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29 June 2009

Tasmanian Orchestral Experience

Symphony Australia TSO Composers' School

James Wade Image: James Wade  

Five composers – Kevin March, Annie Hsieh, James Wade, Melody Eötvös and Chris Williams – have just spent a week in Tasmania, taking part in Symphony Australia TSO Composers' school 2009. Tutors this year were Richard Mills and Kenneth Young (conducting), Paul Stanhope, Maria Grenfell, and James Ledger. The 'school week' started on Sunday 21 June and finished on Thursday evening with the presentation of student works and orchestration excercises. We asked three of the participants – James, Melody and Chris – to put some of their experiences into words.

One of the aims of the Symphony Australia TSO Composers’ School is for composers to hear their music performed by a full orchestra. Would you tell me about how this side of the workshop worked for you?

Melody Eötvös: This composers' school was the fourth orchestral workshop that I have been involved in over the past three years, and it is most certainly the greatest experience, both this year and last year, that I have ever had with an orchestra, the mentors, and my emerging composer colleagues. By this stage, for me, I was able to observe to a greater depth more fundamental aspects in my orchestral writing and composition, such as structure and harmonic language, and the potential developments of these for the future. Also, working with a professional orchestra (and a very patient one!), the issue of notation and the necessity of absolute perfection of the score arose quite often. It was also wonderful to have such an in-depth shared experience with the other composers on the program – we were all able to experience and respond to each others' music and developments/reactions throughout the week without feeling out of bounds or uncomfortable... I think this may have also been due in part to the quickness with which we all bonded early in the week. They were all fantastic.

James Wade: I am extremely fortunate to have worked with a number of orchestras over the last few years, so the focus of my time with the TSO on this occasion was devoted to shaping the finer details of my music for the orchestra. Primarily this concerned the elements of the piece which are more difficult to imagine until a rehearsal, such as dynamics, doublings in orchestration and even lines which were unnecessary.

Chris Williams: This was my first orchestral piece, and hearing it performed by a professional orchestra means taking some of the guesswork out of the process of self-evaluation and development, I think. What shows up in the concert and on the recording is pretty much what was actually written down, and so we can very objectively think about the intent, (its intended intent,) and the result. Without this dialogue, things can become very difficult for a composer, as you have to juggle things that may not have come off as written, but are still musically valid and possible. I think the other important aspect of this experience is showing up the things that need more attention and consideration, as well as the opening of your eyes to the scope of possibilities. Without a living response to dots on the page, these realities are much harder to observe.

What about the other important part of the workshop – working with more experienced composers? Did you work with all four or only some of them, and what did you get out of it?

ME: Each of the composer mentors who I worked with offered me a unique insight throughout the week, and the structure of the program allowed repeated, more personal contact with each composer, as well as a constant stream of reflections and thoughts throughout the rehearsals and debriefs each day. I had suspicions about what I needed to work on in my music and I brought these up with each of the mentors – Paul Stanhope, James Ledger, Richard Mills, Maria Grenfell, and Ken Young – and each offered me different perspectives and possibilities, both in my orchestral piece and my other compositions. This process (communicating with the mentors about my compositions and other important aspects of our future) developed throughout the week as the trust levels and familiarity grew.

JW: Paul Stanhope, James Ledger, Maria Grenfell, Ken Young and Richard Mills were all extremely perceptive with their advice on the music written for the TSO, and also gave excellent ideas for future directions I could pursue in my compositional work. All their contributions were different and corresponded to their personality, however this richness and variety of experience is definitely one of the best things about being involved with the Composers' School. This period of concentrated focus on my work confirmed and directed my work to such a great degree that I will think of it as somewhat of a turning point in my development as a composer. This occurred not so much in reorienting what I presently do, but confirming the language and stylistic traits which outline my compositional voice.

CW: We had the opportunity to work with all of the tutors, which in itself was incredibly valuable. It seems to me that hard and fast truths in music are hard to come by, and having a number of worthy, well-informed and intelligent opinions is the only way to really have an objective perspective. It is also, I think, an important way to develop your own convictions about music. Like virtues, wisdom untested is no wisdom at all.

Tell us about the work that was being rehearsed and performed.

ME: The piece I wrote for the workshop was the musical expression of an experiment with waves in a pond; provoking reactions from the water, letting it settle, and then observing how it reacts naturally within its environment... The underlying feel was, though (and I can only say this now in retrospect), to maintain different kind of tensions in the music, harmonically and rhythmically through long and short lines and chord progressions... only in hearing it emerge from the pages of notes that it was when I had left for Hobart, could I have understood what I had done. We also had done orchestrations of Debussy's Préludes for the orchestra to read – and this exercise outlined some very important points about the relationship between the absolute 'music' (whether in piano form, string quartet, solo) and how it is orchestrated.

JW: The work which was performed was the product of an extended development period and is in some way a stylistic summary of my work throughout the last few years. I was focussing on paring down the material I used in the compositional process to the greatest extent possible, and I aimed to reveal purely the musical elements that oriented the entire work. This resulted in a work which was simple but precise, direct and profound in its effect.

