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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Day 141 – February 18th – Le Merle Noir

Today was a reminder that there are wildly different ideas about music, both its interpretation and how we share it with others.

As I mentioned yesterday, the repertoire piece today was Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir, and I was genuinely surprised at some of Trevor’s ideas on the piece. He started off with some valid comments about my attention to rhythms in the opening cadenza, were I was taking a bit too much liberty with semiquavers in relation to the quicker note values. However, I was surprised how quickly Trevor conceived of the cadenzas – there was very little room in his interpretation for space in the musical line, and the cutting that I’d been trying to avoid yesterday was actually quite well thought-of. Rather, Trevor wanted expression through loud and soft playing.

The presque lent, tendre section was where our ideas differed the most. I’ve always tried to match the piano tone here, playing quite a stark, clean line. It’s been suggested a few times that I play it senza vibratio, which I don’t like, but I also don’t think of it as overly romantic or anything. Trevor, however, said it was a “big romantic tune” and made me do some quite big crescendos and diminuendos. It made for a very different piece. The final section, vif, was pronounced “almost there”, I just needed to aim for tighter grace notes and really clear articulation even when notes are repeated. Overall, though, it felt like everything had to be played very fast.

After the playing part of class, we has a general skills session on the topic of chamber music. Once again, I was a little surprised. Rather than talk about creative ideas for chamber playing, Trevor wanted to talk about the easiest ways to form a chamber group for the greatest variety of repertoire, and I felt that the conclusions he reached were a little one-sided. The logic was that too many players is too hard to organise, so wind quintets aren’t a good idea and neither are bigger groups. Suggestions of flute and guitar were greeted with some rather scathing comments of guitar players, and flute and percussion was considered “too boring” (I feel like this was only in reference to flute and marimba though). Flute, viola and harp has a “limited repertoire” (I bit my tongue here), as does anything including voice. So the conclusion was that the best chamber group to form is either flute, oboe and piano or flute, cello and piano, as that has the broadest range of standard repertoire. It might also be a good idea for befriend a string quartet in case they need a guest to play some flute quartets occasionally.

On one level, fair enough, it was practical advice for forming a core group with some staying power. On the other, where is the sense of adventure in that? We certainly shouldn’t all be going and playing 18th and 19th century repertoire in trios with oboes, cellos and pianos, because everyone will be utterly sick of it! Alongside that, we need musicians that are willing to be a lot more daring, to drum up the numbers to play new works, exciting works, and works that are going to define our generation of composers in the future. We also need people that are prepared to go delving into archives, breathing new life into chamber works from the past for more obscure combinations. I think diversity of music is such an important thing, and that was what was missing from today’s discussion. I didn’t dare mention Pierrot ensembles!

On the bright side, and to sum up a long post; I did learn a lot from today’s class even if I didn’t quite agree with everything I heard. This evening I made sweet potato and sage risotto with some of the others, and on our evening walk the dark sky was bursting with stars.

Day 140 – February 17th – Pancakes

I feel like there have been a lot of ‘light’ practice days of late! Today was no exception, though I’m sure I could have fitted more in if I really wanted to. After our Tesco and Wye bakery (it seems to be becoming a regular!) trip this morning, I did a rather reduced technique session before diving into the repertoire and excerpts for this week. As it’s Chinese New Year on Thursday, we have class tomorrow and then dinner at Trevor’s on Thursday. So I’m quite happy that I know Messiaen’s Merle Noir inside out and didn’t need to spend today cramming notes!

I played Merle Noir as the final piece on my masters recital back in July 2014, and it’s interesting to return once again to my very favourite piece of flute music. While my memory of the masters performance is one of exhilaration, there are bits of the recording that I’m retrospectively not terribly happy with. Why not have a listen? While it’s technically ‘correct’, and the faster passages are quite sparkly, the two cadenzas sound rather flat and as if I’m still thinking about the notes. I can certainly tell what Trevor means about dynamics – they’re not really there. Also, the fluttertongue notes don’t go anywhere, they just hang as a buzzing mass of sound. That said, I do rather like the way I played the presque lent, tendre sections (the ones with piano that don’t feel like they’re in a normal time signature) – I really wanted something a bit sparse, almost icy.

In my practice today, I focused on two things: getting the last section up to the speed it was in my recital (with all the grace notes nice and short!), and trying to achieve a more expressive, exciting rendition of the cadenzas. Hopefully I succeeded! I have a feeling that tomorrow’s topic for discussion in the cadenzas will be rhythmic accuracy no matter what.

As for the excerpts, we have Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide and Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, two incredibly different pieces of music. In the Rossini, I worked on getting everything really crisp and clear, with (hopefully) a nice bounce in the triplets. I spent a lot of time setting and maintaining a tempo, making sure that each bar was rhythmically accurate within that. And, of course, I made sure that all my dynamics were big and rich, and that I was being expressive and communicating something. Not much time to prepare, but hopefully I’m armed and ready for tomorrow.

In the evening, I walked up to Hastingleigh village hall with Shannon and Alyssa for pancakes! It’s Shrove Tuesday, and the village had a pancake party with three pancakes (and sweet or savoury toppings) for two pounds fifty. They were doing a roaring trade, and it was nice to have a chat with some of the villagers as well. We went for a short walk with a rather jovial Trevor afterwards.