Writing

melbourne symphony orchestra | requiem blog

How did Giuseppe Verdi, notably not a church-going man, come to write one of the most revered and performed requiems of all time? It’s kind of a funny story. The name and the texts are steeped in religious significance, and most often, a Requiem Mass or Mass of the Dead is heard in the context of funerals or memorial services.

It turns out though, it’s a little more complicated than slapping the composer with an atheist label. Like many musicians of his time, (he lived between 1813 to 1901) Verdi spent much of his upbringing working in the church. As a child, he would make the long walk to service every Sunday to fulfil his job as an organist. The church was where he discovered music and art, and while as an adult he chose not to attend the services, we can still catch glints of Verdi’s spirituality in his writing. It was his wife, the Italian operatic soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who gave him the label he is now know for: “a doubtful believer”.

Verdi had an unusual reason for penning his version of the traditional religious requiem. He was not moved by images of the dead or plagued by crushing thoughts on his own mortality; instead, he was deeply moved by the death of another artist, the writer and intellectual, Alessandro Manzoni. Manzoni’s most famous work, the historical novel scattered with Catholic ideology The Betrothed, happened into Verdi’s life when the composer was a teenager. Verdi carried it with him (literally and metaphorically) for most of his artistic life. When they finally met, Verdi was beside himself, writing “I would have gone down on my knees before him if we were allowed to worship men. They say it is wrong to do so, and it may be, although we raise up on altars many that have neither the talent nor the virtue of Manzoni and indeed are perfect scoundrels.”

Of course, then, when Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi could not join the throngs of grieving fans; he was simply too grief-stricken to mourn with the rest of them. Instead, he went to the mayor of Milan and proposed the Requiem we now know – a musical memorial for the man who had spoken to a nation through his work. It was “premiered”, if we may use that term, on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death in a church that proscribed applause. The drama, the pathos; performed to a room of silence.

For the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

new year, new words

I go walking like an old woman, taking a turn of the gardens, moving slowly, carefully. Sometimes I go with friends, asking them questions about their day, their partner, the weather, our mutual acquaintances. It's getting hot now, in Melbourne, and I am worried about the heat. The little stress sits on my shoulder all day long, accompanying me wherever I go. I look at it in the eye, hoping it will match my gaze, but it never does: it flits away, uncaring. And so, here I am, worried, walking. When I go in the afternoon, there are school kids tearing about on the play equipment. I watch them bounce around, their little bodies oblivious to pain until one falls, and then they all do, tumbling from heights. They take turns with with their tears, as if egging each other on to wail louder, higher pitched, with more potency; a canon of crying. And just as it began, it ends, a new game is on.

--

I’m reading Maggie Nelson on an empty tram while the rain pelts on windows, knowing I will have to walk to your house uncovered; smart enough to have brought expensive wine, cheese, blueberries, but not smart enough to remember an umbrella. It’s humid outside the tram, sweltering inside it; the drops that weasel their way in through the gap between the doors providing momentary comfort. I’m afraid to get the book wet, so I drop it back into my bag solemnly, as if after this moment I will have no opportunity to glance at its pages again. I am always overly sentimental on public transport, amidst the glazed-eye commuters and the peckish school children. No one wants to be there, I think, except for me. How comforting it is to sit on a bus or a train and just go, surrounded by people but utterly, utterly alone. On a bad day, of course, this is the last thing you’d wish for, but on a good albeit solemn day, the aloneness is just the thing.

--

When I pass your street, which happens less these days, I promise myself that I won’t look up: won’t search desperately for you in the place you belonged so long ago. The chances that you still call that street home are slim, anyway, and yet. My eyes drag up against my will, fighting my best intentions to seek you out. Never once have I seen you there, I haven’t caught the scent of you for a lifetime, and yet. There’s a trace of you somewhere here, and I can't pinpoint what it makes me feel. It's nostalgia, perhaps, or some kind of stretched out, unfamiliar disappointment. 

--  

I linger on the concept of it being “my turn” to pick up the groceries, as if it were a responsibility I shared with someone else. Indicating that perhaps last time it wasn’t me who had to wander the aisles, choosing the dish soap, the tomatoes, the porridge. Suggesting that next time it won’t be me either - that this time, my turn, will mean I am off the hook for a fortnight or so, and someone else will pick up the slack. We won’t be out of cheese or vegetables or toilet paper, because it will be someone else’s turn to ensure that those essentials are fully stocked while I lounge comfortable in the sparkling thankfulness of not having to be the person doing the groceries. It's a promise, a pact that insists you pick up not one, but two of things. You've got a second. Mealtimes are not miserable microwave experiments any more, they're pre-planned activities. I catch people in the act, making those decisions together every day. It seems like nothing; choosing a type of jam or debating where to see a film. Do you ever experience jealousy like a wave crashing over you about an odd tiny happening? I never cared about which type of dishwashing liquid was best and yet it's all I want to talk about.

