In my recent role as curator for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s She Speaks mini-festival of women composers (held June 19th– read about it here in Limelight), I’ve spent a great deal of time engaging with arts media: probably more than at any other time in my life. I’ve written articles about the programming choices, talked about my favourite pieces of music by female composers, and been interviewed for various publications and radio broadcasts. A common thread through much of this experience has been the question- how did I become a composer? Sometimes the question has been asked outright; more often though, I found myself asking it, in a ‘how did I get myself into this position?’ kind of way. Let me unpack that…
I grew up in a household that wasn’t particularly musical. My mum knew how to play the piano, and managed her way around the old pedal-organ in our little Uniting Church in Freeling, a small town about 20 minutes north of Gawler, just on the outskirts of the far-better-known Barossa Valley. My dad always said that he may very well be musical, but he had never been given the opportunity to learn. Our family rarely listened to music; the Country Hour, ABC talk-back, and the news (in particular the weather report- farmers always need to know about the weather, you see) were the soundtrack to family life. We didn’t even have any musical instruments in our house until, at age 8 or so, it was decided that I should begin piano lessons with Ms Webb, the woman who came to my primary school ever week to deliver piano, guitar and recorder lessons to a handful of local students. It was my Grade 3 teacher who suggested it, seeing an opportunity to extend me beyond the class work which I was finding a little too easy. And so, my grandparent’s old and softly spoken piano took up residence in our family room, right outside my sister’s bedroom door and across the way from my dad’s office. Within a week of starting lessons, I had overtaken my best friend Heidi, who had been learning for over a year. You could say I took to music like a duck to water.
Looking back, it does seem somewhat miraculous that we became a musical family. In due course, my two younger sisters also began to learn the piano. Before we knew it, mum was taking us to Tanunda every Wednesday evening to sit in the kitchen of Ms Schirmer, the noted piano teacher in the region, for hour upon hour while the three of us took turns to have our lengthy and generous lessons. We all picked up a second instrument in high school, and to varying degrees found a home in the musical culture of Faith Lutheran Secondary School (now Faith College), performing in musicals, accompanying choirs, playing in ensembles, taking AMEB exams, giving recitals, and lapping up every musical opportunity available.
It was Mr Garwood, my senior music teacher at Faith, who suggested I try my hand at the subject Composing and Arranging in Year 12. I agreed, I think more out of a desire to try something different than a real understanding of what I would be doing. What I recall most is spending hundreds of hours on my folio- far more time than I did practising piano, or studying any other subject- and it never feeling like work. It was fascinating, exciting, and intriguing; the way I could put notes down on manuscript and manipulate them to make a sound that to my (naïve) ears hadn’t existed before. I had ensembles at school play my pieces, including a very modest (but at the time monumental) 3-minute orchestral work with a solo violin – my first concerto, before I even really knew what a concerto was. This link between the act of composing and hearing the end result performed live has, I believe, been crucial to my development. I have always been creating music for others to play, and that fact alone has probably influenced my writing and approach to the artform more than any other.
None of this really explains why I became a composer, other than to suggest that I simply kept learning, experimenting, and writing music, and here I am. I do believe a strong theoretical background (thank you Ms Webb, for always emphasising the importance of theory) and semi-decent instrumental skills (thank you Ms Schirmer, and subsequent teachers, for teaching me how to practise) have helped. A leaning towards perfectionism (working at something until you get it just right), introversion (comfort at spending a lot of time by yourself, in your own head), and a delicate balance between having an eye for detail alongside an appreciation of larger scale form, are all, in my experience at least, beneficial to the burgeoning composer. And of course, a love of music. For me, it really has been a case of the more I discover, the more I seek to understand, and the more the love-affair grows. I love the challenge of composing, the formation of the problem, and the eventual discovery of the solution. Connection, too, is increasingly important – connection with audiences, performers, students, friends, and the wider community. There is a communion in music making that is unlike anything else; a coming together in a space that is all about communicating very real, very big feelings, but doesn’t necessarily need words to do so. And when there are words (and in my writing, there are often words) then wow– what a potent and visceral combination that can be!
