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.

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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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Performance #1 – Peter Hill, piano – Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall, 28th March

The only way to describe this concert was wow! Wow for the sheer gumption to program such challenging and contrasting works, and wow for the dramatic performance that resulted.

From the first minutes of Peter Hill’s pre-concert talk, it was clear that we were in for something special. Hill, arguably the world’s most pre-eminent Messiaen scholar, was also a incredibly articulate speaker, and gave a wonderfully engaging survey of the composer’s career. The narrative was not overly academic – equipping the audience with valuable knowledge in preparation for music that is without a doubt intellectually challenging. One could say he was preaching to the converted – we had all already bought a ticket – but Hill went beyond this, making the works on the program highly accessible and indeed incredibly exciting.

The concert itself, while possibly a little on the long side, balanced Messiaen’s large-scale work Visions de l’amen in the second half with a selection of smaller ones – Préludes No.1, Catéyodjayâ and two movements of 4 Feuillets inédits – in the first. Directly preceding the interval, of all things, were four of JS Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. As a whole, this seemingly disparate program had a wonderful arc to it, and was a wonderful showcase of both Hill’s versatility and the skills of the ANAM piano students.

Visions de l’amen, clearly the central focus of Hill’s masterclasses at ANAM during the week, is an epic and deeply meditative work for two pianos. Hill played the second piano part throughout, while the six ANAM students shared the first part in something of a relay. Though this set-up had the capacity to be distracting, the result was nevertheless stunning. Each student brought a new energy to the instrument that was very much in line with the varied musical material of each movement. Aidan Boase and Jacob Abela, in particular, were stunning in the final three movements. Hill’s profound understanding of the work underpinned this, making for complete performance that was utterly thrilling.

The students’ performances of the Bach may have suffered a little from the Messiaen work being the week’s central focus, though Gladys Chua played Book II, C sharp major with a wonderful fluidity. Hill’s Book I, C major and B minor were stunning, with an elegance of touch and economy of gesture that show him to be an all-rounder in the most complete of senses.