Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Celebrity Soft Spot Alex Turley

Alex Turley has been a compulsive composer since high school and this year he is really hitting his stride. The WA Academy of Performing Arts graduate has had music performed by the Melbourne, WA and Perth Symphony Orchestras, Soundstream Collective, Greywing ensemble and this month Blue Heat is being premiered by Intercurrent Ensemble. Later in the year Alex heads to Hobart for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra's composer's school but first he stopped by for a chat on Celebrity Soft Spot.

What music gets your heart racing?

I’ve recently become a bit obsessed with horror movie soundtracks. They’re all about using known semiotics and codes, but sometimes they’re just put together really intelligently. Michael Abels’ score for the recent movie Get Out was pretty masterful.

What calms you down? 

Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens or anything by Takemitsu (his music is not necessarily ‘calm’ but it’s very reflective).

What do you sing along to?

Anything from Travelogue by Joni Mitchell or Fleetwood Mac.

Your work Blue Heat is being premiered this month by Intercurrant Ensemble, commissioned by co-co-director Lachlan Skipworth who has also been your composition teacher for the past five years. Intercurrent has a fairly unique instrumentation of percussion, piano and clarinet; how did you go about creating this piece? 

Skipworth conducting Intercurrent
What I always look for in an ensemble – and is sometimes tricky to find – is some sense of homogeneity, that everything is working together as part of one machine. The instrumentation of Intercurrent is unique, yes, but at the same time feels very natural to write for. Marimba and clarinet blend well, especially in their lower ranges, and a piano can complement anything. Ashley, Louise and Emily are three of Perth’s most talented musicians, so when I was writing Blue Heat I was conscious of not letting them go to waste. So what I’ve written is really fast and difficult!

What do you hope the audience will experience when they hear it?

The piece is all about exploring energy and motion. I called it Blue Heat for a few reasons, firstly to capture a sense of fire-like energy in the sound, but also because it’s about contradictions. Can something be moving fast but at the same time not really moving at all? Can something be almost inaudible but at the same time intense and exhilarating? It’s quite a visual piece, too – the players throw different melodies to each other, and interact in lots of different ways. At some points everyone comes together and it’s difficult to distinguish which sounds are coming from whom, and at some points the ensemble breaks apart into three separate fields of individual activity. I’m hoping that the audience’s focus will be constantly moving around the ensemble, as that sort of thing makes a piece of music really exhilarating to experience.

Have you established a standard method of composing or is each piece unique? 

I certainly have a ‘groove’ that I get into when I’m composing, but I’m still very conscious of not making all of my pieces sound the same. One of the tricky things about learning how to be a composer is finding a balance between having a voice and language that you can claim as uniquely yours, but not churning out the same piece over and over, and I’ve watched many composers fall too far on either side of that spectrum. For me I try and focus each work on a different visual or extra-musical idea (an image, poem or place, for example) that can take the audience into a unique world, but across every work I still have a very ‘Turley’ way of doing things.

Pencil and manuscript or computer?

Honestly, both are equally frustrating. I wish I could just Bluetooth my brain into a computer and write scores telepathically.

With Greywing Ensemble. Photo Bohdan Warchomij.

You’ve been composing since high school. You made a brave choice in pursuing it for a career; Australia is not renowned for appreciating its own composers! Why did you choose composition?

I caught the bug, unfortunately. In my teenage years I was immersed in a very musical environment, and I became obsessed with deconstructing the language of music, learning as much as I could about how and why everything works the way it does. It’s so mystifying to me how something as mundane as a vibration in the air can produce such intense physical and emotional responses in us. I spent as much time as I could exploring this process, eventually making my own music just as a means of understanding. When I finished school it was a little tempting for me to go and do Law or something nice like that but by that point I had such a deep fascination with music that anything else would have made me quite unhappy. Yes, Australian composers have a very difficult time getting people interested in their music, but I am really determined to make everything work and I’m not going to give up without a fight. There are lots of things that can go alongside composing really nicely – arranging, engraving, conducting, teaching, researching, producing, administrating – so it’s not as if I’m lost for things to do.

