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Monday, August 22, 2016

Why ‘Three Kinds of Silence’?

Silence has been a musical preoccupation of mine for a while now. I wrote the following blog post in 2011 and the ideas discussed in Thomas Clifton’s article led me to explore his way of thinking about musical silence in a new composition – Three Kinds of Silence – that was premiered in Edinburgh in early 2013 by Artisan Trio, who commissioned the work.  This is one of the pieces to be included on my new CD. 

PS If you would like to support the making of this CD, please consider making a tax deductible donation here through the Australian Cultural Fund.  Thanks!


Thomas Clifton’s ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, published in The Musical Quarterly in 1976, offers some interesting insights into the role of silence in music.  Although the essay is very clearly focused on the roles of silence in traditional Western Art music, the ideas developed can easily be applied to any kind of music or sound art.  Clifton sets out to discuss different qualities and types of silence and the effects these have on the listener’s perception.  He opens by comparing the study of musical silence to “deliberately studying the spaces between trees in a forest”: from the outset this essay has so many connections with my own work and preoccupations.  For anyone interested in the poetics of silence, this paper is well worth reading, but I’ll attempt to outline some of the ideas he presents.  Clifton’s work seems to give physical form to silence – he describes “hard-edged silence” where there is sharp contrast between sound and silence.  In other instances the boundary between sound and silence is almost imperceptible.  In his description of ‘Silences in Motion’ he outlines a kind of silence where sound “disappears below the threshold of audibility” but is still present, just out of hearing, until the sounds re-emerge above the hearing threshold once more.  He explores the idea of “Silences in Registral Space” – the idea that the sound space covers the whole range of audible frequencies, or register, and that sounds can drop out of a particular register, leaving a kind of sonic void that seems to wait to be filled.  One of the main points that Clifton makes is that one of the strongest effects of silence is to heighten our perception and awareness.  The introduction of silence makes us listen more intently, waiting for the return of sound.  The dramatic nature of this perceptual focus is clear in the use of silence to surprise – sudden silence, or to increase expectation – the tension of waiting for the next sound.  His essay also reflects on the nature of ‘ending’ – the quality of the final silence.  Silence can be approached by a gradual emptying out of the registral  space, a gradual disengaging from the composition: “the piece itself becomes absent”.  This type of prepared ending allows us to accept that the piece is indeed coming to an end and that the silence that will follow is final.   We had an interesting discussion about the impact of abrupt or unexpected endings in music – that these types of endings can be quite disturbing, unsettling and in some cases quite shocking.  I was reminded of a friend who always insisted on ‘fading out’ any music that was playing on the stereo before he left the room – he would NEVER just press ‘stop’, so extreme was his reaction to any unprepared ending.   The nature of ending is something that relates to so many aspects of our lives, and as is so often the case, music can act as a kind of sonic analog for things other than music.  Clifton takes this to its extreme when he draws a parallel between musical ending and Heidegger’s phenomenological description of death.  Clifton invites us to “consider the way music presents the essence of dying.”  A musical ending is in effect a disengaging with the possibility of further ‘relationships’.  The piece becomes ‘absent’.  “When silence intervenes… the piece itself passes over into nothingness.”  Such a powerful and beautiful way to think about the nature of ending, musical or otherwise.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A day in two parts

