Nigel Westlake will conduct the world premiere of his new double guitar concerto, Towards Takayna, which he wrote for Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The composer speaks to Limelight about writing for guitar, the evolution of the concerto, and how he has found inspiration in the Tasmanian wilderness.
You’ve had plenty of experience writing for guitar – how has your relationship with the instrument evolved?
I’ve always been very much encouraged by guitarists, who are always on the lookout for new work, and from my very early pieces which were written for Timothy Kain and his group Guitar Trek – the quartet. It’s strange being a non-guitarist writing for guitar, there’s a lot you’ve got to be a bit careful of in terms of playability and making it player friendly for the people who you’re writing for. Guitarists – all of the conscientious ones – they’re trying to build up the repertoire and kind of commission new works and find new ways of integrating the instrument into different contexts, whether that be with orchestra or different ensembles. So it’s new frontier stuff in a way, which is quite exciting, and guitarists are always so grateful and enthusiastic about the process, so that’s always very refreshing. I’ve been able to form some very special relationships with quite a number of players, and of course Slava and Leonard are amongst them. I’ve written quite a few pieces now for Timothy Kain, and John Williams as well.
How did the idea for the double concerto evolve?
The idea of a concerto for two guitars is actually something that Slava and Leonard have been talking about with me for many years. They’re always so busy touring everywhere and so forth, but last year we had a bit of time to reflect and I kind of got talking to them and said, well, what if we make a start on something and see where it goes? So I was able to throw them a few ideas and they were very enthusiastic and very much on board with it, and then towards the end of the year I was awarded the Albert Maggs Composition Award, awarded by the University of Melbourne, which requires me to compose a new work. So I was able to integrate these ideas which I’d been throwing about with Slava and Leonard into the construction of a new double concerto, with the support of this Maggs Award. Then Adelaide Symphony came on board, and said, OK, we’ll give you a premiere, so all the pieces kind of fell together.
How do you see the relationship between your two soloists and the orchestra in this work?
It’s very much a dialogue between the two players, and the orchestra is quite sparse, really – I mean, it’s a chamber orchestra in essence – so it really does formulate a kind of gentle background environment for the two players to explore their parts together. There’s a lot of work, very technical passages where the two players are really intertwined and working together. There’s a cadenza section where they basically play the same thing but one player’s a beat behind the other, so it creates a kind of digital delay effect. You can only really do that with players like Slava and Leonard who are just so attuned to each other and just so technically accomplished and on the same level. It’s also a very expressive dialogue between them – there’s lots of very tender, melodic sections to the work, where they’re able to be quite expressive.
Nigel Westlake and Bob Brown in 2016
Can you tell me about the title, Towards Takayna?
It was inspired by a trip to Tasmania, similarly to another earlier work, Spirit of the Wild, which was also inspired by the wilds of Tasmania. I was taken to the area on the North West coast of the island with environmentalist Bob Brown, and we spent a week in the Tarkine area, which is old growth rainforest. Just absolutely spectacular, World Heritage, forest, and it was very inspirational to be a part of that and to visit that part of the world. Takayna is the Aboriginal word for Tarkine, that’s where the title comes from.
Guitar is very different to oboe, but does the new work explore a similar sound palette to Spirit of the Wild?
That’s an interesting question. The oboe concerto is quite bristling and dangerous, in a way, compared to the [double guitar] concerto, a bit more hard-edged, if you like. The [double guitar] concerto is almost pastoral, in a sense, and very evocative. It’s got a lot more space in it than the oboe concerto – there is this sense of extensive vistas. So it’s quite different, actually, and much more melodic. I’m going for big broad melodic gestures, whereas the oboe concerto is not really working in that sound world, it’s a bit more abstract. I guess a lot has to do with the players. I’ve been to so many of Slava and Leonard’s concerts, and they play approachable, melodic music so beautifully, and they’ve got this cross-over interest in jazz and popular music as well, so I wanted to kind of capture an element of that in the work.
It sounds like your trips to Tasmania have been quite fruitful in terms of inspiration.
I’ve just been lucky that Bob has taken it upon himself to show me around. Both trips were very influential and profoundly moving, in many ways, it’s just such a special part of the world and it’s so precious. Particularly in the Tarkine area it’s disappearing so quickly with old growth logging and so forth, and it just reminds me how precious it is and I just felt compelled to acknowledge those aspects of it in the writing of both of the works.
Slava and Leonard Grigoryan give the world premiere of Nigel Westlake’s Towards Takayna Concerto for Two Guitars with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer, at the Adelaide Festival Centre on 24 April