With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a stop to live performances, Canberra Symphony Orchestra has announced it will commission 14 new works by Australian composers as part of a new Australian Miniseries. The short works will be performed by CSO musicians in performances that will premiere online.

Jessica CottisConductor  Jessica Cottis is co-curator of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Miniseries. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

The Australian Miniseries – which is being curated by conductor Jessica Cottis and composer Matthew Hindson – is one of several digital initiatives announced by the CSO, including a Virtual Orchestra ‘community special’, which will see CSO and the ANU School of Music invite community members to record and submit parts for a digital performance, and a joint Side by Side, Byte Size, which will involve a short, virtual performance featuring both CSO musicians and ANU students and staff.

The new Australian Miniseries is set to launch late May or early June, and the CSO has revealed that Liza Lim and Cyrus Meurant will be among the composers commissioned.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a difficult environment for both composers and performers. “In many ways, the act of composing is exquisitely well-suited to isolation and lockdown: spending great stretches of time working alone at home,” Cottis tells Limelight. “But, in the space of a few months, most composers have had commissions postponed, or worse, cancelled. With no collaboration, how does music come to life? For all musicians, this is an extremely challenging time.”

Matthew Hindson is co-curator of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Miniseries. Photo courtesy of CSO

“’Motivation’ is something I’ve often heard,” says Hindson, who curates the CSO’s Australian Series held at the National Portrait Gallery. “What motivation is there to write music when it appears that so much of our industry is crumbling around us? And perhaps even our society – not by revolution, but instead by staying at home? It just goes to show what a strong connection there is between composers and the performers who play the music. One needs the other, and they both need an audience.”

As for the impetus behind the online series, Cottis describes it as a mix of inspiration and instinct. “With uncertainty surrounding the CSO’s two remaining Australian Series concerts in 2020, the need for innovation kicked in,” she says. “So many orchestras around the world have stopped their activity. It’s a spiritual loss, really, to everyone. This Australian Miniseries is one solution for the immediate future. It’s an investment in new music, in Australian composers, and the CSO musicians. I hope, even well after this period, the pieces will join the rich repertory of Australian compositions for solo instrument.”

“We’ve decided to be proactive,” Hindson says. “We want to showcase the amazing quality of Australian composers and Australian musicians, even despite the restrictions under which we find ourselves at the present time.”

A particular challenge for the curators was narrowing down the list of composers to commission. “Just like the diversity found in contemporary society, there is a real diversity of outlook among contemporary classical composers,” Hindson says. “There is no ‘one true way’ to write music, so we’ve tried to ensure that a diversity of approaches was present in the mix. And all the composers needed to be Australian. Canberra is Australia’s national capital – but even more than that, I am so aware of the quality of Australian musicianship. It makes perfect sense to showcase it.”

“It’s been great to have the scope to shape an important collection of new Australian work, and a pleasure to co-curate with Matthew,” says Cottis. “We’ve looked to highlight composers with Canberra connections, but also taken a much broader view. Music is the most obvious way to reach out and connect with people, and, in these difficult times, I’m excited we’ve a group of composers who in so many ways reflect the vibrant society in which we live.”

“Given the amazing range of Australian composers, one of the main challenges was who not to include!” Hindson says.

Liza Lim will be one of the composers commissioned as part of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Miniseries. Photo © Jascha Zube

There have also been other challenges thrown up by the current situation. “Finding a way to meaningfully present music for online audiences is, at the moment, quite a challenge,” Cottis says. “There’s an increasingly vast collection of extraordinary performances at our fingertips. We needed a format that was relatively easy to produce with a minimal technical setup, but that could still have real impact, and give exposure to as many composers and players as possible.”

Both Hindson and Cottis hope the series will foster a sense of engagement with music written and performed by Australians. “I hope it will spark real interest, whether intellectual or emotional,” Cottis says. “But, most importantly, a sense of connectedness, with the players, each other, and with the music itself.”