Following the Blackbird: A Conversation with the Composer

This blog post is part of a series to promote a fundraising campaign for the project Blackbird in the Garden. If you like the sound of this project, you can head to our Australian Cultural Fund campaign page to donate. Blackbird in the Garden will take place at the Abbotsford Convent on June 24-26th, 2016.

In 2014, composer Andrew Aronowicz wrote me a stunningly whimsical piece titled Following the Blackbird. Now, we’re returning to the work as part of Blackbird in the Garden, and I had a few questions to ask Andrew about his music, the piece and his visions for its future.

Andrew Aronowicz

Andrew Aronowicz

Naomi: Firstly, I wonder whether you might be able to tell me a little bit about yourself as a composer – what inspires you to write music?

Andrew: Well I find my inspiration all over the place – in books, poems, artworks, conversations, ideas, constructed spaces, natural places – everywhere! For me, writing a piece of music is like connecting the random threads of my consciousness into something listenable. I’m fairly convinced music is akin to magic. Music is intangible and ephemeral, and quite abstract – qualities that I find useful in expressing my ideas in compositional form. I’m quite happy for listeners to bring themselves to my music – to input themselves into the world I’ve created. I’m fascinated by the way music can transport you to other places. I’m not that fond of reality. When I listen to music, I’m looking to be taken somewhere else. And when I compose, I hope to conjure a musical space for my audience to inhabit.

N: When I describe Following the Blackbird to people, they tend to be impressed by just how original the central concept is. How did you first conceive of this piece?

A: I composed Following the Blackbird two years ago. When you asked me to write a piece for your final Masters recital, I was very keen to write something a bit out of the ordinary – something that would allow you to indulge in your love of weird and wonderful new music! It was also very important I wrote something that expressed who you were as a person, as well as a musician, at that important juncture in your life.

I’d been thinking of ways that we could use space and indeterminacy in the music. Somehow, I dreamt up this idea of a musical garden – an imaginary space that you could explore. At the time I was attracted to writing shorter pieces – musical miniatures – and I started imagining a scenario where you would explore the stage space as you would a garden, discovering musical miniatures along the path.

You had told me about Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir, and how it was a significant work in your musical development. That piece became a central source of inspiration, and was reshaped into the first miniature. The composition flowed from there as you gave me more pieces of inspiration, or ‘seeds’.

A page from Andrew's creative notebook. I am enchanted by the pictures and his response to my 'seeds'.

A page from Andrew’s creative notebook. I am enchanted by the pictures and his response to my ‘seeds’ of inspiration.

N: Even before the premiere in 2014, a lot changed and grew with Following the Blackbird. What, for you, were the challenges of this music?

A: Definitely the electronics. Composing with electronics is still new to me, and this piece is two years old! When you first asked me to write Following the Blackbird, you’d been working on another piece flute and electronics by Kaija Saariaho – Laconisme de l’aile. I think both us were enchanted by that music, and we decided early on that my piece should incorporate live-manipulated electronics.

Of course, actually making the electronics happen was something else entirely, and I needed a lot of help to get that working. Basically, all the electronic manipulations to the music happen live. There are times when I have to record parts of your playing. Other times I’m adding effects, like reverberation and distortion. Sometimes I’m combining other sounds to the flute, like water bubbling.

I’m not keen on performing, but someone’s got to manipulate the electronics, and there aren’t many people who know how the piece works!

N: In June this year, we’ll be staging the piece again, but in rather a different format to the original performance. What is your role in developing Following the Blackbird for its part in Blackbird in the Garden?

A: I’m technically a “co-curator”, but I suppose you could call me a producer of sorts. I have a number of responsibilities, including helping to facilitate the fundraising campaign, but essentially my role is in developing Following the Blackbird for performance in this more theatrical and immersive setting. There are a number of challenges in terms of the staging, the theatricality, and the design of the space, etc. and basically I’m here to make sure that the individual elements of the performance come together in a way that matches our original vision of the musical garden.

So many things! I’m particularly excited by the prospect of working with a dancer in this production. My music has never been danced to, so this is a real first for me. When I wrote the music, I knew you were going to be moving around the stage – but this is a new level of physical engagement. I’m so excited to see how the dancer interprets my music!

