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6 May 2024

Carving space in practice and for practice

Leah Blankendaal and Quince Ensemble Image: Leah Blankendaal and Quince Ensemble  

So much of the music that I have written in the last few years has been about carving space: for sound, with sound, for the listener, with the performer. This space is an opportunity for the listener to sink into the sound, to sit with the experience as a place of respite.

There are times where I wonder if this inclination has come because the life I lead is so full. The pressure of the everyday is certainly not an uncommon experience, particularly (but by no means only) for women. But at points maintaining an artistic practice has been an active choice. Letting go of the balloon string might've been easier. Maybe I've been carving space for myself in sound as much as for the audience.

I've been in the US for the last month, an opportunity that has been exhilarating and exhausting. Two events brought me here: the premiere of my work Your Space Has Echoes, deftly and beautifully handled by Quince Ensemble at Short North Theatre, Columbus, followed by a two-week residency at Arts Letters and Numbers in Averill Park, New York. Carving space for an experience like this takes the coordination of many moving parts and a lot of goodwill: supportive family, a flexible workplace, funding bodies who understand the importance of looking outwards.

Your Space Has Echoes

I first met Quince, a four piece a cappella treble voice ensemble, in 2019 at a summer festival in Connecticut, where we clicked immediately. They're fabulous musicians and excellent collaborators, the kind of ensemble a composer is lucky to work with. Their approach to new music practice, to technique and ensemble performance, meant that I could stretch the boundaries of my own writing. And their approach to collaboration matched my own: they've felt like old friends since the moment I met them.

Leah Blankendaal and Kayleigh Butcher (Quince Ensemble)
Leah Blankendaal and Kayleigh Butcher (Quince)

Commissioned by the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund in February 2020, Your Space Has Echoes examines the way that time marks the body. It's a rumination that invites the listener to contemplate their own experience of bodily memory, providing a gentle bed on which questions can linger. This subject matter lends itself naturally to singing: the physicality of the voice is such that there's a connection with the thematic material from the beginning. Over the course of two years I studied the work of composers such as Joan La Barbara, Laurie Anderson, and Caroline Shaw, picking apart scores and challenging myself to apply new techniques to my music in a way that retained my voice. In many ways the gift of the COVID-19 pandemic was the space to study for this piece: with no immediate deadline for several years, the time I had with this work was far greater than most commissions.

Quince Ensemble performing on stage
Quince on stage

Hearing this work on stage for the first time was overwhelming. I suspect I'm not the only composer who's felt that; it's an interesting sensation. If the overwhelm came from nerves about audience reaction, however, I needn't have worried. The crowd at Short North were welcoming and very enthusiastic, full of warmth and hospitality. Framed by works by Evan Williams, Courtney Bryan, Liz Gre and Annika Socolofsky, the contrast between my language and the other works on the program was stark but very interesting: complimentary in the best of senses. Of all the feedback, what stuck with me was again one of space: that the space in my work had given the audience the chance to ruminate on what bodily memory meant to them, but then also the free space to consider the interplay between bodily memory the other thematic considerations on the program.

Arts Letters and Numbers, Averill Park NY

There's a marked difference in the mindset between presentation and creation, yet they're two states in which we're often expected to coexist. The presentation of work and the coordination that goes with it requires immediacy: decisions are made in rehearsal in realtime, while at performances audiences crave connection, talk, networking. By contrast, the development of new music requires time. Taking the second half of this trip to actively create space for free development of new ideas in the mountains of upstate New York, away from most anything was, admittedly, confronting. It takes time to adjust to silence, to become comfortable with the sound of your thoughts. For me at least, changing mindset from presentation to creation is not a switch that I can turn off and on easily.

Eventually, however, the silence becomes a friend. I took walks, explored waterfalls, and let everything breathe for a moment. And with that space new sound came. Some of it was fully formed, new ideas for flute and loop pedal, a development on the work I began with my first album. What caught me off guard, however, were the big ideas. With space to sit and to think, and no immediacy of answer needed, I could imagine work that was larger than life. Music that was new, ideas that could be explored. I could read, and learn from other artworks. The ideas that came are ones that, when life is busier, would struggle to find a voice. In the quiet they could be heard.

Leah Blankendaal and waterfall
Leah Blankendaal and waterfall

As I'm about to return to Australia the experience I have had has been the sum of all of these spaces: the space my family and my day job made for me, the beautiful space carved by Quince in their performance of my work, the physical space in the mountains at Arts Letters and Numbers, the space from providing answers that allowed me to ask new questions. Their gift has been immeasurable. From here I move forward with new breath, full of possibility and creatively charged.

This trip was made possible with the support of many funding bodies. I am immensely grateful to APRA AMCOS, Arts ACT, the Capital Patrons' Arts Organisation (CAPO) and the Johnstone Fund. Thank you for allowing me this time to present, create, and share my music. It is a gift for which I am immensely grateful.

Leah Blankendaal is a multi-award-winning musician whose work emphasises pause, connection and layered textures. Her language is "kind, immersive and thoughtful," and offers "us space to breathe and to be."

At home as both a composer and performer of new music, Blankendaal's practice spans traditional chamber music and vocal composition, live electronic improvisation and installation art. As a composer she has worked with ensembles including Quince Ensemble (USA), Duo Alterity (USA), Rubiks Collective (VIC), Luminescence Chamber Singers (ACT), Tura New Music and STRUT Dance (WA), the Australian Art Orchestra and Soundstream (SA). A regular performer and improviser of original material, Blankendaal's performance based practice for solo flute and loop pedal has been critically celebrated for "gracefully summoning you into its realm with its beautiful harmonic suspensions and resolutions". Her work has toured Europe, South East Asia, USA and New Zealand.

Blankendaal has been the recipient of the ABC Classic Composer Commissioning Fund, APRA AMCOS 2020 Art Music Fund Commission, the 2020 Peggy Glanville Hicks Commission, and the 2017 Australian Music Centre Classical: Next Fellowship. She released her first solo album, Alongside, Amongst, Against in September 2020. Her work Lake, performed by Luminescence Chamber Singers, will be released on ABC Classic in 2024


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