9 October 2014

Interview: the SOUNZ Contemporary Award

The SOUNZ Contemporary Award is New Zealand's premier composition prize, the classical equivalent of the Silver Scrolls. Each year three finalists are chosen from a pool of entries. The winner will be announced at the Silver Scrolls awards night on October 30 in Wellington. This year the finalists are Michael Norris (for his work Inner Phases), Celeste Oram (macropsia) and Leonie Holmes (Aquae Sulis). Listener blog contributor Alex Taylor caught up with all three finalists for a fairly relaxed, informal discussion about the SOUNZ Contemporary, and what it means to be composing in New Zealand today. 

You can hear the three finalists' works here:


Alex Taylor: What has been the reaction to a) your pieces and b) your selection as finalists? How does it feel to be a finalist?

Leonie Holmes: I am completely thrilled and delighted, can’t tell you how much. Sometimes it seems like a long and hard slog through musical life, other times things go smoothly; these sort of things are ultra-special. Reaction has been positive. My concern in this piece is that it mixes a few stylistic features in the one piece, that it ranges from spiky to soppy. I like that about it, I think I’m old and ugly enough now to write what I like and be lyrical if and when I want to be…but I do note that people love the beginning and end of the piece and don’t say much about the middle!

Michael Norris: The initial reaction to my piece seems to have been highly mixed! Some people loved it, some people really didn't! I think many people reacted strongly against video and live music. I had many doubts and anxieties when writing the piece, so in some ways I was surprised to learn I was a finalist — frankly, I wasn't even sure whether I should have submitted the work. I received a withering review in Metro....

Alex: It seems unusual for a piece of new music to be so polarising...

Michael: Indeed. Oh well.

Celeste Oram: Okay I have my own answer coming up, but that's an incredibly interesting point you raise, Michael. I sense there's still so much skepticism around works (like yours) which explore the intersection of sound and vision; and I wonder how much of it is to do with the fact that those kind of works demand new ways of perceiving and experiencing 'music', which audiences are still working out.

Michael: Yes, I think there are some fundamental ontological problems with sound and video. Interestingly, the dance film I scored [TIMEDANCE], which had live ensemble, had no such complaints at all, even though it was essentially the same situation as Inner Phases.

Celeste: You know, if there's too much perceived correlation between sound and music, you get criticized for 'Mickey Mousing' - but if you're trying a more contrapuntal approach, people can be baffled as to 'what they have to do with each other'.

Michael: Yes indeed. It's a fine balance!

Celeste: What would be your thoughts on that balance in relation to your own piece, Mike?

Michael: Ah. To be honest, I'm not sure I have enough distance from it. I think David Downes' visuals are gorgeous and spectacular, but I can understand why some might find them so visually arresting that the music itself is phenomenologically sublimated.

Leonie: Sound and video is such a powerful combination – I've always had a very strong reaction to receiving it. One's physical body becomes more involved; it is a less static way of "watching" music. The one enhances the other. On the other hand there is more leeway for the watcher to become frustrated if they don't "get" the connection, or feel it should have been "done another way" – that's the excitement of it.

Celeste: Yes, absolutely! Listening and hearing are two completely different modes of perception - different anatomical organs, different physical properties, different brain processes - so even when visual and sonic material seem related, there's still so much fascinating stuff that goes on in the gulf between them.

Leonie: Yes that's it! listening and hearing - maybe listening goes with visual images and hearing does not - unless the music is supposed to be subservient to the action as frequently perceived to be the case in classical ballet for instance.

Alex: Leonie I'm interested to know what people think about the reworking of that earlier piece (fragment) in the central part of Aquae Sulis...

Leonie: Alex, I haven't had any reaction to that at all, I don't think many people picked it up.

Alex: That's interesting - i'm always fascinated when composers recycle bits of old material - in this case it seemed to drop in at the perfect moment...

Leonie: To me that piece was always looking for somewhere to belong. I wrote it after I fell into a dream in a chamber music concert and the only thing I could remember was this descending triplet line, it sort of became a symbol of an inner psychological state. So it seemed to fit into a piece about a watery state of underground imaginings. But I still like the short string quartet version!

