Friday, November 11, 2011

Something in The Age

Photo by Wayne Taylor

Thanks to Kathy Evans for the lovely piece in The Age today - a follow up to the premiere performances of EPIC by the Australian Chamber Choir.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Performance... of my new work

The Australian Chamber Choir are performing my new work, Epic, this Sunday in Melbourne.
The details are...

Sunday October 23, 2011 at 3.00pm
 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel,
216 Richardson St, Middle Park (Melways 2K: C10)

with Baroque strings and chamber organ

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky - Legend "The crown of Roses"
Heinrich Schütz - Saul, for 14 voices, 2 violins and continuo
Josquin des Prez - Missa Pange lingua
Johann Sebastian Bach - Motet for double choir "Komm Jesu, komm"
Christine McCombe - Epic (2011)
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - Magnificat for choir, soloists, strings and continuo

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Poetics of Silence

I teach a course at RMIT that focuses on sound and time and space.  This week we spent some time looking at the idea of SILENCE.  I have to say that Silence is one of my favourite subjects – so overlooked and underrated, particularly in music.  Each week I set a reading to discuss in seminar – this week it was Thomas Clifton’s ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, published in The Musical Quarterly in 1976.  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.  And the subject area clearly found a lot of resonance with the students – most could directly relate Clifton’s analyses of musical silence to music that the listened to.  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.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Musical Chairs Anyone?

Yesterday I spent a very pleasant couple of hours 'speed dating'.  Not the conventional meat-market-show-us-your-wares type of speed dating, but a much more refined and creatively rewarding version. Chamber Made Opera and the Victorian Writers' Centre have just run a week long Librettists Workshop, part of which was a lunchtime 'speed dating' session where writers could meet composers, discuss ideas (briefly) and make connections. I sat in a comfortable chair by the window and talked to writers about their work and told them a little bit about mine.  There was food, drink, interesting company and a clearly defined structure to make sure that writers got to talk to composers (and vice versa) for at least a couple of minutes. And in between the hard work there was time to chat to everyone else, other composers and performers and old friends.  I'm sure I will follow up a couple of the writers I met, as even in such a short space of time, various strands of common ground emerged.  Possibilities start to present themselves, seeds of ideas are planted and I am reminded that I am part of a community and not just a solitary composer sitting at my desk.

Mr Price's Food Store, North Melbourne

Friday, August 19, 2011

one week

It is one week since my mother died.  Last Friday morning I drove across town to be with her for the last time.  The Darling Gardens were shrouded in fog and a shimmery,  unreal  kind of morning light .  By lunchtime the day was transformed by glorious late winter sunshine,  streaming through the windows.  But  all this played out in the background,  as I sat by my mother’s bed, holding her hand,  talking to her gently although she probably couldn’t hear me.  I kept holding her hand as various doctors and nurses came and went  and the life of the hospice continued around us – the plumber banging away at the pipes in the bathroom, another patient being moved into the bed opposite my mother  and all the associated business.  Finally my mother was moved to a quite space, a lovely room to herself away from the clatter, and there she spent her last minutes.  I think she waited because she knew I wanted to be alone and somewhere quiet where we could be together for the last time.  I watched my mother draw her last breaths, I held her hand, I told her it was OK to let go, that I would be alright , that everything would be alright.   And then it was over.  Perhaps the hardest part was leaving her.  My beautiful mother, lying still, no breath, and the warmth of her body gradually fading.  I stayed with her for two hours and stroked her cheek and kissed her gently on her forehead and smelt her hair and touched her hand  - all for the last time - and then I had to say goodbye.

In loving memory of my mother.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Winter was hard

This is the title of one of my favourite Kronos Quartet CDs featuring a beautiful piece by Aulis Sallinen. The title is particularly apt - I am having a hard winter. My mother has been diagnosed with lung cancer and at 84 years of age there is little point trying to treat the disease. As I write this I am sitting in a hospice, the sun is shining, the spring flowers are just about ready to pop up. My mother is drifting in a cloud of morphine and I am trying to keep my head above water in a sea of sadness. I met an old friend on the train yesterday and I filled him in on what was happening in my life. He asked me if I felt like writing music, as some way of dealing with all of this. Not yet, I said. I feel a need to listen to music but only very particular things. Today it is Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel. Nothing too jagged or unsettled. At least I can listen to music. My mother's partial deafness and foggy head make listening to music pointless. She cannot focus or concentrate to read. Even getting out of bed to sit in the almost-spring sunshine is beyond her today. And winter continues to be hard.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Order in Chaos