You are having a remarkably successful year including wining the Penrith Symphony Orchestras Young Composer Award and being selected for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Composer School, plus upcoming performances of your works in Texas, Mexico City, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. Where to from here?

I’m still at that point in my life where everything is really new, and I’m just trying to pull things together into some semblance of a freelance career. 2017 for me has been the year that everything has really begun to pick up speed. I’ve got myself to a place where I’m really confident with my craft and my ability to produce good music for people. It’s still a huge rush for me when someone that I barely know from across the country (or in Texas!) is actually interested in what I’m doing and wants to work with me. From here I’m just trying to make as much good music as I can, and I’m trying to diversify as well into areas such as art installation and theatre. There’s lots of stuff in the pipeline!

Listen here to City of Ghosts performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2016.

Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

It’s hard to argue with that statement. For me I think music just needs to produce a response – emotional, physical, memory, whatever – and the more intense the response the more powerful the music.

You have a soft spot for saxophone. You’ve composed a Sax Quartet, a Sax Concerto, a work for Sax and piano and another for Sax and cello. What is the appeal of this instrument?

I never set out to write so much for saxophone! It all happened because one of my close friends from uni (David Gioia) is a saxophonist, and he is incredible. I’m completely in awe of how he’s able to paint melody with an astonishing amount of precision and nuance. Together we found that his style of playing was really well suited to my style of writing, so we collaborated on all of those pieces that you just mentioned. We even recorded an album together which will be released in the near future. That kind of ongoing collaboration ended up being very significant in my development as a composer.

'Ink' with Alex Turley piano and David Gioia saxophone

Who are your music heroes?

My heroes are the people around me – young composers and young artists in general – that are taking risks, producing great work, making things happen and being lovely people in the process. Lachlan Skipworth, Dan Thorpe, Josten Myburgh, Lisa Cheney, Peggy Polias, Connor D’Netto, Bec Smith, Kezia Yap, Samuel Smith, Sally Greenaway, Tim Newhouse, Cassie To, Sam Wolf, to name just a few!

What is your favourite place in Perth? 

The beach near my old house, lovely place to take my dogs at sunset!

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

I love taking photos, I’m also a huge fan of visual art and theatre, I’ve recently become quite obsessed with architecture, I travel as much as I can afford to, I try and keep up to date with feminism, I’m obsessed with interior design… the list goes on! I also work in a fancy-ish restaurant and I actually really enjoy it (weird, I know).

Thank you Alex Turley for participating in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. You can read an interview with Alex here at CutCommon mag and listen to a Making Waves podcast here. For more details about Alex and his work go to alexturley.comFuture performances:
29th August: World premiere of Blue Heat by Intercurrent, State Theatre Centre. Program also includes works by Julian Day, Chris Tonkin, Hannah Lash and Philip Glass.2 Sep: Between the Ocean and the Sky performed by Jonathan Thompson, a PhD oboist from Texas who has commissioned composers from all over the world via the internet. 10 Sep: New Commission (piano duet) performed by Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg, Queensland Art Gallery. This is a part of a concert series called ARGO that seeks to take classical music out of the concert hall and into interactive spaces. They are playing the piece from either sides of an indoor lake.28 Oct: New Commission (orchestra) performed by the Penrith Symphony Orchestra in Sydney as part of the Young Composer Award.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Ever wanted to be a percussionist?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a percussionist?

I've always secretly wanted to play percussion. Rhythm is one of the most primal and powerful forms of communication. Percussionists get to dance around (often barefoot) on stage and always seem to be having so much fun! 

Now is our chance! Speak Percussion are putting a call out for 100 percussionists - NO EXPERIENCE REQUIRED - to participate in their performance at the Totally Huge New Music Festival in October.

