Friday, August 23, 2013

Working in Small Forms

Miniature. Study. Etude. Novella.  Haiku.

Across media, these forms share certain characteristics.  Brevity.  Succinctness. Focus.  A willingness to experiment.  An intensity of utterance. 
I feel drawn to these small forms.  I would often rather listen to a short chamber work than a large orchestral piece.  Contemplating a small, beautifully crafted object can be more satisfying than trying to take in a huge expanse of art.  A short poem can capture an essential truth that may get lost in an epic novel.

The reasons why artists work in small forms are probably as varied as the works themselves.  Perhaps it is a necessity of time or space.  Perhaps it is a preference for minutiae over expanse.  Maybe it is the singular focus required when working on something small.

I have at times chosen to work in small forms because my time was fragmented and sustaining a large-scale work seemed beyond me.  But more often it is the essential nature of small forms that appeals to me.  When your parameters are limited, you need to focus on what is important.  There is a particular challenge in working with constrained material as well – discovering the potential of limited means.   At the moment I am working on a series of video ‘miniatures’ - short works of sound and image that are no more than 3 and a half minutes long.  I am really enjoying the immediacy of working in this way – I can create a new work in a couple of days as opposed to a couple of weeks or months.  And the immediacy for me is also in the fact that I can hear and see the finished works as soon as they are complete – I don’t need to wait months or years to hear the works realised by performers.  Each small work poses new technical challenges and they are very much learning pieces for me, not having worked in this way before – composing the sound and image together. 

There is a long history of making small-scale studies or maquettes or etudes or samplers or miniatures, often as a preliminary or preparatory work for a more extended piece. The embroidered ‘Sampler’ is kind of test piece or demonstration or embroidery skill, a ‘small form’ that many girls and young women were expected to master in the 18th and 19th centuries, and earlier.  We have an example of incredibly fine Victorian embroidery in the form of a small, embroidered pillowcase, made by a Miss Aitken in 1851.  I am amazed at the tiny neat stitches that make my eyes ache – a rather lovely miniature demonstrating technical skill – as well as an edifying religious message! 
As a student of piano, I also remember playing many studies or etudes which were intended to develop certain technical skills but which were also often beautiful pieces in their own right. 

I like this idea or experimenting, trying things out, learning new techniques, refining ideas – with the possibility of using what is discovered in a later and possibly larger work.   But also allowing that the ‘miniatures’ or sketches have aesthetic value in them selves - whether or not they are stepping stones does not detract from their intrinsic worth or appeal.

And small forms offer the listener / reader / viewer a glimpse of something, another world. They don’t have to stay long but the experience can be as intense and the memory as long lasting.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sound and Space


For much of this year I’ve been composing music that is traditionally notated  – I write the notes on paper and the musicians bring the notes to life in the performance.  Working this way means there is a certain distance between me and the music – I can have a reasonable idea what the music will sound like (thanks to my music notation software) but the music doesn’t really live until it is played or sung by real living people in a real acoustic space.   So it has been great to shift into the world of digital sounds (and images) for the pieces I have been working on over the last couple of months, where I can create sound worlds that are immediately realizable in a virtual acoustic space. 

I dabbled with electronic music many years ago as an undergraduate student but it wasn’t until I was doing my Masters degree in Glasgow that I had access to a digital sound studio where I could really start to explore and manipulate recorded sound.  One of my first electroacoustic (to be heard through speakers) pieces was largely built of recordings of me walking up and down stairs and unlocking, opening and closing my front door.  This wouldn’t seem to be particularly inspiring source material but once in the studio I became completely absorbed in the process of dissecting and reassembling the sounds to create my own imaginary sonic space.  Something quite magical happens when you record a space – when you listen to it later, your imagination recreates that space purely through sonic information.  I can listen to a recording of a reverberant stairwell in Glasgow while I am sitting in my study in Melbourne and feel transported back to that very particular space.  (I've written about this in more detail in a paper, 'Imagining Space Through Sound'.) There is a whole sonic subculture that deals with ‘Acoustic Ecology’ – capturing and preserving acoustic environments and creating sound scapes from these recordings.  I’ve certainly created a collection of sound works that fit into this category – I made a series of soundscapes during an Artist Residency at Bundanon (NSW) where I recorded the soundscape of Cicadas at different times of the day and a the unfolding sounds of a heavy downpour of rain.  Environmental sounds often have their own shape and structure over time, requiring little ‘composing’ of the sounds after the event.  This approach to creating a recorded soundscape is more about capturing a particular time and place. 