Alex: It's interesting that all three pieces are so strongly attached to visual imagery...


Alex: OK - next question - on the night of the awards, hundreds of people will be hearing your work for the first time - what do you hope their experience will be? What advice would you give a first-time listener to your work?

Michael: I hope they'll pick up on the incredibly evocative combination of the Chinese instruments with the string quartet — the colour combinations are fascinating. I can completely understand why Boulez was so taken with ensembles that primarily featured attack-decay instruments and plucked strings. There's an incredible vibrancy to having a general lack of low-to-mid-register arco.

Sorry I've said too many 'incredibles'.

Leonie: My main fear on the night is that I have no control over which section of the piece will be played, as I mentioned earlier there are stylistic variances within it, and like anything out of context it could give the wrong impression to the listener. Thats actually quite terrifying now that you have brought it to my attention!

Alex: "The wrong impression" - can you expand on that? Surely whatever impression they get is valid?

Leonie: The lyrical sections of this piece only make sense if the more dark or tense sections are in there as well, otherwise it doesn't give the right overall impression of the piece. That's the worry in time based creation: it can't be experienced in the single moment (although a few composers have done a pretty good job of compressing a piece into one moment and lots of moments at once, sort of like [Jack Body's] Carol to St Stephen).

Michael: I hope that listeners don't just pay attention to the 'Chinese-ness' of it, as we do tend to listen to difference rather than similarity. And I hope that the composition emphasises the points of contact between the FCCO and the NZSQ [Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra and New Zealand String Quartet], rather than their distinctness.

Celeste: I think the FCCO/NZSQ concert absolutely achieved that point of contact (or at least, it did in my mind) - you could almost call it a kind of 'de-exoticizing'...?

Alex: I was struck by how the "Chinese-ness" wasn't foregrounded for me - it was something that was there but not drawing attention to itself.

Michael: Ah, well that's good. I spent ages agonizing over not just an instrumental approach, but an entire aesthetic language that was situated in some kind of hybrid space. In the end I settled on a three-note glissando as occupying a hybrid space between Chinese tonal inflection, and conventional Western motivic vocabulary. But there was a massive debate in my mind as to whether the emphasis should be primarily on timbral transformational networks, or on pitch/harmony, and I'm not entirely sure I ever resolved that. Some of those tensions remain in the structure of the piece.


Alex: It's interesting that your work Celeste is currently really all about this multimedia live performance video counterpoint stuff, and yet the work chosen for the awards is a "straight" orchestral piece - how do you feel about that?

Celeste: 'macropsia' does seem a bit of an anomaly - you're quite right. While I'm very proud of this piece, and there's a lot of ground in there that I want to keep covering, the cynic in me can't help but feel that this piece is a bit of a Trojan Horse. By which I mean, it operates within a musical vocabulary, form, and context which is comparatively familiar - and therefore easier to 'evaluate' in competitive contexts, perhaps…? Quite frankly, as an emerging composer there's a fair amount of colouring-between-the-lines that's necessary (which can be very constructive artistically, don't get me wrong). It's very advantageous (practically speaking, but more to the point, artistically speaking) to have an orchestral work up your sleeve that you're really proud of. and when we have a resource in NZ like the NZSO Todd readings, why wouldn't you?

Alex: I thought you managed those familiar tropes so well - the kitsch really popped.


Alex: Those parallel chromatic runs, oh lordy...

Celeste: I like to think of it as Lachenmann in drag.

Michael: Have you noticed how Lachenmann looks a bit like Bill Murray?

Alex: He does! The sort of mischievous droopiness.

Michael: I too think that 'Inner Phases' is not my best construction: it's a bit episodic and awkward in places... I think we're all emerging composers, Celeste.

Celeste: I certainly hope so, I'm having too much fun right now.

Michael: As a composer, one should be in a constant state of allowing your ideas to "emerge". If one idea emerges for too long, it's time to move on.

