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28 September 2020

4 x Habituate - a project by Composing Women and the Sydney Dance Company

4 x Habituate - a project by Composing Women and the Sydney Dance Company

In 2020, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Composing Women program has continued with a number of exciting projects, with the first one, Habituate, completed in the middle of winter under COVID-19 lockdown conditions. Habituate was a dance-film collaboration between the four participating composers Fiona Hill, May Lyon, Jane Sheldon and Brenda Gifford, choreographer Charmene Yap and the Sydney Dance Company's Pre-Professional Year dancers. In this article, Jane Sheldon and Fiona Hill talk about how composers worked on this project.

In Habituate each composer created a score to accompany the same film, choreographed over Zoom and shot by dancers in their own spaces using phone cameras, and edited by Cass Mortimer Eipper. The work explored themes of isolation and the dancers' emotions in response to the pandemic, and the music mirrored this, as without access to live performers, the composers had to come up with creative solutions to realise their vision with the materials and the technology they had access to.

The resulting works were premiered online in July - all four versions can be watched on YouTube.

Composing Women mentor, Professor Liza Lim was intrigued by the way music seemed to change the way the filmed choreographies worked.

'It's interesting to see how strongly the music choreographs or affects one's experience of the visuals - one notices different details, makes different connections and feels the flow of time in quite different ways across the four versions', Lim reflected.

Habituate # 1 with Fiona Hill's music

Fiona Hill, who has worked extensively with electroacoustics before, dug into her sample library for material for her score, and found the unusual way of working unexpectedly comfortable and natural.

'I felt incredibly fortunate to be involved virtually in the entire process: watching online Zoom rehearsals, online spotting sessions with director/choreographer Charmene Yap, really drilling down and seeing what I could develop from my sample library, the music mix with Evan McHugh, and the online launch of the film with the Sydney Dance Company. The project was really such a unique experience, due to it all transpiring during the lockdown period. Charmene was very clear in her vision for the film which made my job so much easier in terms of finding the right musical language to portray the story and movement unfolding on screen.'

'The three sections of the film all have such different moods, making it an enjoyable challenge to capture these musically and find the transitions between them. I found working with dance on screen a much more natural and intuitive experience than I had envisaged, for example finding a tempo to fit the last section was relatively easy, a testament to the wonderful editing by Cass Mortimer-Eipper. I loved finding all the small nuances and moments to highlight sonically as there were so many visual cues for layering multiple textures and building a rich sound world', she said.

Habituate # 3 with Jane Sheldon's music

Jane Sheldon was particularly interested in the ways choreographer Charmene Yap and the dancers explored the challenge of making a dance work in what was effectively a two-dimensional world.

'Dance is such a three-dimensional artform, with bodies moving through a space that's shared - not just among the dancers, but with the audience. As a performer I'm very aware of what we've been deprived by the pandemic, but for dancers in particular the inability to share space must feel acutely strange; shared space seems like such an essential material. So I chose to respond to the oddness of 2D and the dancers' isolation by working primarily in textural sounds that could be made to relate to the dancers' bodies spatially, to suggest space around them.'

'I started working with several field recordings of swarming bees, whose mass of activity seemed oppressive and irritating in the way that seemed suggestive of how lots of people say lockdown feels to them. The bees were also useful for panning sonic activity in a familiar way around the head and ears of the listener in relationship to certain gestures from the dancers. Another choice I made, with space in mind, was that at the point in the choreography when the dancers began to move quickly and expansively through space, I tried to give something with sonic height, frequency-wise, to the texture of the sound that might "aerate" the plane, so I chose a field recording of high winds as the raw material.'

'Part of the compositional task seemed to me to be about uniting the variety of spaces the dancers were in. I don't often like dance and music whose synchrony feels settled and reliable, so I began by wanting to avoid synchronic gestures altogether, but I found myself selecting several moments of choreography to support with a simultaneous gesture in sound and then carrying this sound into subsequent frames to imagine a continuity of space', Jane Sheldon explained.

All four composers have since embarked on new collaborations with the Sydney Dance Company and the PPY dancers for projects planned to come to fruition towards the end of the year.

> Watch Habituate # 4 with Brenda Gifford's music and Habituate # 2 with May Lyon's score.

> Composing Women 2020-2021 - program details on the Sydney Conservatorium of Music website.

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