17 July 2014

Interview: Sarah Ballard

Sarah Ballard is the NZSO National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence for 2014. I talked to her earlier in the year about her upcoming residency (you can read the previous interview here http://thelistenerblog.blogspot.co.nz/2014/03/interview-sarah-ballard-nzso-national.html). Today I jump into the thick of it and catch up with Sarah in the midst of a whirlwind week of rehearsals leading up to two concerts tomorrow (Wellington) and Saturday (Auckland).          

[The orchestra has just finished their final official rehearsal of Synergos, but Sarah tells me with some excitement that conductor Alexander Shelley has scheduled an extra rehearsal for tonight (Thurs 17 July). Immediately below is a score extract from the opening of the second movement, Aurum]

Alex Taylor: How has conductor Alexander Shelley been to work with?

Sarah Ballard: Fantastic, very receptive, and quite happy for me to barge in throughout rehearsal. He's been sort of deconstructing the piece and piecing it back together again. I think this is really helpful for the players because they can hear the function of the other sections and then put it all into context.

AT: Is he a big-picture sort of conductor or a more detailed sort of one?

SB: I think he's got a good balance between the two going on, but I think he's good at picking up on the finer details and bringing these out to their full potential. So far it has been more about the details, but this evening will be about giving the orchestra a chance to feel the forms of each piece and how the pieces sit with one another.

AT: What's it been like compared to your experiences with other conductors? It must be nice to have a whole week to work together on your piece...

SB: The main difference really is the time. It's hard to compare to my experiences with other conductors as it's usually been on quite a time restraint and the accepted thing has generally been that you don't get too much of a word in. That's been my experience with the [NZSO / Todd Corporation Young Composer Awards] Todd readings anyway. I feel that he's taken the time to understand my intentions with the piece.

I think his open-mindedness has transferred through to the orchestra too. That has made rehearsing the piece an enjoyable experience for the performers I think.

AT: That makes a big difference.

SB: It does, huge. I don't feel a sense of urgency when it comes to the rehearsal of my piece either. It's a similar pace and momentum of rehearsal that is given to the Strauss. Sometimes with new music you may feel that they're just trying to get through the piece.

AT: Do you think that open-mindedness towards new music is unusual?

SB: No, I don't think it is unusual. But then again there is so much encapsulated within the branch of new music there are sort of limits as to how open-minded people will remain with it.

[short break; players are out for lunch]

AT: It's interesting what you say about limits - where do you think those limits lie? What has formed those limits?

SB: I think it's the aural experience. When it becomes physically uncomfortable for the listener. Dissonant intervals, harsh timbres, piercing registers, extreme dynamics.

I think it's also where there is less of a traceable musical line. People feel uncomfortable when there's no thread to follow. Or they don't understand the language of the thread that is presented to them

AT: I was going to ask you about that - your score doesn't flinch from those extremes - does that make it more difficult for your performers? Are they at times in physical discomfort?

SB: I've asked them about this, and they said it hasn't really bothered them. Perhaps the ones who are affected are too shy to complain to me. Well, not shy, but too polite. Some of the woodwind players have complained about having sore mouths; that could be from the higher registers of my piece! But I think generally it's just the massive amount of playing they've been doing.

AT: It is a big play!

SB: It is! Not so much a long programme, but the music is intense! Actually, now I think of it. When we ran through the first time, the percussion section were very loud and some of the brass were quite agitated by this. Now that it's balanced though, they're totally comfortable with it. I think it was just a matter of establishing the relativity of the dynamics.

AT: And the line - a lot of your piece relies on the transformation of texture and timbre rather than lyricism, at least explicitly - do you think that makes it hard to follow on first approach? How does the audience find a way in?

SB: Indeed, it's certainly one of those pieces that requires a few listenings to get one's head around. I like that though, in the music I listen to. It's like a treasure trove and seems to evolve and present new things upon repeated listenings. I'd be very happy if my music were as dynamic as that.

But it is a concern for the audience, yes. There are solos throughout that I think open windows for the listener. The harp duets as well. There's an ebb and flow to the piece. As for the more tumultuous sections...

AT: I suppose it's a good chance to be immersed in something rather than following it along on the surface...

SB: Definitely; in those cases it enables the audience to listen from the inside out. That's exciting! I'm still figuring out how I perceive that myself. It's never the same twice over; like I've said, I think that's a beautiful thing. Why do we always need to feel a sense of security?

AT: Do you think that's why (and tell me if I'm putting words in your mouth) a lot of classical performers venerate the established repertoire, the canon - a sense of security?

SB: Well it's what they often train to do. All the aesthetics of playing they are taught are drawn from this repertoire. I guess when it comes to new techniques they are unsure how to play, there may be a lack of a sense of accomplishment if they have no model to compare it to.

