The Totally Huge New Music Festival
reviewed by Stuart Hille
The term ‘Young Composer’ has always perplexed me, particularly as I have had the label cast upon me when receiving scholarships, fellowships and overseas grants. Perhaps ‘student composer’ (without a sense of condescension) or ’emerging creative voice’, as this concert showed, would be more accurate. After all, several ‘young composers’ represented on the evening were not really all that young.
It is akin to the much used term ‘pre-compositional plan’. After all, once you start thinking about a composition and toying with attendant ideas then you are composing and not dwelling in some subconscious hinterland. But, having raised this question of tautology, one could not help but notice definite similarities shared by all the works on the evening.
While there was a plethora of colourful and original ideas throughout, there appeared to be a consistent notion that these alone could carry a convincing, dynamically shaped and, let us be honest, audience engaging piece of music. When being confronted by contemporary music, audiences, in general, are not concerned by mathematical or ‘pre-compositional’ structures. They need exposition, development, climax and a sense of sonic direction.
The first work for example Bunch of Fives by Jennifer O’Connor started with ideas that lured the listener for the first thirty seconds or so, but thereafter became a litany of Stravinskian gestures. It missed Stravinsky’s sense of proportion, direction and, especially, positioning of climaxes, though.
Moreover, it is all very well to explain in the programme notes that an augmented fifth is meant to be magically, mathematically different to a minor sixty but the human ear, imperfect as it is, only registers the sound not the concept.
To put it another way, what looks elegant and well-rationalised on paper does not automatically translate into a convincing aural experience.
Similar to O’Connor’s work, Robert Thorpe’s Holiday in Cambodia showed strong and convincing germination (exposition) but became unravelled in the structural fruition (development). There was so much action on stage, remembrances of Les Noces, harmonic unevenness and rhythmic inflexibility in all a veritable onslaught of sensory information that one could not focus clearly on the shape and direction of the music.
One suspects that the composer became too involved with secondary parameters rather than a sense of direction, signposted by sub-climaxes, zeniths and nadirs. One cannot leave primary parameters in subordination.
The works that followed by Stuart James, James Lee, Hannah Clemen and Rachael Dease cannot be detailed within the scope of this critique but the major point has been made. The heart of the matter concerns a reluctance to fully plan an overall architecture one that is satisfying to the listener (not just the composer) and demonstrates an interplay of simple ideas and their development.
Perhaps the best cross-section can be drawn from Negative Tendencies by Stuart James. There was a strong and imaginative use of harmony here, but the dynamic shaping was so slow, deliberate or even laborious that one experienced that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when the piece was going to end. This may indeed reflect the tragic circumstances of the work’s impulsion but, with respect, an audience will not be moved by the deeply felt emotion of the composer if he or she denies them a convincing sense of direction.
Stylistic and structural considerations aside, there is one vital concept that should be impressed upon all these composers. If you want your creative endeavours to reach a wider audience and achieve better media attention then you must attend to it yourselves. Contemporary music concert organisers can only do so much, because their time, funding and manpower are far from infinite.
Approach ABC TV, radio stations, national newspapers, university departments or wherever you might find an empathetic voice, otherwise you will not reach beyond the already converted.