Johannes Luebbers was one of the composers commissioned for the Western Australian Composers Project, that took place at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth, in 2013. Here, Artist director of Decibel Cat Hope asks a few questions about Johanne's commisioned work, 'The Past is Never Far Behind'.
What was the main inspiration for your piece 'The past is never far behind'?
The main inspiration for the work came from a feeling of being stuck in my writing. At the time I felt like I had worked for many years on my craft and rather than broadening my scope it felt like the refining and developing of a process had actually backed me into an artistic corner of sorts. I saw this piece as an opportunity to break some habits and to try and subvert my instinct for what I might normally do.
In addition to this I also wanted to try and follow my intuition in a different way, without the restraint of habit. The harmony revolved around dissonant intervals and vertical shapes, in an effort to avoid harmonic approaches I might usually seek. I also tried to disrupt my sense of structure. Often I will create formal structures that flow and have a pretty constant feeling of movement. In this instance I wanted to sabotage that by breaking things up with pauses and having sharp shifts in texture and tone. I tried to treat each section like a little thought-block, avoiding the sense of developmental I might usually strive for.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how successful I was in doing this and the title of the piece captures that feeling that, though you might attempt to change something, your history (in my case my compositional habits and inclinations) are always there shaping you.
In your program notes, you comment that as a composer you often find yourself seeing your history all too vividly in your writing, finding it hard to avoid. Can you elaborate on that?
I find that I am a product not only of the music I have studied and listened to, but of the music I have previously written. Things don’t literally repeat, but with each piece I write I can recognise the trace of my past works; sometimes in actual sounds – melodies and harmonies – and other times just in my process. Sometimes this is a good thing, as it consolidates your style and ‘voice’, but other times it leaves you feeling as if you’re painting by numbers with stale sounds.
I found that when I was writing I could identify certain habits that kept coming back, which I found frustrating. I often write for my own ensemble, which has a consistent instrumentation, which has created another challenge when trying to change my approach, with the similar palette causing me to often lean in a certain direction. The chance work with Decibel was a great opportunity to try and challenge my own assumptions with a new ensemble. In that sense the work was a bit of an exorcism for me – it felt like some parts worked musically and others didn’t, but they needed to be written nonetheless.
How did writing this piece differ from your other formats – you usually arrange and compose for jazz ensembles, right?
Most of the writing I do is for jazz ensembles and the times that I write for more classically oriented groups it’s usually within a commercial context, arranging popular music or things with a contemporary popular or jazz feel. It’s certainly rare that I would get the opportunity to write for an ensemble like Decibel! It was a real challenge. I can normally rely on certain jazz conventions, such as solos, as an easy structural device. Removing these definitely pushes me into a more unfamiliar situation. Decibel also has a unique approach to music making, with skills and conventions that don’t exist in most ensembles. Trying to fit into this, while still creating something of my own, was challenging. In addition to all this, the space in which we performed created further issues to consider, as it was incredibly reverberant and caused things to resonate in ways I really wasn’t expecting. All up this experience was quite different to the compositional situations I usually find myself in! What are your main compositional interests at the moment?
I’m currently engaged in a PhD at the WA Academy of Performing Arts focussing on creating music collaboratively, so collaboration has been a real interest lately. I’ve been investigating different approaches to collaboration in the kinds of musical environments I usually work. This interest grows out of the same place that motivated my work for Decibel – that is, the interest in continuing to challenge my own process and investigate new ways for me to work. Collaboration provides a fruitful area to explore, as it’s the opposite of my usual composer-centric approach.
Another area of interest, which in part grows out of the collaborative explorations, is the incorporation of free improvised elements into more structured settings. Improvisation and free playing can achieve musical outcomes that are simply not possible through notation and I love employing both to creating interesting palettes that simultaneously create a sense of cohesion while unleashing the personalities in a group.
