For Rosa, For New England
Two weekends ago I was up in Armidale, New South Wales, which is part of the New England region. Very pretty, very chilled-out place to do a project. Lucky me. I was working for AYO (Australian Youth Orchestra) leading an education project with the Bloodwood String Quartet (very impressive young quartet of players) as part of the Young Australian Concert Artists regional residency program. The Quartet and I worked with young string players from the Armidale Youth String Training Program (who have been playing on average around three years, and are aged between 9 and 14, I’d say).
Such a nice project! First of all, the quartet was great – very open to the group-composing process, and to facilitating a composition with a small group of young players, very inventive with what they came up with, and very happy to try some of my odder ideas.
Then, the host school – the New England Conservatorium – proved a peaceful, happy place to be. It is perched high on a hill at one end of the town, in a grand old building with a stately staircase at its entrance, and a circular drive. Not to mention a director who had everything organised and was completely unflappable and welcoming, in the midst of a full weekend of workshops happening in all directions, not just our grou.
Lastly, the motel room I was provided with was immensely luxurious – I think it was more spacious than the entire flat I live in in Melbourne! But I was there to work, so didn’t spend much time enjoying the perks like the flat screen TV. (I am amused to see that on their website they offer up their adjacence to McDonalds as the prime Unique Selling Point… clearly I am a little outside their target market. But still, it was very, very comfortable there. Proximity to McDonalds, or indeed Red Rooster which was over the road, didn’t both me).
So what did we do?
With these residency projects, where the visiting ensemble will present a number of performances in the local region before and after the composition project, I like to take a work from their repertoire as a starting point for the group composition. That way, it gives the project participants an intimate understanding of the piece, which will really enhance their appreciation of it if they go to the concert. Hopefully they will go to hear it in concert, because of this familiarity!
However, it is also important to demonstrate ways that a group composition came come from any starting point, and to make connections back to the local community and environment. Before I travelled up to Armidale I read up on the region, and thought about building the project around local sights like the waterfalls, or the beautiful autumnal colours… but then the Conservatorium director told me that the poet Judith Wright was from Armidale, that her family still lives there, that her grandson would be taking part in the composition project, and that he had chosen one of her poems for us to use as a compositional starting point.
The poem he chose, For New England, had some wonderful imagery in it:
the harsh horizon rimmed with drought…
a sail blown over like a message (you are not forgotten)…
dogwood blooms within my winter blood…
the orchards fruit in me…
So in the end I decided to combine both the poem, and a piece of of the Bloodwood’srepertoire – For Rosa, by Elena Kats-Chernin – and build the project around these two works.
Musicially, it was quite a challenge at times to bring together these two distinct and separate voices. I decided that the final piece would feature excerpts of the Kats-Chernin performed by the Bloodwood Quartet, with short original pieces composed by the children placed at key intervals throughout the piece.
For Rosa has many disctinctive characteristics – I tried to locate four points in the score where a particularly characteristic effect or musical moment could be ‘vamped’ (repeated for an unspecified number of times) as a way of ushering in one of the small group pieces. I looked for things like drones, effects with harmonics, or paused chords, that could perhaps be picked up by the small group at the beginning or end of their composition, so as to create a smooth segue.
I identified several of these points in the score prior to the small groups setting to work on their compositions, but had to revise my ideas once I heard how their pieces were emerging. I toyed with the idea of being very perscriptive with the small groups (each led by one of the Bloodwood players) in terms of howw they needed to start or finish their pieces, or the pitches they were allowed to work with, but in the end decided that this would be too restrictive. Rather, I felt we would get better results if I gave the groups more freedom, and trusted that the ideal entry and exit points would be revealed.
In the end it took at bit of tweaking – but not too much. We utilised a lot of kats-Chernin’s pauses, it must be said. But there were still one or two vamped bars too. I think the transfer from Kats-Chernin to group compositions worked well, in the end. But it was a big brain effort!
The poem was used as the main inspiration for the small group compositions. We divided into four sections, and each small group took one section to work from. I asked them to choose just one word, and one line or phrase from the poem. The word became a pitch group. The letters in the word that can also belong to the musical alphabet (ABCDEFG) or a musical alphabet from another language (add H and S) became a mode or pitch group that the group had to limit themselves to using.
The phrase was used to develop a rhythm. The group said their chosen phrase aloud several itmes in a row and paid attention to where the syllables fell in relation to a steady pulse. The implied rhythm then became defined, and learned. The groups then assigned pitches from the mode to the rhythm, and that became a piece of material for their composition.
Thus, each group had a mode, a piece of melodic material, and the overall narrative, or atmosphere described in their section of Judith Wright’s poem. This was enough to get them started, and the four pieces created were all very distinct.
On the second day of the project we spent most of our time working as a whole ensemble, rehearsing the small group pieces in the context of the Kats-Chernin. At 2.30pm we performed, to delighted applause. I do love these projects. They have such a fabulous feel-good quality for everyone. One of the children rushed up to me after the performance, saying,
“It’s so cool! We just composed a song! Now we can all be songwriters when we grow up!”
In fact, you are already songwriters, I pointed out to her, and she beamed at me. She had been pretty quiet and straight-faced throughout the project, so this was a nice, unexpected endorsement of the work for me!
Then it was rush, rush, rush to get me to the airport, to await a flight that was delayed, to connect with a flight to Melbourne from Sydney, that was also delayed, getting me home sometime around midnight. Ah Qantas! At least we landed safely, I suppose. And they let me have a second dinner. Beef rissoles.