On the day before the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Concert, Megan Steller sat down with this year’s featured composers Ade, Cassie, Connor, and Stephen at Blondie in Melbourne’s Southbank for a coffee and a chat. Over an hour, they talked commissioning, getting started as a composer, making your own opportunities and working with the MSO. Find out how to hear the rest of the conversation at the bottom of the page.
Megan Steller: So you have just two rehearsals in this process? Is that stressful, or is that part of what it’s like?
Ade Vincent: It’s a bit stressful but we knew that was the case.
MS: All these little issues like typesetting, I guess you just need to be all over before you go in.
AV: That’s it, we have half an hour each, per piece, and it’ll be the same tomorrow, so you don’t want to be spending any of your rehearsal time on little things like that.
Connor d’Netto: But I guess in terms of typesetting and things like that, we had a good proofreading from Alastair McKean, the librarian for MSO - we sent him drafts months ago and he tore them apart, and there were pages and pages of things to fix up, so that was useful.
AV: That was very useful - how many pages did you get?
Cassie To: He was like ‘there’s not many!’ and the document had like, four pages.
CdN: It’s okay! I think we all got that!
CT: I had just finished all the parts, and the next day he sends me “good job!” and I had all these changes.
CdN: I was doing the parts the day I got back from London.
MS: When did this process start - when did you get accepted and then have to submit your work?
CT: Around April or May?
MS: So the pieces that you have written, are they works that you began prior to being accepted into this program, or were they written quite specifically?
CdN: They were written pretty specifically. My piece is called Singular Movement and it’s exploring setting each of the parts of the orchestra in its own musical trajectory and evolution It’s not extra-musical in any way, it’s more like one part is going from the foreground to the background, and one other part is going from long sustained drones to smaller and smaller rhythmic values across the section of the piece. One goes from structured to textured and ephemeral and then having all these different layers across each other which slowly progress throughout the piece. There are no big sudden changes, but throughout the way the musical ideas develop across the piece, there’s a lot of variation in musical language.
MS: How did you get to the piece you have now? Did the idea come to you suddenly, or was it more of a process?
CdN: It kind of just worked out that way! I didn’t go into the piece with any specific aims, the only kind of aim I had, which didn’t end up happening at all, was that I wanted to write a piece that was a bit more dark and broody. My recent writing has been a bit more meditative and minimal, so it was a challenge, and that didn’t happen. I came up with a structure of a piece that I liked, and it so happened to be this and I stuck with it and that’s it.
AV: Mine’s called The Secret Motion of Things which I took the title from the Francis Bacon novel, New Atlantis, and it’s exploring my fascination with artificial intelligence. It’s heavily programmatic: we stand on the edge of building AI, and we don’t know what will happen. It’s such a great unknown and the consequences are so potentially vast - that whole area fascinates me. So, I tried to write something that starts with an air of mystery and then develops a sense of urgency and relentless momentum. I tried to make it stylistically a little bit more avant-garde, maybe not avant-garde - a lot of the music I write is pop and electronic music, so in a totally different sphere to this kind of things. I thought right, this is only my second orchestral piece, so for the context, I would write something that was quite different to what I usually do. I pushed it a bit more towards an orchestral new music kind of sound, and it hasn’t really ended up over there, it ended up sounding like my music with a little bit of that kind of flavour.
CT: My piece is called The Reef, and basically it’s about the demise of the Great Barrier Reef. So something I’m quite interested in is environmental issues and conservation, so I’ve been trying to put that into my music. This is the second time I’ve done it, so basically, the idea is the piece starts with how the reef was - colourful and vibrant, and as the piece progresses it goes to where the reef is now - dark, it’s dying, it’s eerie when you’re underwater, things are dead. And then it ends with an urgency to do something about it!
Stephen de Fillipo: My piece is called Static Anxiety, and it sort of came about through interacting with my mentor - we get given a mentor through this process, so it came through extensive discussion with him about the kind of music I enjoy writing, and focusses on a lot of sporadic intensity, before falling back into smoother more languid lines. So it’s about this interaction before moving into something more delicate. Not necessarily in a pretty way.
MS: When you’re composing a work like this, it seems like you often start with an idea that ends up being deviated away from as the writing process happens. As composers, how do you manage your expectations in that sense? Does it feel okay to move away from the initial idea?