CW: The piece is called The moon lies fair, a line that comes from Mathew Arnold’s poem 'Dover Beach'. While my piece is not, in any way, an evocation of the beach, or a literal representation of the poem, there is something nocturnal about the musical reflections and some more abstract or esoteric points of contact. I first came across the poem when I was actually visiting Dover Beach last year, and the line stuck in my mind. The poem is inscribed on a plaque at the beach, and, following a week of typically rainy English weather, I arrived on the beach on a night very much in the mood of the one described in the poem, calm and clear. I suspect this context led to an even stronger response to the poem.

My starting point for the piece was to look at how smaller parts make up the orchestra as a whole, and so I guess there are a few ‘chamber’ aspects to the piece. It seems quite a logical stepping-stone for someone’s first look at the orchestra, to begin with familiar chamber aspects and then play with how they can be augmented symphonically. On a less pragmatic level, this kind of pulling apart, and in turn reconfiguring of an ensemble, is something that really interests me, and there is such a huge scope for this kind of textural construction in the orchestra.

Is composing for orchestra something that you particularly aspire to? Seeing that opportunities for orchestral commissions are limited, what else is on the horizon for you?

ME: I would be perfectly content writing just orchestral music – I see the orchestra as an endless and open possibility; that its sound will never be exhausted – and the colours you can achieve within this greater instrument is something I am extraordinarily fond of. That opportunities for orchestral commissions are limited has no bearing on my continuing to write music for it – as I see in my future there will be ample situations that I can create for myself where I will have the continued opportunity to have orchestral music performed. On the other hand, in today's compositional world possibilities of sound production continue to evolve and I also really enjoy writing for smaller more intimate ensembles – I think the future of any composer cannot be limited to orchestra alone, just as it cannot be limited to voice, or sound-composition (electroacoustic) alone. I think versatility is probably what I aspire to most.

My future plans involve, or rather are centred around, moving to Bloomington, Indiana, to begin my Doctorate in Music Composition this August. The environment within this school is going to provide me with four years of intense nourishment, both musically and personally – and I can't wait to begin it!

JW: Composing for orchestra has always represented the ultimate goal in my compositional aspirations. Given how difficult it is to receive performances, it is remarkable that I have had the opportunities which I have had so far and I cherish every time I get to work with an orchestra, especially one possessing the experience and professionalism of the TSO. However, it is interesting that through this experience I feel that I have managed to better understand writing for smaller ensembles. One of the greatest things about writing for orchestra is the unlimited aural possibilities it may yield, yet to 'intrapolate' the same effect into a smaller ensemble sometimes seems like an even greater challenge. In the future I will continue to mould my compositional voice within the context of orchestral and other ensemble music, however I have a particular interest at the moment in writing vocal music.

CW: The orchestral sound is unlike anything else, and it is such a pinnacle of Western music that it is difficult not to aspire to it, but as you say, that aspiration needs to be tempered by the realities of the situation. One of the things that can be difficult for younger composers is the limited rehearsal time afforded orchestral music in a professional context. It takes away some aspects of being able to ‘try out’ ideas, that might be possible in a smaller ensemble, because there simply isn’t the time or money for any kind of daring uncertainty. Writing for the orchestra should be part of training for young composers, but I am very much aware that it is unlikely that I will have the opportunity or need to write lots of orchestral pieces, particularly at this stage in my career, and really enjoy working with smaller ensembles or individual musicians with whom I have a personal relationship as well.


Melody Eötvös studied at the Queensland Conservatorium, completing a BMus (Hon) in composition; travelled to London to do an MMus in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, also explored education in completing an LRAM (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music), then returned to Australia where she completed a MA in Philosophy and participated in composer schools and workshops such as Symphony Services Australia composer development program (Orchestra Victoria, dir. Richard Mills); Symphony Australia TSO Composers' school (2008 & 2009); MODART09; Ku-Ring-Gai Philharmonic Orchestra composer workshop; and various other commissions, concert projects, and short film collaborations.

James Wade studied philosophy and psychology before completing a BMus (Hons) in composition with Stuart Greenbaum, Johanna Selleck and Brenton Broadstock. He completed a couple of commissions, worked with Brett Dean and the MSO, and took part in the TSO's Australian Composers' School in 2006 before living overseas for several years, including stints working in France and studying in Canada. Currently James is working towards a PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium with Matthew Hindson.

Chris Williams is completing his honours year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, majoring in composition. Last year, Chris was selected by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies to attend his advanced composition course at the Dartington International Summer School. Chris’s mentor, Nigel Butterley, has also been an extremely important teacher for him. At the Conservatorium his teachers have included Colin Bright, Rosalind Page, Damien Ricketson and Michael Smetanin.

Further links

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (www.tso.com.au)
Symphony Services Australia (www.symphony.net.au)
Symphony Australia TSO Composers School 2009 (pdf)

Subjects discussed by this article:

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