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.

Banner green1


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.

Banner green1

May ArtStart Reflection

Time is flying by, and I am now entering the final month of my time in England. While my overall blog has been a little quiet of late, I am happy that I’ve been making good progress with the ArtStart side of things. Here is what I’ve been up to:

I am now six weeks into my Practical Financial Management for Small Businesses course. We have covered a lot of ground, including financial forecasting, income statements and analysis of account. As the course has progressed we’ve had some classes that I feel are very relevant to what I’m hoping to do as a musician, and some that aren’t at the moment. The class on ratio analysis, for example, was interesting but not terribly relevant for managing chamber ensembles. It has, however, prompted me to be a little more daring with my use of MS Excel for designing spredsheets, which will help with organisation and budgeting no end.

My lessons with Carla Rees are continuing, with a double lesson extravaganza this week. We worked on Stravinsky and Boulez excerpts as well as one of the Jolivet Ascèses and a brand new piece written for me by Australian composer James Wade. I was utterly exhausted afterwards, but feel like I’m learning an awful lot. We spent a lot of time talking about differences between alto and C flute, especially in terms of colour. On C flute we aim for a homogeneity of colour across the registers, but on the alto we need to embrace the differences between high and low a little more, using the colours to our advantage. I need to remember to resonate rather than pushing the sound. Also, when I need to project the sound as in the Stravinsky excerpts, I need to think about how to achieve this with colour rather than taking the written dynamics too literally. The Boulez was a particular challenge, both technically and conceptually, and I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time on this piece.

It is now less than a month until the SoundSCAPE Festival, and I’m now knee deep in preparing repertoire for that. I’ve been allocated an interesting and highly varied selection of new commission pieces: C flute with lots of whistle tones, multiphonics and quartertones (with bassoon, percussion and piano); bass flute with quasi-theatrical indications and some interesting staging (with double bass and piano); C and alto flutes with soprano, guitar and percussion. I’m also playing duets with some friends from last year, giving a talk on contemporary music in Australia, and preparing some solo pieces. It is going to be a lot of work, but I’m already getting excited.

After SoundSCAPE, I’m flying back to Australia, and will be moving on to a few more of he ArtStart activities in the second half of the year. There is still a lot more on the cards, but looking through my breakdown of activities I feel more or less on track still.

Based on some outcomes from job applications in Australia (for better or worse), my trip to the U.S. is now very much back on the cards for mid-August. I’ll be starting off at the National Flute Association Convention in Washington D.C., then heading to New York City for about a week for some lessons. At the moment there feels like an awful lot to do in preparation for this, but I’m hoping to get that sorted in the coming weeks!

Day 18 – October 18th – Escape!

Walking along the river to Carla's.

Walking along the river to Carla’s.

Today I was naughty. With the help of the lovely Paul and Sue, I escaped Elmsted and disappeared off up to Windsor and London. A friend at the SoundSCAPE festival had out me in touch with alto and bass flautist Carla Rees, and I was super keen for a lesson. I’m sure that Trevor would disapprove, but I figured there are some things he just does’t need to know about. Luckily he didn’t drop by the Dairy today, and so my lurking sense of worry through the day was ill-founded anyway.

The trip was definitely worth it, both for my first ever specific instruction on alto flute, and also for the broader career insights and advice that Carla was able to provide. The key points with alto flute are:

– More air!! Put as much air as physically possible through the instrument, and then try for a bit more. But it needs to be slower air than for the C flute, or else the sound will split.

– Lower breathing. Carla noted that I was breathing quite high-up, and said that for really good resonance on the alto our bodies need to become part of the instrument. The way to achieve this is to breathe from lower down, really using the maximal expansion of our rib cage, and keep everything in the upper chest, shoulders and neck really free.

– I need to put the flute much lower on my lip, so covering more of the embouchure hole. Mardi mentioned this about my C flute playing earlier in the year, and with alto it’s even more so. In the lesson it felt a little unnatural, but the resultant sound was much bigger and crunchier.

– Along with that, I need to direct the air further downwards, but without turning the flute in. Easier when I remember the relaxed embouchure, but this concept is going to need some work!

– Finally, the alto is really physical to play. I should feel exhausted and will need to build the stamina and strength to deal with that. Looks like my morning runs are staying then.

A quick glimpse of Windsor castle on the way back to the train.

A quick glimpse of Windsor castle on the way back to the train.

Carla encouraged me to play around with the instrument, to experiment with how I could get it to sounds really fantastic and push my boundaries. The alto (and by extension bass) flute isn’t just a low C flute, it is a very different instrument and behaves differently. We need to practise with that in mind, and not aim to recreate C flute sounds. She also said that the best thing to play on low flutes is Bach, as it encourages us to deal with the real-life musical problems of leaps, tone colour and breathing.