-- 

When it's warm out in the evening, I leave the window open and the blinds drawn. They jut out angrily, fighting each gust of wind, making a perfect sideways v of cheap plastic. It is noisy in my room with the window open; the street below never ceasing to beep and careen and bluster. The tribulations of living on a busy road, I think. Nothing I can do about it. I could lock my window up and never look out of it, I suppose, but there's nothing comforting about that. After seven, eight, nine months, I've grown rather fond of the sounds of traffic - an unaccompanied solo that I can listen to, in varying degrees of concentration, for hours on end. The discomfort has become the comfortable; there's something Stockholm Syndrome-esque about that, possibly: the teaching yourself to be okay with something that isn't. It's nine months now living in this room above the busy street. Long enough to grow a child, but not long enough to grow myself. It has been the opposite: an undoing. Nine months of relearning, forgetting, misplacing. Much has gone right in these claustrophobic four walls: great career highs, much laughter, new dresses, old friends. But then, there have been the heartaches and miseries, my personal missteps, others' professional failings. I lie on my bed in the evening, just as the sun is going down and the headlights of the cars below paint my roof golden in a flickering spectacle that I look forward to. I go to bed early, as often as I can, so I can lie there and stare at the busy-ness that I am no longer a part of. I have no need to leave and yet every desire to go. I am a small island of in-between: not quite fitting, and yet fitting wholeheartedly. I try and look back to the steps it took to get me here; whether the path was pre-destined or if my series of tiny choices made it so. Is it possible to be kind and broken; alive and unhappy?

the year, gone

So as it turns out, I barely know anything. I'm almost twenty-four, which is not a traditional landmark in any sense of the word, but it's been a trip. This year, I've realised that most of the things I thought I knew weren't true and all the things I didn't know stayed unknown. I've been collecting bits and pieces to take with me, though, things I've tripped over and come undone about. fifteen things that I learned this year:

  1. I set myself a myriad new years resolutions at the end of 2017 - personal resolutions, professional resolutions, financial resolutions - and I mainly lay on my bedroom floor and ate corn chips when I could have been “baking bread”, “turning my phone off more” or “taking German classes”. Resolutions are, as it turns out, not for me, and I think that’s okay. I had greater success with my yearly goal (I only set one, because they’re generally a bit esoteric and I don’t fully know what they mean), which this year was learn to be okay asking the stupid questions. I went to Germany and listened to Stockhausen at 7am to achieve this and I’m so very glad I did. Here’s to another year of stupid questions.

  2. In 2018, I gave over ten public talks about classical music, and in only one of them did I speak about the wrong composer. Here’s to reading the program properly but also here’s to making mistakes and carrying on anyway.

  3. If your best friend really wants to see the movie you hate the look of, go anyway and have an expensive, popcorn heavy nap.

  4. There is a playlist on Spotify called “Slowdown Slow Jams” and it sounds a bit like being at a Year 10 social in the 90s and that is a feeling that I am chasing down, particularly come mid-afternoon of a work from home day.

  5. Speaking of working from home, oh boy, that’s a challenge and a half. Hot tip: if your bed and desk are in the same room and sometimes you don’t leave that room all day, you should move your wheelie chair over to your bed at night and then in the morning, just roll onto it and push yourself over to the desk. Really cuts down on commute time. My apologies to all people I told that joke to during the year. I only have five good jokes.

  6. Moving out of home is really great if you’re an adult who knows how to do things but it’s really hard if you are an overgrown child who still needs advice on whether to eat the chicken that’s been in the fridge for more than three days. Short answer: don’t eat the chicken. Long answer: if you’re freaking out about stuff in your house, you should definitely call your mum or your dad or a trusted adult, because they probably miss you and your general clumsiness and un-worldliness will give them an excellent anecdote to share with their work colleagues. Hi Mum, I know you’re talking about me during your lunch break.

  7. Watching young people achieve massive things is the most exciting part of being a semi-grown up. I got to work with a bunch of developing musicians through 3MBS and the University of Melbourne this year, and holy moly, those kids are great kids.

  8. There is nothing quite as good as going to a regional city on your only weekend off and having two glasses of wine at lunch. Bonus points if you’ve got an excellent memoir to read and you stay in the restaurant so long reading it the waitstaff have to kick you out to get ready for dinner service.

  9. Watching all of Mad Men for the first time does very little for your life, other than making you get weirdly obsessive about hats and encouraging you to drink during the day. Try not to drink during the day, particularly if you work from home, as previously mentioned.

  10. There are few things I like more than a fancy restaurant. I also cannot afford to go to any more fancy restaurants. SURPRISE, this bullet point is about budgeting, which is something that I promised myself I would do in 2018, but absolutely did not. It’s going back on the list for 2019, I’ll keep you posted.

  11. Similarly to the budget situation, I’ve had the “Couch to 5k” application on my phone for almost all of this year, and I’ll tell you what, it has not encouraged me to leave the couch. Occasionally it makes me feel a little guilty, so I move back to my desk to watch Netflix. Getting fit is something I’m mildly interested in, so I’m popping that on next year’s list too, but the point of this bullet point, is that your body is a great body, no matter what shape it is. You should move it sometimes, and put a vegetable in it from time to time, but you should never let anyone make you feel like what you’ve got isn’t good enough. If they do, you have my permission to lightly punch them in the upper arm and say “not today, my dear” and walk away.

  12. If you don’t put any concerted effort into locking the bathroom door, you can’t be angry at the person who innocently walks in on you sitting on the loo. I’ve been the walker and the sitter in this scenario, and sometimes you just have to laugh off the embarrassment.

  13. Pasta alone is good, as is pasta with other people. Pasta on a date and pasta in a group are both equally excellent situations, and if you get sauce on your chin and you don’t find it until you get home (after a 20 minute tram ride), it’s a sign of a good time, and that’s something I know to be true.

  14. There will be circumstances where you need to buy a fancy outfit approximately three hours before the fancy event and in that moment, it’ll feel like nothing will ever be more stressful. This is incorrect. I learned two things from this: if you don’t think you’ll be bothered by the event in three weeks, it’s not worth panicking about. And please just buy a dress in advance.

  15. If someone asks you to dance, and you think they’re generally good, just dance with them. We could all use more dance time.