Another page of Andrew's notebook, with sketches and notes for 'Blackbird' and 'Candlelight'.

Another page of Andrew’s notebook, with sketches and notes for ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Candlelight’.

N: Has your vision for the piece remained the same, or has it changed since the first performance? Where do you see this piece going after June?

A: It’s definitely evolved since the first performance. When I conceived this piece, I saw it as a very long-term project – a kind of concept work that could change and grow over time, like an actual garden. I plan to write more miniatures, so there will be a larger pool of music to draw from. That way, you will be able to tailor the piece to different performance scenarios.

I also envisioned the garden you’re exploring to be composed not just of music, but of sculptures, trees and other strange things. One day, I would love to do a festival performance of this piece, where we can collaborate with an artist and grow the garden physically as well as musically. I’m not sure how far our budget’s going to stretch for this performance, but hopefully with some clever staging and some very snazzy lighting we’ll be able to conjure this magical garden of my dreams!

N: Finally, I know that Following the Blackbird was one of the first pieces you wrote after completing your formal studies in composition. Has it contributed to your development as a composer? Do you foresee other similar pieces at some point in the future?

A: Composing in miniature is a great way of articulating a succinct musical concept. From a technical point of view, it’s very useful. And I suppose more generally this presents another way of becoming a good communicator. I do think the process of producing these miniatures has helped me to refine and develop my compositional technique.

I would love to write more works like this in the future. Following the Blackbird is a living, breathing piece ­– or I should say, set of pieces. It is essentially a collection of short musical specimens, which can be adapted and changed, depending on the performance scenario. I think this kind of versatility can be very useful, particularly in today’s fragmented, sound-byte culture. But I like the format too because I think there’s a lot of artistic merit in it, and a lot of possibility for musical and theatrical interpretation.

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Following the Blackbird: The Story of the Music

This blog post is part of a series to promote a fundraising campaign for the project Blackbird in the Garden. If you like the sound of this project, you can head to our Australian Cultural Fund campaign page to donate. Blackbird in the Garden will take place at the Abbotsford Convent on June 24-26th, 2016.

In June this year, I will be curating and performing in Blackbird in the Garden, a concert co-presented with Forest Collective. The central focus of these concerts is a piece of music: Following the Blackbird by the brilliant young composer Andrew Aronowicz. Andy is a very dear friend, and the story of this piece is very much the story of our friendship. Following the Blackbird isn’t the sort of piece that I play from start to finish in exactly the same way each time; it’s a series of musical miniatures which can be played in different orders or formats (more on that later) depending on the context. This aleatoric structure, coupled with the use of electronics and movement around the performance space, make it an intriguing and rather unique work.

But let’s start at the beginning. In late 2013, Andy and I were both knee-deep in our Masters degrees at the University of Melbourne. We had already collaborated on a number of projects, in particular his song cycle Weird (2013) for which I wrote the poetry. We have very similar aesthetic interests, not just musically but more broadly in the arts, which were often discussed over long lunches between classes. We shared thoughts on poetry, art, history, and dreams of musical projects we might achieve together. A solo flute work maybe? For my first Masters recital in December of that year, I programmed Kaija Saariaho’s Laconisme de l’aile (1982) for solo flute and live electronics, and I thought Andy’s appreciation for Saariaho’s musical aesthetic qualified him excellently to be my ‘duet partner’ and help me out with the electronics in performance. After the recital Andy came and gave me a big hug, and asked: “Can I write you a piece like that with electronics? A diptych maybe?” It would be for my next recital six months later.

By our next lunchtime catch-up, Andy had a very different proposition, though still with live electronics. Rather than a diptych, he proposed writing a series of musical miniatures, to be performed aleatorically. He also wanted me to take a much more active part in the compositional process by contributing the inspiration for each miniature – like planting seeds in a garden that he would then cultivate. This sounded at once exciting and a bit scary. How would I choose my musical seeds? How would a changing performance order affect my ability to remain present in the musical narrative? How would it all work with the electronics? Yet the artistic potential also enticed me: we could create a highly versatile work to which miniatures could be added or removed depending on the performance, and in which I could musically explore and challenge myself.

Blackbird Blog_Blackbird

Messiaen drew his musical inspiration from many birds, from some of the most stunning all the way to the humble blackbird.

