During 2020, as the arts industry was savaged by COVID-19, the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) kept its programs going, but the young musicians had to study online from home.

As ANAM reopens its physical doors in 2021, the Academy has today announced a big, bold commissioning project called The ANAM Set, which will help revitalise Australian composition and performance, and forge new collaborative relationships, by pairing each ANAM musician with an Australian composer.

Sixty-seven composers ranging across genres and career stages, from emerging to internationally established, will be commissioned to write a six-minute work for or with each of ANAM’s 67 young virtuoso student musicians. The new compositions will be performed live in the second half of this year. That means 67 works totalling six and a half hours of new Australian music will see the light of day.

James Morley, cellist at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) with Liza Lim, Professor of Composition and Sculthorpe Chair of Australian Music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Photograph © Pia Johnson

The initiative has been supported by the Federal government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund.

The first 15 composers have been selected, among them Brett Dean, Paul Grabowsky, William Barton, Liza Lim, Errki Veltheim and Deborah Cheetham. The other 52 will be chosen by a public Expressions of Interest process, and from suggestions by ANAM’s musicians and faculty.

“The response to The ANAM Set from Australian composers has been amazing – overwhelming both in scale and enthusiasm, I wish we had a hundred more musicians at ANAM this year to work with even more than 67 composers! It’s been humbling to see the breadth of diversity, backgrounds, genres, and career paths of so many creative artists – from luminaries including Brett Dean and Deborah Cheetham, to young trailblazers such as Harry Sdraulig,” said ANAM’s incoming Artistic Director Paavali Jumppanen.

“The ANAM Set will be an incredible snapshot of Australian music at a time when it’s most needed. It’s also going to be an exciting challenge for our musicians, whom I completely trust to be up for the task. For all of us, this is such an opportunity to celebrate and showcase the richness of the Australian music scene. And personally, having been witness to the creative potential of this country I hope to see many more projects like this.”

Leigh Harrold, the Creative Coordinator of The ANAM Set, tells Limelight that the initiative was the brainchild of General Manager Nick Bailey and the Board, who dreamed up the idea last year when the RISE grants were announced.

Harrold admits that it seemed such “an audacious idea and such a defiantly vigorous response” that none of the ANAM staff were sure whether they would land a RISE grant. Having succeeded, he predicts “exciting times ahead”.

“Every composer will be paired with an ANAM musician, and we are still in the process of doing that at the moment,” says Harrold. “Then the composer’s brief is to write either a solo piece for that particular instrument or a duo piece that involves that particular instrument and one other. And also there is the option of involving electronics. But the idea is that every single musician at ANAM gets a collaborative experience with a composer.”

“Everyone knows that the performance level of ANAM musicians is always incredibly high by definition of the institution. But as young musicians their experience levels of working with living composers varies. Some are very experienced, for others it’s a joy that they’re yet to discover. So [The ANAM Set] will unearth a whole new skill set for the musicians – how they relate to a composer who is living and breathing, and how they are able to negotiate getting a piece that has qualities of their own performance practice in it. I can say from personal experience, it’s something that stands you in good stead throughout your career once you have those kinds of negotiation skills and those kinds of networks established.”

The first pairing to be announced is between established, internationally acclaimed composer Liza Lim and ANAM cellist James Morley.

“Liza expressed an interest in working with James. She had heard James perform independently in the past, and James had always said one of his idols in the Australian composition world was Liza Lim, and so that pairing was kind of a no-brainer and that happened quite early on,” says Harrold.

“But as you can imagine the entire matrix becomes a bit of a Tetris game – there is one tuba player training at ANAM, three clarinets, more than a dozen violins, so we will eventually have to start asking composers and musicians what preferences they might have and how to massage that. But it’s a nice problem to have!”

Morley is clearly thrilled to have been paired with Lim. Speaking to Limelight, he says: “She’s someone I have definitely held in extremely high esteem for quite a number of years. In recent years, discovering works for cello that she’s written such as Invisibility and An Ocean beyond the earth, and also meeting some of the cellists that she’s spent a number of years collaborating with has been really eye-opening to the power of Liza Lim’s writing. It’s really clear to me that she’s one of Australia’s great composers ever, and to be able to collaborate with her is just a huge honour. It’s not something that happens every day especially for students and I’m really lucky. It’s definitely fulfilling a big dream of mine.”

Morley says that he and Lim met for coffee a couple of weeks ago and chatted. She brought an excerpt from Invisibility (a solo work for cello with two bows, composed in 2009) saying that it might be useful for him to look at before they met again last Friday.

“I spent that little five-day lockdown essentially making an iso-project out of that piece,” says Morley. “It’s an incredible language she writes with and it’s not something I’m particularly used to playing either because it’s quite specific for the cellist it was written for, who is Séverine Ballon.”

“I rocked up today with my cello and three extra bows, as different tools for her writing. She’d already come up with three pages and a title and a concept for the piece; it was really quite astounding to see what she’d [done] in just a week. And it was interesting to see how the concept of the piece was specifically derived from our conversation. The way I was talking about my relationship to my instrument sparked a lot of what she came up with in the opening, so to sit and play through some ideas and sounds with her was really quite special. I assume next time we meet up she will have the crux of the piece laid out.”

Morley says that while he was at studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he often played new compositions written for him by university friends, who were discovering their own kind of language and ideas as composers. But to be working with someone as established as Lim is a totally different experience.

The new works commissioned for The ANAM Set will be revealed to the world over a series of performances between 16 August and 30 November this year at Abbotsford Convent, just four kilometres from the Melbourne CDB, where ANAM is currently based.

“Every musician at ANAM has to present a recital as part of their training and this six-minute will form a part of that recital this year, so they will curate their recital with this piece in it. So all the 67 pieces will have 67 premieres if you like,” says Harrold.

“But Paavali, our new Artistic Director from 2021, is so adamant that it is one thing for a new piece to get a first performance, but we all know how difficult it is for a piece to get a second performance. So once all the premieres have happened we are very keen to curate them into showcase concerts, which we hope will happen at the end of the year.”

“It’s our hope that at the end of it all a legacy has been left,” says Harrold, “not just with six-and-a-half hours of newly-minted music, but also with the creation of 67 newly-minted performer-composer bonds – bonds that are sure to stay with our ANAM musicians throughout their entire careers.”

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