AT: You said last time we spoke that "the living composer keeps an orchestra relevant." I think it's a wonderful thing to say - but do you really believe that? Relevant to whom?

SB: That's really tricky. Excellent that you've brought this back up. I think the orchestra would still be relevant without new music, but new music only increases its relevance, particularly to the wider public I think.

AT: How does it do that?

SB: I think classical music audience members now are often made up of people who have perhaps played an instrument. I hear that in Vienna people would play through a symphony at home before it was performed and go along in great excitement to hear the real deal. Perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick there.

AT: Yes, there was definitely a greater culture of education and intellectualism in relation to orchestral music - do you think that's something we're missing these days?

SB: For sure. The function of music has changed. Mainstream music, anyway. But I think often people who have less musical background are often slightly more open-minded. They have less historical context to pit it against, and often they are able to get something out of the music by ascribing their own meaning to the music. They are able to relate the music to objects, scenes, atmospheres. Their view of the music is perhaps less clouded.

The stuff of the piece - SYNERGOS

AT: Let's talk a bit about your work - Synergos. (Is it wrong to call it a work?)

SB: Are you referring to when I said I didn't see my writing as work? No, that's ok, that's different…

AT: Is it though? A work, an opus.

SB: Oh yes, for sure! It's the work I'm most proud of to date.

AT: There’s some incredibly beautiful harmonic worlds contained in this piece – where does the harmonic material of the piece come from / how did you go about creating it?

SB: Oh gosh, I think I'd have to look back at my notes and sketches. A lot of the time I think I was listening to where the individual instrumental lines wanted to go. Which note was the current one being pulled towards? So, I think I'd sort of feel those lines through. Then zoom out, look at the bigger picture, and tweak it. I'm really not a technical composer. I think there's a little bit of consideration of the harmonic series in there too, but it's very minimal and gets washed over by other harmonies.

AT: Could you talk a little about the structure of each of the movements – what is happening? Is it just a matter of following the individual instrumental lines? Your work is I think quite tonal in the sense that there are these pulls, these magnetisms towards certain harmonies and structural points.

SB: I was really thinking in terms of 'energy flow' for each piece, which I guess is similar to the concept of tension and release. I usually structure my pieces by drawing a graph, like an audio graph that outlines the course of tension and release throughout the piece.

[AT: Do you have a drawing you could scan and post with the interview? That would be cool…

SB: No I don't unfortunately, they're all at home. I had a good chart on my wall of both of the movements but I ended up throwing them out at the end of the piece. It was cathartic. But there are probably still remnants in my notebook as well]

SB: [The audio graph] is not always adhered to, it's a rough guide. If I don't adhere to it, it's because I'm asking what the current material is demanding from me. I'm constantly asking myself. Where does the music want to go? It's a bit strange, I have to write to myself as I'm composing, so you'll probably find "where does the music want to go" scrawled on every page.

AT: You don't ever feel like you have to impose your ego, your structure on the music to prevent it from going AWOL, getting too unruly?

SB: No, I think then it sounds like I'm struggling against what it naturally wants to progress onto, and then it sounds wrong. Like a spanner got thrown in the works.

Funny that, order can lead to disorder…

AT: There seem to be two quite distinct types of musical texture in the work – a very precise block rhythmic unison, and a sort of smudged effect combining different tempi and envelopes – maybe one could describe it as a tension between homophonic and heterophonic textures. Do these serve different purposes? How do you decide which textural approach to take?

SB: That block rhythmic unison is the theme of red. The more heterophonic texture is probably the character of gold presenting itself. I think that's what you're referring to. These elements start to butt heads near the end and this was a point at which I really did impose a certain structure on the piece regardless of where it was going at the time. But it's meant to signify struggle and resistance, before the surrender, before the colours synergise.

AT: You've got a huge palette to work with - Is there a temptation for the orchestra to become a sparkly bag of tricks?

SB: There is indeed. I was worried the piece would become a compendium of extended techniques after I'd written the first movement. But now I'm really comfortable with all of the sounds and I'm thinking YES this works! It's nicely balanced with the more harmonic focus of the second movement.

You do have to rein yourself in, and give musical ideas the time to speak. It is tempting to quickly move onto other ideas with all the colours at one's disposal…

AT: …especially when one is thinking and feeling about red and gold, surely two of the boldest colours you could have chosen...

SB: Yes, this was difficult in that I started writing the piece by visualising each individual colour. Essentially meditating on each colour individually and then allowing sounds to creep into my mind. I actually heard the opening of the first movement very vividly and became very attached to it, so any flaws it may have had became very difficult to see objectively. Then, after I had established these characters I let the music take off where it wanted to go, but now and again I would imagine the colour again and think, right how do I maintain the sense of this colour? I felt that sometimes a disparity would occur between the organic nature of my compositional process and the extramusical subject matter that was being projected onto it…

AT: What do you do when you come up against that disparity?