Celeste: ...or you can spend a whole career incubating one idea!

Leonie: In terms of Mike's point about an idea emerging for too long, thats a good one, must always move on, I'm feeling that at the moment.

Michael: I always feel a compositional career is a constant battle between refinement/perfection of an idea and the desire to find new ideas. Which I guess is ultimately what nourishes me.

Michael: [Going back a bit] That's an interesting point, Celeste. Should one write an orchestral work to advance one's career, rather than because you really want to?

Celeste: Oh that wasn't what i was getting at!

Michael: Oh. But you did call it a 'Trojan Horse'. Do you rather mean that it's not representative of your usual modus operandi?

Celeste: Orchestral forces are a form that is so important to tackle (not necessarily for every composer, but); even if it seems outside one's usual practice and interests, the creative challenge of putting one's own stamp on that monstrous tradition is really fruitful ground, i think.

Michael: Yes. It's a monumental challenge. I've written a number of orchestral works in my time, and at the start of each one I have a simultaneous sense of elation and dread.

Alex: I think maybe it's a Trojan Horse because it seems like a straight orchestral piece that Celeste would never write - but actually it's got Celeste written all over it - all these layers of interaction between gestures and kitsch and the physical conceit of the huge orchestra as an insect.


Alex: How do you feel about competition? Is it a worthwhile exercise judging the best composition in NZ in a given year?

Michael: Ah, there's the rub.

Celeste: I appreciate that there are a bunch of different avenues for recognizing and celebrating new works in NZ - the SOUNZ [Contemporary] is not the only one, by any means.

Michael: I've always felt uncomfortable about it, but when I hear my colleagues in the popular music world admiring and talking about the works by the three finalists (I remember with pride Chris Knox reviewing Gillian Whitehead's work as 'darker and more interesting than the Silver Scrolls finalists'), it does make me realize that we need some sort of forum like this for remaining part of the NZ musical ecosystem.

Alex: Yes it's so interesting hearing the reaction from the pop crowd.

Leonie: The competitive aspect is a very difficult one. Same as in performance, everything is subjective, we all realize that in a competitive environment things can turn out any number of ways depending on any number of circumstances. It's not like a race where someone obviously reaches the end first; quite the opposite. In the end it's impossible, but on the other hand it does put the spotlight on NZ composition. And provides a point of debate as Mike says.

Michael: I did have a feeling for a while that the 'most epic' piece usually won — i.e. the opera, the concerto, or other large orchestral work — though I think this trend has been bucked in the last 5 or so years with a more interesting variety of work being represented.

Celeste: Leonie - absolutely agree. I'm not sure how much press the SOUNZ award gets outside NZ, but I agree with Mike that it's a neat way to let other musicians see a glimpse of what composers in our tradition are up to. If only those conversations kept going after the Silver Scrolls afterparty...! But it seems that, cumulatively, from year to year there's always a healthy selection of works that get good press and good receptions - be it at the Big Sing, or in orchestral concerts, or new music ensemble events - and that broad survey is really crucial.

Alex: Yes, but do you think the award itself is a broad survey? Does it represent the diversity of what's going on in our community? I mean, arguably, all three of your works are "orchestral".

Michael: Not especially. There are certain genres that are almost always exempt. But I don't know if that's because they're not chosen, or they're not submitted.

Celeste: Well, yeah - as we kind of started talking about at the beginning, I'm really thrilled that Mike's piece is in the awards this year - it's great to see work that expands the compositional landscape being recognized critically.

Michael: I do feel for my friends in the experimental sonic arts tradition — I think there's only been one wholly electronic work in the finals EVER?

Celeste: Thanks to decades of new music tradition (and the centuries before that), there's a pretty hegemonic set of evaluative criteria that ends up looking favourably on 'solely musical' works (whatever that means). I guess what I mean is, there's a relatively uncontroversial system whereby one can divine whether or not a 'solely musical work' is "good".