Next year’s goal? Learn to listen better, to take time, to relax a little.

melbourne symphony orchestra | french classics

The repertoire in store for you tonight is truly inspired, it dips and weaves beginning with one of the most important and influential orchestral works of all time, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, before moving into Prokofiev’s third piano concerto – arguably his most famous – which while you may question how this piece appeared amongst the French-born composers, was written by the composer during his time in Brittany, on France’s coastline. Following the Prokofiev, we will return to Debussy, with some added help from our friend Brett Dean, who has masterfully orchestrated the Ariettes Oubliées (Forgotten Songs) for orchestra and mezzo soprano and we end the evening with a work that Stravinsky hailed as ‘one of most beautiful products in all of French music’, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the second suite. So, now you know about the musical feast ahead of you, let’s dive in, beginning in 1880s Paris.

Debussy is in his 20s in the 1880s, playing as an accompanist for singing classes, having affairs with the singing students he was playing for, and composing, doing great amounts of composing. In the years prior, he had studied the form at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he’d been since the age of 10 – initially as an industrious piano student and excellent sight reader, but eventually, as a failed piano student but active composition major. Now, his exam failures had nothing to do with his talent, but more to do with the intermittent diligence he showed in his studies. Debussy’s interest in composition only continued to strengthen as his performance career took a backseat, which again, started well, but as his ideas got bigger and bolder and stopped fitting the mould the Conservatoire was happily operating within, his work began to garner faculty disapproval. His composition teacher in particular was upset that his promising student seemed incapable of following any of the orthodox compositional rules he had painstakingly laid out in front of him.  

But, experimentation pays off, and just a few years after he left his formal studies, he won France’s most significant music award, the Prix de Rome. He had chased his own artistic ideas, and it had paid off. There was no turning back for Debussy. On the music he was creating, the composer said “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!” And lucky we are that he did, for his own artistic ideas and the circles in which he ran in the heady time that was the 1880s and 90s in Paris – the beginnings of La Belle Époque and a vibrant time for artists, musicians and poets, bohemian’s and freethinkers – led him to discover the great impressionist fine artists and influential poets whose work would inspire the pieces we will hear later in the program, but also this first work, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Stéphane Mallarmé, the French symbolist poet and critic, was a bohemian in the truest sense – he worked as an English teacher, which afforded him no luxury, and he spent most of his adult life living in more or less poverty, but was incredibly well known around Paris for his salons – gathering groups of artists and intellectuals and people of general interest for long discussions on philosophy and life and art and poetry. The group gathered on Tuesdays, and become known as les Mardistes, welcoming significant figures not only from France but across Europe. It was at one of these events that Debussy first heard a reading of Mallarmé’s poem about that fateful faun. The poem itself is incredibly important in the history of French literature, and specifically, the development of symbolism in French poetry. It is a sensual piece of poetry full of evocative language and brilliant imagery, when reading it, you can see vivid colour, which I suppose gives away the thing that Debussy saw in the poem and drew him to create a symphonic reading of the text. He wasn’t the only one tugged by the words though; Ravel, Milhaud and Boulez all created pieces that drew on the faun and his dream.   

So, the music! Debussy has created a re-reading of the poem with symphonic colour. It sits somewhere between awake and dream and as you listen, you can almost feel yourself moving in between those two states. He is drawing out that moment that occurs just as you open your eyes after a deep sleep; are you fully awake? Not quite. But you still hold all the comings and goings of your fantasies in your mind. Here is a little of the beginning. Close your eyes, if you’d like and consider this quote from the composer himself as you listen:  “The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.” 

That recording was Daniel Barenboim and Orchestre de Paris. It’s a familiar opening, a dreamy opening that uses the orchestra in a beautifully clever way; there is an ebb and flow, a push and pull, perhaps to mirror sleeping and awake that means we listeners aren’t afforded a grasp on where Debussy is taking us. There are themes of course, and repeated harmonic ideas, but the swells are unpredictable and unrestrained. It is a meditation of the faun; we are utterly at his whim. It’s no surprise then that despite the short nature of the work, it’s only nine minutes and feels as if it’s over much before that time is up, that the symphonic poem is often referred to as a miracle of musical history.

But, for now, dreaming is over and a new verse is to be read. We stay in France, but move away from Paris to Brittany, the country’s northwesternmost region. It has a rugged coastline that extends out towards the Atlantic Ocean and one of its coastal villages is where the composer Sergei Prokofiev found himself for a great stretch during the Spring and Summer of 1921. Prokofiev had begun thinking about his third piano concerto a number of years previously, jotting down small scraps of musical ideas but not completing any until he arrived in France. Ever a resourceful writer, Prokofiev never threw any ideas aside – he always held onto them in case of a later project, which this particular concerto turned out to be. I must say, if this is the cobbling together of the composers scraps, then we are dealing with a most impressive artist! When he got to Brittany he spent time with other Russians who found themselves also Summer-ing along the coast at that time, one of whom was the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, whom Prokofiev had known in Russia. Balmont was one of the first people to hear the almost finished piano concerto and on hearing the work, he wrote a few lines to Prokofiev inspired by the music he heard. “Prokofiev!” he wrote, “Music and youth in bloom in you, the orchestra yearns for forgotten summer sounds.” These sweet words came several years after the pairs first collaboration and earned Balmont the work’s dedication. 