Part One.
A freezing cold morning.  I'm waiting for the train into town, sitting outside in the clear nearly-winter sun.  The train arrives and I get on, look around for a seat, find one and sit down.  The man opposite moves to give me more room and asks if I would like his seat; 'no, I'm fine thanks'.  I look down and notice he has bare feet.  'Are your feet cold?'.  'No, not really, I've got my warm jacket on.' And so our conversation begins.  I spend the rest of the train journey chatting to him, I ask him his name and tell him mine (I'll call him John, even though that's not his name).  We talk about gardening, growing veggies, how I never have any luck with broccoli, how much fun it is to have chooks, how sometimes they stop laying in their laying box and you have to hunt around the garden looking for their eggs.  John lives in a rooming house, the cost covered by his pension.  He says he likes where he is living; that he is happy there.  One of his favourite things is to sit in the garden with a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  He asks me where I am heading and I tell him.  'How about you?' - John says he is heading to his GP for his regular medication, as he has a mental illness  I ask him if he likes his doctor and we talk about how nice to is to have a regular GP that you know, that knows you, not like those mega-clinics where you join the queue for whichever doctor is rostered on.  John asks me about my children, how old they are, what does my husband do, is he a good sort.  He asks me if I have any illnesses and I answer no, so far so good.  We talk about John's school days, that he was a good kid but got a caning once for a bit of classroom mucking around.  He went to Melbourne Grammar.  Then he went to University and studied chemistry and mathematics and went on to work in the mining industry.  He got married, they had one child, and then he got sick.  His marriage ended, his wife and child moved away.  He misses them terribly and sees them sometimes.  But he says he is happy now, that he likes his life.  Sometimes he goes into town to beg outside Parliament house to make a bit of extra money for tobacco (he rolls his own cigarettes because it's cheaper).  He likes the company and the conversations he has in town.  Then our train arrives at Flinders Street Station and we say good bye to each other.  I feel really happy for having met him.

Part Two.
I walk from Flinders Street Station, past the NGV and along St Kilda Road to the VCA music building.  As I walk up I see my friend walking towards me with her cello, ready to rehearse my music.  We walk in to the building, having a quick catch up and a laugh, and make our way to another colleague's room, jam packed with not one but two grand pianos and are joined by two more lovely musician friends who have signed up to help make a CD of my music.  I always feel nervous and full of self doubt before a rehearsal - what if the musicians don't like the music, what if there are mistakes in the score (which there inevitably are when the work has only been played once or twice and not had the benefit of a sharp eyed editor).  Even working with musicians I know, I still feel this moment of anxiety.  We start by listening to some less-than-perfect recordings of the pieces we'll be working on - "beautiful piece, Chris" - and my anxiety fades.  We spend the next three hours working through three pieces, none of which has had more than two performances.  This is a first rehearsal and the notes are yet to sit under the hands but the musicians start the process of acquainting themselves with my music.  We have a break, a few more laughs and then back to work.  There is a set of pieces I've never heard played and I am unsure as to whether they are 'good enough' to go on the CD.  The pianist and violinist delve into this unknown territory and after a couple of sections I hear that the music DOES work, that there are moments of loveliness and subtlety.  "These are great! I really like them" says the pianist and I feel a surge of validation and satisfaction.  We finish up, people have places to go, meetings, classes, we say goodbye on St Kilda Road.  I feel happy and hopeful and I soak in the nearly-winter sun.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ballade No. 1

Chopin Ballade Opus 23 No.1.  What a monster of a piece.  This is the piece that defeated me in my final recital at the Con.  I got very close but it was just out of reach.  For years I felt not quite good enough because of this ‘defeat’.  But this morning, I played the Ballade through, slowly, carefully, and made it to the end.  Bloody Hell.  What a marathon.  I thought back to my 21 year old self and felt like giving her a huge pat on the back for even attempting such a behemoth.  Well done me, for giving it a red-hot go.  Even the most experienced and technically skilled of pianists would admit that this piece is VERY difficult.  Today I can see that my efforts were not a ‘failure’ – that the piece was just beyond my capabilities, but I had done my best.

I can remember the ridiculous amount of repetitive practise, over and over and over again, faster and faster to get it up to speed.  And I remember the amazing elation of getting it almost right, the huge power of those chords, the gorgeous lyricism, the flying passages up and down the piano.  It takes my breath away just thinking about it.  And this morning, my body remembered that feeling – the elation was there, my fingers remembered more than I thought they would and could play more than I thought they could.  To be inside the huge emotional span of this work is kind of amazing, exhilarating, terrifying, moving, poignant and profound. 