In many ways, a composer is a rather silly thing to try and be. You spend a lot of time making hundreds, even thousands of tiny, careful little decisions, knowing that the vast majority will not be recognised or noticed by anyone. And yet they need to be made. You then hand your music over to others and ask them to bring it to life on your behalf. You hope that you have been clear in your communication of what this ‘thing’ (this experience? this story? this sound?) is supposed to be. You place an immense level of trust in the performers who bring your ideas to life, believing all the while in the magical alchemy that exists in the spaces between the notated ideas, the creative impulses of the musicians, and the room/hall/studio in which it all happens. If you’re lucky, the moment you’ve created is performed in public and experienced by others. You then hope that in that moment, what you have said resonates- that it means something to someone. That the world is somehow a better place because you took the time (oh, so much time!) to say whatever it is you said.
The longest period of time I’ve gone without composing was mid-February to early July of 2020. Having just completed a substantial piece for the Australian String Quartet, I found myself inundated with teaching work at the Elder Conservatorium- far more than in previous years. I began the semester struggling to find the ‘spaces between’ in which I had usually squeezed my various commissions; once the world adjusted to life in a pandemic and classes went online, any hope of finding that precious space evaporated. My saving grace was the casual nature of my position at the university- the event that sapped all my time during those months was the same event that ensured I’d be more or less unemployed come mid-July.
Needless to say, it didn’t feel like a moment of grace at the time. But after a good, solid period of righteous anger and sad-and-sorry feelings, I got back on the horse and recommenced writing. And I have not stopped. Since September 2020, there’s been a piano trio, a lengthy choral work, a SATB a cappella setting, a set of marimba solos, a guitar and cello duet, a violin solo, a wind orchestra arrangement, and – the big one – a cor anglais concerto. It’s not always easy, and every single project has at least one moment of that’s it, I’m out of ideas. I’m done, finished. While I used to think such moments of crippling self-doubt were a flaw in my constitution (and perhaps a sign that I really shouldn’t be introducing myself in social settings as a composer), I’m learning that, for me at least, this is all a part of the process. The important thing is to push through, trust in my ability to figure things out, and get back to it. It seems the more I write, the more I write. Funny that.
As part of She Speaks, I had the privilege of being able to present the premiere of my Suite from Innocence – selected arias from an opera I began composing eight years ago. This opera has had a tricky start to life, with enough highs and lows to warrant its own article. The pending ‘birth’ of a substantial extract of this work, performed with a full symphony orchestra and a quartet of outstanding local singers, had me beside myself with nervous excitement.
Three hours before the first event of the day, I was at my local café with my husband, crying into my coffee because I couldn’t get my welcome speech for the evening concert right. I had two minutes to speak, and in that time I had to say who I was, why we were there, thank everyone for coming to the earlier events, encourage them to stay for the later ones, and – hopefully – leave some long-lasting impression upon the audience that this concert was important, ground-breaking, and necessary. “I’m a composer, not a speaker!” I cried. “I’ve curated the music to do the talking for me – what else is there to say?” My wonderfully supportive, ever-patient and exceptionally wise husband asked me: Why is this important to you? That question – the big, all important ‘Why?’ – helped me to collect my thoughts. The most important thing for me as a composer is that I feel heard. The concert I was introducing was the first time in over 30 years that a major Australian orchestra had presented a concert of works by female composers. What does this say about our willingness and eagerness to hear the voice of female composers in the realm of orchestral music? More personally, my opera Innocence has undergone significant development over numerous years, and is a powerful and important story of loss, strength and resilience, with a moving and intricate score. Yet it remains unstaged. I didn’t put those thousands of hours into creating this piece for it to sit on a shelf in a library. It – the story, the music – deserves to be heard. My voice – along with so many other voices – deserves to be heard.
Sometimes it feels that all I am doing as a composer is adding to what is an already inexhaustible ocean of music. Why write a string quartet- surely there is already enough repertoire? Why write an opera? We have more operas than we know what to do with (and certainly more than we have money to put on!). And yet I compose, because I believe, deep down, that my unique voice matters and that I have something to say. That this particular story needs to be told. That music created in the ‘now’ says different things than the music created in the past, and that both are important. I believe that through my music I can ‘speak’ to someone in an intangible, precious and necessary way. Every composer will have their own version of this story: some integration of the technical, aesthetic and emotional aspects of music making. This is what keeps me at it: remaining curious; filling silence with a new combination of sounds; engaging with performers and audiences who respect and delight in what I create. When all the pieces of the puzzle that is bringing new music into the world align- when I can listen to something I’ve created, feel proud, and know that I’ve impacted someone’s life for the better- there is nothing like it. That’s why I am a composer.
VIEW AND LISTEN
A Room of Her Own, performed by the Australian String Quartet (2021)
Songs Without Words, performed by the Benaud Trio (2020)