The music itself is virtuosic but not simply for the sake of showing off. It’s full of expression, which holds court, regardless of the soloistic fireworks. In three movements, which is usual for a concerto but also relatively unusual for a Prokofiev concerto, this piano work is famously difficult and requires dexterity and stamina of its soloist. Interestingly, I think, for a piece that has become an absolute staple of the concerti diet, if you will, this concerto wasn’t super well received when it was premiered by the composer in the United States. He played it twice in its year of composition – once in Chicago and then again in New York, and neither time did the audience get into it. Prokofiev famously said that the American public “did not quite understand the work”. Luckily, we the Australian public, absolutely do.

Now, rather than play you the concerto itself, I’d like to play you the first of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives – a series of short piano pieces written a little earlier than the full concerto, but around the exact time the composer began sketching tonight’s work. Prokofiev played these works for Balmont and the poet composed a sonnet on the spot called “a magnificent improvisation”. The name of the collected works, Visions Fugitives, came from this line in Balmont’s sonnet – “In every fleeting vision I see worlds, Filled with the fickle play of rainbows”. This is Maria Raspopova playing Lentamente from Prokofiev’s Visions.

The theme of tonight must be poetry, because we now move back to glorious Debussy, but this time with the poetry of Paul Verlaine, who led an incredibly interesting life. His behaviour was scandalous and caused all sorts of problems with the public and with the literary set. He was a nightmare child, prone to fits of rage that pointed to his behaviour and his poetry as an adult. Verlaine was interested only in poetry and dreams, and like Debussy, as a young person struggled against expectations and institutionalised creativity, following his own path and interests doggedly. Inspired significantly by Charles Baudelaire, his early work was a way of finding peace from a world he wasn’t comfortable in, favouring his dream worlds and ideals of love, symbolism and decadence over real life. He met Debussy through his mother in law, who became the composer’s teacher when he was starting out at the Paris Conservatoire as a tiny eight-year-old. He grew up, more or less then, with Verlaine’s influence, and when he travelled to Rome following his major prize win that I touched on earlier, he packed in his bag the poet’s collection Songs Without Words, which, coincidentally included the poem Ariettes oubliées. Interesting to note the title of the collection, Songs Without Words, and Verlaine’s evident interest in rhythm, tone and timbre. Of course, you can’t have a poem without words, but the feeling of the poem, the maturity of its structure and its broader significance aside from each placement show a heightened understanding of the voice and its emotion.

They lent themselves, these poems, to composition, to orchestration and to the voice. Each piece is a masterclass in capturing and distilling feeling, in its original form, for voice and piano, and tonight, for voice and orchestra. The six songs are tiny stories that work entirely appropriately on their own but together, show a complicated protagonist trying to understand parts of the world and the human condition. We start in ecstasy, the first poem describing the beauty of love and the joy of nature – trees rustle, the breeze moves gently and the grass waves but this contentment does not last – immediately any feeling of happiness turns to sorrow for two songs – there is weeping in our protagonist’s heart that is mirrored by the rain outside. The rain may stop in the third, but the hurting doesn’t – the shadows of trees move like smoke in the river and the doves cry sadly, taking up our poet’s mourning. Finally, we feel we are allowed a moment of relief in the fourth song, with a merry-go-round overrun with children at the centre, but of course with great excitement at games that throw you around, you inevitably have to pack up and go home, a little headachy and overwhelmed. The final two songs are reflections of colours, of feelings. In the fifth, our poet offers presents to their love, anything they can think: fruit, flowers, leaves, trinkets, and their heart, which they beg not to be destroyed. Finally, our poet is tired of all the colours and the presents and the natural things they once loved. All they want is the love from that one special, but elusive person.

I would like to play you just a little of one song, the second, which I find particularly heart-breaking. Il pleure dans mon coeur, it goes, the tears are falling in my heart the way the rain falls on the city; what is this languorous dart that pierces through my heart? The arrangements of these songs that you will hear tonight are by the incomparable Brett Dean, who takes Debussy’s sparkling piano part and turns it into an absolute feast for the entire orchestra. You will be blown away by the stunning settings, but for now, here it is as it was written. Il pleure dans mon Coeur for piano and soprano:  

We’re lucky now that after all that heartbreak we come to a story that, while there are moments of terror and of almost despair, gives us a well-deserved happy ending. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé came to the stage as a commission Sergei Diaghilev’s then new company, the Ballets Russes. The company choreographer had adapted the story from a romance by the Greek writer Longus – the two title characters are beautiful and innocent and very much in love, and they scramble through a series of conundrums, including kidnapping, before the god Pan steps in and assists them to find one another again. The entire ballet took Ravel a number of years to complete; he was a particularly painstaking composer and constructed the piece as a “choreographic symphony” that covers an enormous amount of musical material and uses a large orchestral palette in a similar way to Debussy’s Afternoon.

The composer used the works of eighteenth century French artists to inspire his mental picture of Greece and creates sounds throughout the orchestra to depict how he imagined the soundscape. Woodwinds become the birds, the flute portrays the nymph Syrinx and strings removing their mutes allows us to picture the sun rising getting warmer and higher in the sky. The ballet itself caused Ravel frustration; working with competing artistic collaborators forced him to set out on his own and he created two suites for orchestral performance, the second one we will hear tonight. It looks at the last scene of the ballet, when our two lovers are reunited, and it is, as Stravinsky said, some of the more beautiful music, French or otherwise, of all time. Here is a moment of Lever du jour, or Daybreak:

If you’re not familiar with the ballet let me tell you where we pick things up in the story in the second suite. Daphnis is sleeping, and so is not aware that his love, Chloé has been found. The day breaks, as we heard, and seeing Chloé, shepherds wake Daphnis and the lovers are reunited as the sun rises. Everything in the orchestra rises and becomes warm. The two dance together honouring Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks who assisted their reunion, until the Pan himself appears and plays his flute for Chloé to dance to. Finally, all nymphs and shepherds join together to dance in joy; the perfect way to end our French feast this evening. Now, in the score you might hear things that sound a little like Stravinsky, perhaps some Rimsky-Korsakov and even Debussy in that gorgeous wordless chorus that ends the work, but the heart of this piece is so very Ravel. The end is an absolute celebration of love and life and nature and you will hear all of this in the orchestration that is still an incredibly important piece of work that continues to inspire orchestral composers today.