There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the musical ‘seeds’ which I sent Andy’s way, though the very first was definitely the most important in the eventual shape of the work. My first seed was Le Merle Noir, Messiaen’s superb piece for flute and piano which is strongly inspired by and indeed also draws directly from blackbird song. Delightfully whimsical in places, strident and brilliant in others, it is one of my all-time favourites in the flute repertoire. A few days later, Andy sent me a very short, handwritten miniature titled The Blackbird, which captured the essence of Messiaen’s opening cadenza in an equally whimsical, quasi-improvisatory series of gestures. As we continued with the composition and began discussing the overall structure, we returned to this little fragment again and again. For me, the blackbird became a central motif, embodying the sense of childlike exploration I would undertake in this musical garden. It became a fixed opening – we would always start with it – and also a linking element between other miniatures. As I moved (both physically and musically) from one miniature to the next, I would improvise on the blackbird theme, but in a way that reflected the music I had just experienced.

A symbol to which I’m drawn in my more creative writing is that of the mirror – an object which allows for self-examination and reflection, from which we expect a true reproduction of an image but which can also change and warp our view. It seemed fitting that the final moment of the performance should be a ‘mirror image’ of the blackbird theme as a reflection on the musical journey. To conclude the performance, then, I would return once again to the theme, but this time inverted.

My second seed was a poem: By Candlelight (1962) by Sylvia Plath. I had studied Plath’s poetry at school, and keep returning to it for the vivid, striking imagery it presents. The wonderful thing about this creative project, though, was that there were two of us involved, and so what I found most appealing about the poem was not necessarily exactly what drew Andy! In this poem, Andy was not so much inspired by Plath’s description of the winter night but focused his composition on the lines concerning the candlelight itself:

“…our shadows wither
Only to blow
Them huge again, violent giants on the wall.”

The result was a miniature in which I play a duet with myself, casting dramatic musical shadows through the clever use of electronics.

A second poem came in the form of Arthur Rimbaud’s Larmes (1872), a rather abstract verse describing the author alone in a dank and muggy pre-storm landscape. Andy was keen for me to give him something in French, a language which I’ve spoken and studied since primary school, and which he too is also studying. Not only is it a big part of my personality, it’s also an important part of our friendship – when I lived in Europe in 2014/15 we ended up corresponding through French emails for most of the time. However, I had ended up picking something rather dark and foreboding purely because I liked the sound of the works in French, and so once again Andy went in a different direction to the one I was expecting. He drew from the poem the image of a still, crystalline pool with a broken fountain, creating a miniature that captures a misty moment of garden solitude.

Dance from Les Arts by Alphonse Mucha

Dance from Les Arts by Alphonse Mucha

From poetry, I moved to more a visual stimulus, and the next seed sown was that of a picture. I suggested Alphonse Mucha’s collection of drawings The Arts (1899), which spoke to me for their refined elegance and exemplification of Mucha’s design aesthetic. Here, however, it wasn’t until I refined our focus to one of the four picture – Dance – that Andy found the inspiration for his miniature. I like this picture in particular because it has such a strong implication of movement through the woman’s lithe, twisting body. Andy added to this my enjoyment of Irish music, writing a lively, carefree miniature which works its way up to a whirling dance.

I can’t remember what prompted me to think of the final seed for the first collection of miniatures, though it does add another thread to my musical story. In 2009/10 I went on exchange to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where among other things I was introduced to a wealth of contemporary music. While there are many images I associate with my time there, the striking silver pipes of the Sibelius monument represent for me something of Finland’s cold winter grandeur. Andy liked this image because it tied in with his interest in architecture, and the result was a miniature that explored not the great weight of such a sculpture, but its interaction with air and open space.

The Sibelius monument in Helsinki. I took these photos during my exchange there in 2009.

The Sibelius monument in Helsinki, which I visited in 2009.

One of the wonderful things about Following the Blackbird is that the music is adaptable to changing and varied performance set-ups. We premiered the work as part of my Masters recital in June 2014, where it was a stand-alone piece on the program. This time round, however, I want to use Andy’s music not just as a piece on the program, but as the link between other pieces, juxtaposing his musical miniatures with other pieces of contemporary chamber music that I feel fit the same aesthetic. I will move around the space, like I did at the premiere, although this time it will be much more integrated with the audience. This time, also, the blackbird motif will take on a very real presence, being personified by a dancer who will also inhabit the garden space and with whom I will interact. There might even be another miniature on its way. Andy’s music lends itself wonderfully to this flexibility and change, and I’m excited about creating a performance that will bring together music, dance and a beautiful space to make something daring and new.

