity to perform. Thankfully performing music of living composers means that there has been direct interaction and discussion between composer, conductor and pianists. At each rehearsal the challenges have proven to be different, and each performance new ideas have been raised. It’s a constant evolving process which makes it something worth doing again.
Nimbus Trio: Jessica Laird (flute, alto flute, bass flute), Chloe Sanger (violin) and Kitty Xiao (composer/piano).
How has your involvement with Nimbus Trio shaped and influenced your growth as a composer?
Nimbus Trio was formed in 2015 and has been a supportive space for me to experiment and explore my musical energy and ideas as a composer. Performing and composing for me are a direct interaction and so having close musicians to provide me constant feedback was invaluable.
What motivated you to produce your album Novum?
Novum captures my compositional output with Nimbus Trio from 2015 to 2017. By the time I was working on the final work from the album, I began to feel a sense of resolution from a lot of questions that the music was questioning. I think this was a significant sign for me to record the album.
What themes relate the pieces in the album to each other?
I think you can hear the cross-over between fantasy and reality in Novum. A lot of the music was inspired by the work of Australian female photographer Jane Brown and Narelle Autio. A lot the works deal with issues of human potential and the land we become part of. Having female Australian role models has been a huge part of my development as a young artist so I was glad to have their works to aspire to.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I am curating and launching an all new pop-up concert series called NoiseSense. The series engages new music of young composers with the culture of the city. Our very first concert is coming up on Saturday December 2 at Two Birds Brewing, which will feature Rubiks Collective performing new music composed specifically by composers from the Keep Composers Weird programme. Keep Composers Weird is an international composer development programme which I am hosting this year. It creates opportunities for composers worldwide to connect and compose for new music ensembles in Melbourne. This year the composers have composed music to specifically to be paired with the beer of Two Birds Brewing, to be listened to and enjoyed at the brewery!
I also have an event coming up with Nimbus Trio at the Meatmarket in North Melbourne on Sunday December 3presented by Gamelan DanAnda and Mapping Melbourne Festival. The composition forum I SAID NEON will showcase a diverse range of composers and ensembles who will present new works inspired by traditional Indonesian music.
Nimbus Trio are also working on some new pieces that we are hoping to premiere at our album launch early next year – so stay tuned!