What inspires composers these days?

by Jennifer Bryce

On Sunday 13 November 2016, the Melbourne-based ensemble Plexus (www.plexuscollective.com) gave a concert for Macedon Music, where the oldest item was composed in 2014. This group of performers (violin, clarinet and piano) devotes resources to commissioning new works – both Australian and international. The money is raised from private donations and the trio members donate all their concert fees and box office takings to this endeavour.

The program started with Lost in Light (2014) by Queensland composer Robert Davidson. It is a ‘musical reflection’ on a poem, ‘I am not yours’ by American poet Sara Teasdale. It spoils the poem to quote only a few lines from it, but, to give an idea: I am not yours, not lost in you,/Not lost, although I long to be . . . Yet I am I, who long to be/ Lost as a light is lost in light . . .

There was a world première. Eli Simić-Prošić is a student of Melbourne composer Elliot Gyger. Eli was in the audience. The program notes tell us that Eli is interested in compositions that explore music’s capacity to create unique sonic spaces and temporal geographies through the use of repetition, and elements of stasis and moments of rupture. I imagined that this approach was important in the piece we heard, These Twinkling States of Mind (2016). The composer says that in this work he is attempting to channel the creative process itself: ‘the music continually motions through its own possibilities and tensions’. It did seem to me to work within a pitch range – although within this there were all kinds of metamorphoses and a feeling that this, like space, could continue indefinitely.

Composer Julian Yu has lived in Australia since 1985, having been born in Beijing. He was also present in the audience to hear selections from his 2014 work, Classical Stories, a series of humorous pieces with much parody and pastiche. First, was Two Swans Under Two Moons, which amusingly put together the swans from Swan Lake and Saint-Saens with moonlight from Beethoven’s piano sonata and Debussy’s Claire de Lune. In other pieces Tristan and Isolde met Romeo and Juliet, Mozart got a phone call (with that well-known Nokia ring tone), there was fun with Beethoven’s Fur Elise, the cat in Peter and the Wolf encountered a counter melody and there was a light-hearted homage to Shostakovich.

After interval we heard Tony Gould’s Trio for Stefan (2015), which has a mixture of classical and jazzy elements. In this case themes from two World War II songs are incorporated demonstrating, as Gould says, that ‘escaping history and influences is impossible’.

Another world premiere was Ian Munro’s Schubertiades (2016), which is a homage to Schubert, with two waltzs and a galop.

The final piece, Flurry (2015) was by Melbourne born Allan Zavod. When I started teaching, straight after university, Allan’s father Eddie taught violin in Victorian technical schools. It must have been a challenge to interest those young boys in playing violin and Eddie, with his vibrant personality, managed to. At the time he used to speak of his clever son, who was graduating from university. Allan is now a well-recognised composer and performer with a PhD who has toured all over the world, working with the likes of Robbie Williams, George Benson and Frank Zappa. Flurry is a tribute to the ANZACs, depicting battle and qualities such as mateship and courage.

Several of the composers represented in this concert had drawn on the past – jumping off from recognised pieces by classical composers or, as with Tony Gould, using fragments of popular songs. But there is also inspiration from poetry and a disastrous world event – the Gallipoli landing, and the searching and exploring of soundscapes, taking us to new sonic realms.