In my next post, I’ll be having a chat with Andy about his work, both on Following the Blackbird and his broader compositional aesthetic.

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June ArtStart Reflection

Another jam-packed month, and I’m now halfway through my ArtStart year. This monthly reflection coincides with finishing up in the UK, so I’ve been both concluding activities here and planning for the next lot in the second half on the year.

With some sadness, I finished my course of lessons with Carla Rees last week. It has been great to work on some low flute fundamentals with Carla, and to hear how she has created a career for herself through performing and other musical activites. We spent quite a bit of time in the last lesson working on bass flute. I’m playing bass for a piece at the SoundSCAPE Festival next week, and was keen to get some practice time in ahead of the festival itself. I haven’t played bass in about a year now, and was finding it rather frustrating – surely I could make a fuller sound in the low register! Strong embouchure, lots of air but slow air. Hopefully some more time at SoundSCAPE will solve this.

I’m flying to Italy tomorrow morning for SoundSCAPE, and have been getting excited. I’m playing four new works by composers at the festival, along with some chamber music and solo pieces, and will be giving a presentation on new music in Australia as well. The next two weeks will certainly be busy. I’m hoping to have some time for daily blogs, but in a more creative vein than those I wrote at Trevor’s. Stay tuned!

No final exam, but I did get a certificate!

No final exam, but I did get a certificate!

On Tuesday, I finished my Practical Financial Management for Small Businesses course, rounding out with a class on taxation. While this and week nine on VAT have been rather UK-specific, I think it will be easy enough to transfer the concepts to Australia (or anywhere else for that matter!). I won’t miss the class, but it was well-taught and I feel much better equipped to deal with money and budgetary matters in a chamber ensemble or small arts organisation in the future.

Then comes organisation for my trip to the U.S. in August. I’ve booked flights to Washington D.C. for the NFA Convention, which starts on August 13th. The program came out a few days ago online, and I’m amazed at how many events are running concurrently! Each days runs from 8am to midnight, with up to seven or eight concurrent events across concerts, lectures, workshops and repertoire reading sessions. I feel like I’m going to need to allocate an afternoon to sitting down with a highlighter and working out where to go. Then I’m heading to New York for a week, where I’m having some lessons. This part of the trip is not yet fully sorted, and I need to spend some more time following up with flautists and Harvestworks, where I’m hoping to take an electronics class. I’m definitely having a lesson with Robert Dick, and will be preparing some of his Flying Lessons to work on.

Fun with Max - a tutorial on basic maths!

Fun with Max – a tutorial on basic maths

Finally, I’ve also sat myself down and made a start on Max MSP. The software has a number of segments, with Max being programming and MSP being the audio component that I’m interested in. I rather optimistically thought that I could just dive into MSP, but couldn’t many any sense whatsoever of the first tutorial! So I’ve decided to start at the very beginning with Max tutorial 1, and am now up to no. 10. The language itself is quite user-friendly, and I’m finding it easy to understand the processes and the reason behind it. However, it feels like there’s a lot to do before I can start working on programming for flute with electronics. The challenge will be starting to build my own patches and remember what all the various objects do!

At the halfway point of my ArtStart grant I feel pretty on top of things. While I haven’t yet undertaken the two major projects of the year, one is imminent and the other is feeling less daunting the more planning I do. I’m on track to tick off everything on the list, though some things like Max are definitely a long-term project. It was sad to hear this month that the Australia Council for the Arts will no longer be offering the ArtStart program due to government funding cuts. It will be sorely missed on the Australian arts scene.

Sunday Organ Recital – Westminster Abbey

Jeremy Woodside, 28th June, 2015

I’ve been trying to get along to one of the Sunday organ recitals at Westminster Abbey for a while, as much for a way to see some of the abbey for free as to hear some wonderful music! While some of the recitals advertised in May focused on arrangements of popular orchestral repertoire, I was pleased to see that Jeremy Woodside’s program for the 28th showed off some more substantial pieces.