AV: I think it really depends on what the end goal is. Here, you have the luxury of being able to follow your nose stylistically, and we all started with a preconceived idea of what the piece would look like. I know Cassie and I write to briefs a lot of the time doing commercial writing , so you don’t have much room to move there - you have to hit the brief - but with something like this we’re writing to a brief that’s self-imposed, so you have freedom to change that brief, and I’m sure that happened to all of us. Mine’s changed quite significantly throughout the writing process, but we have the luxury of being able to do that. Is that what you found?
SdF: I do a lot of performance as well and have close collaboration with the people I’m singing with or writing for, but with this, it's completely the opposite because I’m in a different state and I can’t physically communicate with the people who are going to play my piece. So, in that sense, it’s a process of writing that doesn’t really have a face. Which is a bit hard at first, but it’s coming from a totally different idea. Instead of writing a piece that represents the relationship I have with the individual musician, my piece focusses more on the relationship I have with the person I’m working with, so it’s a solidification of the ideas I was talking to him about rather than the actual musicians. So now I’m in a process where I’ve had one listen to the piece run through and some things work and some things didn’t. Now I’m cutting back and working out what the players are comfortable with, and then working from there.
CdN: I guess for me it really depends on what you’re writing the piece for. As you said, there’s a difference between writing art music and commercial music. For me, I approached this as a straight commission with an open brief and I had the ensemble, the time limit and that’s about it. I had the freedom to change as much as I liked, and in a way, I planned the piece and its structure, and basically stayed within it, but the kind of idea of the piece evolved. In a lot of other projects I do, if I’m writing for a specific context, like maybe the program or the way it’s going to be performed - which happens in the concerts I organise (Connor runs the Brisbane- based concert series, Argo) where there is a specific place in a program my piece needs to fill - then even though there is freedom, there is not as much flexibility. I don’t necessarily find that straining, it’s almost more of a challenge to do something creative and come up with something within the context. That’s something else to explore.
CT: All I knew at the start was that I wanted to do something about the Great Barrier Reef, so the story of my piece kind of evolved as the piece evolved. As I was writing it the ideas came about. I guess it depends on the type of idea like if you have a technique that you want to explore or something, that’s a lot more limiting than a story. I had quite a lot of freedom to shape things - whether I wanted to have emotional impact or I wanted to look at developing a soundscape.
CdN: It’s funny you say that - a story being much less limiting than a technique - because I find the exact opposite! I don’t often write programmatic works, and I find even though having a structure is by definition limiting, I don’t find that limiting because if it doesn’t work, no one knows you’ve deviated from that structure but you. On the other hand, when you write a program, you kind of need to aim for the experience to be what the program says.
CT: I’ve definitely had it not work, for sure. And then it’s really like ‘this is not what I wanted’.
CdN: Yeah. And I use extra-musical imagery as influence or inspiration, but I don’t usually put it down on paper for everyone to read because that’s mine. For me, it’s almost as interesting to see if I write ‘String Quartet Number 1” on the piece and then someone in the audiences listens and says “I really felt this”, any of their nuanced experiences of the piece is just as valid as the way I may have written it.
MS: Moving away from the Cybec program, I’d like to know your feelings about being an Australian composer right now - what that means to you, and more broadly in the context of what being a professional composer means, and balancing writing with study or teaching or other work.
CT: I finished my undergraduate degree at the Sydney Con in 2015, so I’ve had a full year of figuring it out. There’s a lot to academia but I don’t think it was entirely for me, so I’ve gotten into a lot of commercial music - television, advertising, podcasts - and personally I like doing that because it’s a challenge! You have to fill someone’s brief, and it can be really hard because you never know what you’re going to get. I just did one where they wanted funk rhythms, something jazzy. So that’s how I’m trying to make money, doing the commercial stuff. For me, the art music stuff is food for my soul. It’s funny, I do that to be an artist. Realistically though, it’s extremely difficult to be a composer. Lots of people supplement with teaching or commercial work. In Australia, there are opportunities but you have to find them. The good ones are really competitive, and I guess that’s the same anyway. I recently did a workshop in Alaska, and we had some composers from New York over there and they were describing how vibrant the contemporary classical scene was. It did seem like they had a lot more going on. It’s challenging - you have to really want to do it. I don’t think you wouldn’t willingly put yourself through the stress if you weren’t passionate about it.
MS: When you talk about there being more opportunities in New York, is it more about funding and government or cultural support, or places to be part of and see the new music?
CT: Definitely live performances. The way they were talking about it, it seems like there were more performers keen to be involved, and it can be hard to find people here. I think in Australia there might still be a bad reputation for new music. Or maybe just music in general. People ask you what you do and you say “I write classical music” and they’re like “Mozart?” or something generic. I think it’s changing and getting better, but it’s tough. I think we can all agree on that.