Leonie: I guess that's up to the jury in any one year, and they also work with whatever is submitted. Some pieces submit better to recording process, while others are better in real life situations, and of course the recordings are important here. Which is a point I constantly think about. This is off topic, but as I have a background as a community composer, I look at all the music that is happening around us that only occurs in the moment, but actually changes lives. I recently went to the Mt Roskill Intermediate school show and was blown away by the music the kids were playing. For one of them, this could be the beginning of a life in music, yet no record of it now exists, nor should it. This to me is what music is about.

Alex: I think it [the SOUNZ Contemporary Award] really does favour the works with the excellent professional recording by excellent professional musicians.

Celeste: ...and going back to my previous point, what is PRECISELY SO EXCITING about work which uses expanded media is that, despite the fact that it's been on the block for decades now, the very dynamism of the art form means that it hasn't yet let audiences/critics/mythology/textbooks/whatever settle upon a concrete, non-controversial way of evaluating it.

Michael: Ah, mythology. I think we should get Odin and Thor to decide the winner of the SOUNZ Contemporary.

Alex: Winner gets a hammer?

Leonie: Epic music would win out every time

Michael: Yes, ones involving lightning and hammers.

Alex: Ragnarok - the Musical

Michael: I do think that sonic arts needs better recognition in this country. It needs a 'Prix Ars Electronica'. I look at all our excellent Sonic Arts graduates and wonder how they're going to maintain an artistic practice outside the University.

Celeste: Really good point, Mike - maybe a bigger shortlist would allow for a more diverse survey of what's been going on in NZ music in the last 12 months, in a way that might recognize those sonic artists...?

Michael: Do you think that people should have to submit works? Is that part of the problem? Or should there be a general collation of new works by SOUNZ? I guess that would be a bit impractical.

Celeste: Well, I think there needs to be a system whereby works can easily come to SOUNZ's attention, so yes, I think there should be a submission process. But it could also extend to a nomination process...?

Michael: That's an interesting idea.

Alex: It would require a very broad knowledge from whoever was judging/collating.

Celeste: whatever process it is, it starts to get dysfunctional when people are disincentivized from applying because they think their work "isn't the type".

Michael: Yes, that's my concern Celeste. I suspect very few composers submit EA [Electroacoustic] works because they consider those works to not be acceptable.

Celeste: My vote would be for a bigger shortlist (5 or 6), in the hopes that it ends up being artistically broader - and then perhaps no outright winner...?

Leonie: Surely self nomination is the only fair way. Maybe just more encouragement for people to submit EA works. Yes, a bigger shortlist could be interesting, I imagine trying to get a large number of completely different works down to three to be completely agonizing.

Celeste: I just feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of separate categories for EA and 'normal music' (because that's inevitably the implication) - they just seem like such false, superficial boundaries. A composer working with electronic media could actually be along a much closer wavelength, creatively speaking, to a composer who writes for acoustic instruments than two acoustic composers writing in very different styles.


Alex: Different sort of question - Each of your pieces requires a certain buy-in from your performers - how would you describe your relationship to the performers? Where do they fit in the process? [In relation to the pieces but also more generally]

Michael: Of course it was VERY interesting working with performers some of whom are good friends and I knew well, and some of whom live in Beijing and don't speak any English! It was actually quite a fun process, though rather long and at times frustrating. But also very educational and enriching. Like many of Jack [Body]'s projects, when you're in the middle of them, you always wish you'd said 'No', but afterwards, you're glad you didn't.

For me when I'm writing works, I'm always thinking about the PERFORMER first and foremost, and the kind of physicality and performativity they bring to the music. Which is why it was so difficult writing for musicians I barely knew. In fact, I wrote about 5 minutes of music before I went to Beijing for the first time, and after that visit, I threw most of it out. I realized I had completely misjudged some of those ineffable aspects of an ensemble — which instruments tend to dominate, which are more submissive ('supportive' may be a better word). I'm really in love with some of those instruments though — I think every orchestra needs a sheng and a yangqin in them.

