13 September 2015

Interview: SOUNZ Contemporary Award 2015

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 Thursday 17 September at Vector Arena in Auckland. This year the SOUNZ Contemporary finalists are Ross Harris (for his Piano Quintet), Chris Watson (sing songs self) and Reuben Jelleyman (Expanse). Listener blog editor Alex Taylor caught up with the three finalists ahead of the awards ceremony.

You can hear the three finalists’ works here:

Ross Harris, Piano Quintet: http://sounz.org.nz/works/show/22290
Chris Watson, sing songs self: http://sounz.org.nz/works/show/21008
Reuben Jelleyman, Expanse: http://sounz.org.nz/works/show/22248


Alex Taylor: How do you feel about being a finalist? How do you feel about the possibility of being "covered" at the Silver Scrolls on Thursday?

Ross Harris: It's great to be part of the finals and being covered at the Silver Scrolls can be completely hilarious.

Alex: What's your experience of that Ross - who's covered you in the past?

Ross: Hamish McKeich and Nathan Haines did the second symphony in a jazz style.

Alex: That must have been quite something!

Ross: Yeah it was really good actually.

Chris: It's a great honour, of course, to be a finalist. It feels like a form of validation that I didn't know I needed but am, as it turns out, happy to receive! Not sure how to feel about potentially being covered. I guess it would be a bit of a laugh.

Reuben Jelleyman: I thought Jeff Henderson's cover of Michael's piece was great (Michael Norris’s Inner Phases, the 2014 SOUNZ Contemporary Award winner)

Alex: I mean, for a lot of the audience - the cover will be the one and only time they hear your piece!

Chris: Hopefully everyone there on the night realises the looseness of the interpretation of the cover.

Alex: Yes absolutely. I know there's going to be drum n bass at some point…

Chris: And the preliminary video should feature quite a bit of the actual recording.

Reuben: I’m quite surprised, really [to be chosen as a finalist]. I think as a young composer considering their early 'career' you never think to count on such recognition at an early stage. I'm keen on the ceremony style - I think all the musical activities during the evening are quite a bit of fun.

Ross: Don't forget earplugs.

Alex: Very good advice.

Reuben: Ross - this is essential! I never go anywhere without them in fact.

Alex: Any picks for the other categories? The silver scroll is a doozy this year.

Reuben: Unknown Mortal Orchestra is my pick [for the song Multi-Love]

Chris: I'm ashamed to say I've not swotted up on the other categories. My NZ music knowledge is limited… But I will make the effort ahead of the night.

Ross: I haven't thought about that; I'm actually more interested in the 1981 competition [The Lost Silver Scroll, to be awarded to the best song of 1981]

Alex: Yes - that's a doozy too! Counting the Beat has been a fav of mine...
Chris: Like Ross, the 1981 bit has more resonance for me.

Reuben: I'm backing Blam Blam Blam [There is No Depression in New Zealand] for that one, but I really have not much to do with 1981...

Chris: Before your time, Reuben?

Reuben: Yes, a few years.

Reuben: x4

Ross: Yeah that's my choice too.

Alex: Topical.

Ross: All too topical.


Alex: Listening to your piece Ross, the piano is initially a kind of percussive trigger for events - what's the trigger, the impetus for each of you to actually compose music?

Reuben: Sound Visions.

Chris: I'm not sure. Any rational view would disincline me from even starting a piece. So much effort, such delayed gratification!

Alex: So it's not a rational thing, then?

Chris: I suppose not. It's an inner urge amplified by an almost obligation to make something because I have certain skills... of course, there's great enjoyment along the way too.

Alex: Chris - that's a good way to put it - a lot of people mention the inner urge, the compulsion, and leave out the obligation part. Stravinsky may have been the vessel through which the rite passed, but he still had to write to commission....

Chris: This particular piece happened because I had time and funding to do something big(gish) - the Mozart Fellowship. Also, the remnants of the romantic piano concerto fan in me needed and found an outlet.

