13 March 2014

Interview: Sarah Ballard, NZSO-National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence

Sarah Ballard is the 2014 Composer-in-Residence with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra. Here she talks with Listener contributor Alex Taylor about her music and the upcoming residency with the NYO.

AT: How would you describe the relationship in your music between colour and sound? Does your music start from a visual impetus?

SB: There’s not usually any direct relationship in my music between colour and sound. My pieces very often do start from a visual impetus, often a physical landscape or environment. Within this scene there may be a predominant colour or tint if you like that is subconsciously considered and this helps formulate the mood of the music. This affects how most parameters within the piece will be approached, particularly harmony, timbre, melodic intervals, instrumentation, blends, and which instruments will be at the forefront or define the character of the piece.

For the piece I am writing for the National Youth Orchestra, colour is a direct instigator for the musical material, but the relationship between colour and sound is less significant than you might think. It simply acts as a catalyst to generate the initial material and then moderates the unfolding of the piece. I don’t like the extra-musical to dictate what goes on in a piece too much. For me, the joy of composing is observing and responding to where the music wants to go after it has taken on a life and energy of its own, after you’ve established the foundations. I’m constantly responding to the needs of the music I’m writing throughout the process. I don’t want to rein it in just because it doesn’t adhere to the concept, and for me the concept presents itself before the music. It’s not really something that’s applied as an afterthought. I have to have something to say, an inspiration to express, a reason to write in the first place. That’s not to say the concept isn’t a malleable thing: this can develop and morph along with the fruition of the piece.

I often get excited at the prospect of writing an orchestral piece because you are presented with this vast canvas upon which to do a Pollock. Not that my music sounds like that, but that’s how I see an orchestral score, all the contour and texture, it’s a work of visual art. All scores are like this of course, but with an orchestra this visual aspect is augmented. We speak of colour, contour, texture and line in music as we do in visual art. The two art forms are inextricably linked to one another.

Why do you create music / sonic art rather than a different medium of art, for example visual art?

I’m not a materialistic person (although I see most art as a different sort of materialism to the one I’m thinking of). I like that music has this invisible form to it, a sense of immaterialism, and by this I mean music in its audible form. I like that there are multiple forms in which a piece of music can exist, and there is this fantastical void between it being notated on the page and being translated into sound by performers. The most physically material state of a piece of music is when it’s in score form. Essentially the traditional score is the mechanics, the code, so it’s produced more as a practical object (or at least initially intended to be), rather than something to be displayed. It’s the fact that you have to go looking for the music on the page, while visual art presents itself to you. I’ve always had the desire to play with sound. This started with recording pretend radio shows with my sister and bashing cluster chords out on a two-octave keyboard while wailing nonsensical lyrics. Music has always been a reverie for me. I also think that of any medium, music has the most emotive power. You take the music out of a film that was designed to have a soundtrack, and its power to make you feel is substantially lessened.

Would you say then that music’s primary purpose is an emotional one? How do you go about “mak[ing someone] feel?

We utilise music and make it present in our lives in order to gain something out of it emotionally. Music gives us an aural space in which to reflect. It sets mood and ambience to heighten our sense of reality. These practices are inherently related to emotion. Whether you’re actively or passively listening to music, you’re looking to absorb something from it. It is this intangible power of music that makes it such a mysterious energy force. We look for music to lift us up, we allow ourselves to wallow in it for release and mourning and to enlighten us.

In terms of making someone feel, my answer to this relates to the “do you consider your audience when you write” spiel. When I compose, I’m inadvertently considering my audience through my own objective/subjective modes of listening. At times I’m distancing myself from the piece and at others, allowing myself to be completely immersed within it. Of course, I have my own perceptions and preferences when it comes to sound, but this is the best I can do in terms of considering the listener. An audience is a variable thing.

Often the elements that make me “feel” are timbral combinations that transfigure the individual instrumental sounds, the ways in which sounds interact when they meet. Also, well-considered contouring of a piece through the rate of textural activity and harmonic progressions can really transport me as a listener. Curiosity is something I’m interested in. I can only hope that the sounds I write prompt some kind of response from the audience, make them feel something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive feeling, as long as I can provoke some sort of response.

How do you deal with the huge forces available in a symphony orchestra?

I tend to whittle things down to sections, so quite often you’ll get the strings working together to create a texture, the brass creating harmonic interest and every now and then elements from various sections will start to intersperse and combine, with the percussion to highlight and embellish. The extra-musical theme dictates which instruments I predominantly use. Ideally I like to go through each part and make sure there’s something enjoyable for every player. It’s a question of balance. Sometimes you may want to have the orchestra functioning as one entity, but it’s not much fun for the players if they’re just an idly ticking cog within this super-instrument, although it always helps in rehearsal when they are able to hear how they fit in and contribute to the work.