Have been a bit quiet on the blog front... Suffice to say I have been busy working and somewhat distracted by various family issues.  This afternoon I had a couple of hours of time to myself and decided to sort my CD collection - that is return it to the alphabetically ordered collection that it once was, before each of my daughters in turn decided to pull all the CDs off the shelf and create their own order.  Feeling assured that they are now both past the age where pulling things off shelves is fun, I thought maybe now was the time to create some order.  Call it a preliminary step in creating general order in my world - an ongoing and long term project of mine (feel free to laugh).  So I made some coffee and got stuck into the dusty chaos and about an hour later my CDs are beautifully ordered, according to my own slightly quirky version of 'alphabetical' order.  My husband still has the occasional laugh at my expense when he goes to his CD collection (yes, they are separate) to try and find something according to my ordering - serves him right for not sorting out his own CD collection when we moved house.  Anyway, now I can actually find CDs when I go to prepare my lecture notes for next semester and I discovered all kinds of CDs I had completely forgotten about and rediscovered some long lost loves.  I had to smile at some of the CD neighbourings created - Gaelic Psalms next to Garbage, Madonna next to Mahler, Sonic Youth next to Margaret Sutherland. So now, back to work, happy in the knowledge that some order at least has been restored.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chaotic Cycles and Unpoetic Moments

I have been thinking a bit lately about the state of things in my life.  The fact that I go for months without  seeing my friends because any ‘free’ time I have  I feel compelled to spend on work (ie brain work) or house work.  The fact that I feel like I am going round and round in circles with alternating phases of intense dissatisfaction / frustration / enervation and more positive / optimistic / life-is-good and we-are-very-fortunate.  I’m not making much headway with the brain work at the moment and spent my last ‘free’ day writing letters and reading a book because I just could not face trying to be creative with zero energy or creative focus.
Blogs are great when it is 10 at night and you haven’t had any meaningful interaction with grown ups and the things they think about but are too tired to actually ring up a friend for a chat.  A couple of blogs have made me laugh / felt encouraged or just put things into perspective.  A fantastic blog that made me laugh out loud is Not Drowning, Mothering, especially the page on Domestic Godlessness - the photos of other people’s mess made my heart sing and also made me realise that chaos is relative.  
While looking through  Arts & Letters Daily I found a review of a biography of American poet Elizabeth Bishop.  The review focuses on the poet’s relatively small output, averaging two or three poems a year but each of these are described as works of “quiet perfection”.  This also made my heart sing, but for another  reason.  So much of the guilt and frustration I feel as a ‘creator’ is because I am not creating enough,  that my current output of one piece a year is pointless and futile.  But I can aspire to write one beautiful piece this year, and then maybe two beautiful pieces the following year – who is actually keeping a tally except me? 
And in my idle moments (when I am hanging out the washing or tidying the living room or making big girl's school lunch) I try and formulate metaphors to describe how things are in my life at a particular moment.  Does anyone else do this?  Try to find a succinct and illuminating analogy for something that seems to be quite hard to describe?  Two crackers that popped into my head this morning...

Unpoetic Analogy #1
I feel like a fly stuck inside, buzzing around hurling itself at a closed window when there is an open window right beside it.  

Unpoetic Analogy #2
The inside of my head feels like the contents of a blender.  Someone keeps adding random things into the mix and what started out as a raspberry smoothie is becoming eggplant dip.

Can I make this an invitation to anyone who has tried to find a way of describing their personal chaos/pre-occupations and come up with something less than poetic?  The more bizarre the better.  Send me some of your best efforts in the comments here - I would love to read them!

Friday, February 25, 2011

the cargo effect

We recently purchased a cargo bike - a massive three-wheeled chariot for transporting things like children.  This was motivated by two things.   Firstly, my partner and I have a bit of an anti-car  agenda.  I feel bad about driving children relatively short distances in a car when I would normally walk or ride my bike, if I didn’t have two children in tow.  And secondly, I am desperate for some vigorous physical activity.  Walking at the pace of a 5 year old does nothing for my cardio vascular fitness.  Riding a fully laden cargo bike around, on the other hand, is a fairly strenuous workout.  At first I felt a bit self-conscious about my very visible presence and being quite possibly the first person with a cargo bike in our suburb.  We definitely attract attention.  But apart from saving money on petrol, reducing our ‘carbon footprint’ and increasing my physical fitness, there is another quite lovely and unexpected bi-product.  Total strangers come up to me on the street to talk about the bike, people wave and call out encouraging things, parents at school come over for a chat. Our kids LOVE it.  They sit side by side, have a chat, share a snack, enjoy the wind in their hair and, I think, feel a bit special.  When I get home after the school/crèche drop-off, I have had my ‘work-out’ and get that fantastic burst of energy and feeling of aliveness that you get from physical exertion.  And also I feel happy that I am in some small way connecting with the community in which we live and breaking down some of my natural reticence and latent misanthropic tendencies.  All this from a bicycle (or tricycle to be more accurate).  Amazing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A New Routine