So, we’ve come a long way from the dreamscape that we began with. We’ve battled heartbreak and sorrow, we’ve read poetry and understood virtuosity. I have nothing left to leave you with, except for just one more verse by the poet we met earlier, Paul Verlaine. This one was not set by Debussy, but says everything we need it to say about music:

Let music be, more of it and always!
Let your verse be the thing in motion
Which one feels who flees from an altering soul,
Towards other skies to other loves.

Let your verse be the happy occurrence,
Somehow within the restless morning wind, 
Which goes about smelling of mint and thyme...
And all the rest is literature.

in September, things that are new

I called you as I paced, full of nerves and caffeine, back and forth in front of the building that belonged to a man who would become my employer. I wasn't ready yesterday, I told you, but today, perhaps, I am. It was a Monday - you were at work in your teaching job, shimmying out of the classroom when my call flashed up on your mobile. I should have been at home preparing for another day of my own nine-to-five, but instead I was in an unknown city, negotiating a contract for a position I was both unsure of, yet intoxicated by. The day prior - a Sunday - I was inconsolable in my hotel room; the world of possibility crumbling around me amongst hotel-room soaps and worn-out passions. I had no idea what I wanted, and there was no one around to tell me otherwise. I wallowed and threw myself around, lazily picking objects up and admiring their solitude, wondering if I could take up as a woman who simply exists. The constant go-go-go of the city and the job and the life were getting to me, too deep in my veins and I was burning myself to the ground chasing something I wasn't sure I wanted. I slept fitfully, angrily, and then I was there, calling you on the street on Monday morning, perhaps readier than I ever had been. Maybe it was you, an anchor, a weight, that helped me leap. You heard the surety in my voice, the clarity saying yes, yes, now I am ready, now I am strong enough, now I have arrived. Write it down, you said, because you won't believe me when I tell you how ready you were, next time you believe it wasn't right after all. You have to remember, right now, that you can. Read it back, tell me you still believe it. I never wrote it down, I'm sorry to say, but I have never stopped thinking that I should have. What I wrote somewhere in the back of my memory is the way I stood, after you said those words, shoulders back, head high, attack-ready, (I suppose). I leapt.

---

I've been making tea on autopilot - finishing one cup, or noticing the cold remains at the bottom and immediately padding back out to the kitchen to put the kettle on again. As it burrs in anticipation of bursting, my mind wanders. There are tangelos on the table, a habit I picked up from my father ("if they're in season, buy a few") and staling bread rests on the counter. It's always mine, because I always leave it there. My housemate is not so forgetful as to leave her bread about the way I do - nonchalantly, uncaring. Cars whir past without pause and a bird whistles incessantly. Any other week I would linger to hear it, but this week I just wish it would go away. I close the window in a hurry, pour my tea, head back to the desk.

---

Places I am not comfortable: grocery stores, waiting rooms, hospital beds, foyers, some gift shops, and occasionally, home.

---

If you laid out an entire life in blocks of activity, it is said that you will have spent 67 days purely experiencing heartbreak. I spend fourteen minutes considering how long this really is. Is it enough? Is it too much? How does one classify heartbreak, anyway? Does it account for all the small times your heart breaks for things you have no control over - the acts that you witness but cannot leap into, the stories that are not your own? Or does it only consider the personal miseries and longings, the wrong things said and the deceit received and given? How many of my waking hours have already been chipping away at that number? Is there a right time to stop being heartbroken?

---

Spring has arrived, with not so much a bang as a whimper. I welcome it with old favourites: roast vegetables, stewed apples, Melancholia on the DVD player and books; Helen Garner, Julian Barnes. It is still cold outside, though around lunch the weather breaks and the sun warms the one specific part of the living room carpet that I can sit within and bask under for at least a quarter of an hour before it retreats again. There is music from the cars underneath the window - mainly radio hits, but occasionally, Wagner's Prelude from Tristan and Isolde. I only recognise it because of the film that's been playing on repeat; I am notoriously bad at holding tunes in my head if I have not recently heard them. The melodies almost always seem familiar, but I can never recall from where I recognise them. The Prelude though, from the film; it sits heavily on my chest; too heavily for Spring. I've closed all the windows now, because the chill has returned to the bones of my apartment. I choose to listen to new music, new words; melodies that I couldn't recognise even if I tried to. I like this; that if you focus on the new, there is no matter if you forget the old. You have no reason to remember it now.

---

I walked towards the train station the other day, collar up against the chill, eyes pressed tight together leaving just a glint to see where I was going, the wind whistling through the tree-lined streets around me. I noticed a man walking hurriedly in my direction, looking ahead sternly, but eating an ice cream. I gaped at him; surely it was too cold to be enjoying a treat like that on a wintery day? He saw me looking and cracked his fierce exterior; grinned. As we bumped shoulders on passing - the streets not quite wide enough to walk two abreast - he winked and said, "some afternoons require  sweetness", not breaking eye contact. I stumble a little, as I'm known to do, knocked around by disappointment and beauty and the fact that some afternoons do, in fact, require sweetness.

darmstädter ferienkurse | new music

All The Things I Haven’t Learnt About New Music

I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, for the most part because I’m lazy and have no follow-through. Also because formulating two or three major commitments at the beginning of the year gives me too easy a get-out to avoid self-reinvention once April rolls around. It’s too late by then; the boat has sailed, and I have yet again allowed myself to not go to the gym, not learn to cook an adult meal, not purchase a computer that stays awake for more than 45-minutes at a time. It’s too much effort, too disappointing. It makes me too aware of my failings. And yet, this year I broke my rule, allowing myself one conceptual resolution to get me through to December. The grand intention? Learn to be okay asking the stupid questions.