Depending on the setting orchestration is also a real love and fascination of mine, especially when working with larger palettes, such as orchestras and big bands. I get a real kick out of listening to and exploring the different colours that can be achieved in an ensemble, and the balancing of sonic elements is a real art that I’ve gotten a lot of nerdy pleasure out of.
Who are your main compositional inspirations? Are there any in particular for this work?
Since I first discovered his work back in university Olivier Messiaen has been a major inspiration in much of my work. People often associate Messiaen with his ‘modes of limited transposition’ and harmonic language, but for me his approach to rhythm and structure have really shaped my writing. His approach to rhythm involved breaking it down to a single, small rhythmic unit, which removed the importance and dominance of the time signature on the rhythm and really freed things up. This aspect of his music has liberated my own approach to rhythm immensely. I’ve had many inspirations from the world of jazz over the years too, including oft cited names such as Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider. John Hollenbeck is an ongoing inspiration too, as he often brings free elements into large ensemble settings to great effect. Australian composer Matthew Hindson was also an inspiration for this work, as some of his recent work also took an interesting intervallic approach to harmonic structures.
What are you currently working on?
Much of what I’m currently working on revolves around my PhD research. Through that I’m working with my own ensemble ‘Minesweeper’ to create new work as a group. We’ve done a few performances late last year and are now working on some new material in response to other work by WA artists. I’ve also worked with a trio from that larger ensemble as a separate project, where we collaboratively compose to moving images, performing as a part of a Fringe show earlier this year. I’m also working on a project with dancer Lucinda Coleman and artist Miik Green looking at the idea of resistance in a collaborative work. We’ll be exhibiting that later this year at ECU. On top of that there are a few arranging gigs on the horizon, involving orchestrating rock songs for orchestra, and I’ve got an ongoing collaboration with actor/writer Nick Christo, writing a musical theatre work about Australian opera icon Nellie Melba. Never a dull moment!
Sam Gillies was one of the emerging composers commissioned for the Western Australian Composers Project take took place at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth, in 2013. Here, Artist director of Decibel Cat Hope asks a few questions of Sam about his piece.
What was the main inspiration for your piece in the WA Composers Project, entitled 'The Aura Implicit'?
At the time of writing The Aura Implicit, I’d become fascinated with the many linguistic blind spots in our language. I’d started noticing scenes, details, descriptions, actions and ideas all around me that did not have words to describe them. If a word does not exist, many other words must be strung together logically in order to convey the happening in question, filtering the individual’s years of experience and understanding towards the point in question. There is however, a limit to how precise an occurrence can be understood between two individuals, resulting in an aura, a distinctive atmosphere or quality surrounding an person, place or thing, implicit in the subject in question.
As such, the title The Aura Implicit is a reflection of this intangibility of description. Sound relationships given form and structure through music and notation pass through several mediums for communication - the score, the players, the audience… These thoughts have been flying around during the creation of this work, attempting to escape in some form or another. I tend to find that my work often relies on the aura implicit in its performance for the construction of meaning – the realized work being the product of many stages of interpretation and instruction, the equivalent of stringing words together to form an impression of the original intention of the work.
You often use events as starting points for works. Do you develop a compositional approach based on the event, or does that evolve separately?
I’d say that the event is more often the starting point for thoughts that I then attempt to manifest in music, or use to guide my compositional decisions. I’d associate my process of composition with that of sculpture in fine art – that is, taking raw materials and shaping them with the processes of composition leaving a finished work that can be taken on face value or approached from multiple perspectives to be given due consideration. How this shaping takes place is usually based upon some sort of conceptual framework, or informed by an overall point that I wish to draw the audience’s attention to. While conceptual ideas have a limit as to the use in creating a coherent musical work, events are particularly useful for the decision making process for larger musical structures.
How do you create your scores? They use a unique combination of graphic and traditional notation, but maintain a very neat, technical appearance.
