Tag Archives: David Chisholm

2016BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Glossolalia

©Jason Tavener Photography GLOSSOLALIA_MG_1692
Argonaut Quartet, Glossolalia, Jason Taverner Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

The back-to-back presentation of four string quartets which rely near exclusively on extended string techniques is perhaps a risk, lest audiences tire of the continuous glissandi and harmonics which have become almost a cliché in modern works of the medium. However, the finely crafted compositions presented by the Argonaut Quartet each worked on a level beyond using these techniques arbitrarily, demonstrating different approaches to writing in this idiom.

David Chisholm’s Bound South opened tentatively with a delicate sequence of extended techniques shared across the quartet. A soft tapping of strings with the wood of the bow provided the percussive backdrop to the harmonic glissandi and soft tremolo gestures which each player executed in turn. This sequence formed the basis of the work’s material, gradually extending and developing as the instruments overlapped. The overall effect was icy and fragile, reflecting the work’s title and positioning itself in complete opposition to Chisholm’s flashy double concerto premiered the previous evening.

A point of sudden agitation burst from the viola, seemingly unable to continue with the glacial pace of development. Joined by the second violin for the shortest moment, both quickly retreated and continued with the work’s established slow trajectory. This fleeting release of built-up tension seemed to foreshadow a coming section in a more agitated style, yet this was never reached. Instead, Chisholm continued to taunt and whet the appetite with intensity only built within a narrow schema. A dynamic peak was reached towards the end with three tremolo chords played in unison, before a return to the short fragments of the opening material, this time presented with more cohesion.

Through Empty Space continued the delicate sound world established by Chisholm, opening with all four parts playing glassy pure harmonics. Mexican composer Sergio Luque scored much of the work in a close range, blending the sounds of the four string instruments to make the quartet act as one entity. Pitch material played with semitone dissonances spread over an octave, sliding in and out of consonance. The work embarked on a smooth descent through the empty spaces left in the scoring, with Luque demonstrating immense restraint in seeing his musical idea through.

The smooth veneer of the work’s surface was only momentarily broken in a fragment which called for bouncing the bow across the strings. It was almost unexpected to hear the conventionally bowed long tones, but their presentation without vibrato ensured that they worked within the established context. Ending the work the viola and cello traded these long gliding strokes, emerging and disappearing from the violins’ atmospheric bowing over the bridge.

The muted bouncing opening of Chilean composer Pedro Alvarez’s Etude Oblique I immediately announced a shift in gear, moving away from the highly austere first half of the program while still presenting similar sounds and techniques. The pace of development in Etude Oblique was the fastest of any of the works presented so far in the concert, and the dialogue between the instruments was the most contested. Agitation and flashes of urgency were hinted at in the wailing high pitched glissandi and the ricochet bowing gesture which formed the basis of the work’s rhythmic fragments, but yet again these remained contained within a small dynamic structure.

Erkki Veltheim’s Glossolalia was a natural conclusion to the concert. Establishing some violent string playing from the outset, this was the opportunity to fully release the tension so finely built up throughout the program. Reflecting the work’s title, the score was often frenzied, jumping from one idea to the next in rapid succession, with techniques used to create sounds far removed from the traditional capabilities of a string quartet. Aggressive bowing south of the bridge created great noise tones, and the tapping of the bridge with the base of the bow produced a satisfyingly resonant percussive sound. Veltheim fully explored the bass range of the cello, requiring some grungy playing from Judith Hamman who skillfully tuned down during the performance.

The physicality of playing a string instrument suddenly burst to the fore in Glossolalia. Shedding the high control required for the light bowing and isolated gestures in the other works, Hamman’s acrobatic glissandi and Veltheim’s dynamic leading providing a welcome visual change. It was in this final work that the arrangement of the quartet, all four facing inwards on the corners of a square platform, made sense artistically; it was a delight to watch chains of reactions set off by fragments and move around the players.

In a different context, Glossolalia could have come across as a little too uncontrolled and wild, given its length and jerky movement between ideas. But within this program, it seemed to be the continuation along a smooth path, Veltheim’s composition ultimately fulfilling the hints of outburst promised by Chisholm, Luque and Alvarez. The Argonaut Quartet is lucky to have three such versatile and experienced upper string players in Veltheim, Graeme Jennings and Elizabeth Walsh, who rotated roles throughout the performance to play to individual strengths. Together with Hamman’s cello playing, the Quartet is a fine interpreter of new music.

The Argonaut String Quartet
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Town Hall
3 September 2016

David Chisholm, Bound South; Sergio Luque, Through Empty Space; Pedro Alvarez, Etude Oblique I; Erkki Veltheim, Glossolalia

2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (2)

(C)Jason Tavener Photography HARP G UITAR DOUBLE CONCERTO_MG_1126
Argonaut Ensemble, Maxime Pascal conductor, Harp Guitar Double Concerto by David Chisholm, Jason Tavener photography

Review by Alex Taylor

Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre, a converted jail, may soon be home to BIFEM’s resident Argonaut ensemble on a more permanent basis. At Friday night’s opening concert Seeing Double, Bendigo festival founder and featured composer David Chisholm waxed lyrical on the “criminal” lack of this kind of permanent new music infrastructure. “All criminals need to be brought to justice, and this is the jail where that can happen.” BIFEM’s opening double bill of double concerti showed us both the possibilities and temptations of that infrastructure, embodied here by large, skilful instrumental forces and consummate soloists and conductors; a veritable toybox for two precocious postmodernists.

Jack Symonds’s Decadent Purity is a work that attempts to blend quite disparate elements. At the outset a cloud of high harmonics hovers over a stop-start grumble of double bass and contrabass clarinet, opening up a chasm of registral space and spectral colour. The two solo instruments, too, carve opposing roles; the viola d’amore draws out its long line against percussive exclamation marks: elaborated argument against decisive punctuation. The first of seven movements also sets out another more uncomfortable dichotomy: two harmonic worlds in combat. A sturdy neo-Baroque tonality, reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, is pitted against the subtle slippage and inflection of microtones and textural nuance. It’s a promising collision.

Both soloists hold the drama of the work in their phrasing and movements. James Wannan sways on tiptoe, his viola d’amore an ornate, many-stringed creature of clear resonance and line, making the most of the acoustic at the front of the Ulumbarra Theatre stage. Wannan’s approach embodies the decadent purity of the title, imbuing Baroque details with a rich, almost Romantic sensibility. Percussionist Kaylie Melville moves with a pixie swagger, each entry dashed off with a cutting, almost sardonic precision. But her role for the most part remains one of commentary and fleeting gesture, unable to enter the harmonic and melodic realms that form the bulkhead of the work.

As captivating as the soloists were to watch and listen to, the dramaturgy and flow of the work itself at times seemed forced, imposed from above rather than extrapolated from the rich materials already at play. You couldn’t help but be seduced by sighing herds of ascending or descending microtones, but these remained as fixed objects rather than catalysts for generating gesture. The restraint and sensitivity of more spacious sections (for example the penultimate movement with its slow-moving scales) was several times undercut by overtly dramatic tropes. High-energy toccatas recurred throughout the work, most forcefully in the final movement where the marimba propelled us, no, forced us, towards cadential release.

The attractiveness of Symonds’s work is undeniable, but the promise of that initial collision of soloists, ensemble and the stylistic strains of both Baroque and modernist Avant-Garde is ultimately left unfulfilled.

David Chisholm’s Harp Guitar Double Concerto seemed a more natural and less masochistic pairing than viola d’amore and percussion: here were two forces of equal dynamism and resonance. A striking, hard-edged opening hints at the diverse gestural possibilities of those two soloists. Rapid pinball glissandi in the brittle high reaches of the harp answer a deep upward sweep in the guitar.

Like a flickbook, the opening cuts rapidly from gesture to gesture, often blurring in the orchestral maelstrom of an expanded Argonaut Ensemble. You get the sense that this is a kind of pastiche, but not of direct quotation, or even of particularly strong stylistic allusion. Occasionally more distinctive slivers poke through: swaggering muted brass recall Miles Davis, and later a frantic viola solo has echoes of Elliott Carter, a haywire cog spinning in the wrong machine. These are relatively rare moments, and you sense there might be a wealth of such detail hidden amidst some ambitiously thick, even clumpy textures. These aren’t helped by an acoustic that threw the soloists into relief at the front of the stage, while damping the intricacies beyond the proscenium arch.