Speak Percussion and guests will unite in the 13th THNMF to perform the WA premiere of A wave and waves by American composer Michael Pisaro, a massive 74-minute work for 100 performers on 100 instruments.
They are offering a rare opportunity to join with one of Australia’s most dynamic and risk taking arts organisations in an extraordinary new music project. A wave and waves is a project that redefines the way contemporary chamber music is presented.

 The Midland Railway Workshops will be transformed into a sonic and visual ocean of instruments and performers, creating an intimate experience of monumental proportions.

 No percussion experience is required – this call is open to all interested people. Participants will work with Eugene Ughetti (Artistic Director, Speak Percussion), Louise Devenish (Head of Percussion, University of Western Australia) and Tura’s production team.

There are 3 rehearsals before performances on 29th October.

Sign up here before September 1st.  More details here. Go on, be brave, be a percussionist!

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Australian publishes WICA review

I was delighted to be able to review the Women in the Creative Arts conference recital for The Australian newspaper. The concert featured the Muses Trio, an ensemble remarkable both for their charisma and for their focus on performing music by women. Their dedication to performing the eight works on the program included a month of workshops with the composer (sometimes via skype).  Four of the composers were present for the performance and gave insightful introductions to their works. The concert was richly thought provoking and often very beautiful, a fitting centrepiece for a conference celebrating women in the arts.

Christa Powell, Therese Milanovic and Louise King. Photo William Hall

"I’ll let you in on Australia’s best kept secret: our nation has one of the highest proportions of women composers in the world. Last week more than a hundred people gathered at the Australian National University to celebrate the diverse work of women who make up 26% percent of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising artists.

The centrepiece of the Women in the Creative Arts conference was a Friday night concert by Queensland’s The Muses Trio who performed eight works for piano trio chosen from around 100 international score submissions. Pianist Therese Milanovic, violinist Christa Powell and cellist Louise King’s authoritative interpretations were inflected with humanity and detail, marred only by a rather boomy piano (half-stick the lid!) and occasional mis-pitches in the violin.

Queensland-based Nicole Murphy’s Spinning Top opened the concert. Breathless repeated figures, harmonic stasis and some off-kilter syncopation gave this piece a self-contained perpetual motion. Minimalist patterns also underpinned US composer Jean Ahn’s A Flash of Ravel where Ravelian snippets were fragmented and juxtaposed with sections of string pizzicato and harmonics."

Read the rest of the review at The Australian.

Composers Natalie Williams, Nicole Murphy, Joyce Wai-chung Tang,
 Hilary Kleinig and Christine McCombe. Photo William Hall

Monday, 14 August 2017

A warm celebration in Canberra

Despite the chilly Canberra weather the atmosphere this past week at the Women in the Creative Arts conference has been incredibly warm. The academic papers, panels, performances and the rigorous discussions were all under-girded with encouragement and cheers of support. 
WICA composers, performers, academics. Photo William Hall

I was able to witness the impact Women of Note has had in the landscape, something I hadn't realised from Perth. I was told countless stories about how my book had influenced people in their commissioning, their perfoming, and their careers.

Photo William Hall

 I was overwhelmed by how much people felt supported and affirmed by my work. And it was so exciting to see the next generation of composers learning from the work of their forebears:

"....I confess to my shame I hadn't heard of Margaret Sutherland before now..."..
".... a couple of years ago I read your book and decided I wanted to meet Helen Gifford, to see her, to commission her..."
"...the bridge building you are doing for the music industry is so important..."

Liza Lim, Natalie Williams, Mathew Dewey (ABC), Naomi Johnson (ABC), Lisa Cheney

There are are significant changes afoot around the visibility and celebration of our women composers and I am so excited to be part of it.  47 papers, 4 recitals, 5 keynotes and 3 panels later I think some of the changes are going to stick this time around. In the immediate future:

* Cat Hope has offered to host the conference next year at Monash.
* Vanessa Tomlinson will be rollling out her research from Queensland University to include every tertiary institution documenting the works that are being performed in graduation recitals. 
* Joanna Drimatis is collating a database of graded works for performance by schools and community groups.

