first blog as Musica Viva featured composer 2011
What have you most enjoyed about being Musica Viva’s 2011 featured composer?
Hard to say just yet, as I’m writing this at the end of January and the concert year has not quite begun. So far, though, I have been enjoying the challenge of writing more music than I have ever written before, and for a larger audience too. I’m greatly enjoying being in touch with some of the musicians who will be playing my music this year. In particular, I have been impressed with care taken by the Eggner Trio to examine every detail of my trio and ask plenty of tricky questions. Some interesting revisions have taken place as a result and we have come up with solutions that might surprise!
What was it like writing your first string quartet?
I feel like I might actually be a real composer now. It’s quite a pantheon, the string quartet writers’ guild, and everything they say about the genre is true: it is a task to test the mettle of any composer, both because of the stringent demands of the form but also because of the remarkable heritage against which ones own work has to stand. ‘Daunting’ is a word that routinely crops up, and I wouldn’t be the first to use it. On the other hand, I have always loved counterpoint and part writing, especially four parts, because of the great repertoire of Bach and my earlier training in harmony, and that aspect of it is familiar and always fascinating.
What would be the starting point of a new composition?
Once, I used to think in terms of absolute music, and notes came from the ether, and other ethereal notes would gather around them, as it were. Too hard for me now! I like to start these days by thinking of an artistic concept, often related to a literary piece or a work of art in another form. My first string quartet was inspired by a collection of woodcuts from the Ballarat Art Gallery. My Piano Trio follows quite closely three Russian folk tales. The actual start of any work is often quite messy, and I have a growing stack of spiral bound manuscript books with a jumble of sketches to prove it. But once a start has been made, often most of the rest of a piece will follow on quite naturally.
What inspires your music making?
It’s something that is very vital to me but I can’t tell you exactly why. It’s not so much that I need to be ‘inspired’ to make music, it’s that it has been an essential part of me since I was a child, and I start to feel uneasy if I go a day without playing or composing. The love of music, it seems so glib and inadequate, but there it is. Music does no harm in the world, and somehow represents us at our best. Humanity, I mean. It’s something I find very worthwhile. Also, although it’s often overlooked, there is a tactile pleasure in playing music, and the combination of physical and aural sensation is, well, addictive.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
My natural state is writer’s block, so what’s new? These days, it’s not the proverbial blank sheet of paper but the blank laptop screen, but there is no need for either if one is a devoted practitioner of the art of procrastination. Opinions vary in the profession, naturally. Some believe that a healthy Protestant work ethic, a time to write each day, diligently observed, precludes the self-indulgence of the state of mind that will not yield ideas. For me, it’s always possible to write something. It’s the quality of the something that counts, though, and I find that it’s important to be able to recognise the good ideas from the ordinary ones, not always so easy to do because it requires perspective.
Describe your creative workspace.
Well, I have a cluttered desk, which I don’t much use. My piano is a big part of my creative life, and although I don’t really write at the piano any more, as I once did, I use it to test what I’ve sketched. The laptop is one of the obvious pieces of revolutionary technology of our age, and I punish it daily, which means writing and editing at the desk, on the bed, on the floor, in the car (yes, sometimes), hotel rooms and other places. I suppose I could say, philosophically, that my real creative workspace is the one I’m in now, the noggin, but that would be a little pretentious, wouldn’t it?