Earlier this morning I sat with my 10 year daughter as she struggled, in tears, because she couldn’t get the ‘right’ sound out of her flute.  “I don’t want to go to my flute lesson”, “I want to give up”, “I can’t get it right”.  I can remember that feeling as well; the misery and frustration and feeling of inadequacy.  And she’s worrying that her music teacher will think she hasn’t done enough practise, that her teacher will be cross, that she will be judged and found lacking.  I know why she wants to just run away.  My response to her, apart from lots of hugs and reassurance, was ‘No, you are not giving up.  You have to learn how to get through the hard stuff.  That’s what life is like.’  I have no parental ambitions for her to become a professional musician – in fact I think I would probably discourage it!  But what I do know is that learning a musical instrument is an incredibly valuable life experience and it teaches us so much more than just how to play an instrument.  Tenacity, perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, self-reliance, as well as all the other well-researched cognitive benefits.  I explained to her, that if she stopped now, she would most definitely NOT feel better; what will make her feel better will be to work through her current technical ‘block’ and then know what she can achieve through hard work and determination and mental focus.  And then, she can decide whether she wants to keep learning the flute or go back to learning the piano, which is where her musical journey (and mine) began.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

in praise of quaintness

Sometimes there are moments when looking at my children, I register the specialness of that moment and store it away in my memory, a treasure to hold on to.  This morning I sat watching my 7 year old daughter, home sick from school, sitting by the heater, listening to an audio book of Anne of Green Gables while French knitting.  She is totally absorbed in the story unfolding and the tricky task of hooking strands of wool around the metal loops of her knitting bee.  She is content, concentrating, oblivious.  Apart from the overwhelming love I feel for my daughter, I am also struck by the quaintness of the scene.  Such an old fashioned little girl – apart from the ipod on which she listens to the audio book.  This leads me to reflect on the type of childhood we hope to allow our children; both my partner and I are very much of the mind that childhood is not something to rush through but something to dwell in for as long as possible.  We limit our children’s exposure to TV – NO commercial television at all, our family TV viewing is generally something like Dr Who, Antiques Road-Show or Grand Designs.  We encourage reading, writing, drawing, tree climbing, playing in the garden, cooking, knitting, sewing, hammering nails in bits of wood.  We discourage any form of gender stereotyping and avoid like the plague anything that even hints at the sexualisation of little girls.  Both our girls  are now very good at judging if something is ‘inappropriate’ – like the dance moves and song lyrics they have to learn for a school concert or performance.  As parents, we are often incensed by the images and stereotypes that bombard our children on a daily basis, outside of the home, and sometimes even at school.  We don’t want to home-school our children or bring them up in a bubble, quarantined from contemporary reality, as much as that sometimes appeals.  But I hope what we can do is give our daughters the tools to deal with the daily bombardment, to develop a strong enough sense of themselves to be able to know what’s important and what’s not.  I hope our children can stay children for as long as possible; that they can be quaint and whimsical and creative and themselves.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

dusting off the piano

Haydn Piano Sonata in c minor, hello old friend, I've missed you. It's been a while, probably 15 years since my fingers have attempted you, but amazingly you are still there, lying dormant, waiting. My fingers have not forgotten you and neither have I.  Haydn’s piano sonatas, so often overshadowed by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s offerings, but so full of grace and delicacy, muscularity and depth of feeling.  Having browsed through some more contemporary and ‘popular’ piano music (think Nyman) I am so happy to delve into this music that sits so perfectly under my fingers.  No awkward twists and turns that make little sense under a human hand, this music lives when it is played and what a feeling to again dive into it.   I played through one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards the other day and felt such happiness to be back inside this music, these crystalline sounds and inspired construction.  And then there is Bach, always Bach.  From my first Minuet from the Children’s Bach, to the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, to the dense complexities of some of the more hairy preludes and fugues, I always come back to Bach.

My relationship with the piano is a fraught one.  There is love and loss and guilt and self-criticism and love and disappointment.  Do other musicians (lapsed and otherwise) feel this way?  I look at my piano and I can almost hear it calling out to me, my fingers yearn to play it, there is something like an ache of longing and also an avoidance, a reproach, a turning away.

