In Conversation: Carolyn Morris

In Conversation: Carolyn Morris

Composer Carolyn Morris on finding inspiration in nature and the importance of communication in music making.

Carolyn Morris
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Carolyn Morris

Composer Carolyn Morris on finding inspiration in nature and the importance of communication in music making.

In their upcoming concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Lisa-Maree Amos and Peter Sheridan will be performing your piece, Forest Over Sea, a work in four parts inspired, I imagine, by the natural world. Can you tell me about the work’s origin and your interest in nature and landscape? 

The natural world - the bush, ocean, trees, birdlife, fresh air - is so uplifting to the human spirit and is strongly related to my purpose for composing. I’m motivated to create sounds and music that reflect the magic of nature and remind us that we’re part of something bigger. I was fortunate to have spent many summers at Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. That whole area is really a “Forest Over Sea”.

When Peter Sheridan asked me to compose a piece for bass flute, alto flute & piano it seemed a natural source of inspiration for those instruments.

The trio in this piece – made up of alto flute, bass flute and piano – is quite unusual! Can you recall what your compositional process looked like for this work and if there were any challenges or highlights in writing for this combination? 

I’d never written for low flutes before Peter commissioned me to compose this piece. It was exciting to explore the warm deep sounds of the bass flute and the rich full tone of the alto flute which I then underscored with rippling, atmospheric piano accompaniment. The two flutes intertwining with their lyrical melodies are evocative of the wind over the ocean, or birds at play in the forest. I suppose the main challenge was making sure all voices could be heard and keeping the piano part in a register that complemented the range and tone colours of the low flutes (although they both play fairly high in some sections). I was also aware that more breath is required on the larger flutes, so making sure the phrases were playable with enough breathing opportunities was important.

You recorded this work with Lisa-Maree and Peter in 2014. What was the rehearsal and recording experience like as both the composer and the pianist?  

It was very satisfying to record my own composition with two such expressive and accomplished musicians. It was really a fantastic experience to play together, largely because we were all committed to creating a communication through the music that would uplift the audience and express the intention of the piece. I think this comes across on the recording. It certainly helps to have a common purpose when performing and recording chamber music. 

I’d love to hear about your earliest forays into composition. Were you engaged in composing throughout your early musical studies at school or university, or did the interest come later? 

As far as I remember, I started composing at the piano almost as soon as I began learning the instrument. My father was an enthusiastic audience and recorded a lot of my early pieces on cassette tape, which I still have! 

Going through high school at VCASS in Melbourne I concentrated more on learning the oboe and continuing my piano playing. We had excellent music theory teachers; Jan Stockigt & June Ralfe.

I haven’t studied composition formally but having an excellent grounding in theory alongside my all-round music education at VCASS & VCA have helped in my ability to compose.  

You write a lot for wind players, which must stem in part from your work as an oboist, and oboe accompanist. How did you begin playing the oboe, and has your personal practice shaped the way you now approach composition? 

I began playing the oboe in year 7 when I started at VCASS. I already played piano but adding an orchestral instrument to my repertoire has proved to be invaluable. The experience I’ve had in chamber groups & orchestras combined with piano accompanying has given me great insight into composing for a variety of instruments. Understanding breathing has obviously helped when composing for wind players. 

As well as being a busy freelance composer, you also teach privately and in schools. How do you make time to write music in amongst your other commitments? 

I try to keep a day or two free for composing, but it is a bit of a juggling act when fitting in teaching and performing as well. I really enjoy the variety of doing all three. Creating music for young people is something I love so teaching and accompanying complements my composing. It’s great to get instant feedback from a student if I compose them a piece (usually it’s positive!) It also means some late nights and making use of the extra time during school holidays to compose.

Your compositions, in your own words, seek to communicate the essence of the human spirit and uplift the audience. How has your involvement in Kenja Communication Training changed or shaped the way you approach composition? 

I was fortunate to come across Kenja training, developed in Sydney by Ken Dyers and Jan Dyers, in my early twenties after I’d graduated from the VCA. To me, it was the perfect next step in my training as it involves human communication and understanding that it’s the energy that we use in our interactions that affects the response we get from other people in the environment. This is so true in music performance and composition.

An integral part of Kenja training is a form of meditation called energy conversion. The increased level of stillness and focus I gain from this has enabled me to tap into a level of creativity that was difficult to achieve previously.

The ability to not be an effect of negative unconscious thoughts and emotions (eg “I can’t compose”, “this sounds terrible”, “I can’t think of anything new” etc) gives me much more freedom to create. 

Music is energy. A note has a wavelength. Everything in the physical universe is energy. My ability now to perceive and understand this is essential to my composing. This area of subtle energies profoundly affects our aesthetic in life and communication. It is probably the basis for creation musically.  By taking the “stuck significance” of communication through music, for example- restrictions that peers and oneself places on different “types” of music, I feel I can begin to truly originate a creation rather than unconsciously regurgitate old learned patterns. 

It’s even become very real to me that the working environment for composers, musicians, students etc, can influence their ability to perform and create. For example – a competitive and non-human environment where students and performers unconsciously engage in communication to establish themselves at the expense of others, will affect the final outcome. The truly great artists always seem to use love consciousness, which brings out our human caring and elevates us always to something higher. 

I’ll often start composing a piece by deciding what energy or aesthetic I want to communicate, or even what effect I’d like to create on the audience. I’ll then get a picture that complements that. e.g a bird flying over the ocean, a sunrise or galloping horses. The notes flow from that. It also helps to know what the intention or purpose of a piece is before I start writing it. I find that if my intention is to communicate something that’s of benefit to other people, then that magical flow of ideas and notes will come more easily. This I feel has come from an enhanced sensitivity from this training.

For developing composers who are interested in pursuing a career, do you have any advice on how to get your work into the world and heard by an audience? 

Firstly look to your immediate environment and people you know that could benefit from your music. To start with you might give some pieces you’ve written to local community or school choirs, chamber groups or orchestras to include in their programs. Do you have friends in chamber groups or performing recitals? Offer to compose something for them to perform. 

Getting your music published is also a great way of getting it out into the environment. Wirripang publishers run by Anne & Brennan Keats are great supporters of Australian composers and will accept new music for consideration.

As far as earning an income from composing, commissions are a great avenue for income. You might need to get your music played, published or recorded first and then before long you will establish a demand for your pieces and can charge a commission fee. I have had several performances of my works which have led to further commissions from people in the audience who enjoyed it & wanted a new work for their choir or chamber group. Creating a website and including recordings of your music is a great reference for people to look you up and hear more of your works.

Lisa-Maree Amos and Peter Sheridan perform Forest Over Sea as part of their Melbourne Recital Centre concert Dark Star at 6pm on Thursday July 12.