For much of the work, the action continues in postmodern pile-up fashion, impulsive, rather than linear, time hammered out ecstatically. For a time, this was immersive, like those pools of plastic balls you used to get at some adventurous fast food chain playgrounds, a liquid made of solid objects. But as the piece progressed there was a more and more present feeling that these gestures, constrained as they were in a four-square metric scheme, rarely got beyond fragments. You have to say too that the obvious talents of conductor Maxime Pascal were utilised sparingly with so much martial time-keeping. However within the relatively square metric scheme, Pascal was able to draw out a range of bold shapes and colours from the ensemble.

It wasn’t until the fluid, effortless harp cadenza, a dazzling display of delicacy both from Chisholm and from harp soloist Jessica Fotinos, that we glimpsed an interior alternative to the glitzy, pluralistic mass offered by the front half of the work. Even though, like the rest of the piece, it might have benefitted from more space and breath, the finely crafted but rather lengthy cadenza allowed us to pivot towards lyricism and fragility. Out of the cadenza came a positively decadent cor anglais duo from Jasper Ly and Benjamin Opie, foreshadowing their oboe heroics at the exquisite, abrupt ending. In turn the cor anglais led us tag-team into a nostalgic, washed-out kind of texture, strings fluttering between solid pitches and combinations of ethereal partials.

The guitar soloist, Mauricio Carrasco, also had a chance to show off his solo chops, delivering both sheer brutality and lyrical nuance in a much shorter but no less impactful cadenza. In fact, it contained to my mind the evening’s most sensitive, fantastical moment. Out of the resonance of guitar harmonics came a delicate veil of sound, initially difficult to place but revealed as a falsetto vocal hum from Fotinos across the stage. The harmonics and falsetto continued, a true interior world, almost haunting in a fragile continuity against the flamboyance of what had come before. After a brief and brutal swansong in the guitar, we returned to that interior, but more confidently, as if a fresh discovery has been made. Over a breathy mass of sustained string harmonics, the oboes asserted this new, insistent lyricism: at the very end, a way forward.

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016
Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity; David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)


2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (1)

James Wannan performs Decadent Purity, Jason Tavener Photography

By Zoe Barker

The world premiere of two new Australian double concerti was a bold way to open the BIFEM festival. The inherent juxtapositions allowed by the medium, including the relationship between the two soloists, and their interaction with the chamber orchestra, were explored in different ways by composers Jack Symonds and David Chisholm. With both composers writing for unique instrumental combinations, Symonds’ Decadent Purity pairing viola d’amore with percussion, and Chisholm’s work for harp and guitar, there were many opportunities for an absorbing musical dialogue.

 Symonds’ manipulation of range and timbre was one of his work’s most striking aspects. The chamber orchestra was scored for instruments which reflected the extremes of their families—bass flute paired with piccolo, clarinet with contrabass clarinet, and a string section comprising two violins, two celli and a double bass. Opening the work, the viola d’amore soloist James Wannan was joined by the two orchestral violins playing pure dissonant tones at the top of their registers. The addition of bowed vibraphone created an ethereal sound world, and the entrance of the double bass at the depths of its range created a sense of open space ready to be filled by the soloists. This feeling of envelopment continued throughout, with the viola d’amore often given the space to fill in the registral gaps. Not only was this interesting scoring, but a clever move from Symonds. By eliminating instruments of a similar range, the mellow tone of the viola d’amore had no problem cutting through the small orchestra.

The strengths of the performance owed much to the inspired interpretation of the two soloists. Wannan approached sections of the work with the energy of a violinist playing a Romantic concerto, with virtuosic chordal passages and series of string crossings executed with flair. Crucially, he also knew when to pull back and play with a sense of fragility, blending with the small chamber orchestra. Kaylie Melville mesmerised with her dancing movements among the large percussion set-up, and demonstrated an extraordinary ability to impart a sense of musicality to even the smallest gestures. With so much material for Wannan to delve into, the percussion line unfortunately seemed underdeveloped in comparison. Sporadic snatches of marimba and vibraphone played a supporting role to Wannan’s line, as did the work of Melville’s untuned percussion, but the instruments were never an equal partner in the concerto.

Symonds explored many musical ideas within the work, ranging from the delicate opening to the parodic sections underscored by steady percussion beats, and those of a more modernist idiom with alternate agitated stabs from the soloists and orchestra. While each section had merit and interest, the work attempted to draw together too many disparate elements—perhaps inevitable given the task of featuring a baroque instrument alongside the very twentieth century concept of a percussion solo. Those sections which slowly unfurled, exploring the timbral qualities of the unusual instrumentation could have been developed further. The section towards the end using slow scales climbing through the ensemble was one of the most effective in this way, and it was moments such as these where the work’s title, Decadent Purity, was most strongly reflected. These glimpses of purity could be identified at points throughout, coming through especially in the upper strings, providing moments to savour.

For David Chisholm’s new double concerto, the Argonaut ensemble swelled to a 29 piece chamber orchestra, suggesting that this piece might be more decadent than the first. Opening the work with flamboyant gestures from the two soloists, Chisholm launched into a spirited postmodern pastiche, with different musical ideas emerging at once from all sections of the orchestra. The scoring for the solo instruments often enhanced their timbral similarities, heightening the playfulness of the work by adding an element of aural ambiguity. A concern in the opening, and other fairly densely scored sections in the work, was the ability of the guitar to be heard over Chisholm’s sometimes heavy-handed orchestration. While the harp benefitted from its greater natural resonance, the guitar was often lost.

Harpist Jessica Fotinos fully drew out the different facets of the work, excelling in sections of contemporary harp writing featuring extended techniques as well as making the most of more traditional passages with her lyrical playing. The harp cadenza was a point of serenity in an otherwise busy work, with her expressive performance commanding attention. Guitarist Mauricio Carrasco also managed to capture the many different idioms and styles demanded of him, ranging from agitated strummed passages to quasi flamenco chords, traditional classical guitar technique and a humorous passage of slide guitar.

While the cadenzas proved to be great vehicles for demonstrating the talents of the two soloists, their sheer length impaired the flow of the work, the content doing little to distill or clarify the many layers of material presented in the orchestral sections. These often proved overwhelming, with little distinction between the snippets of stylistic allusion layered in the dense score.

While a fuller string section would have benefitted this work, the existing players demonstrated their sound abilities through divisi passages requiring all violinists to act as soloists. A strong woodwind section was headed by oboists Benjamin Opie and Jasper Ly, who impressed in their unusual double cor anglais solo following the harp cadenza, and their unexpected heroic oboe line to finish the work. Interjections from trombonist Charles MacIness added both humour and darkness to the piece, and were supported by a very strong bass woodwind section. The Argonaut Ensemble in its new large format confirmed its position as an exciting voice in Australian contemporary music making.

By Zoe Barker
As part of the 2016 BIFEM Music Writers’ Workshop

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)

Phoebe Green and Leah Scholes: The Arrival

While viola and percussion were traditionally supporting parts of the orchestra, the twentieth century saw composers rediscover their unique musical possibilities. If the viola came a little later to the contemporary music party, it has certainly received recent attention in Melbourne with Xina Hawkins’ series of commissions for multiple violas and Phoebe Green’s own solo recital at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music last year. With Leah Scholes preparing a solo recital for BIFEM this September, the time is ripe for a viola and percussion duo commissioning works by some of Australia’s most inventive composers.

Taking place less than two weeks after the Orlando shooting, Green and Scholes’ duo concert was an opportunity for shaken souls to come in from the cold and share a moment of creative unity. Scholes and Green dedicated their performance of David Chisholm’s The Arrival (one of Chisholm’s “requiem” pieces) to “the LGBT community and the lives lost in Orlando.” It is a piece that aims at remembrance “with love, not tears.” This is a particularly painful form of remembrance. The piece plunges you into darkness. Dipping, wounded double-stops fray and fall into the lower register of the viola. Chisholm then gives the audience space for their own thoughts with a thin texture of whistling and occasional glockenspiel. When a more lively texture returns it does not reflect our own feelings of loss in a sentimental, cathartic climax. Instead it offers a snapshot of a personality. The viola line is speech-like, coloured by Scholes’ percussive rim shots. It is uncomfortable to hear a personality conjured so matter-of-factly. But we have to move beyond our personal experience of grief or else we cannot hear the departed voice clearly. Hearing a departed voice without tears is perhaps how we do that voice justice.

