23 June 2021
My Australian Song Cycle
[Updated - new concert date.] With Sydney Chamber Choir preparing to premiere Joe Twist's Australian Song Cycle, the composer shares his inspiration born of Australia's nature and his working career between Hollywood and his home country, animations and the concert hall. This article first appeared on Limelight and is republished here on Resonate with permission. Originally scheduled for 27 June and postponed due to Covid-19, this work will now premiere on 20 November 2021.
There's no place like home. Until that fateful March in 2020, I enjoyed eight years working in the USA on all sorts of projects, from arrangements for Clinton The Musical in New York City, to Hollywood-produced film scores as an orchestrator and copyist. But still from Australia, I continued to receive commissions for new concert works, operas, choral pieces, not forgetting the honour of writing music for TV shows like the famous animation, Bluey, with the wonderful composer Joff Bush. Thanks to technology, writing music can now be done from anywhere. And thankfully, it pays the bills.
Then came COVID-19. I soon realised that it was better to be stuck in Australia than the USA where my health insurance was dubious and my 'Alien of Extraordinary Ability' visa was set to expire. I spent two days packing up eight years of my life and caught the very last Qantas A380 to Australia. I quarantined in a Gold Coast highrise and realised how lucky I was.
Moving back in with my parents after 20 years, I rode out those early months of COVID lockdown in beautiful Burleigh Heads with the beach and the rainforest just outside. And I continued writing music for Bluey, and my Hollywood-based work, including the new Tom and Jerry movie, for which I produced orchestrations from my old bedroom. Compared to others in an arts industry decimated by COVID, I am eternally grateful to be able to continue working.
Returning to the natural beauty of South East Queensland was not only soul-nourishing. My works so often draw on my love of beaches, forests, sunsets and other natural wonders, even in LA where I enjoyed stunning West Coast sunsets and frequent Pacific swims. Daily swims back in Burleigh played a big part in developing musical ideas for my new mass which was written specifically for the context of COVID-safe worship where singing in groups is banned; one vocal line for any voice type that may be expanded to a unison group with optional simple harmonies. The mass liturgy was an inspiration, as was the beauty and healing nature of Australia's magnificent beaches. In the words of St Paul's Melbourne music director, Philip Nichols, the work reflects 'vast landscapes of active reconciliation and boundless grace'.
Even in the aftermath of COVID, the anger here surrounding inaction on climate change was palpable to me, especially as communities still recover from the 2019-20 bushfires. Returning to the Gold Coast, my appreciation of our natural wonders, the rainforests and astonishing wildlife and birdsong, intensified my own anger that we are not doing all we can to protect our planet. I'm thrilled Sydney Chamber Choir is premiering the song cycle in their aptly-named concert, Garden of the Soul.
The stunning location at my parents' place in Burleigh Heads wasn't the only inspiration. Working with my father, a former English teacher, we explored how our unique natural environment and flora and fauna was expressed by our most celebrated poets. The work traverses a comprehensive and contrasting array of Australian voices over the last century, with each movement drawing on poets such as Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Judith Wright, Michael Leunig, Les Murray and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. These poems are rich with distinctly Australian imagery, perfect for a choral setting, with each exploring different elements of our natural surrounds. Scored for choir, piano and cello, I've tried to highlight these musically. For Banjo Paterson's 'Sunrise on the Coast', I've created calm waves of sustained singing, while Henry Lawson's 'Andy's Gone With Cattle' is more intimate and impassioned, a tribute to the life of the drover and the struggles of drought. Judith Wright's 'Wonga Vine' is more mysterious in its description of flowers, leading to bursts of colour and driving rhythms from rapid piano flourishes and florid vocal writing for Michael Leunig's 'Magpie' and Les Murray's 'Jellyfish'.
But something new was needed to relate directly to the bushfires. An author himself, my Dad provided the poetry for the work, 'Ashes', which follows the plight of an animal suffering from the decimation of their habitat and highlights the shocking statistics of wildlife lost from devastating fires. The rhythmic grooves that painted the picture of flocks of lorikeets and magpies earlier in the work now become subdued and poignant as the choir begins chanting some of the startling statistics of wildlife killed: '143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs'.
The colourful celebration at the outset of my Australian Song Cycle culminates with Noonuccal's 'Time Is Running Out', a passionate response to the destruction of sacred land stolen from First Nations people, and here a vital voice to the work. Earlier lyrical melodies give way to loud, declamatory singing and hammered piano chords for words like 'the miner rapes the heart of earth'. With this dramatic music I've endeavoured to amplify the need for 'truth telling' about the social and environmental atrocities of our history, as well as the urgency of our climate crisis.
This is my second time setting Oodgeroo Noonuccal's words. The Adelaide Chamber Singers produced a brilliant recording of my work How Shall We Sing In A Strange Land? which juxtaposes Christian psalm with Noonuccal's A Song of Hope, including both texts throughout the work as a kind of poignant and ironic exploration of Australian history and multiculturalism. For this Australian Song Cycle, it was imperative that the work reach its climax with Noonuccal's poem, so that we are left with the poignant, resounding words of an Indigenous voice.
I've now moved to Brisbane closer to the Bluey music team and also to work on music for another show on ABC Kids called The Strange Chores. I'm also juggling commissions for new concert works, including a new work for the Southern Cross Soloists, also inspired by the beauty of the Gold Coast hinterland and the landscape paintings of Will Robinson. And I'm currently working on a large vocal work for next year's Adelaide Festival. But the Sydney performance of An Australian Song Cycle looms large: a very special thank you to the Maury Family, including the Choir's baritone Seb Maury, who have supported the choir for many years and generously commissioned this new work.
Juggling so many different projects can be difficult; people sometimes ask me how I manage to write music for such different mediums, whether an orchestra arrangement for The Wiggles one day, or writing a choral work the next. Coming up with this simple concept for the song cycle was actually the most difficult part; writing the music was for me the easy part. I think of myself as more of an artisan, applying my musicality to each project as required, each employing different types of musical skills and different collaborative circumstances.
When writing for film or animation, for example, you're always syncing your music to picture. In creating a new concert work, it's more the other way around - the music governs the structure of the piece as it unfolds. What really connects these different projects is the art of using music to tell a story. To be this versatile, it's important to be able to write fluidly, so I try to view all types and styles of music as having equal value.
In my opinion, classical musicians and musicologists spent much of the last century perpetuating a completely contrived, patriarchal and arguably racist narrative from Bach to Berio and beyond. Instead, I think music should be thought of as an ecosystem of converging styles and influences across centuries, cultures and demographics. The connection is between Bach and The Beatles: I remember teaching music theory to students at the University of Queensland by showing how the same chord progressions in a Bach chorale appear throughout popular music. It was to help students realise that there is a practical use for music theory; it might come in handy if they decide to work as a composer/ arranger.
> Joseph Twist - AMC profile
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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