Reuben: Regarding earlier: I find sound hallucinations map themselves to opportunities before me. For me I've never really written unless there is the concert opportunity ahead of me, given to me. (rather not 'given' to me but 'offered' through competition). From then on it’s about finding the easiest way to write it down - the 'eigenvector'; in this respect Chris's comment is pertinent: it takes much effort, so must be worth doing.

Ross: Well the commission by Austrian Peter Diessl was a starting point and then the ensemble of string quartet plus piano i.e. sustained sounds versus percussion was inspiring. The piece evolves out of that sound world… making the contrasting timbres belong. And the desire to make a piece evolve over a reasonable timespan!

Alex: you've talked about that a lot Ross - "a reasonable time span" - the idea of a miniature seems almost anathema to your aesthetic - why do you write long pieces? surely any span of time can be "reasonable" or musically conducive?

Ross: That's a good question. To be honest the challenge of longer pieces has dominated my work recently and I think I would have a lot of trouble with miniatures at the moment.

Chris: The obligation thing...sometimes I feel like I'm more into film or fine art than music and that I'd like to make a contribution in one of those areas. But I've not the skills for that, so I'm kind of stuck in music! - that's no bad thing, but is a source of a degree of frustration.

Alex: Yes, I feel a bit like that with poetry.

Chris: I wouldn't really know, but you seem to me to be a very fine poet, Alex.

Alex: Ha! Thank you, Chris. I guess I feel I don't really have the craft that I feel I do in music. But it's interesting how one sort of falls into being a composer…

Ross: I didn't have anything else to fall into.

Chris: Maybe not, Ross, but your breadth of exploration within music is massively wide.

Alex: Hear, hear!

Reuben: Yes, I agree!

Ross: Struggling on!

Reuben: I've been desiring to write longer form for a while now, but I'm hardly given the opportunity - everything I write for is <5mins, say. I took the opportunity over summer to work on a ~13min orchestral piece, but still I marvel at what many composers can do with 20mins, and hope to work with these proportions myself (ASAP).

Chris: 20 minutes is scary long in my opinion.

Reuben: I've always wondered though what it would be like to sit through > 20mins of your own music... Ross?

Ross: It is a very long time for a single movement. Not all that many western art music pieces go that far -or at least not without a narrative- words etc. At least with a longish piece you might get a chance to relax and actually hear it unfolding.

Alex: Perhaps your mode of listening changes according to how long you think you are going to have to sit there for...

Ross: Definitely. In electroacoustic concerts they often tell you how long the pieces are.

Reuben: The foresight listening that Lutosławski worked so hard to disrupt.

Alex: I find listening in an engaged way really exhausting - so longer pieces are by necessity more meditative for me...

Chris: I'm only really capable of listening in the moment so actually struggle with longer works and only get the most out of them after repeated visits. My short attention span is probably evident in my own music.

Alex: That gives it an appealing mercurial quality I think chris...

Chris: ...often at the expense of convincing architecture.

Alex: Quicksilver doesn't need architecture!

Ross: I agree with Alex about the mercurial quality of your music Chris. What's foresight listening?

Reuben: Just a pseudo-definition of what Alex was talking about, where the audience start predicting how long a section will continue for.

Ross: What's wrong with audiences feeling enough about a piece to start predicting duration? Not consciously of course but in an anticipatory way.

Reuben: I think what Bryn Harrison does with complex aesthetics phasing over long periods unifies both these things.

Chris: Reuben, can you say more about "sound hallucinations"?

Reuben: Chris, it's a case of half-perceiving, half-hearing the sounds, and allowing them to form into events in your mind. I suppose I work a lot with thought improvisations - trying to piece sounds together like in free improvisation.

Ross: I'm with you Reuben on the half perceived, half-heard. That interests me a lot at the moment, but transcendental? Who knows?

Alex: Perhaps the sound hallucination thing ties into this next question - Reuben - your piece strikes me as an intensely spiritual work - it reaches a point of ecstasy or illumination just before the end - what role does a spiritual or transcendental aspect play in your music? (perhaps you have thoughts on this too, Chris and Ross)

Alex: It's like a creation ritual or something...

Reuben: I'm not sure, I certainly find a kind of excited state of mind where whatever it is becomes too exciting to stop thinking about it.

