In Conversation: Argo Presents Illuminae

In Conversation: Argo Presents Illuminae

Bringing to life a surround sound space opera. 

Argo
Brisbane, Australia

In Conversation: Argo Presents Illuminae

Bringing to life a surround sound space opera. 

Illuminae is based on the best-selling sci-fi novel of the same name. What about the story captivated you as composers, and how has the text translated into a major work?

Connor: As part of this collaboration with Brisbane Writers Festival, a few months back they were going to send us a selection of texts for us to choose from and base the concert around it. There was a selection of Australian and New Zealander poets, and this. At first, having read its blurb but before reading the book, I thought this would take too much work to do justice – it sounded like it really did want to be written into a full-on opera or dramatic stage work, and that would be way too much work for the time we had. But, after we read it, passing the one book between the three of us (Ben, Patrick Murphy and I), we knew we had to give it a shot regardless. The writing has such an epic sense of scale, with much of the narrative conveyed through the captains logs of star cruiser fleets, military transcripts and the like, contrasted with the intimacy of characters' thoughts, journals and dialogue. There is scope for anything and everything in the book, so it gave us a chance to really shape the narrative of the concert around how we've selected text from the book. 

Ben: Yeah I really enjoyed both reading the book and translating it into music. My opening approach was to look at it as if I was scoring a film of the book. This basically involved developing a cohesive sound world to compose the music out of. A combination of analogue sounding synths, complex soundscapes and lush strings is what ended up eventuating. Then the ideas had to be pushed, unlike in a film score, into the realm of live performance. This was when I developed the idea of conducting with my right hand while controlling the electronics with my left hand (3D motion tracking is so much fun to work with). I also have a click which I can bring in or out to have tempo-synced synth along with the live music. 

The story has elements of classic opera themes – love, death, betrayal – but set on an unknown planet in the distant future! How does your instrumentation and the inclusion of electronics place your audience in an alien land, while still reflecting the gravity of the themes? 

Connor: It's funny, we've been calling this concert a "surround sound space opera", but truth be told, there isn't actually any singing! So many reviews of the book referred to it as a space opera or something similar, and we kinda just took that on. But it's just as you said, it does reflect on such operatic themes and exists on a similarly operatic scale. When looking to translate this all to music, the combination of electronics with a string orchestra was the perfect fit; the synths and electronics give it a biting, futuristic edge, while the strings provide the emotional depth and foundation to the narrative. 

Ben: Yeah to me this concert’s instrumentation has a great dichotomy between experimentation and emotion. I absolutely love using electronics because it allows me to create sounds and textures that nobody has ever heard before, but at the same time, nothing beats the nuance and emotion of a human performer on an acoustic instrument. I often use a combination of electronics and solo instruments in my own works but this is the first time that I’ve been able meld a larger ensemble with electronics in an effective way. 

The novel was written by Melbourne authors, and the performance features leading Australian soloists. Was showcasing Australian talent a priority for you when putting together this concert? 

Connor: I think showcasing Australian talent in many ways is a given - we work with local artists and exist in a community of like-minded and enthusiastic people. It's really fantastic to see so much talent coming from local soil. I was super excited for Argo to be brought in on this project by Patrick Murphy, cellist of the Southern Cross Soloists, and to be given the opportunity to take the lead. It was also great to work with the Brisbane Writers Festival, which is itself an amazing showcase of local talent. 

Argo produces events that are not simply performances, but experiences. What can we expect at Illuminae, as audience members?

Ben: I think it will be a multi-layered experience that people can approach in many different ways. Some people will enjoy shutting their eyes while getting lost in another universe - the sound design is very immersive and hopefully people will be able to follow the plot along. Other people will prefer to watch the musicians and the setting sun. And finally all the technologically minded people will be trying to work out how exactly I am managing to gesturally control electronics, trigger synth patches, conduct and fire off voiceover clips all at once, as will I... 

Connor: Any concert at twilight in the Red Box at SLQ (State Library of Queensland) is a really beautiful experience, too. The stage is surrounded on three sides by glass and juts out over the Brisbane River, giving you views of the water and the city beyond. And as the sun sets, you can see its reflection on the windows of the buildings and in the water, so that alone will be pretty special!

As composers, what about literature and the written word is inspiring for you? What books have influenced your music the most?

Ben: Literature is incredibly inspiring for me; it’s the art form I’m most into apart from music (that is excepting film, but I always see my videographic work as an extension of my music). I believe words are incredibly powerful in terms of the sheer emotional impact they can have and the way people can connect and relate to them instantly. Whenever I write vocal music I always write the text myself in order to express myself through both mediums.