More tomorrow, but today has given me some good thinking material, much of which I can apply to the C flute as well in moderation. After the lesson I had coffee with a lovely Australian friend Brontë who is studying flute at the Royal Academy. Hopefully the escape has given me to energy for a really full day of practice tomorrow!

Third Person

Jeremy Bass, myself and Matt Kline performing Third Person by Celeste Oram

Jeremy Bass, myself and Matt Kline performing Third Person by Celeste Oram

It has now been a month since the SoundSCAPE Festival 2014, but I have been mulling over this post for a while and am keen to put it up. The whole festival experience was great: I came across several really stunning pieces and performances, and had the opportunity to work with many truly wonderful artists. However, among all this one piece really stood out for me, both in the rehearsal process and final performance.

The work was Third Person by New Zealand composer Celeste Oram, and for me was one of those rare pieces that pushes one’s musical boundaries in a really substantial way. I received the work via email to find that it was not a written ‘score’ in the conventional sense but rather an 8-min long video and a page of instructions. For flute, guitar and double bass, the video was arranged as three panels on the screen, with one panel my part of the score to read. My fellow performers were guitarist Jeremy Bass and double bassist Matt Kline.

On the outset the instructions were simple: copy the physical actions depicted on the screen as closely as possible, creating sounds which then accompany the video performance. In particular, it was noted that “the performers’ priority should always be to embody the quality of the onscreen figures’ movement: never to imitate its anticipated resultant sound, or to painstakingly decipher the pitch material being played.” We were encouraged to “consider how these mirrored movements can offer interested and varied sonic results”, to “err both on the side of playing instruments unconventionally and flamboyantly – engaging the whole body – and on the side of producing sounds which seem unexpectedly at odds with the visual image.” My part differed a little from that of the guitar and double bass in that it was for the most part videos of people playing flute. There were a couple of shots of hands, either tapping or typing, but mostly I was faced with flute players doing more-or-less fluty things. The guitar/bass combo, by contrast, got to mimic saws, razors, guns and archery, not to mention more varied forms of their own instrument (think bowed electric guitars and small children playing violins like cellos).

Before arriving at SoundSCAPE, I practised the piece to some extent, trying to ‘learn’ the score a little and play with some of the sounds I could produce. However, on arriving at the festival, I realised that it was much more difficult to realise Celeste’s vision than I had originally thought. Our first rehearsal felt good at the time, but was not tight, more improvised than the intended ‘reading’ of the score. Furthermore, I always started from the flute sounds and when in doubt, erred on the side of the conventional. As flautists, we learn not to breathe loudly, and so I didn’t. We spend hours and hours learning to produce a beautiful, pure sound, so that’s what I initially tried to do. Yet Celeste’s concept for the piece was very different, and through the course of our rehearsals she pushed us to look more and more closely at the fine details of her meticulously-produced score.

Over the course of our rehearsals, the fascination became the details. Far from wanting me to breathe like a nice classically-trained flautist, Celeste had deliberately chosen videos with unusual or just downright bizarre breathing. Then she put those segments on loop! One particular snippet – of a woman breathing in with a very open mouth – was looped so that I was mimicking about fifteen quick in-breaths in rapid succession with no flute sound and no chance to breathe out. Finally, when I arrive at a gasping pant that sounded like I know not what and left me feeling rather dizzy, was I pronounced to be “on the right track”. Celeste also pushed me to look for when the performer closed their eyes, at their body posture and the angle of their flute. If anything, she wanted airy, bizarre sounds, especially if it could be a reflection of their embouchure.

This sort of piece relies so much on the collaborative energy of the composer and performers, and it is because of this that it will stick so clearly in my mind. Jeremy and Matt were always prepared to make new sounds and push the boundaries musically. Nothing was ever beneath them, and indeed there were several moments where everyone in the room could only nod in the agreement that “that was cool”. Celeste asked that we be creative and daring, and I feel that the cumulative energy of this in our rehearsals turned a cool idea into a really fascinating performance. Her music, as well as her compositional attitude, demanded nothing short of 100%, and 300% was getting near optimal. Increasingly, I left our rehearsals exhausted, and after the performance was utterly so.

(I must also at this point confess to having spat a bit into the first few, thankfully empty, rows of the auditorium due to the violence with which I ultimately attempted to imitate one of the flautists.)

In our early rehearsals, I thought (rather self-importantly maybe?) that the ‘third person’ of the work’s title was the flautist, who seems to be ganged-up on by the other two and eventually shot down by them. Celeste never got round to sharing that particular piece of inspiration. In retrospect, I wonder whether the ‘third person’ applied to each performer individually in their own way. There’s a first person in the self as is, and a second in the self as a performer. Finally, there is a third person, one that appears only occasionally when we take a leap of musical and artistic faith.

Watch a video of our performance here