In other works I have enjoyed using various recorded sounds to create my own imaginary sonic space, editing and digitally manipulating sounds and combining different sonic elements to ‘compose’ a new sonic environment.  In my music theatre work ‘An Opera of Clouds’ I created a series of soundscapes that weave around the live performance elements and spoken texts of the work, taking the audience to quite a different imaginary space and creating a rich web of suggested meanings.  Most recently I have been working on a soundscape ‘accompaniment’ to a three part vocal work.  The text for the work is a Scottish Haiku that delicately captures the particular qualities of sound and light of a Scottish spring.  Having lived in Scotland for a few years, I just happened to have some lovely recordings that worked well as a sound bed for the vocal piece, evoking something of the qualities of the text and hopefully creating new layers of meaning in the work.

Sound is such a powerful way to evoke memory and create associations between what is seen and what is heard.  Combining sound and image can result in an amazing alchemy whereby the sound and the image are both transformed and enhanced.  I’ve just started working on a series of video miniatures (for want of a better description) that combine images and sounds with the intention of creating moments in time in which we can just contemplate simple elements or ideas.  There is no narrative, no ‘take home message’, just something open to the viewer/listener’s interpretation.  The first of these, ‘Remembering Water’ combines simple layered loops of video (water in a Scottish burn, with water the colour of tea) and a layered 3-part canon of a recorded viola solo from an earlier work.  The elements are simple but I am really pleased with how they work together.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bach and Perseverance

For as long as I have know them, my children have shown no interest whatsoever in me playing the piano.  When they were very little they would wail ‘stop mummy’ or ‘let me play, mummy’, so I quickly gave up on my romanticised view of musical motherhood where I would play Bach as they played on the floor beside me.  But recently something has changed.  The last two evenings after homework is done, they have actually ASKED me to play for them.  ‘Play the Waltz’, ‘Play the fast one’, ‘Play the one you played when you were a little girl.’  This last request was the reason I climbed up to the attic today to seek out my box full of old piano music and find my copy of The Children’s Bach.  This particular collection of piano pieces has an almost mythical status among those of us who learnt the piano as children.  Helen Garner chose to use the title for her 1984 Novella.  I remember being particularly moved when, at a musical soirée, Anna Goldsworthy played a piece, probably a Minuet, from The Children’s Bach and read extracts from her memoir Piano Lessons because it took me straight back to my early years learning the piano.  When I found my copy of The Children’s Bach today I was similarly transported back to early piano lessons.  My copy is dog-eared, faded, sellotaped, with my name on the front cover in my piano teacher’s familiar handwriting.  I was filled with love for this music and fond memories of my piano teacher, Mrs Spratt, who was in many ways my musical mother, someone who understood me very well.  The reason I went up into the attic to extract this particular book was an ongoing ‘discussion’ (argument) I am having with my older daughter about the importance of perseverance.  She is learning the piano, and like every 7 year old, is not overly interested in practising, and being a clever 7 year old who often finds things easy, she is struggling with the realisation that learning a new piece is DIFFICULT.  Having tried the Robert the Bruce and the spider story (“if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”) without much traction, I told her how I had struggled with a particular piano piece when I was little bit older than her; ‘A Little Air’, from The Children’s Bach.  I clearly remember how frustrated I was, how the piece tripped me up and just didn’t make sense and that it nearly made me give up the whole endeavour.  But after a stern word from my piano teacher and probably my mother too, I knuckled down and played it over and over and over again until I got it.  I also remember the fantastic sense of satisfaction and pride in my achievement when I could finally play the piece from beginning to end.  I told my daughter all of this.  And then she wanted to hear the piece.  I will play it for her and her sister tonight, along with a waltz and a fast piece and maybe a Bach Prelude.  And I hope my story of the ‘tricky piano piece’ will stay with her every time she starts a new piece and meets that wall of frustration.  Perseverance, along with resilience, are perhaps some of the most important lessons I hope to teach our children.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Love Song

