While they were in Melbourne to see the Philip Glass Ensemble perform Koyaanisqatsi, SPIRAL joined Rehearsal Mag for a chat about all things minimalism, collaboration and how playing Glass' early works made them a stronger ensemble.
Joshua Winestock: SPIRAL kind of started out of our obsession with Philip Glass. Will Hansen began getting people together for a Philip Glass ensemble, so there were a whole bunch of us on different instruments starting to play. We were a really oddball ensemble: we had lots of keyboard players and our roster would change from week to week depending on who was available. We tried to rehearse as often as possible, and that was our existence for the first year.
Rehearsal: Were you performing?
JW: We performed twice that year and just Philip Glass' music. Both of our concerts were at the Sydney Con for our colleagues, and preparing for those performances really bound us together as an ensemble; the seemingly simple pieces are actually very specific technical and ensemble exercises. Will, who put us together in the first place, would have to nod his head to indicate the changes, and if one person got out it became chaotic. Those rehearsals really forced us to find out what our musical identity was, and how we were going to progress as an ensemble. It forced us to think more about our sound and how we wanted to deliver our music.
Will Hansen: After that year, we had a discussion and kind of thought, we've run out of early Glass pieces, so why not do something else? Some of the music that we play now is still classic minimalism, but the pieces we're each writing for the ensemble are a little more genre-bending because we want our work to appeal to an audience of young people, like us. At the moment you go see contemporary classical music and it's still a pretty formal process of sitting down and watching the concert. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I do think minimalism benefits from audience interaction and encouraging the people watching to engage in a relaxed manner.
JW: It can be a really personal experience, listening to this kind of minimal music. We are really an ensemble of seven composers, and like all composers, we're trying to get our pieces played, so as a group it seems like a course of great integrity to play our own works. As well as just being intellectually involved in the process as composers, we want to be involved at all stages, and be responsible for the work we're putting out into the world. Really, we think it's the solution to not having any performance opportunities!
Josephine Macken: We've been slowly discovering the importance of the physicality of producing music, so as much as composers work in solitude coming up with these esoteric ideas, there's a lot of weight and significance behind actually picking up an instrument, creating sounds and blending as an ensemble.
Rory Knott: As a group, we're creating a space where it's very easy to experiment and try things that may not be successful the first time we do them. I don't think that there's necessarily enough interaction between composers and performers, particularly at the early stages of workshopping, which is hard because if you're a composer you have to be figuring everything out yourself. We want all the choices that we make surrounding our music to reflect this too, so our choice of venue for this gig works really well. Previously we've only performed at the university in what is naturally quite a formal setting, so this venue [The Red Rattler], which hosts rock bands and experimental ensembles, is a really great place to reinvent the wheel. It's cool to play for an audience that's interested in hearing new music that's not necessarily related to the contemporary classical genre at all.
JM: We've heard from people who have no connection to the institution, but have picked up on what we're doing because of this venue. It's great to have that kind of outreach and to have our music heard by a diverse range of people with different musical tastes and preferences.
Rehearsal: So how has this particular concert been programmed?
WH: It's a mix of classic minimalist works and new works. We're opening with China Gates by John Adams to establish the mood and get everyone chilled out, and the rest of the program includes works by some of us! We have three new pieces in this performance: a work by Josh for the full ensemble, a work by Rory for the full ensemble, and a work by Sarah who has written a piece for solo double bass.
JW: It is really important to us that we all have an opportunity to write for our own ensemble. When I first brought my piece to the group, they approached it as performers and learnt how to play it, and once they'd learnt the notes we all workshopped it together, and they brought forward ideas and suggestions, and that process was so valuable to me as a composer.
WH: That workshop stage is absolutely crucial to us - both for the performers and the composer - because unlike playing in a symphony orchestra, which is like "here's the music, learn to play it", we get to feel a sense of community and help create the new piece together. The time we spend workshopping each piece has actually really sped up our entire process and made us more efficient as a group.
JW: Because we are doing this collaborative process of workshopping with every piece we play, our identity as a group has begun to influence all of our individual compositions, and we're helping to develop each other's compositional style, which is really gratifying.
WH: Minimalism as a genre has really bound us together as well, and I think that because it has really laid the foundations for a lot of new music today, it's influenced all our styles significantly and brought us together as a stronger group.
JM: We owe a lot to the artistic community as well, because a lot of performance spaces are open to bringing new styles new artists in, who don't necessarily have a heap of experience. It's fantastic to see these spaces thrive on supporting the work of developing artists. We definitely use the space that we're performing in to help dictate how we program. We're really interested in the building a context around the works we play and considering how each piece might come across in say, a concert hall as opposed to a bar.
WH: Absolutely. We still feel that there is a culture of politeness, and a bit of a social stigma around going into a concert hall as an audience member - like, sometimes I want to burst out in applause after every movement of a work, but you just can't. I think because it's our basic desire as humans to express our emotions, it's really important to us that our audience can do that when they feel like it. So working in different venues is really important to us as an ensemble.
Rehearsal: What's your rehearsal process been like for this concert?
WH: Unlike last year, when we had a pretty strict rehearsal schedule, this concert has been a bit less formal. We've been rehearsing a bit at my house, and how we structure it our sessions has been basically just an hour for each piece. The whole process of workshopping the piece and getting it together by talking about it is really beneficial to us. At the moment we're rehearsing together every day.
RK: We've been beefing up our rehearsal schedule as we've gotten closer to the performance. We normally do two rehearsals a week, because we've simply found it super necessary when playing this type of music. It's a bit like playing period music: you have to know the style and work really hard to get it technically correct. Our discipline comes from practicing that early Glass music; we would play each piece for fifteen minutes, stuff it up, and then start again. There was so much persistence. It was like physical exercise - you have to build up your stamina.
JM: We were shockingly bad at the start! We sometimes didn't even last fifteen minutes playing an hour long piece! We were five minutes in and we'd be out of sync or have intonation issues and have to recalibrate and give it another try.
WH: The amount of blending and the amount of ensemble awareness that we've developed has shot us a year or two ahead rehearsal-wise, though, so it's been so worth it. We're able to tackle new pieces now with a much better technical understanding, thanks to playing those Glass pieces for a whole year. Now that we've developed a tighter ensemble, we're keen to start supporting up-and-coming composers by performing their works and workshopping their pieces with them, just like we've done for each other. We're looking at commissioning a couple of works pretty soon and continuing to support the connection between composers and performers. Generally, someone gives you a piece, you play it, and it's done, and we want to help made sure that composers get more out of their work than just that.
Rehearsal: So ensuring that each piece you perform has some kind of longevity and life of its own is important to you as an ensemble?
JM: We want to be able to say more than "we can play this piece in a concert for you". We really want to have this strong set of works written by us and others that we can champion over our time together as an ensemble.
JW: Longevity is a really good word, because if a piece has a potential lifespan of more than one concert, it can take on a life of its own, and that's really what all composers want to see, isn't it?
SPIRAL perform new and slightly old music at The Red Rattler on Thursday 16th March 2017. Entry by gold coin donation. Photo by Lexy Potts.