Is that important to you – whether the players are having fun?

I’m not concerned whether the performers have fun or not, that’s up to them, and the piece may not call for it. What I’m concerned about is writing music that’s stimulating for them in the same way I’d like my audience to be intrigued by the sounds I am getting the orchestra to play. I would like for them to take something away from the experience, whether it’s a new technique, or appreciation for the sound combinations I am asking them to make.

What impact (if any) has the programming of the NYO concert had on the planning and/or construction of your new work?

In considering the enormity and grandiosity of the Strauss, I’ve tried to create something that also harnesses these elements, but in a different way that I think is more subtly portrayed. There won’t be the great pillars of strength that the Strauss has, but I know that my work will contrast nicely. I didn’t think it necessary to go to the lengths of quoting the Strauss or anything like that. We have two substantial works in the programme from this great composer… do we need more of his presence? I do think however that the bass bell on E in Also Sprach Zarathustra is pretty special to have at one’s disposal, so I have incorporated this into the piece on a minor level.

How does this piece fit in to your output - how is it related to your other music?

I’m composing the piece using the same methods I always have done. I feel my way through. As I usually think of each piece I write, it is a ‘transitional piece’. I am trying to head to a new way of thinking about musical impetus and of treating musical parameters. It is related to my previous work in that it’s quite atmospheric and there are a lot of sustained textures within it, which I tend to gravitate to.

How would you describe the NYO residency - is it an educational opportunity? Professional development? Work? Something else?

The NYO residency is an opportunity to grow as a composer. You need to keep in mind the level of the performers you are writing for, but I also want it to be an opportunity to test where I’m at compositionally. Now’s not the time to try what’s safe, it is the time to be curious. As long as you take the time to work that out with the performers, I think it’s a rather valiant and productive way to treat the opportunity. One thing I certainly wouldn’t see it as is work.

Why not?

I have a philosophy to not see what I do compositionally as work, in any sense of the word. I have to do this partly to keep myself sane. I try to distance composition as much as I can from what I do for my day job. Paraphrasing John Cage, it makes it light enough for me to enjoy!

It’s also an educational opportunity. The relationships you forge with performers are worth more than any orchestration textbook. I started conceptualising this piece without regard to when and if it would be performed so I am very grateful to be able to fully realise the piece and to have a set performance date. It’s most certainly a networking opportunity. I get such a buzz out of working and making connections with performers and it’s astounding what you can learn from them and also to see how much more they can learn about the possibilities of their instrument once you start asking them questions.

Last year parts of [2013 NYO Composer-in-Residence] Sam Logan's work were cut by the conductor - how would you feel about something like this happening to your work? What degree of control do you feel you have in this situation?

It would depend on how structurally sound I felt the piece was. I don’t think it would make any sense to cut anything out of this piece due to its progressive nature. If I felt the section was integral to the piece I’d certainly try to reason and state a case with the conductor. Sometimes if you cut something out of a piece, you’re cutting out meaning and I would be most unhappy about losing the opportunity to communicate effectively to my audience. It’s like cutting words from a sentence. I feel that as long as the music does not breach anything set out by the organisation, the composer has the right to have the music performed as submitted. It is part of the educational programme, shouldn’t the composer have the opportunity to make their own decisions and learn from the process?

How do you see the relationship between a living composer and an orchestra?

It’s a synergistic relationship. As I mentioned before, it’s not only the composer who learns from the process of having a new work rehearsed and performed. The fact that an orchestra can ask of a composer precisely what they want is quite extraordinary. I think the orchestra has an obligation to the composer, as does composer to orchestra. The composer, along with the orchestra, exists to help bring the music of our time to the people of our time. The relationship can often be seen as you the composer, and the collective mass that is the orchestra (with conductor as middleman or ruler of the roost depending on which way you look at it). As long as you do your homework and actually consider what the performers have to physically do when they are playing what you’ve written, the relationship can be very fruitful. The living composer keeps an orchestra relevant. There has to be growth and change, otherwise you’ll hit a brick wall.

You can hear some of Sarah's other work on SoundCloud:

You can hear Sarah Ballard's new work "Synergos" performed by the National Youth Orchestra in two concerts:

Wellington – Friday 18 July  / 6.30pm / Michael Fowler Centre
Auckland – Saturday 19 July / 7.30pm / ASB Theatre Auckland

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