I always think about the training of musicians when it comes to extended techniques — when I hear the Arditti playing Lachenmann, or even just a series of harmonics, I always wonder why not every quartet sounds like that. It's not just an issue of fluency of performance, there's some quantifiable tonal difference at work.

Celeste: Okay, for this piece - obviously you can't communicate much to a whole orchestra beyond what's on the page. I had about 30 seconds to talk to the orchestra before the Todd reading began, and I basically said, "the orchestra is a bug, every string player is a leg. GO." and that seemed to work...? Everything the performer needs to know about what to do needs to be in the actual dots on paper. Which is not to say that, as a composer, sound is your only priority - but any physical affect has to be kind of psychologically tricked onto/into the performers by way of what you notate.

...and that's quite different to a lot of my other work, where the physical presence/dynamic of HUMAN BEINGS (which in most cases ends up being a musician) is most often where i start from conceptually.

Alex: "psychologically tricked onto the performers" - meaning there's a kind of resistance?

Michael: I think meaning that you don't have time to sit and work through the dramaturgy of a piece, so you have to find some way to get the desired result through notation alone. I often put in performance directions with the single reason of trying to get my performers to respond in some physical or psychological way.

Celeste: ...meaning that, through well-judged complexity, you can factor in an element of danger into a score which can give the sonic performance a real feeling of liveness - seat-of-the-pants type stuff - rather than immaculately rehearsed.

Leonie: Rehearsals with an orchestra must be one of the most interesting things to observe in the world. Such a mixture of people, a weird assortment of blowy, scrapey, hitty things that someone from Mars would be incredulous to see, and all having to buy into the process, yet all with their own views of the music and the world in general. All steered by someone at the front - in the specific instance of Aquae Sulis I had a great conduit in the conductor and the orchestra were very focussed which made it a hugely positive experience.


Alex: Still in relation to performers - Another NZ composer recently said to me that "the living composer keeps an orchestra relevant." How do you respond to that? Do you think the orchestra (in whatever form) sees you as relevant to them?

Michael: Depends on the orchestra. And the artistic management.

Leonie: I don't really think you can categorize an orchestra as a single entity in this sort of question. Some members of the orchestra would totally agree, others would not. It is a strange mix of the individual and the whole. Most important then becomes the attitude of the management and the conductor.

Celeste: Yep, that comment is spot on. And to answer your question, my conversations with orchestral players have been overwhelmingly positive. At the last Todd readings, one of the cellists said an extraordinary thing which I actually found pretty moving: she freely admitted that a lot of the time she (and I think she was speaking for some of her colleagues too) didn't exactly "get" what "us young composers" were writing; but she wholeheartedly believed in the importance of us being able to write whatever we feel compelled to write, and therefore she was wholeheartedly committed to playing it as best she could. That was pretty special to hear. So that's on a very localized level of the musicians of the orchestra.

Michael: There's a real variance as to how much players are willing to perform a piece that really explores extended technique though. Even in Vienna there was a recent spat between the RSO and Pierluigi Billone. It's amazing how with seasoned professionals in new music, they're always willing to try something even if it's outside their training and experience. With some orchestral musicians, however, there can be a rush to criticize a piece if it doesn't sit within their training.

Leonie: It is only recently that I have felt comfortable being "the composer" in a situation where one is mixing with the musicians in an orchestra. It's very easy to feel quite intimidated, although as with many situations in life, showing fear is not advisable! It is not easy to please everyone in an orchestra and there will be moments of discomfort or worse. Due to time constraints etc. they are not tolerant of mistakes or any uncertainty, which is one of the main differences between a large and a small group of performers. But on the whole I find individual members of any orchestra I've worked with are usually helpful, friendly, generous with their knowledge. A real privilege to work with and learn from.

Celeste: To my mind, the most exciting orchestral initiatives are where the orchestra really shows willing to adapt ITSELF to the community which supports it, even if that means completely transforming what is traditionally considered to be the makeup and domain of a symphony orchestra. I think the APO [Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra] is pretty exemplary in that regard. They don't have an 'eat-your-greens' attitude towards bringing orchestral music to a wider audience - as both an organization, and as players themselves, they are so energized by the possibility of adapting what they do to realize a range of projects. I sense a genuine commitment to 'relevance' in a lot of APO projects ...and several other initiatives by other NZ orchestras too, of course! i'm just being parochial.