CdN: In America, there’s a really great culture for new music and contemporary music. Self-organised or performer driven. There are lots of things happening, and there are lots of opportunities to do stuff. There’s some amazing groups - Eighth Blackbird, Bang on a Can, Kronos Quartet - those groups whose sole thing is doing new work. There aren’t as many in Australia. There are some amazing ones, though - you have Plexus, Ensemble Offspring, Kupka’s Piano, and Argo is doing that too - but there’s not a huge amount. I haven’t done much commercial music but I’ve been doing almost completely art music, and I do supplement myself with some teaching, but not heaps anymore. You just have to get yourself out there, and that’s the most difficult thing. Whether that’s meeting people in the foyer after concerts and shaking hands, becoming friends then sending them your music, or entering competitions. Or cold-emailing people! You might not get an email back, but until people know your name nothing is going to happen. The big thing for me is, though there are not a heap of opportunities waiting for you - Cybec is an absolutely amazing program, though - the best thing you can do as a young composer, especially while you’re still at university is create your own opportunities. I organised a concert for myself and three other composers in my second year of undergrad at university, a concert of our own music. You start there - you’ve had music performed and maybe some people know your name and things may happen, or you might get a recording of that which can be useful. I loved it, and I’ve kept doing it. Creating opportunities for yourself is really important.
MS: You’re also creating opportunities for performers, who will hopefully catch the new music bug and keep doing it!
CdN: Absolutely. I’m really happy this year that rather working on just my music, I’m commissioning a bunch of new works by other Queensland-based composers. But it’s absolutely about getting yourself out there. When more people know your name you can start building different things and seeing which opportunities come your way.
SdF: A lot of institutionalised learning doesn’t prepare you for being a freelance composer. It’s amazing to get your pieces performed, but you need more than just one-off performances. Doing this kind of programs has helped me meet people, which has helped bring in some work, but a lot of my income is derived from teaching and performing, not the writing. I feel like perhaps there should be more new music in regular programming, maybe on a chamber music level.
CdN: Most of my orchestral works have only been performed once. It’s really difficult.
MS: What do you think should be taught to composers at a tertiary or post-tertiary level about functioning as a freelance composer? Stuff like networking and commissioning?
SdF: I think grant writing - teaching composers how to make their projects happen. Institutions are theoretically focussed, so you get lots of lessons on research writing instead, which isn’t necessarily interchangeable. I feel like there’s a lot of fending for yourself you have to learn! There could be more focus on the opportunities that will help you get out there on your own.
CT: At uni, there are people visiting, and you can write something and have it workshopped, but when you leave those opportunities aren’t so accessible.
MS: And the musicians aren’t at your fingertips anymore?
CT: I guess you have to work on building those relationships while you’re there. But the performers are also in the same position - they’re not yet established, and they’re making their own opportunities. You can give each other a platform.
AV: It’s extremely difficult to make a living as a composer unless you do commercial and or performance and or teaching as well. I don’t know that I know anyone who is doing that except for people who are at the top of the game. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, because from a personal point of view - I do a bit of teaching at uni, some commercial stuff, some art music stuff and some songwriting - they all inform the other. Teaching at uni makes me a better composer. The stuff I get from my students! It’s a two-way street and I think that’s extremely valuable. The commercial composing makes me a better art music composer and vice versa. The danger is that you become a jack of all trades and a master of none, and I understand that that’s not for everyone. But my experience has been that it is extremely hard, but if you’re in the privileged position of piecing together a living from doing all those different things, which it seems like we all are, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s no mean feat to make that a reality - there’s lots of musicians who work full time and it becomes more and more of a hobby, so if diversifying like that means being a composer is still your main thing, it’s great.
MS: Absolutely. I’d like to touch on commissioning and how you think we can encourage more young people into commissioning and performing new works.
CdN: Make friends with composers!
AV: That’s so true because most of the work that you do is repeat work like it’s the same people.
CdN: Or it’s your network. If you ask your friend if you can write them a piece and they’ll perform it, doesn’t matter if they’re not paying you that first time round. Your other friends will hear it, and maybe they’ll get you to write them a piece. Or you pitch to a friend that you’ll write them a piece if they’ll help you write a grant application. Then you both write the application, and if you get it then you get paid, and if you don’t get it you still get a performance which is also good. You have to start somewhere.
Want more? Read about the piece of music that made each of these composers sure that creating music was their number one career choice, as well as hearing about their favourite pieces of Australian music exclusively in our first newsletter for 2017. Sign up here.