Our five year old daughter started school last week.  Things seem to be going fine - no howling at the school gate (unlike her mother at the same age) and she seems to be adapting to the change.  Her three year old sister is in creche two days a week, and although she is less enthusiastic, she seems to be getting into the swing of things.  So, with my partner off to work and the house quiet, I have two days where I can (from the hours of about 9.30am - 3pm) do some WORK.  This is just as well, because I have a fair amount of work to do.  I'm re-writing a course which I'll be teaching in second semester and writing a piece of music for a performance in October and I also have a couple of other 'projects' I would like to get under way.  Although it is only the second week of my new routine, I am beginning to experiment with different work schedules.  Writing lecture notes and composing music are two quite different activities and I am finding that the best approach at the moment seems to be one day of words and one day of notes.  I find it difficult to change easily from one to the other but maybe this will be a skill I can develop with practice.  Once I am immersed in the world of sound, I want to stay there for as long as possible and the same is true when I am focussed on words and theoretical ideas.  For the time being, this is probably the most efficient way of working.  I'm also trying to make time for things like playing the piano - something which I've found very difficult to do with two small children around.  I remember thinking, when I was pregnant with child #1, that I would be able to play the piano with the baby/toddler/small child beside me, happy to listen to music.  This has NEVER been the case.  Either the children have cried, complained, joined in or just generally pestered me until I stopped.  It is lovely being able to sit for 20 minutes and play some Bach Preludes and just enjoy making music.  And then, with my mind focussed, I sit down and get on with some words or notes and reconnect with my thinking and creating self again.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Adventure of Childhood

I watched a fantastic documentary last night on ABC called 'The Lost Adventures of Childhood'.  With a five year old about to start school I have been thinking a lot about what we have given her in preparation for school. Have we done enough 'stuff'?,  ie shouldn't we have tried to fit in more extras like music lessons and dance classes as well as the swimming lessons she loves.  I've been feeling anxious, thinking that in some way I had wasted this precious pre-school time when their brains are like sponges and their neurons are firing and connecting all over the place.  Have I in someway limited her development and potential by not doing all this 'stuff' early?  Watching 'The Lost Adventures...' put it all into perspective and reassured me that perhaps we haven't been so far off the mark.  Our two girls love spending hours in the garden - making potions and 'cooking' and collecting magic stones and building little gardens and climbing trees (the five year old at least) and decorating the pavement with chalk and making 'paint' and dressing up and doing 'shows' on the trampoline and teaching each other tricks and pretending to be birds and building hiding places - in short, having Adventures.  The documentary made a very strong and compelling case for the importance of play as a way of learning important skills like independence and initiative and problem solving and communication and negotiation and of course developing creativity.  As far as I can see, these skills are clearly more important and core to success as a human being than whether you can dance or play basketball. The program shed light on the worst excesses of 'hyper-parenting', however well-intentioned, and debunked some of the myths about team sport being 'character building'.  In one fantastic and inspiring example of the real benefits of play, a drab school playground was transformed by some cardboard boxes, large pieces of fabric, chalk, fun 'props' like walking sticks and other miscellaneous objects intended to stimulate creative play.  The results were quite amazing.  In the playground, the children's approach to 'playtime' completely changed from filling in time to a fantastic chance to create their own adventures.  And in the classroom, the teachers were struck by the change in their students - their concentration, problem solving, initiative and group communication all improved noticeably after only two months of playtime adventures.  The school didn't need to spend thousands on fancy play equipment - a couple of cardboard boxes and some material did the trick!  I found this incredibly inspiring and also reassuring.  Kids can learn more from old fashioned play than from hours of 'extra-curricular' activities that in reality just leave them exhausted and overwhelmed.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

here's to new horizons

Ahh... Another New Year.  There is something quite nice about waking up in a new year but I don't tend to go overboard with new year's resolutions and the like.  Nevertheless, it is a good chance to at least reflect on the year that's gone by and the one that's about to unfold.  Many people we know have had a not-very-good year. We've come out reasonably unscathed and for that I am grateful.  When the future seems a little uncertain it is easy to put things off until things become more stable and secure - the result being that things never get done.  So I've decided that my 'thing' for 2011 will be to do things when they need doing - like celebrating each special thing and not waiting for something BIG as an excuse.    Go on that lunch date today and have a glass of bubbly while you're at it.  Buy that thing that you've been wanting to get for ages but think you can't really justify.  Arrange that holiday weekend even if you think it's too much of an indulgence.  If it makes you happy NOW it is worth it.  Often even the little, simple, happy-making things can be skipped over  and overlooked and put off.  A year goes by so quickly and there are so many missed opportunities to be happy and savour the moment.  Break open the champagne now, I say.