Cat Hope’s The Sinister Glamour of Modernity (after Ross Gibson) arranged for viola and vibraphone is an insect-like exploration of clusters picked out of the vibraphone with thimbled fingers. It is an exceptionally creepy, spidery sound underpinning the viola’s drunken, careening lines.

Liza Lim’s viola solo Amulet motivates the instrument’s full range of bow pressure, angle, and speed. Green’s deft control of Lim’s demanding bowing instructions was matched ambidextrously by her left hand, which works both independently and interdependently with the right.

Scholes and Green performed Juliana Hodkinson’s enigmatic performance piece Harriet’s Song last year at BIFEM. The duo lull the audience into a false sense of security with a long, hushed duet. The audience is no doubt wondering what is going to happen to the array of bells, feathers, chimes, and sand bags suspended from microphone stands with fishing twine. Suddenly Scholes’ arm darts out and cuts an object off with a pair of scissors. The attacks become gradually more violent as she picks up pliers and finally, sharpens a knife and lets several bells crash to the ground at once. Without offering any spoilers, I have seen the piece twice and am still hoping to hear certain objects fall, but I suspect the score is specific about which objects are cut (or perhaps Scholes just doesn’t want to clean up afterwards).

Leah Scholes with the set-up for Juliana Hodkinson’s Harriet’s Song. Photo by Matthew Lorenzon.

The concert also featured the world premiere of Alistair Noble’s  hauteurs/temps. With sparse bass drum and declamatory viola, the piece has a ritualistic air. There is nothing monolithic or imposing about this ritual thanks to a certain harmonic softening around the edges. This harmonic thread draws the listener closer to the work, especially when the texture is filled out with resonant crotales. Another sonic highlight was the introduction of a second viola played by Scholes with mallets. While composers and performers will often treat string instruments percussively in improvisations and solo compositions, this is the first time that I have heard this technique effectively integrated in a duo.

I have been reading about Cretan palaces and Noble’s ritualistic sound world transported me into a fantasy of the ancient past. Speaking with Noble over some of Green and Scholes’ home-baked cakes after the concert I was surprised to find that he was also thinking about Cretan palaces while composing it. Or maybe we have both seen Women in Love.

Phoebe Green, Leah Scholes
The Arrival
Chalice, Northcote
24 June 2016

Malthouse Theatre: I am a Miracle

I am a Miracle. Photo by Pia Johnson.
Hana Lee Crisp and Bert LaBonté in I am a Miracle. Photo by Pia Johnson.

Marvin Lee Wilson was executed on 7 August 2012 for the murder of a police drug informant. Tested to have an IQ of 61, he should have been ineligible for the death penalty under a United States Supreme Court ruling. Wilson’s IQ test was dismissed as evidence because it was administered by a PhD candidate rather than a clinical psychologist. On this technicality, his execution proceeded. Writer Declan Greene describes I am a Miracle as “a play for” rather than about Wilson, but does he nevertheless range too far from his subject? The play’s two acts provide historical and contemporary snapshots of racial inequality. These vignettes are framed by Bert LaBonté’s impassioned monologues as a sympathetic observer of Wilson’s plight.

Bombast paints a thin veneer over an unsatisfactory ending. As giant incandescent bulbs blind the audience, LaBonté offers a rousing call to arms. He pledges to carry Wilson’s memory to wage cosmic revolution. He wants to undo not just generations, but billions of years of inequality.

Two acts seem too few for a play that addresses universal injustices. The sense of incompleteness is almost musical. Three spotlit narratives of murder and subjugation might have given a better sense of the universality of racial subjugation. As they stand, the two acts seem more like separate plays. Melita Jurisic delivers a grimly humorous story of slavery in a nineteenth-century Dutch colony. In what was a brilliantly sustained escalation of tension, LaBonté plays a mentally ill man falling through the cracks in modern-day Melbourne.

A live musician on stage is a perpetual question for the audience, but director Matthew Lutton made a virtue out of soprano Hana Lee Crisp’s presence. She was never left hanging by the wings, but appears at intervals starkly framed by an arch or in front of a curtain. Lutton describes her as “an archangel of justice,” and her pure renditions of David Chisholm’s settings of biblical text elevates the audience above the play’s worldly themes of inequality, mud, and death. The three actors all lend beautiful and distinctive voices to the stage, which is otherwise suffused with subtle choral textures by sound designer Marco Cher-Gibbard.

Chisholm’s renaissance-style vocal score also raises a question that is held in delicious suspense until we learn of Wilson’s religious faith in Bert LaBonté’s final monologue. Becoming profoundly religious while in prison, Wilson’s final words included:

Take me home, Jesus.
Take me home, Lord.
I ain’t left yet.
Must be a miracle.
I am a miracle.

With every piece of the play’s promotional material foregrounding Wilson, the audience may be surprised by the marginal role of Wilson’s story. As an audience we are always watching LaBonté watch Wilson. We never hear Wilson’s words or learn anything about his life, but are left with the consolation of religion and ambient rage.

I am a Miracle
Written by Declan Greene
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Composition by David Chisholm
Malthouse Theatre
3 August 2015

“How much does it cost?”: A Guide to Commissioning New Music in Australia

The first in a series of feature articles for Partial Durations.

By Matthew Lorenzon

This article began when a friend asked me “How much does it cost to commission a piece of music?” I felt that this might be a loaded question. I also felt that I could be trusted to give an impartial answer, being a musicologist and a music critic. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clue. I usually come in at the end of the creative process, blissfully ignorant of how much time, sweat, and money has gone into it. So that I never again miss the opportunity to steer a budding patron of the arts towards a bevy of hungry musicians, I decided to ask around.

I quickly found that composers and ensembles were just as curious about commissioning as my friend. I also heard tales from frustrated patrons-to-be. To make this survey useful to as broad a segment of the community as possible, I interviewed a range of artists and donors. I began with student composer Peter Butterlake (name changed for anonymity), then interviewed one of Australia’s most commissioned composers, Gordon Kerry. I sought the advice of the emerging Syzygy Ensemble and the internationally-recognised percussion group Speak Percussion. I also spoke with composer and festival director David Chisholm about the role of festival in facilitating new work. Finally, I asked the philanthropists Tim and Lyn Edward about their experience with the commissioning process. I found all of the participants’ advice on commissioning so enlightening that I have included large swathes of the interviews below. Hopefully the text is navigable thanks to the extensive use of subheadings. Readers can also skip to the end of the article to find a handy list of commissioning “dos and don’ts” that didn’t fit in with the flow of the article.

Even though this article is framed as a prescriptive how-to guide to commissioning, I hope that it opens a discussion of the wide variety of experiences of private giving. If you feel that your experience is not represented here, please take to the comments.

What is a commission?

A commission is basically a request for a new piece of music. Every piece of music has to start someplace, and that place is not necessarily in the composer’s head. It may begin in a conversation between a composer and a performer. A work may even begin in a conversation between a private donor and an auspice organisation such as an orchestra, a festival, or a cultural fund. This piece may be delivered on paper, in a performance, as a recording, or any mix of the above.

In Australia, the commissioner is usually a public funding body, such as the cultural fund of a local council, or the Australia Council for the Arts. However, a growing number of private donors also directly contribute to Australia’s (and indeed their own) cultural life by commissioning new works.

Tim and Lyn Edward have been commissioning new music since 2008. They commission the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s annual Snare Drum Award test piece. Recently, they also commissioned the percussion sextet with electronics Whorl Would Equal Reaches from James Rushford for Speak Percussion. They also have some more commissions in the pipeline. The Edwards see their contribution as “basically financial backing,” rather than artistic curation. They “pay the money to the company’s Administration and their Artistic team sources the composer.”

Not all commissions are so hands-off. Ughetti describes a range of criteria attached to commissions, from very specific commissions by institutions to open-ended commissions by individuals:

A commission could be anything from somebody coming in from the National Gallery of Victoria and saying “We’re doing an exhibition on postmodern European art and we need a composition that will go for this long, it will go after this speech by the minister for the arts [I would like to hear that speech], it has to be for mixed instruments and it has to be loud.” The other extreme would be an individual coming in and offering money for a new work without specifying anything.