Opening with Eugène Gigout’s Grand choeur dialogué, Woodside showed himself to be a master of the Westminster organ. Passagework was equally expressive and technically secure, and the dialogue of the work’s title was created through striking use of stops. Keen to use the full force of the instrument at key points, Woodside nevertheless showed a command across its varied timbres, with particularly clear use of articulation.

A relatively contemporary work on the program, the Siciliano for a High Ceremony by Herbert Howells explored a sparser, meditative musical space that is often absent from organ recitals. Though perhaps not the greatest of pieces, it was subtly and delicately performed with rounded melodic lines drawing towards the climax.

Woodside concluded the performance with J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582. Whether due to a lack of preparation or a fault of the instrument, the Passacaglia was sloppy where both the Fugue and earlier Grand Choeur were at their strongest – a lack of attention to unity of voices resulted in a confusing rendition. Luckily, this was remedied in the Fugue, which showed an intrinsic understanding of Bach’s contrapuntal writing. Excellent technical facility and attention to the interrelationship of fugal voices and harmony produced an exhilarating rendition that used the Westminster space to full advantage.

And there came all manner of flies!

Workshop Flyer

Workshop Flyer

Last weekend I went along to an open workshop on Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt with the Twickenham Choral Society. The flyer caught my attention in the local library: “Come and Sing” it proclaimed. Yes, I was up for singing. I was also up for hearing Laurence Cummings talk about Handel all day for only £20. Cut lunch and coffee included was a bonus. Still, I didn’t really know what to expect – Handel’s choruses aren’t exactly easy, and if everyone was going to be sight-reading it could be a bit of a disaster! Quite the opposite; the day was wonderful.

It turns out the open workshop is a yearly event, with about half the singers being permanent members of the choir, and the rest retired choristers, members of other choirs, and a couple of totally random blow-ins like myself and the friend I coaxed along. So most of the vocal force had already spent two months working on the choruses, and those of us truly sight-reading (I meant to bash through the score on IMSLP) were in relatively safe hands. The sound was big, rich and self-assured, with a sense of style and quite good balance.

That isn’t to say there weren’t stumbling points. The workshop aimed to cover a lot of ground: almost all the chorus material of part one, along with the final “Sing ye to the Lord” of part two. While reading alto 2 in choruses like the opening “And the children of Israel” isn’t too challenging, the runs and canon effects in “He led them through the deep” was rather hair-raising. I hadn’t sung in a proper choir for years, and was pleasantly surprised by how much my confidence and sight-reading improved over the course of a single day. By the mini-concert at 4pm, I was singing with full voice and a renewed sense of Baroque choral style. By 5pm I had no voice left!

A short extract from "He led them through the deep", with the alto 2 part highlighted.

A short extract from “He led them through the deep”, with the (somewhat tricky) alto 2 part highlighted.

The most invigorating part of the workshop was most certainly Laurence Cummings – his passion for Handel’s music was the driving force through the day. He didn’t dumb down the musical concepts at all; we were singing Handel and so should aim for the clarity and fineness that he expected of a professional choir. Of course, he made some concessions for accuracy, and forgave a whole manner of sins in the tricky interlocking passagework of the final chorus “Sing ye to the Lord.” Yet he also breathed incredible life into the score, particularly the text. He was constantly encouraging us to consider the meaning of the text, emphasising that in Baroque music repetition meant we needed to find a different interpretation of the same lines. Laurence also wanted us to embrace the grotesque and bizarre – lines like “and there came all manner of flies, and lice in all the quarters” needed to be crystal clear so our audience got the full picture. All fed into the day’s central concept: theatre of the mind created through music.

While Israel in Egypt still isn’t my favourite Handel oratorio, the day has certainly prompted a renewed interest in it. I’ve listened twice through the whole thing over the past week, and enjoyed the exhilaration of the music (and, let’s be honest, just how bizarre some of the text is). Most importantly, though, was the exhilaration of singing, of being part of a greater whole with the joint goal of creating wonderful music.

Thanks Twickenham Choral Society, it was great!

Of the recordings in Youtube, this version with the Leeds Festival Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras is certainly my favourite for sheer energy. “He gave them hailstones for rain” and 20:00 is particularly wonderful. The vocal score is on IMSLP if you want to follow along!