Chris: Does anyone have amazing ideas right on the cusp of falling asleep? - I've often thought that capturing those thoughts is where the real gold is. It alludes me, however!

Alex: Yes I try to write them down and often coming back to decode them later is completely hopeless…

Reuben: I often lie in bed awaiting sleep and play the piece from the beginning, matching the sounds together and constructing the piece slowly, ordering ideas

Ross: Working at night after waking from sleep seems fruitful for me sometimes.
Reuben:  (Very) early summer mornings are my favourite.

Ross: Bring on summer!

Alex: Do you see Expanse as a spiritual piece, though, Reuben?

Reuben: I don't think so. I see it more as a kind of system or environment of parts. It was necessarily short so I think it happens all too quickly...

Chris: As an atheist, I struggle with the S-word, but I would say that the word that came to mind upon hearing Reuben's piece was 'other-worldly'.

Reuben: I talk about the mysterious nature of the text, and I think I prefer working with volatile semiotics...


Alex: All of you write music that is - more or less - difficult to play. What is your relationship to virtuosity, and how do performers fit in to that?

Ross: I usually try to make my music playable or at least give the players a sense of satisfaction if they get close to getting it 'right'.

Chris: On a practical level I suppose I've long abandoned any notion that community groups will play my music. I think performative difficulty in my music grows out of the music I most admired as a kid and teenager - Liszt, Albeniz etc. - I see complexist strands of composing as a natural outgrowth of the show-off nature of that kind of romanticism, rather than directly aligned with modernism.

Alex: That's interesting, because you're the opposite of a show-off, Chris.

Chris: ...well, I have an ego too!

Ross: We are all individuals. "I'm not!" (Monty Python)

Reuben: I find the textures or musical content I try to create tends towards virtuosity, simply because my aesthetics demand a higher level of complexity in the perceived sound - often it just means they have to create a lot of sounds (but not randomly) in a short amount of time for it to work.

Chris: That's it exactly, Reuben.

Reuben: I have also been interested in Ferneyhough's approach of creating intensity in the sound through the rigorous process of performing, and I think that this psychological/physiological aspect adds something. He talks of a relationship between the score and the performer 'directed towards performing the piece', rather than performing the piece comfortably, which is less to the point of my interest with my own music.

Chris: Certainly for me, greater awareness of physicality has been a motivation in the last 5 years or so. How a piece will look, what degree of energy (or stasis) will be transmitted from players to audience as an integral part of the musical experience. In the past the music used to be very confined to the score for me, but now the theatrical is of great importance. Yes, difficulty is the obvious way of creating that extra-musical energy.

Ross: Then someone comes along who can play Ferneyhough's music easily and one compositional parameter drops out.

Chris: Who is this freak, Ross?!

Ross: Um?


Alex: There's a kind of lineage here, three generations of NZ composers, three NZSM composers, Ross you were Chris's teacher, etc - are there musical links too do you think? (For example, I'm thinking of a restless, energetic quality in both Chris's and Ross's musics, and a concern with pushing and pulling musical time)

Chris: Lineage is a funny one. Often underestimated is the degree to which a lineage can also exist when student rebels against teacher! I think there's lineage between Ross and Lilburn, but not in terms of imitation.

Alex: Absolutely!

Chris: I think I abjectly failed (continue to fail) to apply Ross's exhaustive attempts to instil counterpoint and long range teleology in me! - nonetheless, I'll always say he was and is my most important teacher.

Ross: Ah yes - counterpoint.


Alex: Perhaps last question and thoughts - what would you say - if anything - to a first-time listener of these pieces? What would you hope they might take away from the experience?

Chris: I'm not sure I'd offer any advice. Just bring your ears, as with any piece.

Ross: I'd like it if they found the piece beautiful, intriguing, puzzling, exciting, 'need to hear it again' etc i.e. to have had involvement in the piece.

Reuben: I would say: Listen to the sounds, and then listen to how the sounds change and then know that the sounds were crafted intentionally.

Reuben: I have a lecture on solid state physics! Got to go sorry!

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