As well as institutions and individuals commissioning works, ensembles from around the world can also co-commission works together. To Kerry, this

mitigates the problem of pieces only being played once or twice and in a single location. People like Brett Dean, Liza Lim, Elena Kats-Chernin in particular have benefited from international co-commissions, which is great as the works are performed in Australia, Sweden, Germany, or the UK.

Syzygy Ensemble has also benefited from international co-commissions. Laila Engle describes a situation where

we played a work by an international composer and his publisher contacted us to say “I see that you played this piece. Would you like to get together with an English ensemble and commission a new piece?” The Brett Dean sextet that we are playing at the moment was co-commissioned by three high-profile groups: The Nash Ensemble in England, Eighth Blackbird and the Australia Ensemble. Splitting the cost and guaranteeing performances in multiple continents. That has really helped that piece come to life.

Festival commissions

Festivals not only auspice commissions, they can also commission new work themselves. The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (BIFEM) uses an innovative model of rolling over box-office takings from one year to commission works in the next. As Chisholm describes:

With the help of philanthropic organisations and government bodies, we are able to cover operation costs. Box office sales then roll over to commission new works for the next year. We can’t use Australian money to commission non-Australian composers, but we can use box office takings to do that. There are about five or six new works in the festival, which is absolutely fabulous.

Sharing the risk around

Though the donor expects no monetary return from their gift, donors and performers sometimes exercise risk-management when commissioning new music. In his 2004 Peggy Glanville-Hicks address “Why Bother?”, Julian Burnside remarks that a commission is unlikely to be a completely satisfactory experience for the commissioner if they never hear it. His suggestion that groups of donors commission new works together is not only a pragmatic way in which someone of almost any financial means can contribute to new work, it is a pragmatic way of guarding against a disappointing commission. Engle has noted the move away from single-patron commissions to commissions from multiple donors:

Applying for private funds can be a bit like applying for grants. People don’t want to give you 100% of anything. They don’t want to take all the risk. There is a big push in Australia to couple public funding with private sector funding, which helps share the risk around.

Crowd-funding is an extreme version of distributing risk. Both Syzygy Ensemble and Speak Percussion just completed crowd-funding drives with Creative Partnerships Australia. Creative Partnerships Australia matched private towards these campaigns dollar-for-dollar. The Australian Flute Festival successfully crowd-funded a commission by Paul Dean as a test piece for a competition, the competition’s entry fees effectively paying for the work. The Bang on a Can People’s Commissioning Fund is an ongoing platform for small-scale donations towards new work. While crowd-funding harnesses the significant—but further distributed—resources of a musician’s networks, its principles are the same as other forms of private fundraising: donations result from fostering relationships. Repeated crowd-funding drives without giving back to one’s donors through a performance of new work will result in donor-fatigue.

Managing relationships: The commissioner, the composer, and the performer

The principal risk involved in a commission is that it is not performed. A commission is therefore ideally a triangular relationship between the donor(s), the composer(s), and the performer(s). Artistic directors of ensembles, festivals and agencies are helpful in facilitating these relationships. The Edwards state that they are “more likely to commission through an organisation because we don’t feel we have the expertise to go directly to a composer.” As the artistic director of Speak Percussion, Ughetti is something of a match-maker. All of the private money that Speak has received has gone straight through the ensemble to composers:

It’s hard, it’s not a nice thing to do, to ask people for money. It’s way harder when you have to ask for money for yourself. If you ask on behalf of somebody else, a young composer for instance, if you say “you will support a great talent and in years to come you will be responsible for making an Australian cultural asset,” then that is a much more comfortable situation. I think that to date, all of our private donations have gone straight in and out to composers. It has never remained in the ensemble.

Musica Viva is instrumental in auspicing commissions for some of Australia’s most established composers. Even when commissioning work through Musica Viva, the commissioner may be a long-term friend of the composer. Kerry explains that

when Carl Vine took over as director of Musica Viva he instituted the “featured composer” program. That meant that each season would feature 4–5 works by a composer. Each season became a little retrospective of a composer. Some of the commissions I have received through Musica Viva, including through the Featured Composer program, were more specific than others. It’s not like in the visual arts where the commissioner says: I don’t like that, can you put more pink in it.” Fortunately that doesn’t happen. I did, though, receive a commission from a friend in Sydney who inherited some money and her partner was turning 60. She commissioned a string quartet work through Musica Viva and under the circumstances it was appropriate that the piece be celebratory.

BIFEM’s private commissions have been the result of several years of building trust between the audience and the festival. Chisholm stresses the importance of the artistic vision of the festival, ensemble, or project in fostering private support.

This year we’ve been able to commission two overseas artists as well as locals. There is a couple, regular folks from Essendon West, who are regular patrons of the festival. They came to us not knowing how to commission a work. I showed them the Australia Council guidelines and previous commissions within the festival so they had a sense of scale around the process. But it’s really about these people coming to the festival and deciding that it is something they want to do. It’s a hard thing to go and ask people for. All fundraising is about relationships and they all take time. One of the great failures of some arts organisations is that they appoint a development manager thinking that somehow their Teledex is going to bring them relationships. They may have the contacts, but it’s all about what it is that you’re doing that makes them want to invest in you.

Commission a piece, get a tax deduction

One of the benefits of commissioning a work through an auspice organisation such as certain orchestras, ensembles, festivals and cultural funds is that one receives a tax deduction. The Edwards explained that tax deductions are less of an issue now that Tim is retired, but that while he was working “the deduction was definitely a factor.” Chisholm explains:

Make sure you can commission through an organisation or auspice organisation that has tax deductible recipient status and charity tax concessions. It’s possible that you maximise your tax benefits that way. For $2,500 out of your pocket, you can get a $5,000 work. You would have to pay that tax anyway, here’s a way of controlling where it goes.

Whether you commission a work directly from a composer or through an organisation can depend on how much control the donor wants over the commission. As Ughetti describes the situation:

If someone donates to an individual they will not receive a tax deduction. If they donate to an organisation, they receive a tax deduction but they cannot tell the organisation how to spend the money. That would no longer be a gift, they would be buying something. There are some individuals who know who they want to commission and why. It could be a family member or someone who has seen the artist grow up for years, it could be an artist that they love. But that artist might not be a good fit with an organisation. The organisation and the individual would definitely have an understanding, they have a duty to respect each others’ wishes, but the patron does not have ownership over the work and cannot tell the organisation how to spend their money. Often both the organisation and the donor have similar values. It only becomes an issue when there are conflicting wishes.

If you arrive at an understanding at the very beginning, if you say “there is this fantastic composer, we want to commission them, would you be able to give us some money?” If we then volunteer to pass all of that money on, they get the tax deduction and we get the commission that we would have had to fundraise for elsewhere.

It all starts with a relationship

Even when a commission is made through an auspice organisation, a personal connection is central to the project. Tim and Lyn Edward state that they are inspired to commission works because of their love for percussion and also

to encourage developing performers, see new works added to the repertoire and support individuals and organisations we have come to know.

The Edwards frame the origins of their commissions in terms of personal relationships:

Rob Cossom, the initiator of the Snare Drum Award, put out a call for someone to fund the commissioning of an annual test piece, saying it would add prestige to the event (we now believe it was also necessary for the award to continue) and we decided to take it up.

We met Eugene through John Arcaro and greatly admire him and the work Speak Percussion do. When we expressed interest in contributing, Eugene suggested we do so with a new commission.

Fostering direct relationships with commissioners is as important for established composers as it is for emerging composers. Kerry spoke about the interpersonal origins of some of his most recent commissions:

If the commissioner knows the composer and likes his or her work, then that is usually why that composer gets chosen. In 2012 when I was touring with various groups, when the String Quintet was being played, I would stand up and make this speech about how philanthropy was a wonderful thing and if people wanted to throw money at me I’d be standing by the bar at interval. In Queensland someone came up to me and said “Yes, tell me more,” because she and her husband have a weekender in the Sunshine Coast hinterland and she said it’s just full of birdsong and they’d like to celebrate that. So I got her to buy a Zoom and she went out and recorded an hour or two of birdsong, which I listened to and played around with on Audacity and found a whole lot of hidden musical moments and turned that into a piece. That was a fairly clear brief and a very nice one.