When I made it, this resolution felt broad enough to steer my year-long ship to safe-harbour, whilst giving me room to grow and adapt and fail. Of course, since leaving the comfortable womb of study and entering the unchartered territory that is arts practice I had already failed in plenty of colourful ways, but actively chasing failure? I hadn’t yet been bold enough to try that. Now, armed with naive courage and an open (read: empty) mind, I set off into the year ready to acknowledge my lack of knowledge.

First mission was to get a grip on the weird and wonderful land of contemporary art music. My ears full to the brim with Beethoven’s piano works and pop music from the 1980s – one inherited from my mother, the other absorbed through 18 years of keyboard studies – I was ready for something new, something unusual, something challenging. I was fascinated by the idea of a music that constantly chases innovation: in new music, that notion is written into the title.

“New music.” An obscenely broad term that, for the purpose of this essay, I’m going to define as works written since the mid-1970s and that don’t fit the stereotyped “classical music” orchestral sound, but which aren’t really electronic music either. New music borrows bits of both, and far more besides. It’s built on the foundations of old-school classical music, but propelled forward with new sounds, technologies and ideologies. Melody is not completely forbidden, but, granted, there is a distinct lack of earworms in the repertoire. There are multiple sub-genres to explore, but for the uninitiated listener, sci-fi film scores might be a good place to start. “Find a film by Stanley Kubrick,” a wonderful arts writer advised when I asked how to begin my listening, “and turn away from the screen. Listen for texture and unusual effects. It won’t explain everything, but it’ll give you a starting point.”

I should probably tell you at this point that I’m a full-time artist manager and a part-time music journalist – and that means I am no stranger to a) music that you don’t hear on commercial radio and b) spending time at performances that don’t make immediate sense. And yet, prior to my sci-fi initiation, I was only aware of these sound-worlds by reputation. I certainly didn’t know them well enough to construct a firm thesis when asked for my opinion. Like other music graduates, I had been thrust into the world of Boulez and Stockhausen thanks to classes in theory and music history, but back then my bleary-eyed, 19-year-old self was more preoccupied with getting to the pub after class than with the development of the avant-garde.

“How hard can it be?”

“How hard can it be?” I asked myself, not realising how far off the mark I really was. My days were already full of music: as well as my day job, I spent my nights listening to records and going to chamber music concerts. I was, I thought, “high brow”. I could talk about Schubert for hours, and knew quite a bit about Bach and a little of the Renaissance. I owned a coat that was assigned specifically for wearing to The Opera. Full of false confidence, I coasted to the library and armed myself with books on everything from mysticism and eroticism in contemporary sound-art to queer dialects in electronic music. I googled composer after composer until my knees burnt from an overheating laptop. I bought tickets to performances in public toilets and swimming pools and parks to get a feel for new-discipline theatre and post-genre composition. I was committed. I was confused. I asked generous and knowledgeable friends to explain jargon to me: “what’s a split tone?” I would yell, jogging after amiable brass players. “Can you explain isorhythm?” I’d ask unsuspecting composers who accidentally stood still for too long.

But following the final note of any given performance, I’d still scamper away immediately, terrified of being asked what I thought about the works I’d just heard. Sure, I had opinions, but did I have the right opinions? The right conceptual language? The right facial expression that says, “yes, I do understand your point about solipsism and post-Adorno discourse”? I did not – but what I did have was questions. Loads of them. And yet I couldn’t voice them. I would sit on my queries and misunderstandings, promising myself I’d speak up next time, consoling myself that this hadn’t been quite the right time. Then again, would there ever be a right time? Turns out, the right time was the last place I imagined: Darmstadt International Summer Course, the most renowned, widely-intimidating new music festival on the globe.

For more than 70 years now, performers, composers, thinkers and curators from around the world have descended upon an unsuspecting town in southwest Germany to talk high art philosophy and contemporary music. For many participants, getting to Darmstadt is a long time coming: they’ve done the work, they’ve written the theses, they’ve mastered the aesthetic. Composers have poured over the works of Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann until they’re memorised. Performers have grappled with extended techniques and perfected circular breathing, sampling, subharmonics. To attend Darmstadt is to follow in the footsteps of contemporary music’s forefathers (as my colleague aptly pointed out, there are no mothers in this story) and to etch your name into a rich history that – for better or worse – continues to write the new music rules not only for Europe but for the world.

The more I spoke with my fellow participants, the more I understood what I had wandered into. Without thinking, I had skipped those preparatory years, hopping on a plane with my questions and my lack of academic rigour, simply deciding that if I wanted to learn a thing or two about new music, I might as well go to the source. And so I found myself floundering about in a sound-world and a country that were foreign to me, without the language to describe what I was hearing or seeing or feeling. I was in over my head. During the first few days, haphazardly attending concerts, lectures and sound installations, I counted the word “dichotomy” used seventeen times in relaxed conversation. I was hit with thoughts on temporality and spectral analysis, pointillism and the arrière-garde. In a lecture on Nietzsche’s philosophy and its relation to contemporary art music, I scrawled notes that I did not fully understand in a bid to feel engaged and look intelligent. Revisiting those notes, I found I had written only four legible words: “affirmative”, “religion”, “knowledge” and “structure”. Was I not smart enough for this kind of conversation? Was I not good enough to be here?