for Eleanor and Freya

The warmth of your fidgety body
Nestled against my spine

The softness of your fairy kisses
On my cheek

The sweet nutty smell of your hair

The shape and smallness of your hands in mine

These things I carry with me

Like the strange collection of shells and stones
Leaves and cicada skins
That find their way to the bottom of my bag

Ready to surface and take me by surprise

Like the great waves of my love for you

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Fastness of Forgetting

I'm gradually fleshing out my new website and I've just added a video clip from a video performance piece I made in 2004. It's called The Fastness of Forgetting - inspired by a passage in Milan Kundera's novel Slowness:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting… the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

This final section of the work is a very personal exploration of memory and how it fades. The images are largely photos of my family; my mother, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents and great aunts, most of whom are now gone. I remember playing this section to my mother and it made her cry. Now she's gone too and it makes me cry.

The music is played beautifully by Brisbane-based Topology ensemble.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Still Here

Like most parents of young children, there was something of a build up to 2013 - the year when we would have both children AT SCHOOL.  This was of particular interest to me, having been driven almost totally around the bend by the year of KINDER + SCHOOL = NO TIME to do anything.  So of course, I had great expectations - the year I would get my life back, the year I would get some decent work done, the year I would find balance and find myself and pick up where I left off.
I think I realised once school started (as warned by those that have gone before me) that the sea of time available for work was in fact somewhat limited, more like a medium sized lake.  Yes, I have more time to write - which is excellent. So far I have finished two substantial compositions which have been happily sent off to their commissioners.  I am already way ahead of where I was this time last year. I have two more pieces in the 'starting to work on' pile and I am hoping to delve into my work book of 'pieces I want to make' and actually make some of them.  I have set up a website - something I have been meaning to do for AGES.  And I've done some teaching, joined the school council, started doing yoga again, almost cracked couch-to-5K, built a new garden bed or two and even planted some veggies.  Not bad going. But back to the composing...
In the lead up to this year I made a commitment to myself that this year I would resist the temptation to accept every bit of paid work on offer and give myself permission to refocus on writing music.  Part of me felt guilty about this - would I be pulling my weight, was it an indulgence, or at worst, a kind of laziness?  Of course I know of this is just the crazy ravings of my 'inner critic' - I KNOW that writing music is what I do and is a worthwhile pursuit and something to be nurtured and protected.  But, it is actually quite confronting to let go of some of those security blankets (like a reasonable income) and step out into that sea (or lake) of creative possibility and re-discovery of self.  I wonder if I will keep my nerve?  Will I be able to keep focussed on what I need to do and not be distracted by what I think other people think I should be doing?  I'm going to give it a red hot go.

And my website, surprisingly, is christinemccombe.com.  Have a look.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Thank you Miriam

I sat at the piano today and played - something of a rare event over the last 10 years.  Our neighbour Graeme had given me a pile of his old music before he died last year and I have been saving it for such a day.  Among this dusty pile were quite a few pieces by dearly loved Australian composer Miriam Hyde.  It was the 100th anniversary of her birth last month and I had read a lovely blog post about her by music writer Rosalind Appleby so Miriam had recently been in my thoughts.  In the dusty pile of music I found a lovely little work called "Lullaby for Christine" with the dedication 'To my Baby Daughter'.  As I played through the piece I couldn't help but reflect on the struggle it would have been for Miriam Hyde to compose anything at all when caring for a baby.  I know I certainly struggled to compose anything very much for the first couple of years of our daughter's lives.  What a focussed, determined, tenacious and hugely talented woman she was.  Generations of Australian pianists (including me) grew up playing her pieces and I just took them for granted, not being aware of the circumstances in which they were written.  My two babies are now at school (Hoorah) and I can see my creative world opening up again - which is tremendously exciting.  All the more reason to appreciate and be inspired by the compositional efforts of all the composing mothers out there, past, present and future.  