Alex: Although we've talked about how the SOUNZ Contemporary (perhaps unintentionally) excludes certain kinds of music or compositional approach, to me the three of you nevertheless represent quite different compositional approaches - in such a small country, where does that diversity come from?

Celeste: The internet...? Sorry, that was 93% facetious... Put most simply, diversity of work comes from diversity of people and diversity of experience, surely? 

I do wonder to what extent the "such a small country" trope still prevails - that's what's behind the other 7% of my earlier comment. After all, I'm no longer *physically* in that country, but I still feel pretty engaged with its creative goings-on.

Leonie: One point I would make is that although I might be seen as having a certain composition approach at the moment, a) I value the freedom to change this approach whenever I want and b) love and admire many types of music which use different composition approaches. There is an element of insecurity and desire to do better always in my mind, I'm always wishing my music had the expression or technique or excitement or challenge etc. etc. of something else I am listening to.

Michael: I don't think we're THAT diverse actually.

Alex: Perhaps not the pieces chosen, but as composers I think so.

Michael: Maybe. To a point. I would say that the world has become more diverse. I can't think of many countries that still have strong 'schools' in existence that aren't at least being challenged by younger composers.

Celeste: The other day, a composer here at UCSD asked me to explain 'what sort of music people are writing in NZ'. That is a really, REALLY hard question to answer! How would you guys have explained it...?

Alex: I was going to ask something like that... what is the state of NZ music?

Michael: 'Music that makes sounds. Sometimes.' I think NZ music has a really fantastic critical awareness - as evidenced by the recent CANZ conference.

Celeste: My first instinct was actually to just talk about each individual composer working in NZ and explain who they were, what kind of work they've written, and what they've been up to lately. Because that's very much how I think about it! New Zealand music is written by a number of beautiful individual New Zealanders, each of whom is doing their own beautiful thing. But that would have taken a while...

Eventually, the best way i could succinctly synopsize NZ composition (in a way that distinguished it from other nations) was that there are very few dead composers in New Zealand: that NZ's compositional history/taonga is overwhelmingly populated by living composers. Poignantly, a couple of days later I found out about the passing of John Ritchie. So, obviously, it's a flawed explanation on a number of fronts. But I think the sentiment behind it is pretty relevant.

Alex: Yes, when you know them all it's very hard to think of them as anything other than individuals. An objective outsider might be able to group us more efficiently.

Celeste: But whyever would we want to be "grouped"?! How reductive and dull. That's how music textbooks are written, not how music is written.

Michael: I think there are some trends or commonalities. I'm intrigued as to why so many younger composers have become interested in spectralism. There seems to be some affinity with the idea of space and sonic thinking that has fitted in with a post-Lilburn landscape. Maybe a generalization.

Celeste: It can be misleading to 'group' along stylistic lines, though - those younger composers are likely attracted to a sonic spectral world for very different reasons than attracted Grisey et al., and explore that sonic world very differently too.

Michael: Yes. True.

Celeste: I bet the psycho-sonic-geography of each place has a lot to answer for...


  1. I am extremely upset to see Michael Norris saying that I gave his work a withering review in the Herald. I suspect he is confusing me with David Larsen in “Metro” who dismissed the piece with cavalierish disdain. Ironically, not only did I interview Michael for a feature previewing the concert, but I wrote a very enthusiastic review of his score. As it happens, the commentary on "Inner Phases" was completely cut by the paper’s sub-editor and I made great efforts to get it reinstated on line and informed Michael that this had been done. After all this effort, representing decades of working on behalf of NZ composers, it is galling and deeply hurtful to be confused with a reviewer who is happy to write off a major piece with a few flip words.
    William Dart

    1. Dear William,
      Sincere apologies for the mistake. I've corrected the reference.