“Not today!”

For a long time, I’ve struggled with where to put myself. Working in the arts throws you myriad skillsets and possible pathways; if you’re lucky, you end up with an exciting and multi-faceted job, but you can often feel like a jack of all trades. This feeling of imposter syndrome is not unique to me, nor is it unique to new music. The concept was first coined in 1978 as part of an article by American psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who defined the phenomenon as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness” felt by high-powered professional women. The syndrome turns up regularly in the arts, where measuring yourself against your peers and colleagues is impossible, yet we do it all the time. The challenge is recognising your own feelings of inadequacy and pushing on regardless of the hurdles thrown into your path. Sometimes you’ll trip over and go flying off-track, but allowing yourself a moment of recovery is the key lesson. The suspicion that I might genuinely be an imposter might never go away, but giving myself permission to look that feeling square in the eye and say “not today!” has allowed me to accept what I don’t know as a positive part of myself.

What I’m learning, then, thanks to time and practice and open conversation, is the validity of asking stupid questions. That as I nervously roll the words around in my head, those same words are circling in someone else’s mind, too. Sometimes their language sounds flashier than mine, but the ideas are often similar, and by stepping forward and owning the bits I don’t know, I allow the people around me to acknowledge their confusions. My questions don’t paint me as ignorant; they make my voice an important part of what should be an ever-expanding conversation.

In new music, as in all forms of shape-shifting and boundary-pushing art, audience involvement is essential. Artists, writers and thinkers need to leave the door open at least a crack to invite in inquisitive outsiders. Entry points should be a requisite part of the art, and questions should be a valued part of the conversation. Over the last two weeks at Darmstadt, I’ve learnt a huge amount: more than I ever thought I’d need to know about the hinterlands of acousmatic practice and the dodecaphonic works of Pierre Boulez. More importantly, I’ve learned that the world of new music is only made stronger by the variety of backgrounds, personal experiences and creativity of all its members. The best way to further art is to further the conversation around it – so here’s to the people who ask the questions and to the people who answer them. Here’s to those who are confused, and to those who shed light.

For the Darmstädter Ferienkurse

notes on love

There are some things that I have learned about love recently that I thought I could tell you. Perhaps things you already know, because there are rarely "new" thoughts on love, I imagine, and most of the things that seem revolutionary to me have probably been felt and tackled and cried over a million times before. I think maybe even I knew these before they pounced on me because most things about love are common sense, right? You just don't see them clearly straight away. Perhaps it's just the fact you don't want to know. My method of love is to ignore it until it either goes away or you really can't stop thinking about it and by the time you gather up the confidence to say something, the person you love has forgotten that they loved you back in the first place, so you both pick up and carry on separately. It's mainly foolproof. I suppose then, what I've learned is that you don't just suddenly know things, they kind of creep up on you instead. And when you realise, it's not a sharp pain, like a splinter or a paper cut, but a dull one, like an ache you can't get over. It just sits in you and curls up like a cat on your diaphragm, taking away your breath and your reasoning. It's like an unexpected visit from a distant family member - you can't turn them away, so you allow them in; allow them to take over a part of your small apartment and stay there much further than they're welcome, because how could you not? That's how this love feels: unwanted, frustrating, constricting. I close my eyes and count - one, two, three, four, five - and open them but it's still there, scratching away. I squint, I reason, but it's unshakeable. I've been trying to put it in a box under my bed, but it keeps rolling right back out, discontented with the fact I am pushing it aside. What do you do when you can't shake it off? What happens when it settles? Do you run away? Do you hide? You surely don't confront it. That's why I'm writing to you, because I can't figure it out. The thing that I'm learning is that there’s no magic eight ball - this life is no John Hughes film, no romantic comedy with a perfect ending. I'm figuring that out now, I guess. No one's standing outside my window with a boombox. Because if they were, I'd probably just stick my head out and ask "couldn't you turn it down a scooch? I'm getting on with things in here."

remember this feeling

I’m constantly noting down the things that go wrong, I think we all are. Because we learn from our mistakes (or we try to) and we romanticise the downfalls and the wrong turns and the stuff-ups. I write about the bad bits before the good, because who wants to see the highlights reel? That’s what your social media is for - the constant scroll through other people’s small and large victories, the insidious reminder that every one else is doing and feeling and seeing the things we want to do and feel and see.

So, just for once, remember this feeling of strength. Remember the time it dawned on you that, yes, you can do it, no matter what you thought the moment before; no matter what you’ll think a moment after. Remember that the rising fear was squashed by a rising confidence. Write it down. Mark it out. Put ink on paper to make it certain. So then tomorrow, when the feeling itself has all but disappeared, you’ll have a scrap, a sliver to remember that feeling by. Don’t doubt it, or toss it aside. You earned it.

(A reminder)

orchestra victoria | on music and friendship

Sir Malcolm Arnold, the eminent English composer, said that “music is the social act of communication among people; a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is”, and the letters between two of the best-loved Classical composers – Mozart and Haydn – are testament to this message.

It is, perhaps, the human spirit that makes classical music so enduringly relatable. Friendship, and its power to inspire and drive, clarify and comfort, gives and has given artists throughout time the impetus to create some of history’s most powerful works. Historians and audience members alike have taken interest in the impact that artists have on one another, from J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, but in the musical world, no pair is so greatly admired and looked to as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn.