SB: I try to take a step back and try and remove myself from the piece. You get so engrossed in it while you're writing that you need to switch to a different mode of listening I think. I'll go back and try and reinforce the original material in some way without making it sound forced and interceptive. This can be where a block may arise, but you've just got to push through until it comes. Sometimes it's also a matter of making a decision on what's more important to you, the concept behind the piece, or the music itself.

Beyond Synergos

AT: What does your family think of you being a composer?

SB: They're really happy. So amazingly supportive. It wasn't always this way. My family are mostly tradespeople so for a while I felt the "think about a real job" vibe. But since they've seen how happy it makes me and have seen me succeeding they're delighted. I'll go on a rant to my nana about a piece I'm writing sometimes and she'll look at me like I'm crazy and she'll always say "as long as it makes you happy darling". My family have never forced me to do anything, we've always been very relaxed and easy going. Left to our own devices…

AT: When people ask you what you do, what do you say?

SB: I say I work in music retail and I compose in my spare time...

AT: Ideally would you compose full time?

SB: That would be neat, I think it's quite nice though to have something else to balance with it. Composing is really intense.

AT: Is there a New Zealand sound? An Auckland sound? A Wellington sound? How does your music sit in relation to any of that?

SB: I feel that New Zealand music in general has less of specific schools of thought imposed upon it. I mean, a lot of the music doesn't sound like it's influenced by a specific school of thought. This is super tricky; it's difficult to pinpoint. I've heard 'a sense of space' being spoken about before, and I would agree with that. But NZ music is so diverse…
It was interesting when I came to Wellington a few years ago for an SMP music concert. I felt the music had a more complexist approach to it or aesthetic.

AT: Yes, there does seem to me a broad difference between youngish Auckland composers and youngish Wellington composers... perhaps to do with the influence of particular teachers...

SB: Yes, definitely due to the influence of the teachers within the universities.

AT: Or to put it in a different way, are there any particular New Zealand composers or compositions that have had a strong influence on you or your music?

SB: For sure. All of my mentors' output has been of great importance to me. Pieces like [John Elmsly] JE's Cello Symphony and [Eve de Castro-Robinson] Eve's Triple Clarinet Concerto are works that deserve more hearings, and Leonie Holmes' "Through Coiled Stillness" is of the strongest in the choral repertoire. Anthony Young is a huge inspiration. I became quite obsessed with his orchestral piece "Mamaku" a few years back and everything I've heard from him since has been sublime. The Sound Barrier CD had a huge impact on me. I listened to that on repeat early on in my studies and I still go back to it now.

AT: You were recently dubbed the “Saariaho of the South” – how does that sit with you?

SB: Well I was honoured to be associated with her as she is a huge influence on my music currently, and this will be quite obvious when you hear the piece. I relate very much to her philosophy as well. I think I am a composer who is very much in tune with the music throughout the compositional process and I think she works on a similar level of intuition. So yes, I have no gripes about it. I'm also not ashamed to admit that I'm influenced by specific composers and to refer specifically to it in my music. It's all recontexualised anyway. It's what you do when you're learning.

I used to compose out of such a vacuum that it was actually hard to hear many influences in my music. But I really think you need to be a complete sponge and progress in this way.

AT: Coming back to this whole NYO experience, what’s it been like working with the players?

SB: They've been so open and receptive to playing my music. I've even had one come up to me and ask me to help them how to 'get' new music and what the philosophy is behind it and my own piece. I thought that was really lovely.

AT: So there's a curiosity there?

SB: Yes, definitely. I think some wonder what pieces of the puzzle they're missing…

AT: But also perhaps a bit of a void in the education system? Performers can go through university without having to play any contemporary music...

SB: Yes, I think that's quite a shame. It can require a different approach and way of musical thinking, which takes a bit of exposure to get used to I think. So it's no wonder there can be a bit of hostility I guess

AT: Do you think these players will go away with some new understanding of new music, of music?

SB: I'd like to think so, certainly in the way it can operate. In the potential for layers and colours. A lot of them have learnt new sounds on their instruments and I think some of them actually quite enjoy it. Some have said it's fun to play, which I wasn't expecting. It was interesting observing them learning how everything fits together. The first rehearsal was a train wreck and sounded nothing like the piece. You could just see it when they locked in and started making sense of the music.

NZSO National Youth Orchestra in concert:

Friday 18 July 6.30pm, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday 19 July 7.30pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

Sarah Ballard on SOUNZ - 

Our previous interview - 

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