Monday, January 28, 2013

the things we keep

Today I went through some of my mothers papers that had been sitting in bags and boxes in our bedroom for well over a year.  My mother died nearly 18 months ago and I have been putting off this task, knowing that it would be difficult.  But today I went through the various bundles of photos, old and more recent, my mother’s nursing certificates and letters of reference, a collection of cheque book stubs with balances brought forward and all cheques accounted for. My mother was a very organised and orderly person.  There were the mother’s day cards I had made, the letters my father had written to her when she was on trips home to the UK.  And the letters from my Grandfather to her, all signed ‘love from Daddy’.  There was an old chocolate box full of cards to my parents congratulating them on my birth – quite an event as my mother was 40 when I was born and I was her only child.  I remember going through this box of cards on may occasions when I was a child, enjoying all the pictures of bears and baby girls and pink ribbons.  Many of these things made me cry, as I expected they would.  My mother is so present in all of these things – it makes her absence now all the more painful to me. 

There were also many things that weren’t there that made me wonder why.  There were no letters from her mother, who died suddenly within a year or so of Mum moving to Australia.  I know they were very close so it seems strange that there are no letters from her, or indeed any letters before about 1977.  Although I haven’t been through all the boxes of Mum’s things yet, I don’t remember seeing any letters from her sisters in the UK, with whom she corresponded on a reasonably regular basis.  I have a feeling that my mother disposed of much of her correspondence.  I can imagine her having one of her ‘clean outs’ which could often be quite ruthless and unsentimental.  My mother was the opposite of a hoarder – she regularly shed things.  And seemingly letters were amongst the things that she did not deem worth keeping.  I’m not sure that they contained terrible family secrets that she didn’t want me to find out – I think she just felt no compulsion to hold onto the past.   I have found my mother’s lack of sentimentality in some instances quite disconcerting.  All through my childhood and into my adult life my mother held onto a neatly folded tissue containing my baby teeth.  I can remember where she kept it in her dressing table – it was always there.  After she died and I had to pack up her things, there was no sign of the baby teeth.  I can’t imagine why she would have disposed of them after all this time.  She never asked me if I wanted them.   Another example was an old reel – to reel tape recorder with a recording of me, aged 3, talking about a ‘koala bear’ eating porridge.  A few years ago I got the recording digitised as we were worried the tape might deteriorate.  I returned the tape to my mother and then some time after that she disposed of the tape machine and the tape reels.

So it was all the more strange going through her papers to come across a small envelope containing an RSVP to her 9th birthday party from a little girl called Winnie.  I’d never seen this note before, I have no idea who Winnie was, or why this small envelope and its contents has survived for nearly 80 years when so many other seemingly significant things have gone by the wayside.  Perhaps it had survived in my Grandfather’s papers (he definitely WAS a hoarder) and my mother came across it when she was going through his things after his death.  I will ask my aunty if she remembers a little girl called Winnie but as she would have only been 7 years old at the time, she may not . 

And going through my mothers things leads me to reflect on how I deal with the dilemma of what to keep and what to shed as I move through life, accumulating things.  We have boxes full of children’s art works and school books and little things they have made – and our girls are still young.  There are years ahead of accumulating and shedding of things not regarded as important enough to keep.
I still have a collection of my own school books and art – a collection that has been pruned over the years but much of it survives.  I wonder how I will deal with the hard choices of what to keep and what to discard and what I will leave for our children.