Relationships between composers and performers also need to be carefully managed and are an often-neglected part of the commissioning process. Several interviewees commented on how composers and performers form communities of stylistically-aligned individuals. These relationships develop gradually over time. In Ughetti’s case, it took years before Ughetti and the composer Robin Fox were able to decide how they wanted to work together.

Most composers and performers are looking for like-minded individuals. A particular group with a particular aesthetic will attract a particular kind of composer. There will be composers who think “well, this group will never perform my music because I just don’t fit into their style.” So, a lot of it is about following an artist and through following them you inevitably meet them or start an email dialogue with them and through that you either form a friendship or you form a relationship that has some element of trust and respect. Out of that can come the will to work together. Robin Fox and I have collaborated once, but it took us five years to figure out how we wanted to work together and I’ve been an admirer of him for ten to fifteen years and he’s known about my work too, so there was mutual respect there, but we didn’t know how or when we wanted to work together. In some instances, depending on the context of the project, some funding might become available and then you look at how best to spend it.

Show me the money

So perhaps you have a composer or auspice organisation in mind. How much does it cost to commission a work? The Australia Council for the Arts publishes their own composition fees, “which probably haven’t kept up with CPI,” according to Kerry. The rates can be found online here. The Australia Council calculates the cost of a commission according to the number of independent voices in the piece and its duration in minutes. The table below shows some actual examples of commissions that the interviewees were aware of. I have calculated the Australia Council’s rates for the same works myself in the right-hand column. As you can see from even this limited data, the Australia Council rate tends to sit at the lower end of what established composers tend to be paid. Senior or mega-famous composers tend to attract much more funding, though still an order of magnitude less than their colleagues in the visual arts.

Career stage Independent parts Duration Time Spent Composing (full time) Commission received Australia Council rate*
Emerging composer Solo guitar 15 minutes Two months 500 6,795
Various composers Solo percussion 8 minutes 1,000 3,624
Emerging composer percussion sextet and electronics 30 minutes 5,000 15,420
Established composer Solo percussion 10 minutes 2,000–8,000 4,530
Established composer Solo performer (long-form dramatic work) 60 minutes One year 28,000–30,000 27,180
Established composer Orchestra and chorus (long-form dramatic work) 90 minutes 18 months 35,000–40,000 58,050
Senior composer Twelve


10 minutes Several months 20,000 5,840
Very, very famous composer Percussion quartet 12–16 minutes 60,000 6,168

Table: Details of some commissions discussed during research for this article. *Not necessarily received. This column is for comparison.

Early careers and murky economics

Money may not change hands at all if the commissioner is an ensemble or a performer. Engle describes the complex transactions of intangible assets and “reciprocal resources” that can take place when Syzygy Ensemble commissions a work:

In the end it’s all about reciprocal resources and relationships. When you want to commission someone, it is normally someone you know, who you have a deep respect for, whose work you admire. Usually this feeling is reciprocated and both parties gain from the experience without any monetary exchange necessarily taking place.

When Syzygy started, we had a launch party and a lot of composers who knew about the group and who were interested in performing new music approached us. You do get a lot of people just sending you scores. We have worked with composers where we have applied for funding and when it hasn’t arisen they have composed it for free. In return, we played on her album for free, so it was an in-kind exchange.

Kerry remembers his early compositional career as “a mixture of luck and making your own opportunities”:

For a young composer, as I was then, it was a matter of knocking on doors a bit and saying “listen to my choral music.” I had also written on spec for Elision and the “New Audience” concerts—or as we called them the “No Audience” concerts—at Melbourne University. A group of composers who were students at the time, including Liza Lim and myself, began writing for Elision. They built up their repertoire and we built up great skills. It meant that I had a body of contemporary mixed ensemble pieces. Then ideally, one starts attracting the attention of mainstream groups and funding bodies. I started getting commissions for groups like the Australia Ensemble. That broadened the field for me a bit. Also, I had written some works for the Philharmonia Choir, which included works for choir and orchestra, which attracted the notice of ABC Concerts, which in those days managed the state orchestras.

When they are paid, emerging composers enjoy a somewhat higher proportion of in-kind to monetary support as part of their commissions. Butterlake’s first commission came out of the pocket of a friend, a young guitarist. Though the pay was small, both parties benefited from the commission. In Butterlake’s words, commissioning a new work “is as much a milestone for a young performer as it is for a young composer. They want to build repertoire, they want to be the first person to play something.”

Early-career composers may also receive commissions as a result of competitions and calls for scores, both of which begin as unpaid opportunities. Engle explains:

No money changes hands in a call for scores. Those opportunities are usually directed towards developing artists who need time with musicians to ask questions and then, once they’ve proved themselves, that’s a good time to commission someone. These are also in-kind transactions. It may cost $150 per person per call to rehearse a piece. That’s $600 for one rehearsal of a quartet. We did workshops at Melbourne University a few years ago and they just give us a lump sum to play six or seven new works. We say “we will spend one rehearsal preparing all of this,” then we do the workshop with a conductor so that we can get through everything quickly. We then look for funding afterwards to present that work, because the presentation and recording of a work is valuable to the composer. That is something that they would spend their money on, if they had it and it was a transactional relationship. That would be an important part of their portfolio.

We did a workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre where we put out a call for scores. It was open to anybody. We had a guy in his eighties who had never had anything performed professionally, but he had been writing for his church group for many years. We had a teacher from Sale, Gippsland, who wanted further development. We had university students. We workshopped all of those pieces over a series of weekends and then we chose outstanding entrants and programmed them in a performance.

While recognising the important educational role of early-career unpaid performance opportunities, Butterlake understands that there is

a big leap of faith involved in submitting to a Call For Scores or a competition. The Soundstream Collective’s recent competition received 27 or 28 entries, six of which were performed. Three composers from this group were then offered commissions of $5000, $3000, and $1500 for new works.

There is definitely an imbalance of unpaid opportunities. But they are the standard steps that composers go through: AYO, TSO, MSO, Ensemble Offspring and SoundStream. There are really established opportunities in Australia. You do those, then you go overseas and take up similar opportunities over there: Bang on a Can, Royaumont. They are all unpaid opportunities as well. Maybe at the end of that you will have generated enough interest in your work to actually get paid.

Despite competitions and calls for scores being primarily educational opportunities, it is interesting to note that Engle and Butterlake both discuss them in terms of managing risk. Engle talks about composers proving their worth and Butterlake sees competitions as primarily about raising the composer’s profile. It is of course ludicrous to think that the quality of a composer’s work is going to shoot from worthless to payable after a couple of these opportunities, which sometimes amount to a play-through and a pat on the back. There is thus considerable value in commissioning early-career composers through ensembles who have close links to rising generations of composers.

Established careers and murky economics

Even well-established composers and performers often subsidise their own work. Engle recalls asking

a prominent performer about how they go about commissioning works and she said “It matters how much I want it. If I really, really want it and I can’t fund a particular artistic relationship with someone, then I just pay for it myself.” […] There isn’t enough recognition of how much artists subsidise their own work.

Just as a more established composer attracts a higher fee, so too does social distance increase the funds needed to secure a commission. Engle explains:

As soon as you approach someone with a higher profile or who is more distant from yourself, more resources need to be involved. You might need a funding partner on board to manage that three-way relationship between the expectations of the person commissioning the work, the expectations of the composer, and the performer.

Ughetti outlines a similar dynamic, stressing the importance senior composers place on the performance outcomes of their work.

Every conversation is different. Every conversation brings into account all of the previous relationships that you might have had with that person: your awareness of their work, what is motivating you to commission them in the first place, what’s motivating them to work with you, and then an idea that everyone will be excited about. Sometimes just the notion of a new work is enough to get people excited, but better-known composers will often be attracted to a strategically-sound project that is already coupled with an outcome. When approaching high-profile, international composers, right from the beginning I am talking about recordings, performances and tours before we’ve even thought about what the work may be. For young composers, the idea of being paid to write a piece is already great for their career, so the nature of the conversation changes dramatically.