I recently read Anna Goldsworthy’s beautifully written book Piano Lessons (that it has taken me this long to ‘get around’ to reading this book is testament to my avoidance of things piano).  Reading about Anna’s journey in music from childhood to adulthood led me to reflect on some parallels but also some notable differences.  At what point had the joy and love for playing being overwhelmed by anxiety, self-criticism, loss of confidence and eventually an abandonment of my musical mother tongue?  When did it stop being about the music?  I can remember the stress of competing in Eisteddfods and music competitions, the nervousness that served no purpose other than to distract me from playing my best, the disappointment at knowing I could play better but hadn’t, the feeling of letting others down, then the scathing self-criticism only enhanced by a throw away comment from a music teacher; “didn’t you want to win?”  

My self-confidence took a further battering when I arrived at ‘The Con’ and was overwhelmed on a daily basis by the technical mastery of many of my peers.  Their pianistic pyrotechnics left me in awe and also in no doubt that my own musical skills were inadequate: that I was inadequate, with nothing to offer as a pianist in the face of such obviously superior musicianship.  No one talked about the love of music, what a gift it is to share with others.  Music was reduced to a competitive sport; accuracy and technical proficiency and virtuosity were valued above all else.  Performing in front of anyone became of trial to be overcome, and an activity that inevitably reinforced my own sense of inadequacy and failure as a musician.  At the end of second year I decided I wanted to major in composition but I convinced the faculty to let take a double major and keep having piano lessons.  I remember clearly that I did not want to give up on the piano, it was still my musical lifeline and I was not ready to cut off this part of myself.  I made it through to the end of fourth year, passed my final piano exam with a credit and walked away.  I never played in public again, or indeed in front of anyone, except the occasional piano student.  Composing music became my primary musical outlet, one that I convinced myself was a much better fit – I could write music and someone else could play it. 

I still played occasionally for myself, but less and less as my technical facility lost its edge; enjoyment gave way to frustration and the piano collected dust.  But I have always come back to the piano.  When I lived in Edinburgh and had access to a Steinway grand, I would wait until weekends when no one was around, take a pile of music and spend a couple of hours revisiting loved pieces and untangling new ones.  Work and young children served as further distractions and kept me away for a time and I sometimes felt, with sadness, that playing the piano was lost to me, that I had let it go and was past the point of getting it back. “What a waste” was a comment often repeated by my mother, a phrase which in many ways twisted the knife but also failed to understand the connection between the years of learning to play the piano and my current musical life as a composer. One would not be possible without the other.  Piano was where I learnt to ‘speak’ music, now I use that language in another way.

A couple of years ago I took up the cello, wishing to learn a new instrument, and enjoyed immersing myself in a new set of technical challenges and the rewards that come from expressing oneself in a new way.  At the back of my mind this sometimes felt like a willful betrayal, another form of avoidance.  Why was I spending time learning and practicing the cello when my piano sat untouched?  Why was I struggling to learn to play a simple tune on the cello when I could launch into something much more musically complex and satisfying (however rustily) on the piano?

Having had little time for either instrument over the last six months, it is the piano that I have returned to.  I feel like I am reconnecting with an old friend, long avoided and undervalued.  But I am also making a very conscious decision to let go of all the ‘baggage’ associated, for me, with this instrument.  Self-criticism, and reproach, disappointment, frustration, guilt, feelings of inadequacy… be gone.  I’m done with you: you never served any purpose anyway. 

I am playing the piano because I enjoy it and if I play it for someone else, it will be so I can share something, not impress them.  And if I make a mistake or if my rendition of the piece is less than ‘perfect’, that is OK because I will be playing the music with love and that’s the important thing.  Not musical pyrotechnics, not aiming to be better than someone else, not misplaced perfectionism.  I want the music back, the joy of playing the piano, the technical challenge, but more importantly the sense of satisfaction of bringing some little black notes on a page to life.  And I’ll be happy to share that, if anyone wants to listen, and just as happy to have it for myself.

And here’s the thing: I never wanted to be a concert pianist or a chamber musician or any kind of performer.  I just knew that whatever it was that I was, it was about music.  And somewhere along the way a part of my musical self was sidelined, shamed into submission and left in a corner to gather dust.  So, I’m sorry old friend, it wasn’t your fault, or my fault, you’ve been waiting patiently and we’ve got some catching up to do.