Add that to the ongoing work from the Hildegard Commissioning Project, the findings from the APRA/AMCOS commissioned report on results from RMIT research, the Skipping a Beat report, the Australian Women Screen Composers report, and there is a sense of growing awareness and action toward increasing visibility for women composers. 

I'll post my keynote paper soon to add to the discussion. 

With the magnificent composer Judith Clingan

I have the satisfied feeling that my book has done what it was meant to do.
I sold out of copies of Women of Note at the conference. Which means my print run with Fremantle Press is finished and it is time for an eBook. 

So now it is time to head back home to my family, filled with a warm glow, and work out where to from here. 

Huge thanks to Natalie Williams and ANU for hosting this incredible event.

conference director Natalie Williams

Friday, 4 August 2017

WICA conference riding the crest of arts gender debate

The Women in the Creative Arts conference will be held next week in Canberra and the atmosphere around gender and the arts is reaching a new intensity. 

My opinion piece in the Guardian has been widely read and generated excitement about what we might be able to achieve at the conference. At the same time the responses in the 'Comments' section  highlighted for me that there are still some very entrenched views around! 

This week APRA/AMCOS released a report in response to RMIT research.with a raft of initiatives to increase female participation in the music industry. They are committing to doubling the number of female membership applicants within the next three years.

The WICA conference is perfectly timed to harness the energy across multiple art practices and direct it towards long-lasting change.

Registrations close on Monday 7th August. If you are a woman working in the creatives arts you need to be part of this history-making gathering!

If you can't make it stay tuned for blogs coming from the conference once I land in Canberra next week! Now back to writing my presentation: "Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers".

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Mixed ASQ concert

The Australian String Quartet launched their Homeward national tour in Perth on Wednesday night. The quartet is eighteen months into their new configuration (their line-up seems to change as often as the prime minister!) and the players seem relaxed and settled at the Government House Ballroom. Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew (violins), Stephen King (viola) and Sharon Grigoryan (cello) are unashamedly young and hip, performing standing with their iPad scores, designer clothes and bundles of energy. The enormous sound they muster from their exquisite set of Guadagnini instruments is velveteen, crisp and well-integrated under the egalitarian leadership style of Barltrop.

Britten’s String Quartet No 1 was a fascinating exploration of sounds and textures by the then-young English composer brimming with ideas. The first movement’s cluster chords and shrouded melody were given an eerie chill while the second movement had thrilling gear changes between angular chunks, bright pizzicato and racing scale passages. The doleful solo violin melody in the third movement gave way to a chorale played with organ-like richness. The quartet’s assertive, clean finale revealed an unguarded joy that was a delight to watch.

Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s String Quartet No 2 was premiered by the Pavel Haas Quartet in 2009 and was well worth revisiting. It continued where the Britten left off with an intriguing mix of musical ideas. Motifs from East Europe and the Middle East coloured the work, making reference to the Czech composer Pavel Haas who died in Auschwitz. Melodies were inflected with trembling bowing, pitch sliding and trills, while energetic syncopations and percussive effects lent a folk feel. The weary melody in the third movement Dirge was hauntingly played by cello and violin while the lurching dance of the finale, with its chugging accompaniment and off-beat rhythms was given almost rock ‘n’ roll swagger.

Following on from the explosive creativity of the first half, the Dvorak’s String Quartet No 13 was quite simply uninteresting. Perhaps it was the lack of musical direction from the ensemble - the famed Adagio was numbing and the fiery finale lacked ebullience - or perhaps it was simply an anticlimax after the more adventurous repertoire? If the programmers were looking for a safe romantic contrast they should’ve looked further; the work lacks lyrical moments and is rhythmically quite square. Either way it was an uninspired performance and a disappointing end to what was otherwise an exciting concert.

This review first published in Limelight magazine August 2017.