As a senior Australian composer, Kerry also advises having a “sliding scale” depending on who is funding a work:

When dealing with philanthropic people one does need to be prepared to have a sliding scale, on the principle that it’s better to write a piece than not write a piece. Obviously if a particularly munificent patron comes along one takes what is offered, and the fees offered in, say, the UK, are generally considerably higher than here. When dealing with people who haven’t commissioned a work before—especially if they’re not especially wealthy—one tries to come up with something affordable for them that still makes it worth one’s time to write the piece. (Even corporate sponsors have been known to baulk: One colleague produced an orchestral work a while back, which would have taken up to six months to write, and the orchestra’s AA had to bite the tongue when, handing over the giant novelty cheque, the sponsor said “that seems like a lot for a piece of music.”) So in some cases one has to gently explain that writing music is labour-intensive, and there is a lot of time spent doing things that might not look like work but which prepare the way, and that one would never calculate an hourly rate for composition as it would drive one to suicide. Or law school.

Kerry’s private commissions have largely appeared later in his career. This reflects the changing face of Australian philanthropy. The ABC used to play a much greater role in supporting Australia’s major orchestras, including commissioning new works that would then receive two or more performances by different orchestras. As Kerry sees it:

Now, with every orchestra independently managed, there is not as much incentive to commission new work as there was back in the ABC days, when a new work would receive several performances and several broadcasts in a year. But there are some new initiatives from the orchestras for young composers: MSO has teamed up with the Cybec Foundation, for instance. There are those opportunities that weren’t there before.

In Australia, private commissions may occur much later in a composer’s career. He sees this as partly owing to the fact that,

though the orchestras and major organisations are largely publicly funded, they have to trade into surplus, they have to behave like businesses. They tend to be little inclined to spend money on commissions or at least have to rely on philanthropy.

Though there are still many, if not more opportunities to be commissioned, Kerry feels that there are less opportunities to hear repeat performances of works that are important parts of our cultural heritage.

We all face the problem of the lack of programming and of performance opportunities for Australian composers. There is a lot of orchestral music by my colleagues that I’d like to hear more of. It is great that groups like Plexus and Syzygy are commissioning new work. But there is a lot of stuff that we should hear for the benefit of our own cultural understanding that is no longer performed. There are parts of numerous works by Australians that are no less palatable than something by a nineteenth-century composer, so why not program them? There is the problem of audiences wanting familiar names on their programs. The Australian Chamber Orchestra put some obscure eighteenth-century composer on a program several years ago and everyone thought it must be a new music composer. They had to say “it’s okay, it’s full of tunes.”

Who pays for performances?

Despite the importance of performance to the overall success of a commission, performance costs are rarely included in the commissioning fee. Ughetti details the financial pressures of presenting new work:

An important element of a commission is that it has to be learnt and presented. The learning and presenting can often be much more expensive than the writing of it. In Speak’s case, if we commission a trio, it might take three weeks or three months for the composer to write. It could even take a year, but generally between three weeks and three months. We might then have two weeks of solid rehearsals for three players, that’s six weeks of rehearsal to be paid for. There might be a publicity campaign, a venue and a lighting designer that cost thousands more dollars. That’s a really important part of the mix and often composers are more interested in the fact that their work will be presented than receiving a strong fee.

Performance costs are almost never factored into commission costs. Some commissions don’t have a deadline. It’s pretty hard to publicise and plan a performance of a work before you’ve even written it. It might be much longer, or technically difficult, or not suited to the venue. Or, as happens with many pieces, they are delivered late. Sometimes after the deadline of the performance. Depending on the project, presentation costs might be bundled into the whole conversation, into the whole budget.

Think big

The composer David Chisholm avoids the problem of who will play his music by focusing on long-form works over which he has control of the outcomes. It is also easier to secure funding for one large work than it is many smaller ones.

I made a very clear-minded decision many years ago to focus on long-form works. I felt that there was a better chance of securing funding if I was ambitious and there were outcomes assured for the work. I also decided that I didn’t want to fill my catalogue with ten or twelve-minute works. I came to composition late. I studied early but spent a long time at dance parties instead of composing. When I hit 29 and wanted to get serious about my practice, I realised that the best way to get attention and make leaps and bounds was to produce long forms. I feel more comfortable composing like that as well.

Long-form work means that I can self-produce and set up the creative partnerships myself. It seems more sensible to create a work that people will come to and remember than a ten minute work that they might not. Theatre and dance practitioners produce long-form work without even blinking an eye. My big compositional heroes were Wagner and Messiaen and the works of theirs that I was most impressed by were the really big ones. I have always locked composing into presentation. I was speaking to a donor who said that half the works he had commissioned had not been performed. I think that says a lot about his commitment to nurturing the arts, but it is also an indictment on the arts sector for not finding ways to link their work to outcomes.

It is almost a waste to give people small amounts of money. Why commission small works when it’s never going to have an outcome? It is going to take the sector a while to adjust to the thinking that they can ask for a lot of money rather than a little amount.

Dos and don’ts

If you have made it this far, you would be aware of the most important “do” in commissioning new work: Ensure a performance outcome. For a composer, this might mean taking control of the performance of your works (in Chisholm’s case) or liaising closely with ensembles to ensure that somebody has agreed to perform your work. Several more important messages came through in the interviews. Seeing as they did not fit neatly into the above text, I have provided them here as series of pithy “dos” and “don’ts.”

1. Do: Consider commissioning a longer work

Kerry: There is a preponderance of 10–12 minute pieces, going back to the 1970s. If I’m commissioned to write a 10–12 minute piece, I write a 10–12 minute piece, because if I turn around and say “sorry, it’s half an hour long,” then it’s too hard to programme. On the other hand, I saw a blog somewhere that said “Gordon Kerry can only write 10-12 minute pieces.” But that’s not true! Some of my pieces are 20, 90 minutes long. You do have to sell tickets but audiences today are much more open to new music than they were 30 years ago. There has been a stylistic rapprochement with the audience.

2. Do: Be cautious around universities

Some university composition departments facilitate significant commissioning prizes for young composers. These include the Dorian Le Galliene composition award and the Albert H. Maggs. In these cases, substantial funds have been provided to the University for valuable, ongoing commissions programs. Universities have, however, been known to struggle to accommodate smaller donations for individual commissions. For one-off commissions, consider getting in touch with one of the major orchestras or ensembles that work regularly with young composers, including Speak Percussion (Melbourne), Ensemble Offspring (Sydney), Syzygy Ensemble (Melbourne), Decibel Ensemble (Perth), or Kupka’s Piano (Brisbane).

3. Don’t: Be too prescriptive when commissioning work.

Chisholm: It is important that your commission does not predicate style or content too strictly. You are not just investing in the work, but in the individual. Ensure that the relationship you develop with your commissioners is one where you have artistic freedom. Nothing wrong with writing jingles, but that’s a direct transaction and commissioning is not a direct transaction. It is buying an artist’s time to pursue their practice within certain constraints. Of course I will write chamber music for someone with a special interest in chamber music, but I will decide the content of that chamber music.

4. Don’t: Composers, don’t cold-contact an ensemble with a piece. Do get to know them.

Ughetti: Composers cold-email ensembles, though often it is in the form of a media kit. “Would you consider performing this piece?” I’ve had composers I don’t even know say “I’d like to write you a piece, I’m ready to go.” It is very rare that anything comes of these approaches. It would be like going on a date with someone who just emailed you. It’s lovely, but you might want to know who they are first.

5. Do: Keep your commissioner happy.

Kerry: If someone wants to commission a piece they are doing so out of a feeling of good will towards the composer/art form/performer, and if that is successful they may want to do it again. […] On occasion, writing a slightly longer piece than the commissioner can afford can be a nice gesture of good will back, as can personalising the work in some way.

6. Don’t: Chase other people’s commissioners.

Chisholm: Composers sometimes identify a donor of mine and go chasing them. That’s really tacky. Have a bit of solidarity and respect for the fact that these relationships aren’t necessarily transferrable. It’s advisable to cultivate your own relationships.

7. Do: Make sure philanthropic bodies support something central to your project.

Chisholm: Certainly philanthropic organisations really need to know that what they’re doing is playing a vital role, even if they are partnering with government agencies they need to know that they’re going to pay for a very important aspect of the project.

7. Finally, Do: Commission new music, for your own sake as much as anyone else’s

The Edwards give the following words of advice:

Go with your heart and your soul. Choose instrumentation and genre you are passionate about (within budget constraints of course) and, unless you are dealing directly with the composer, feel you can trust the organisation you are dealing with to administer it but to keep you in the loop.

