My new chamber opera Biographica has been part of my life for a long time – almost two decades in fact; but it’s not as if I’ve been working on it constantly. I like having a large-scale piece in the background while I’m working on other projects. This enables me to compose different works, drawing on the same research.

Being fascinated by ancient history and mythology, I’d long been playing with the idea of an opera based on the concept of the Ancient Greek practice of palaestra, or wrestling, which can also be a wrestling of thoughts and ideas. What I needed was a story on which to hang the idea.

The question was, what were we going to see on stage? In the library one day, I came across a book about Gerolamo Cardano, an eccentric Renaissance genius who wrote the first texts on the mathematics of gambling and cheating. He was also a world-renowned surgeon and a pioneer of sign language. He revolutionised complex numbers and, having lived in a time where the line between science and mysticism was frequently blurred, drew upon both to seek an understanding to life and immortality. Cardano’s life provided a vehicle for a story about thoughts, wrestling and debating. Playwright Tom Wright has provided a beautiful libretto synthesising the dramatic narrative of Cardano’s life with the complexity of his thought.

In the opera I’ve tried to capture an essence of Renaissance music by filtering it through a contemporary lens. There are centuries of musical history in conversation; sometimes easy, sometimes intentionally confused, following the diverse, fascinating character of Cardano himself and his capricious life.

I use tertian (3-note) harmony as the basic building block, but in ordering that elemental material, I draw from serialism to assist me with chord progressions and voice–leading. I’m interested in finding ways to take the listeners to places that are perhaps unexpected or even surprising. The material is derived from the Renaissance, yet the method by which it’s constructed is developed from the modernist aesthetic. I wanted to bring the two worlds together. As the narrative of Cardano unfolds, the musical worlds intensify, creating perilous mayhem – but also mathematical precision.

Essentially the composition tries to catch moments in the journey and demise of an eccentric, wondrous soul from the beginnings of our modern age. It’s like a visit to a great portrait gallery, full of different paintings – but all depicting the same person.

Biographica is at the Sydney Festival January 7 – 13