Your work Song to the Earth will be premiered by DeepBlue and Michael Askill at the upcoming Bleach* Festival on the Gold Coast, which will be performed by many local young high-school-aged musicians. How important is it to involve young people in new music?
I made a conscious decision to work with this age group because these kids are the next generation of performers coming up in this area, and I’d like to see a lot more interest in new art music on the Gold Coast. When the kids perform, the parents come along as the audience. So, by involving the young performers, I’m indirectly building a broader community and capacity for new art music in this area. I hope that there could be a thriving new music scene here in the future.
This is actually the first time I’ve worked with high-school-aged musicians. Fortunately, my music collaborators DeepBlue and Michael Askill are very experienced. Under Michael Askill’s guidance, we have the two young percussionists improvising variations on a set of stylised bird-call transcriptions from local birds in the Gold Coast and Northern NSW areas. DeepBlue have the young string players improvising cicada sounds in addition to playing the scored music.
For many of these young performers, the idea that you can compose in relation to the sounds in your backyard is pretty new. I hope it inspires them to stay involved with new music.
This piece explicitly invites audience interaction, by allowing the audience to walk amongst the musicians during the performance. Tell us about the genesis of this composition - what was your inspiration?
I’ve been obsessed with the image of birds flocking for a number of years, and yearning to write a piece for a large ensemble that explored this pattern in sound.
Then last year, I saw John Luther Adams’ Sila: Breath of the World performed as part of Brisbane Festival. Adams has written several works that are site-determined; the musicians are arranged in space according to the performance site and the audience gets to wander amongst them.
I had one of those lightbulb moments where a whole bunch of ideas came together: flocking, the spatial arrangement of musicians, outdoor performance on the Gold Coast, and cicada sounds in a chorus of string ensemble tremolos. These ideas eventually resolved themselves into Song to the Earth, which has 39 musicians arranged in a kind of mandala-like arrangement. The musicians pass notes around the space in a kind of spiralling, swirling chorus.
What's the appeal of premiering this work at Bleach* Festival in particular?
Bleach* Festival is the biggest multi-arts festival on the Gold Coast. The whole city comes out to experience arts and culture, often in outdoor locations. The audiences at this festival are curious and open to new experiences, so this is a great way to expose contemporary classical music to a new audience.
For Song to the Earth, I’m fortunate to be partnering with director Meredith Elton who is premiering this piece as part of her community-engaged, multi-art form show called Inherit the Wind.
There is a phenomenal community spirit amongst artists on the Gold Coast. I’m really enjoying composing for this show and being part of a larger creative team that includes dancer/choreographers, installation artists, sound designers/electroacoustic composers, and lighting designers.
You graduated from Western Sydney University with a PhD in Contemporary Arts in 2007. How has your formal institutional training helped (or hindered!) your compositional process and thoughts?
For me, doing a PhD was like doing an apprenticeship with a master craftsperson. I needed that one-on-one training to get proficient with my tools. I had a very supportive composition supervisor in Dr Bruce Crossman, who encouraged me to develop techniques that really connected with my musical voice.
That said, I had difficulties too. I split my PhD submission equally between a musicological thesis and composition portfolio. I spent the last two years of my PhD finishing my thesis with no composing at all. At the end of it, I had massive composition block. It was like I had forgotten how to compose. It actually took me around two years post-PhD to really get back into writing music, and re-find my compositional voice.
One thing that helped was having mentoring from Dr Chinary Ung. He gave me heaps of quirky, reassuring advice and some new skills for planning large-scale works. One that still makes me laugh is his comment that ‘80% is good enough’, and ‘feeling like a failure is a part of composing’. His irreverent teaching style helped me loosen up, become less of a perfectionist, and take more risks in my music-making.
Song to the Earth, and its upcoming performance, have been funded by the Generate Program: an initiative of the City of Gold Coast through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). You've also previously received many other grants and awards including the Australia Council for the Arts - Skills Grant and the Parramatta City Council Heritage Grant. What was the process of securing that funding like? How important is external funding to the arts? Do you have any tips for readers who may be applying for funding?
The big upside to spending years upskilling in musicology was that I learnt how to craft a persuasive argument for grant applications. I also got comfortable with that whole writing/rewriting thing that you have to do when you are zeroing in on what you truly want to say.
My tips for applying for funding are to give yourself plenty of time to write and rewrite, get feedback from supportive friends (they don’t have to be musicians), and to go for grant programs that you have a genuine connection/fit with.
It takes a lot of effort to write an application. But the act of writing one, for a project that you are passionate about, can be galvanising. I recently applied (and was unsuccessful) for a New Work Australian Council for the Arts Grant. But writing the application prompted me to talk with an ensemble that I might not have approached otherwise. This, in turn, led to a commission and festival performance (irrespective of not getting the grant). So it was a worthwhile process even without being awarded funds.
Plus it's important to remember that there are other ways to fund your big dreams like crowd-sourcing and even sponsors. Take the route that is best suited to your skills and abilities.
You're a composer and event producer, you've previously tutored and lectured at university level, worked in online marketing, and co-founded Australian natural health business Better Earthing. How do you manage your work-life balance? How important is it for twenty-first-century musicians to be able to "wear multiple hats"?
I’ve always worn multiple hats, and when I look around at my fellow composers they are all doing this too – either by teaching, performing, or having a day job in another industry like myself.
Frankly, it’s very difficult in Australia to earn a living from art music composing.
Once I accepted that, I decided that my other job needed to be one that was enjoyable, paid me well enough so that I could work part-time hours, and left me in a good headspace for composing. For me, that job was online marketing.
Since starting Better Earthing (with my husband), I’ve done so much more composing. I put it down to having flexible work hours, being my own boss, sourcing great help, and having the ability to juggle workload according to the demands of the moment.
But I don’t have work-life balance at the moment. My life is basically music-work and marketing-work with some sleep, meditation and nice meals thrown in. Interestingly, my composing colleagues seem to be doing this kind of crazy work-life juggle (or the work-work juggle). Personally, I can’t sustain this long-term. So I’m dreaming of a four-hour marketing work-week, with plenty of time left for music projects, friends, and relaxation!
Finally, is there any advice you wish you'd heard when you first started out as a professional musician?
Yes, there’s so much! But one key learning point for me has been to put myself in surroundings that support my music-making. For me as a composer, that’s composing in the morning (ideally before I check emails), in a quiet, distraction-free room with a nature view. I also like to spend time in rainforests, ideally with really big trees, as this frees up my mind. When I relax in this kind of environment, good music ideas pop into my head. My advice is to pay attention to the circumstances in which you do your best work and then create or find a space with these qualities to do your most important thinking in. That could be composing or working out how to pitch an idea to an ensemble, festival, or funding body.
Photo Credit: Scott Belzner Photographer for Nikon Australia courtesy of Bleach* Festival 2017