Ughetti notes the considerable benefits of supporting new music to one’s personal culture, as well as the wider community’s.

We’re such a wealthy country and we’re so materialistic and ambitious, which in its best form is a good thing, but our cultural and spiritual dimensions have suffered from this. With this money, our lives could be so much richer and more beautiful than they currently are. Our standard of living would drop a little. We might have one less TV or not quite the latest Lexus, but the vibrancy and depth of our culture would be greater. People work so hard they don’t have time to engage with arts and culture. People need to have an awareness of their own culture, of their physical culture, of music, art, fashion, and design.

Though the benefits for composers, performers, and donors are great, commissioning new music is a strategic minefield. Fortunately there are programs (and now a Programme*) that aim to make this process easier. Whether you donate through Musica Viva, directly to a composer, or throw a few dollars into a crowd-funding campaign, it will probably be because you know the artists or are a fan of their work. To quote Engle, developing these relationships is “one of the most important extra-musical skills” of a contemporary musician. Above all else, make sure that this great new music is shared and heard.

[* I began this article well before Senator George Brandis announced his National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, a programme that is funded directly at the cost of Australia’s independent, peer-reviewed arts funding organisation the Australia Council for the Arts. This article is by no means an endorsement of the continued division and erosion of public funding for the arts. July’s feature article for Partial Durations will look more closely at Brandis’ changes, which put small-medium music organisations—within which almost the entirety of contemporary art music is created—at risk.]

BIFEM: Ensemble Vortex

Ensemble Vortex
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatre
10:30pm, 5 September

Ensemble Vortex consists of four globetrotting performers united in their desire to play scores before the ink is dry. Meeting in a composition class at the Conservatoire de Genève, the works performed for their first concert at BIFEM share a theatrical if not irreverent aesthetic that hedges its bets with technique and gesture over colour and form. All three of the composers were present at the concert and their explanations of each work (including David Chisholm’s hilarious interview) can be streamed online via ABC Classic FM’s New Music Up Late. The concert opened with Fernando Garnero’s Limae Labor, which features obsessive scratching and scraping of stringed instruments, including the actual scraping of an electric guitar with a scourer. The scratching reflects the obsessive working and reworking of the rhythmic material of the piece.

Benôit Moreau’s Slappy’s Dance is at least nominally about a cartoon puppet that comes to life. The performers’ repetitive tapping and blowing eventually coalesce to, in the composer’s words, “make something happen.” Some interesting effects are produced with the application of a guitar slide to a violin and blasts of static as the piece reaches its siren-like climax.

David Chisholm’s Rung features a set of “bamboo punk” (as Chisholm put it) Indian temple bells played by a solenoid mechanism mounted in a bamboo frame. The bells, constructed by Benjamin Kolaitis, are triggered by the performers through sensitive foot pads. Rung is another of Chisholm’s commemorative pieces, for which the bells have particular relevance. The peal of bells unleashed by the solenoids is quite rapid and deafening, creating a highly-charged atmosphere within which guitarist Mauricio Carrasco played angular incantations. Bass clarinettist Anne Gillot and violinist Rada Hadjikostova-Schleuter provided the occasional chorus-like punctuation. A second episode saw a more peaceful texture with the bass clarinet swapped for the impossibly-mellow contrabass recorder.

If I may pose a distinction between “composerly” and “performerly” music (if only to deny it), the members of Ensemble Vortex brought a wonderfully ludic and immanently-creative atmosphere to the proceedings, reminding the audience of the close relationship between living composers and performers.Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

BIFEM: Opening Concert, Argonaut Strings

Opening Concert
Argonaut Strings
The Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
8:00pm, 5 September

Given that so little new music for strings is performed in Australia, a major concert dedicated to the genre was well overdue. BIFEM’s private stash of instrumentalists, the Argonaut Ensemble, was gradually augmented as the concert progressed from a violin solo to a work for thirteen players. This poetic gesture was coupled with a progressive exploration of the range of sounds and techniques available on the instruments, ranging from simple timbral studies to expansive works combining the wide range of colours of the string orchestra with thematic writing.

The concert opened with the oldest piece in the festival, Jean Barraqué’s Sonate pour violon seul from 1949. With trance-like serenity, Graeme Jennings brought the sonata to the stage of the Bendio Capital Theatre like an apparition from the past. Written in the composer’s early serialist style, the piece seems to speak a long-lost language of attacks and articulations. Though composed while Barraqué was a student of Olivier Messiaen, it was thought to have been lost until its rediscovery in 2009 making it a paradoxically contemporary work. The festival was dotted with such curiosities that helped one take stock of the breadth of the last century of music that we still like to call “contemporary” or “new.”

Back to the twenty-first century and Francisco Huguet’s Damora was the first of many “one-idea” pieces that would become a point of contention in Saturday’s discussion panel “Duration and Durability.” Like Barraqué’s sonata, Damora‘s inclusion has a certain pedagogical intent. The piece distils the two extremes of bow pressure that dominate contemporary string writing: shimmering, whispering light bowing and creaking, crunching heavy bowing. To begin with, the double bass and violin duo trill while scrubbing back and forth across the strings, producing a complex warbling effect. This sound transitions into a more strident chordal texture including many chiming harmonics. The overall effect is dirty and fragile, full of the fruity bow sound that the nineteenth century worked so hard to conceal and that composers revel in today.

The almost inaudible scraping of bow on string or grinding pressure would become familiar introductory sequences throughout the festival and Marielle Groven’s trio Je ne vois qu’infini par toutes les fenêtres [I see only infinity through all of the windows] was no exception. Groven explored the techniques up and down the strings, from the fingerboard to the bridge. Three little flutters in unison in the middle of the piece provided a focal point around which the complex of sound coalesced.

Expanding the ensemble’s forces to a septet, the Parisian conductor Maxime Pascal (recently lauded by a chocolate company in Salzburg) entered to conduct David Chisholm’s Jonestown Threnody. Jonestown Threnody is one of the composer’s many “requiem” pieces, though rarely does a requiem depict in quite so chilling a manner the death of its subject. The initial chaos of moans and squeals from the strings is shockingly similar—possibly even more shocking in its aesthetic amplification of the sounds—to the existing recordings of the mass suicide (many would say mass murder) of 918 people in 1978. Chisholm’s morbid fascination with the sound leads to variations with wide vibrato, disintegrating descending lines and some thematic imitation.

Liza Lim’s Gothic follows nicely from Chisholm’s because both composers use melodic material as one of many techniques in their incredibly dense musical environments. Lim is without doubt the contemporary master of declamatory, melodic invention. Pascal brought out the dynamic shapes Lim uses to bring her lines to life, giving the ensemble more than enough to work with in terms of physical gesture.

Then came the standout work of the concert, perhaps even of the festival: Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. As Pascal explained to the audience, the piece is characteristic of Vivier’s work with its ceremonial or ritualistic form, its exploration of colour and its development from a single melody (a technique adopted from Stockhausen, one of Vivier’s teachers). Zipangu was one of the names for Japan at the time of Marco Polo and the string orchestra is divided into two sides, who take turns invoking (Pascal mused) the spirit of Marco Polo with their incantations coloured by varieties of bow pressure and position. The addition of violinist Rada Hadjikostova-Schleuter seemed to have an electrifying effect on the orchestra, especially when she would launch into her muscular rendition of the piece’s recurring violin solo.

You can listen back to the whole concert online thanks to ABC Classic FM.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.


3 Shades Black: Homophonic

Three Shades of Black.
3 Shades Black. Photo by Nick Moulton

3 Shades Black
La Mama Theatre, Carlton
Midsumma Festival
24–25 January, 2014

Melbourne-based ensemble 3 Shades Black are presenting Homophonic, a programme of music by queer composers as part of the Midsumma Festival. Now in its third year, director Miranda Hill and composer David Chisholm spoke to Partial Durations about the concert’s origins and inspirations.

After researching the history of LGBT composers, Hill was struck by the elision of queer identities in the classical canon. “I read a lot about Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Britten and Copland, all of these big names that have been straight-washed by the establishment. You can’t go and hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 10—with those big chords because he found out his wife was cheating—without seeing a reference to Alma, but I’ve never seen a reference to the young boy to whom Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 was dedicated to.”