Adobe Illustrator has been a great resource for my writing over the past couple of years. Illustrator allows for the easy realisation of simple geometrical shapes and symbols, but the process of assembling a score is a painstaking one. In the case of The Aura Implicit, I was interested in combining and developing very short ideas that would create a stream of musical development. This involved combining graphic notation with fractured sections of more traditional notation, resulting in a painstaking exercise of formatting and resizing. All of the notation was drawn in Illustrator which helps to maintain a uniform look throughout, however relatively conventional musical requirements, such as transposing instruments, is significantly more difficult. Having said that, I believe there is a value to owning your musical language, and Illustrator enables me to build a communicative interaction with the performer that feel more direct, more akin to the way I express myself and ideas in person.
What are your main compositional interests?
The idea of noise – what is it, how do we define it, what is its relationship to music – is a constant interest of mine. Noise is essential to our understanding of the sonic world around us, it is how we make sense of our environment, how we hone our perceptions on elements that are important to us. Music allows us to reflect on noise, to create works that engage with the unwanted excess of sound and sound environments, to actively engage with a sense of the otherness in sound and music making. More recently, I’ve been interested in this idea of noise with regards to language, the barriers and otherness that prohibits coherent communication and expression of ideas. I find all of these thoughts to be useful starting points when considering composition.
Tell us more about Eskimo's and snow, which seem key to this piece. How are these elements reflected compositionally?
It is widely accepted as truth that Eskimo's have an unusually large number of words for snow, a reflection of language attempting to classify the unclassifiable, while simultaneously failing to translate to the English vernacular. It is a wonderfully poetic idea that the Eskimos familiarity and understanding of snow is so detailed that their language attempts to conquer the infinite variations of snowfall. It is somewhat heartbreaking to learn that is a fallacy, and that the Eskimo language has about the same number of distinct root words descriptors of snow as English. But it is a familiar example of the sort of linguistic vagary that I was interested in exploring in The Aura Implicit.
The Aura Implicit is essentially a collection of musical interactions, of phrases supported by electronic processing. I sought to suggest the intangible throughout, often utilizing musical material and techniques that would occupy the out realms of performance technique, and juxtaposing these with more conventional phrasing and melodic form. All the while the electronic dissects and manipulates echoes of the past obliterating its form and creating a radiant halo to encapsulate the performers, through eight channels of dynamically spatialised sound. While there is no literal depiction of snow, I hope that the work could be interpreted as the musical approximation of this linguistic shortcoming.
Along with others, I support the argument that music is not a 'language'. Isn't one of music's wonders that it does over come the limits of 'language'?
To me music is closer to a purely sensory experience than a language, however, I’d argue that this presents its own limitations when working with sound in an artistic way - the written and spoken word gives us metaphor, simile and word play to effect a depth of meaning, something unattainable in music. I wouldn’t say that music overcomes the limits of language, as all modes of expression have blind spots and shortcomings. But there is something wondrous to me about being able to explore communicative and linguistic concepts in a sound based medium.
Your original score for this work was large paper sheets. You reworked the work to be used on the Decibel ScorePlayer during our tour in Europe at the end of 2013. Where the challenges, or benefits in that for you? Tell me a little about that process of transfer for you.
The Decibel ScorePlayer is a unique invention that, to my mind, has the ability to radically alter the perception of how graphically notated music is to be performed and understood by performers and audiences. The crux of the ScorePlayer is that the graphic must be written proportionally. Proportionality has never been something I’ve worried about when writing my scores, I’ve always taken as much room as I need to communicate the amount of information required. The process of translating the paper score to a digital copy suitable to the ScorePlayer was challenging – I don’t own an iPad so I had to try to set the settings on my computer to best approximate the size and resolution of the ScorePlayer screen, with mixed results. However, the end result is that my work can be easily rehearsed and coordinated by the ensemble, and anything that makes the job of the musicians easier can only be beneficial. I did run short of time towards the end though, and was unable to make use of some of the fancier features available, which I lament, but perhaps next time.
You can listen to a recording of the premiere performance of The Aura Implicit here. The score is also available here. To find out more about Sam, you can visit his website.
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