As a four-year-old, my main aim in life was not to be in the band. I failed spectacularly. My older brother Nathan was asked to join our school band on account of being a responsible and sensible boy. As I began Kindergarten, and he started playing euphonium, I quickly developed my mantra: ‘I don’t want to be in the band!’ Who knew what imagined horrors I thought this would bring on our family!

Of course, I changed my tune when a euphonium and a baritone made their way home for Nathan to compare.  I hijacked one and was amazed I could produce a sound – I wanted to be in the band after all! Due to instrument supply at my school, there was a choice between two life-long musical rivals: trumpet or flute. I trialed both and was immediately impressed by the trumpet’s loudness – it was the one for me.

Nathan and Holly Harrison. Photo by first sounds

Arriving home with my trumpet, I proudly placed temporary dinosaur tattoos on the case.  Stegosaurus, brachiosaurus, diplodocus (I’ve always preferred herbivores). This was around the same time I decided our whole family would go vegetarian – an eventful year!

Looking back, it’s easy to see how the trumpet shaped my musical upbringing and the enormous effect this has had on my life as a composer. Trumpet helped me discover the joy of music but was also the gateway to numerous sound worlds. It’s an extraordinarily malleable and extroverted instrument, equally comfortable across a range of classical, traditional, and more vernacular settings. Playing trumpet has molded my compositional brain to think in certain ways when writing a score. As someone who has virtually zero piano skills, being a one-note-at-a-time composer is an integral part of my process as I tend to favour the horizontal line over the vertical.

My primary school years were a real musical mix. I played in wind and concert bands, gave many renditions of the Last Post, leapt out of a giant Christmas gift playing carols in the Jenolan Caves, performed a solo show at the Sydney Easter Show, and my brother and I were even the support act for a Slim Dusty show in Parramatta! There was also the semi-improvised musical, ‘The Intergalactic Big Space Out’. When I was nine, I answered an ad in the paper looking for musicians for the show: ‘I’m nine, but I’ll be ten next week!’

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was one of my most formative musical experiences. How lucky was I to have input into writing my own parts – and in a quasi-rock band! This was my first experience making music away from notation and dots on the page, using only my ears, and it was an exciting new world. The friendships forged through this time were pivotal, as I began to learn informally about what makes music work: the band director Pat Ryan introduced me to Frank Zappa’s album Hot Rats. I remember thinking how unsettling the front cover was and devoured the record anyway. Afterall, I did have two pet rats at home.

When high school rolled around, I received a music scholarship to St Paul’s Grammar School. Luckily, my rendition of ‘The Muppets’ on descant recorder was enough to classify me as a multi-instrumentalist – a condition of the scholarship. My musical world started expanding to jazz bands, brass bands, and rock bands. And soon, there wasn’t only trumpet. . .

When I was thirteen, my friend Pat Ryan gave me a Ludwig drum kit to look after while he was moving. This changed everything, sparking a newfound interest in the band Dream Theater and their drummer Mike Portnoy. I formed and joined multiple bands – prog-rock, metal, pop and punk, as well sinking my teeth into The Corr’s covers! My first gigging band in year 8 was prophetically (or perhaps pathetically) called One Night Stand. Drumming re-opened a world of improvisation I had forgotten – I so loved being able to play what I instinctively felt, communicating with musicians in the moment, taking musical risks, and writing my own part. This is starting to sound suspiciously like composing.

Holly Harrison drumming. Photo by Peter Long

At the same time, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the trumpet, due to the addition of braces leading to a lapsed embouchure. A terrible performance anxiety started seeping in. I have painful memories of walking out of an important eisteddfod mid-movement, overwhelmed by the pressure of getting it ‘right’. That same year, an AMEB examiner struck fear in me when he told me he would hunt me down and knock on my door if he ever found out I was returning to complete Grade 8! I never did like scales. Drumming was an escape and rebellion from this, as I felt there was no pre-determined path for the music itself. Who could say what was right and what was wrong? I’d never had a lesson; I wanted to do it my way and say what I wanted to say.

Improvising at a drum kit feels a bit like sitting at control-command for me. There’s a bird’s eye view of how the music might unfold; the musical decisions to make, structurally and texturally, both solo and within a band. There’s something freeing about focusing on a palette of rhythm and colour and letting this play out on a micro and macro scale. Drumming is about structure and phrasing. It’s about an elastic sense of time and how phrases flow into the next, transformed. It’s about how one limb talks to another limb, slotting together to make a new rhythm, and then another, and all the proliferations that follow. It’s also quite literally about marking time, putting up signposts and creating a contour. Drumming is composing in real-time and has become an incredibly important tool in my musical arsenal and compositional process. In some ways I think of this as the vertical piece of my composing puzzle, working in tandem with my horizontal wind instrument lines.

One of the things I enjoy most about improvising is letting my body take charge and allowing my ears to hear new combinations (whether planned or accidental) and steer the ship. Because of this, I often seek for my music to sound spontaneous, perhaps as though it’s being improvised by the ensemble. I love replicating the feeling I experience as a player for the listener – that sense of being on the edge where all could unravel in a moment!

I followed in my brother’s footsteps (again) when I started a Bachelor of Music at Western Sydney University. I was intrigued hearing about the improvisation classes he took in first year where he was encouraged to take his euphonium apart and make new sounds! I was further inspired by an installation I saw him perform in at the Female Orphan School by Corrina Bonshek. This was the place for me: eclectic, open and accepting, a bit strange, and most importantly, not too strict.

