Margery Smith’s new flute concerto for Ewa Kowalski and The Hourglass Ensemble was inspired by the haiku of Kobayashi Issa and the Twitter micropoetry of Susan Sleepwriter. She spoke to Limelight about her new work, ‘haiku moments’ and why playing clarinet in the orchestra gave her flute envy.

Margery SmithMargery Smith. Photo: supplied

How did the idea for Everything I Touch evolve?

The first part of any new project for me, is searching for an angle to act as a springboard for inspiration. I will churn through many ideas before the central argument for the work becomes clear, and sometimes I don’t figure out what the work is doing until I am a fair way through the process. At other times it seems that hours are spent without much to show for the effort, and then as if by magic, a whole lot of ideas will crystallise into a score very quickly and looking back, I think “Where did all that come from?” A creative process is fascinating to step back and observe, so much happens behind the scenes in one’s mind – relationships happen between your ideas that you are not consciously aware of.

There is the big idea behind the music, but so much of realising this is problem solving. The old saying of “sleeping on a problem” often suggests solutions, but often these will come at 3am! Questions like “what is that sound I can hear in my head? How can I represent my ideas so the musicians can understand what I am asking of them?” A musical score is a blueprint for action in sound, yet so much is open for interpretation and this is where the magic really happens for me. My music invites the performer to participate in my creative process. Often I loosen the parameters so that performers interact and can add something of themselves to the score with elements of improvisation. Sitting in on a recent rehearsal with Hourglass Ensemble I loved how the performers added so much of themselves to my work – once the work is written it’s time to let it go, and be taken to another place

What drew you to the haiku of Kobayashi Issa and micropoetry of Susan Sleepwriter?

I loved the idea of a short poem, expressing a moment in time – I needed something that could invite my musical imagination, set the mood; it feels like you can ‘taste’ the notes, textures and sounds. A ‘haiku moment’ is an inspiration from the physical world, a way of looking at and capturing a moment in time and finding something deeper.

How do you explore or engage with the work of these two poets in your music?

Issa and @sleepwriter come from very different times in history. Issa’s work is from the 19th century, but still fresh and engaging. I found myself wishing I understood Japanese to read the original text. Sleepwriter is a friend of mine, and I would regularly read her work on Twitter as a moment for myself going somewhere during the day. For Everything I touch I’ve used three poems by Issa and Sleepwriter’s poem is a kind of dramatic interlude which puts the other poems in relief. I chose the poems by Issa which expressed moments from my own experience. The first movement, titled Everything I touch, is a reflection on my feeling that we all go about in the world often unaware of the things that we do; the environmental cost of our lives on the Earth’s ecosystem. The second movement, Summer Night, is about stars. In Australia, out of our cities, there are still places where one can see the night sky. The Milky Way, falling stars, the ancient wonder of gazing at the night sky, what a precious and rare perspective this is. The final movement, That wren, is about the family of wrens who live in our garden in our house in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. They give me such moments of delight in each day – this final movement is a bit like a riotous party!

Have you followed the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto structure in Everything I Touch?
I always imagined my work to have four movements. Structure is an interesting aspect of composing. A piece of music can have a psychological, dramatic journey – I call it an argument. The traditional fast-slow-fast concerto structure is part of the story, it’s a satisfying form that works well. The audience goes home happy after the often playful character of the final movement and in a sense I have kept to this. The poems I have chosen reflect this structure, however the third movement inspired by Sleepwriter has an enigmatic quality, a dramatic foil which interrupts that traditional concerto structure.

What are the pleasures of writing for the flute?

The flute is one of the oldest musical instruments, with records dating back to human settlement, some 43,000 years ago. There is a world of ‘flutelore’ where the flute is a central character in folklore, myth and other magical flute tales. Everything I touch is my fourth and most ambitious work for flute so far. My own experience as a performer has been as a clarinettist, and my love for the flute has come from performing orchestral repertoire in which the flute has a central role to play. I would hear those famous flute solos literally from behind, as in an orchestra the clarinets mostly sit behind the flutes. The sound of that luscious flute solo in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe still rings in my ears. What I love about the flute is that it can play high soaring melody lines with such agility and style. The flute can articulate notes in a sparkling texture, yet play with the most nuanced delicacy. (By now, you may be thinking this composer/clarinettist is quite envious of what the flute can do!) Playing the flute is all about the air; controlling one’s airflow to create shades of colour in sound. Flautists must also possess brave spirits to perform the pyrotechnics that composers demand of them.

What are the challenges?

There is always the challenge of balance with the ensemble. Though the flute is such an agile instrument, I still wanted to make space for delicate textures where modulations in timbre can work successfully.

Ewa Kowalski and Andrew Kennedy. Photo: supplied

How did you see the relationship between soloist and ensemble in the concerto?

The traditional take on the relationship between soloist and ensemble in a concerto is an adversarial role. I have not thought about the work in this way for Everything I touch; the flute is the leading voice, but sometimes it’s in the mix of texture and timbre working with the other players. I especially wanted to create opportunities for Hourglass Ensemble artistic director and clarinettist Andrew Kennedy and soloist Ewa Kowalski to work together. They have a special musical rapport which is a great inspiration. I loved bringing the other voices in the ensemble together in dialogue with Ewa’s amazing playing. Really the work is about collaboration, conversation and having fun playing music together

What are the challenges for the soloist?

This work is tricky to play for the soloist, demanding fine control in the upper register, technically virtuosic in all the ways that a flautist can play.

What do you hope the audience will experience listening to this work?

I’m hoping that these poems will serve as a thread between my work and the audience to tease out that link between imagery and sound.

Here are the poems which have inspired me for this work.

Koboyashi Issa 

Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas
pricks like a bramble

Summer night
even the stars
are whispering to each other

That wren–
looking here, looking there,
you lose something?

Susan Sleepwriter

Out the train window:
The world is fractured
familiar views distorted
and there is
weeping, I see it close to me
perhaps
it is just the rain


The Hourglass Ensemble performs Margery Smith’s new flute concerto, Everything I Touch, at St Columba Church, Woollahra, on April 28 and at the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room on May 4