Mozart and Haydn - both giants of the Classical era in their own right - were also firm friends; championing each other’s work, consoling when projects fell through or writers’ block took over and being, above all, great listeners through the ups and downs of personal successes and failures. In the Italian dedication of his six string quartets, Mozart wrote;

“To my dear friend Haydn. A father, having resolved to send his sons
into the great world, finds it advisable to entrust them to the protection and
guidance of a highly celebrated man, the more so since this man, by a
stroke of luck, is his best friend. Here, then, celebrated man and my
dearest friend, are my six sons.”

The two artists inspired each other to keep pushing their own individual boundaries; encouraging one another to explore new ideas and musical concepts. Haydn when asked about his younger counterpart remarked; “He alone has the spirit of making me smile and touching me to the bottom of my soul.”

When they met in 1781, Mozart was a sprightly 25 years old as Haydn turned 49, but the considerable age difference made no difference to their close friendship. Built on an ungrudging mutual respect, the pair’s relationship began when Haydn had already developed a reputation as a famous composer and Mozart’s career was just beginning to flourish across Europe.

A constant source of inspiration for the younger composer, Haydn’s work and support made a profound impact on the development of Mozart’s writing, and the warmth between the two men endured until Mozart’s death; Haydn often speaking with great gravity on the encouragement his friend had given him. Well into his seventies, Haydn insisted that there was no work of Mozart’s that he had heard without learning something. And so, when listening to either great composer’s work, think of course about the technique and talent that has enabled its creation, but perhaps dwell a little on the human nature of the pieces, and the great friendships that built them.

Written for Orchestra Victoria. 

senza sord | orchestra victoria

During Opera Australia’s lavish production of The Merry Widow, we tracked the movements of Operations Co-ordinator Mark Lowrey and Operations Assistant Rachel Owen to see what really goes on behind-the-scenes.

See if you can keep up!

The work starts early for any mainstage production at Orchestra Victoria, from up to a year before the official first rehearsal. For The Merry Widow, Mark began to prepare at the beginning of 2017, looking at pit plans and developing strategies about how the orchestra would get in and out of the space below the stage. There’s rarely room to stretch out for the musicians, so an enormous amount of pre-planning goes into getting everyone and their equipment settled and comfortable.

The Merry Widow, a charming operetta about love, jealousy and comical encounters, features a standard-size orchestra and regular pit set up. Due to Orchestra Victoria’s lack of permanent rehearsal space, all equipment had to be transported from venue to venue. “We’ve had to use a number of temporary rehearsal venues across the city since the beginning of 2017,” Mark explains, “including churches, town halls, function centres and studios. None have been specifically designed for orchestras, so we do our best to acoustically treat them for rehearsals.” This additional work has been helpful in some ways, though. “We’ve become very efficient at bump ins and bump outs” Mark laughs.

Over the course of the year and the constantly shifting venues, Rachel has refined her packing skills even further, preparing lists for each project. “Speaking to the musicians helps a lot”, she explains, “they’re the experts, so we are always talking to them about what they need.” Because the standard opera pack is slightly more involved than packing your holiday suitcase – you need everything from chairs, music stands and a full-size printer to smaller essentials, like spare black ties for pit-wear and additional percussion instruments.

That’s a lot to remember, and timing is everything, so what is Rachel’s secret? “It’s talking only in military time! It’s clearer for everyone and we don’t always bump in late at night – sometimes we start early in the morning.”

Early is an understatement. For The Merry Widow, bump-in for rehearsal began at a cool 3am (or 0300, as Rachel would say).

A full seven hours before rehearsal begins, various Orchestra Victoria crews are setting up and trouble-shooting to make sure the space is ready to go. When we checked in at 1630, Rachel and Mark were happy with how this first day of rehearsals had gone. “It’s been pretty smooth sailing!”

Each opera provides different excitements and challenges for the team, sometimes requiring an hour or two of pit changes each day. Often instrumentalists are required on-stage or in the wings, meaning Rachel and Mark are kept busy running instruments and musicians from one end of the theatre to the other. And that’s not all – at the end of the show, there’s still paperwork to do!

“Once the show has started and everything’s running smoothly, that’s the time to do our administrative work”, Rachel explains. “There’s reporting, attendance grids and timings to track. It’s important to be prepared for that before the season begins.”

Working in operations is not by-the-book and takes a lot of quick-thinking. According to Mark, there are some skills that are nonnegotiable. “You must have the ability to problem solve, to identify issues before they arise and to prioritise. And then do all three of those really, really quickly.”

The first day in the pit for any season is the hardest and despite the best laid plans, any number of issues could crop up in the five minutes before the dress rehearsal starts.

So how do you stay cool under pressure in the pit? “You have to know how the orchestra works”, says Mark, whose technical expertise comes from significant experience in stage management. “Rachel has been the operations team’s secret weapon because of her background as a trumpeter.”

That background has helped enormously, according to Rachel, who says being able to empathise with the musicians makes it easier to make tough decisions when they come up. It’s no easy job in the pit, regardless of the number of times you do it or the hours you spend preparing for a season. “It’s a demanding environment, and it’s the operations team’s job to make it as safe, comfortable and pleasant for the musicians as possible. You have to care about the musicians”, says Mark.

This sentiment is echoed immediately by Rachel, who believes that staying positive amidst the pressure has been a huge benefit to her work: “you have to stay cool and be aware of your team – both in the office and in the pit. You’re there to support each other”. So, as the curtain rises to another exciting production, we are well aware that the work hasn’t quite ended. “There’s always the next show”, Mark reminds us, “so we better get planning!”

Written for Senza Sord.