From this historical base, 3 Shades Black struck out to discover living LGBT composers. “We have a policy of always including at least one local and one woman composer. The programme this year is a watershed for having so many fabulous local composers. We’ve had two new pieces written for the show by Wally Gunn and Naima Fine, who also wrote for us in the first concert. It’s nice to come back and build a relationship with composers.”

As well as building relationships with composers, the concerts have enabled 3 Shades Black to engage with a broader audience than the usual art music crowd. “The concerts are an ‘in’ for many people who wouldn’t normally go out of their way to hear New Music, but who come and love it. Who couldn’t love Luke Paulding’s quartet Her Sparkling Flesh in Saecular Ectstasy?”

If one isn’t immediately enraptured by Paulding’s rich timbral cascades, the lives and circumstances of the composers can help audiences relate to the music. 3 Shades Black will play The March of the Women by turn-of-the-century composer Ethel Smyth. “She was a suffragette rabble-rouser,” explains Hill. “She’s the only female composer to have had an opera performed at the Met. But we couldn’t find much of her music. I think you have to know someone who knows someone. We are performing March of the Women, a suffragette anthem, because it has a great story: She was arrested for smashing windows as part of a suffragette protest. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham turned up to see how she was doing in prison. The warden said ‘Oh yes, she’s doing fine, go and have a look.’ All the suffragettes who were in the prison at the time were marching around the parade yard singing March of the Women and she was upstairs in her cell conducting them with her toothbrush. Everyone has stories like that. There are stories like that about Tchaikovsky and his letters to his brother Modest. Virgil Thomson once said something like ‘You can be a twelve-tone composer and you can be gay, but you can’t be both.'”

While the anecdotal lives of composers may appear a flippant or secondary interest, they dispel essentialist notions of a “queer” musical style. For instance, we can assume Thomson was being ironic when he said that you can’t be both a twelve-tone composer and gay, as he was speaking to Ben Weber, a gay twelve-tone composer. The “queerness” of a composition is understood, rather, by the way in which it affirms or contradicts gendered and sexualised tropes such as Thomson’s cliché about the straightness of twelve-tone music. The composer David Chisholm, who is also contributing to Homophonic, said as much in the comments of his interview published in the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate magazine in 2007. The composer Matthew Hindson pressed Chisholm to identify characteristics of “queer” and “postcolonial” music, presumably sensing the fallibility of any attempt to find musical universals that fall under either label. Chisholm clarified that “queer” and “postcolonial” were labels for strategies more than immutable musical qualities. At one point, for Chisholm, this meant introducing the music of the club scene into his “classical” compositions, though for many years Chisholm has been more interested in exploring the bonds of community in the face of death.

Chisholm’s The Arrival is a memorial piece commissioned by a member of the ensemble. “A lot of work I have done since very early on has been memorial-based, looking at requiem forms and the idea of memory, as well as remembering particular people. I lost my mum when I was twenty-three, followed by a string of deaths very close to me. You have to become adept at that in some way.”

While Chisholm explores the tropes and forms of memorial pieces, he reimagines them from a secular perspective. “I was struck that in all of the experiences I had with death, people were always commemorating with the vestiges of Catholicism or Christianity more broadly, but in very secular spaces like crematoriums. People modified and created their own rituals without really knowing the original rituals. These rituals were as much for the living as they were for the dead.”

Chisholm’s memorial will be only one sound among many, as Hill explains, “If you come to the concert you will find that every piece sounds different, from some things that are traditionally beautiful to some things that are quite hard to access. But one thing I can say is that there is a real sense of fun in a lot of this music and a sense maybe even of rebellion. There is a a sense of levity and thinking outside of the box. Wuorinen’s piece for double bass, violin and congas is crazy. It is extreme, contemporary music where my part changes clef four times every bar, but it has a real groove to it.”

Homophonic is on at La Mama, Carlton, at 7:30pm on the 24th and 25th of January.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

Matthew Lutton and David Chisholm, The Bloody Chamber

Alison Whyte in The Bloody Chamber. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Alison Whyte in The Bloody Chamber. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The Bloody Chamber
By Angela Carter
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Music by David Chisholm
Performance text by Van Badham
The Malthouse Theatre
6 August, 2013

Entering the theatre one can just make out dark stains on the stage floor. Drop by drop a puddle of water forms between three monolithic black cubes. Occasionally a tone like struck metal rings out. The sounds rise and fade, accompanied by the dead percussion of wood.

Suddenly, with a rattle of chains, one of the cubes starts to rise. It stops just high enough to reveal the pedaling feet of three harpists, the source of the wooden sounds. The gong sounds (produced by putting Blu-Tac on the harp strings) increase in intensity as the harpists run their hands down their wire strings, producing harsh whispers like the falling blades of guillotines. Then, slowly, the smallest of the three boxes rises to show  two feet dripping with blood. The box continues to rise, carrying the gently twitching feet high above the pool of blood below.

We are inside Bluebeard’s castle where, according to the seventeenth-century version of the tale by Charles Perrault, a sadistic aristocrat has murdered a series of wives for disobeying his one proscription: Do not enter the forbidden room. Showing a propensity for divergent characterisations of violence, the story has since been rewritten many times, notably in Bartok’s 1911 opera and Angela Carter’s 1979 short story on which the Malthouse production is based.

The original cautionary tale assumes a male monopoly on violence for the punishment of woman’s supposed innate and sinful curiosity. Violent punishment is also meted out between men, as the young wife’s brothers save Bluebeard’s youngest wife, the protagonist of the story. Bartok’s interpretation plays down the cautionary tale to focus on the symbolic violence of Bluebeard’s capricious affections, his love of the idea of his wives over their reality. Bluebeard cannot truly admit the new wife into his shuttered castle, initially refusing to let her open the doors and let the light in. When she finally convinces him to do so, she finds the wives alive. The young wife is then similarly enshrined in jewelry and locked away. The castle is no longer a moral prison, but a cold, damp, dark psychological world.

Without forgetting punitive or symbolic violence, Carter elaborates the sexual violence inherent in the tale. An array of mirrors shatters the protagonist into twelve identical copies that are “impaled” in a honeymoon chamber decked with lilies, a symbol of death. In Lutton’s production the bedroom is hidden under the third cube and consists of only a carved four-poster bed. Alison Whyte shifts effortlessly between Bluebeard’s menace and the new wife’s fear, playing both parts with the help of a finely-tuned pitch-shift effect by sound designer Jethro Woodward.

Carter returns to the violence of punishment by having the young wife’s mother ride to the rescue, her skirts tucked around her waist, a backdrop of ocean spray “witness to her furious justice” as she shoots Bluebeard in the head. In Lutton’s production this moment is punctuated by a veritable rain of bullets upon the stage.

While punitive violence ultimately saves the day, the story’s happy ending is predicated on symbolic non-violence. Bluebeard is initially attracted to the new wife for her conservatoire training as a pianist. It is an “accomplishment,” a symbol by which Bluebeard identifies her, placing a Bechstein in the mirrored room. Carter then shows how music can function as something other than a sign of accomplishment, as a bridge between people and a fundamental part of one’s identity. The new wife is able to calm herself by playing Debussy and Bach. The piano also leads her to the blind piano tuner Jean-Yves, with whom she will open a music school after they are both liberated by her gunslinging mother.

The three harpists of Lutton’s production (Jacinta Dennett, Yinuo Mu and Jess Fotinos), representing the three dead wives, extend Carter’s musical theme. Since its feminisation in the late eighteenth century, the harp has inhabited a space of both convention and transgression. While the harp upset a woman’s deportment in the most suggestive ways, it also became the accomplishment par excellence for young women leading up to the French Revolution. As the instrument became larger, heavier and the strings tighter, its physical demands became greater and so women had to fight against a quantity that continued to claim that the instrument was unsuitable for feeble female hands. At times Chisholm’s music fills out the sparse set design, such as where the harpists sing drones over tremoli to evoke the monotonous train ride to the castle. Then, arriving to a dawn sky “scattered with rose-pink,” the harpists unleash a pointillistic flurry of notes. At other times the harpists superimpose the new wife’s alternative psychological world on the dark castle, playing whimsical, dissonant tunes as she traipses around the castle playing with her new riches. Finally, after supporting Whyte, the harpists assert their own identity, literally packing up their bags and leaving the stage. As Carter has said, her rewriting isn’t about men and women, but about “tigers and lambs,” a dynamic as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.