In Conversation: Syzygy Ensemble

In Conversation: Syzygy Ensemble

Ahead of their season opener at Melbourne Recital Centre, Laila Engle and Jenny Khafagi sat down with Megan Steller to discuss friendship, empathy and music that stretches your ear without slapping you in the face.

In Conversation: Syzygy Ensemble

Ahead of their season opener at Melbourne Recital Centre, Laila Engle and Jenny Khafagi sat down with Megan Steller to discuss friendship, empathy and music that stretches your ear without slapping you in the face.

There’s a beautiful sentence on your website about how Syzygy is empathetic towards music that is being written today, which really struck a chord with me. I wonder if you can talk about that word empathy within the context of your work in championing living composers?

 It’s always been part of our ensemble personality to be excited about sharing new music with people in a non “ivory-tower” method. We’ve been to concerts where we’ve felt like outsiders perhaps despite our high level of music education, so when we started Syzygy, we wanted to offer audiences a way into the world by providing context for new pieces in a really accessible way. This is part of the reason we play older pieces alongside premieres – just because we play contemporary works doesn’t mean we’ve rejected or forgotten more traditional or “canon” pieces. We’re interested in making connections as listeners and lovers of classical and chamber music. There must be something in the language of any sort of music that expresses things that are happening in our contemporary lives.

Does that go to how you make decisions around commissioning from an aesthetic point of view?

It informs our decision making a little bit; people are attracted to working with us because of our musical style, but that is not to say that we shy away from unfamiliar syntaxes or unusual ways of working. We love doing things that are a bit out of the box, while being influenced significantly by expressionist composers. Additionally, there are great ways of presenting music that is a bit more elite or niche in accessible and contextual settings. Often when curating our seasons, we look for a major piece to base an entire program around, which may be new or old, and then we build up from there. Other times we look at a broader theme and pull compositions in towards that idea.

With the understanding that you’re bringing your audience in via an idea that they already have some connection with and then expanding that into musical languages and aesthetics that are new? 

Exactly, we have this philosophy that we, as an ensemble, should be “ear stretching not face slapping”! It’s not about being likeable or non-confrontational, but instead allowing people to take just one step further out of their comfort zone.

You each also work with ensembles that perform works which sit within the classical canon, so is the method that you work with at Syzygy also ear stretching for you as the performers?

It certainly gives us new ways of listening and understanding contemporary music. We have limited time to prepare for each performance, so learning how to rehearse together in a way that is efficient and empathetic has been really important. We have presented pieces that do not stick to a traditional method of performance and those works really make us consider and shift how we best work together. As an ensemble, we really try to never be conducted, even if scores have a recommendation as such, so our rehearsal time has to take into account the fact we are working towards a performance where we are all leaders, while watching and listening in a traditionally chamber way, even if the piece is a lot more complex than other works in the repertoire.

For your upcoming performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Pagan Dances, which focusses on different reasons for and different ways of dancing, has your rehearsal method changed because of how integral movement is to the program?

We are going to stand for the whole concert so we’re free from the restrictions of being seated and consequently, feeling tied down. The pieces, because they’re based on movement, need to feel alive, and working away from chairs will allow us to be more connected with our own bodies, and therefore, each other’s movements as well. That’s what the energy of this program requires. The only piece that will have us sitting is the new work by Emile Frankel, whose piece was inspired by intimate spaces, and requires a different type of dynamic within the group. If you’re in the audience, you’ll hear that difference! Compared to the rest of the program, there is a lot of space and suspension, and as a listener, time stands still and seems to hover a little.

What has it been like to rehearse Emile’s work, particularly amongst the other high-octane pieces on the program?

It was tricky to begin with! His piece sees us coaxing the sounds out of our instruments, trying to achieve a real purity of tone and feel. As the work develops, distortion enters the sound world and Emile plays around a lot with microtonal ideas and subtle additional actions that add to the texture. It kind of sounds like a record player rolling in the next room; subtle melodic ideas grab your ear and offer the audience something to latch onto. There is still this tiny element of dance in the work, it’s just slightly more internalised.

There are so many wonderful links and connections that Syzygy plays with between programming and philosophy; is this planned or happy coincidence?

We are inspired by symbiosis – Syzygy is really five soloists who work together closely in a co-dependent relationship to produce something that is larger than the sum of its parts. Our friendship is really important, because as soon as we walk into the rehearsal room we are able to be really tough on each other. What we do is complex and we work on short lead times, but because of our friendships we can be efficient and direct. We’ve found that we have to take off our socialising hats the minute we walk into the rehearsal space because time is so precious. It’s a very special thing though, being able to do this with people who are so much fun. Everything about making new music is hard – there’s not much money, it takes a lot of energy, there’s so much administrative work to do – but we’re in it together and we love doing what we do as an ensemble. We rely on each other so heavily and knowing that there’s always someone that has your back on stage; that makes it worth it.

Syzygy Ensemble presents Pagan Dances on Thursday 10th May at 6pm. Tickets and program information available here.