WSU stepped up my interest in improvisation and gradually notated composition. I ordered a flute on eBay, reigniting my interest in Jethro Tull. More bands followed, this time erring on the post-rock and experimental side of things. I was greatly inspired by my teachers John Encarnacao, Brendan Smyly, and Bruce Crossman. Highlights included playing my trumpet through a VCS3 synthesizer, augmenting my flute with cyborg-like sensors, and drumming with a bunch of Harley Davidsons, opera singers and a rapper for Michael Atherton’s Sonic Boom Boom. WSU was also where I met Joey Tabua, one-half of our improvised rock duo Tabua-Harrison.  It took me a long time to realise it was possible to not just write my own part, but everyone else’s too.

Fast-forwarding, I completed an honours year in composition at WSU, followed by a doctorate with Bruce and John.  This was when my interest in Lewis Carroll and the Alice books skyrocketed, leading to my portfolio and thesis, The Logic of Nonsense. Carroll’s nonsense literature became a catalyst for fusing my musical worlds together, where the notated and improvised, and classical and vernacular, could coexist and thrive. It seems strange now to think I ever thought otherwise. This gave way to the juxtaposition of stylistic sound-blocks, both simultaneously and side-by-side, and a non-linear way of thinking about slabs of sound. I sought to embrace the visceral energy of rock music whilst harnessing a whimsical sense of humour. I wanted to make music that was fizzing with energy but was also combative (Alice was partial to a little argument).

Since then, I’ve been continually surprised by how my musical life is unfolding. I’ve been involved with numerous programs, festivals, and performances in Asia, Europe, the USA, and Australia. I’ve enjoyed travelling internationally for premieres and workshops, as well as receiving lessons from composers like Richard Ayres, Nico Muhly, Kevin Puts, and Anna Meredith, in addition to our own Matthew Hindson and Paul Stanhope. One of the greatest thrills was writing Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup for the Grammy award-winning Eighth Blackbird and touring it around Australia for Musica Viva’s 2017 International Concert Season. I’ve gained experience writing for orchestras, ‘graduated’ from the Australian Composers’ School, and am currently composer in residence with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Excitingly, TSO will perform five of my works in 2022, conducted by Eivind Aadland.

Eighth Blackbird’s Matthew Duvall and Holly Harrison at the 2018 Art Music Awards. Photo by Tegan Louise Photography

Alongside this, I’ve continued to play drum kit in Tabua-Harrison. We released our debut improvised album Scout on Psychopyjama Records in 2018.  I’m also thrilled to be one of the giraffes on John Encarnacao’s latest album Giraffe Quartet and Duets. Once we’re out of lockdown, we look forward to playing a handful of shows around Sydney to celebrate its release.

I’ve discovered that I love nothing more than a musical challenge and trying something new – there’s a type of magnetic attraction to a fresh compositional puzzle. Recently, I’ve tried my hand at creative projects I never would have predicted, dabbling in arrangements for Monique Brumby and Tim Minchin, an original work for an American wind band consortium, and a multi-movement bassoon solo for Matt Kneale.

Earlier this year, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra commissioned me to write Hellbent, a trumpet concerto for Owen Morris. This prompted me to spend considerable time with my own trumpet, having grown apart from it in the last few years. It was strange to reconnect with the instrument, conjuring up a sense of getting back to my roots, while also feeling somewhat inferior. Not a confident start! For me, the instrument stirs up a performance anxiety that I never quite conquered but also reminds me why I was attracted to composition in the first place: the opportunity to shape the path at any turn. Hellbent celebrates the versatility of the trumpet, exploring multiple personas ranging from wild to cheeky to sweet and dark to powerful and full-throttled. The solo part is continually punctuated by bent notes, sculpted by a plunger mute, which trickle down into the orchestral textures as pitch and colour distortions. Increasingly, I’ve become more interested in the warping and bending of sounds; the sense of things almost going wrong, but not quite. Hellbent is no exception and this happens on a structural level too. Writing the work was an oddly cathartic process, where I felt like I was reclaiming my voice as a trumpet-playing composer. I wanted to write a part which would reignite my interest in the instrument – something which would highlight Owen’s immense skill but also sound spontaneous, free, and self-assured.

Looking forward, I’m curious to see where my life as a composer takes me next. I’m enjoying experimenting with software like Ableton Live as part of my writing process, having written a work for bass trombone and tape. I’m currently triggering piano samples from my electronic drum kit to find new rhythmic combinations for my piano four-hands work for KIAZMA! I’ve also had a lot of fun exploring a more understated soundworld in Sylvan, a work for bass recorder and percussion which appears on Alicia Crossley’s forthcoming release Bass Instincts. I love how each creative experience feeds into the next, finding and unravelling new connective threads from project to project. My discovery of trumpet and drum kit as my instruments of choice were almost accidental, yet they’ve played an unparalleled role in helping me shape my compositional voice and continue to do so.



Holly Harrison is an award-winning Australian composer from Western Sydney. Her music is driven by the nonsense literature of Lewis Carroll, embracing stylistic juxtapositions, the visceral energy of rock, and whimsical humour. She is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence across 2020 and 2021.

Her music has been performed in Australia, Asia, Europe, and the USA. She has worked with the Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, West Australian and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, Australia Ensemble, Ensemble Offspring, Alarm Will Sound, Nu Deco Ensemble, Orkest de Ereprijs, Het Gelders Orkest, and the Australian String Quartet. Eighth Blackbird were awarded Performance of the Year at the 2018 Art Music Awards for their premiere of Holly’s Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup, which they toured as part of Musica Viva’s 2017 International Concert Season.

Holly teaches composition at The King’s School in Sydney and was previously composer in residence at MLC School. She also plays drum kit and percussion in the experimental rock duo Tabua-Harrison.

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