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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January ArtStart Reflection

I think it’s a good idea to write a short reflection each month on what I’ve achieved with my 2015 ArtStart grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. While my main focus for the moment is the flute studio course, I’ve already started the ball rolling with a few other things as well:

– Most importantly, I submitted my application to the Bang on a Can Summer Festival on January 15th. A trip to the US in July/August to attend the festival, take some lessons and attend the National Flute Convention was a central element of my grant proposal. I was happy with the application, but can never know who else is applying. I find out whether I’m going in early March.

– I started work on my website, which is very exciting. So far, I’ve done most of the written content and had a bit of a play around with design. My lovely friend Matt has been doing some of the trickier bits. While we’ve managed to embed a twitter feed, we’re still working on getting this blog as part of the website, as well as sorting out bits and pieces of back end design. I also need to go back over my performance videos and recordings to decide which ones I really want to put up. Rather than just making the website about my flute playing, I’m keen for it to reflect the range of things I do in music, writing and radio.

– I joined ArtsHub for the year. I put this on my application both to look at the range of arts jobs available and to have access to various resources and articles on work in the arts industry. The jobs board hasn’t been amazing so far – more targeted towards arts admin jobs – but the articles have been interesting.

– I’ve downloaded Max 7, a program which allows me to generate electronics patches. Following the Blackbirdwhich was written for my final MMus recital by the lovely Andrew Aronowicz, used Max for the electronics component, and I’m keen to use it further in creative and collaborative projects. But firstly, I need to learn how to use it… cue tutorial videos!

– I’ve looked into the small business management course I want to do following my time here in Kent. Still need to book though.

– And finally, I’ve made trips up to London to attend masterclasses and concerts. Once my budget was all planned out, I had about $120 left over, and so decided that it could support travel up to London while I’m here. While my 16-25 railcard is a big help, trains in the UK are still expensive!

So far I feel like I’m on track to complete all my ArtStart grant activities, though there is a lot of work ahead. More importantly, though, there is a lot of artistic growth to look forward to.