A piece half a lifetime in the making

In the middle of working on a new piece for violin and piano, violinist Rebecca Gill, who commissioned the work as part of the 2016 Stefan Kruger Scholarship, sent me an e-mail with an old photo of the two of us. She came across the photo – from the hazy days before Facebook albums – while looking for material for her upcoming tour, ‘Three Horizons’, which features the new work alongside an all Australian program. The new work, similarly named ‘three horizons’, is actually three pieces, rolled into one.

‘Look what I found!’ she exclaimed. We can’t quite decide how old we are in the photo, or what the occasion was, but are both struck by how young we look, and how long ago it seems. We’re both horrified when I point out that regardless of wether we were 15 or 16, the photo was taken half of our lifetimes ago.

Truth be told, however, there’s a history even before high school. I’m sure Bec will be embarrassed to know that my earliest memory of her was long before we ever met at high school, playing her violin in primary school at various Eisteddfodau, around Newcastle. (My Welsh informant assures me that the Welsh plural of ‘Eisteddfod’ is at least as common as the anglicised ‘added s’. He was also quick to point out that ‘thankfully’ there aren’t that many of them, so the plural isn’t needed all that often). I occasionally got an award or certificate for playing piano, but my overriding memory was that Rebecca just won everything. Even more frustratingly, though, she actually deserved to win everything.

In many ways this collaboration is one of the most scary and rewarding ones I’ve been involved in, because of this shared history. The stakes seem high, but there is also a background of mutual understanding, trust and affection which grounds it all. I know Rebecca’s work ethic, and her dedication to getting the sound just right. While you might think that knowing you have a performer who will make whatever you write sound fantastic could allow a composer some shortcuts, the opposite was true. I really pushed myself to write something that could get Bec’s approval, something that respects and responds to her knowledge, technique, and musicality.

To give a little insight into the process, and in the spirit of collaboration, we decided to interview one another. Without telling Bec what questions I was going to ask, I asked her to write some questions for me to answer, and then we both sent them to each other.

Chris Williams: Why did you decide to commission a new piece as part of your Stefan Kruger Scholarship win?

Rebecca Gill: When I was thinking of a great performance project, in order to apply for the scholarship, it was important to me to try and take some other musicians ‘along for the ride’, so to speak.  I love playing the repertoire that musicians and audiences have celebrated for centuries but in this project I wanted to generate something new and leave something behind when the concerts are over. Now, when the sound fades at the end of my last ‘Three Horizons’ concert there will be three pieces in the world for other musicians to engage with and enjoy.

Equally important was the opportunity to work with a dear friend and finally collaborate in a way we hadn’t been able to before.

C.W. What was your greatest fear in asking for a new piece?

R.G. My greatest fear when commissioning the piece was that it might be something so fiendishly difficult that I couldn’t do it justice in live performance! I’m now responsible for bringing someone else’s creation to life. Luckily, I’m thrilled with the pieces and I think we’ll be able to do them justice.

C.W. What’s been the most unexpected part of the process so far?

R.G. Honestly I was expecting to have to spend more time with you working through problems with the score and instrumental difficulties with the writing. The polished form in which the first draft came to me was quite remarkable, I think! Some compositions feel like they fight with the natural tendencies and qualities of your instrument. ‘three horizons’ works beautifully.

C.W. Did you learn ‘three horizons’ differently to how you learnt the other pieces on the program?

R.G. With ‘three horizons’ I had the incredible opportunity of peppering the composer with questions. In this way I was probably even more careful to be faithful to the markings in the score; checking every dot and line and questioning exactly what you wanted from them. As performers we approach Beethoven with as much care but without the opportunity to ask him directly we have to use our judgement about performance style and his intentions.

Before I began putting this program together I was relatively unfamiliar with the other Australian repertoire I’ve chosen, by Margaret Sutherland, Raymond Hanson and Stuart Greenbaum. The style of their writing, particularly Sutherland and Hanson, is closely linked to 19th and early 20th century composition for violin and piano so as I was preparing these works I felt a sort of familiarity. This meant I could use my experience and knowledge as an instrumentalist to make different decisions about bringing the music to life.

With ‘three horizons’ I have the pleasure of starting to understand your compositional language. Of course as a young contemporary composer your ‘style’ is not a static thing but as a performer we can start to get a ‘feel’ for your creative voice.

C.W. And now I’ll hand the mic over to you, Bec.

R.G. Is being commissioned a usual way for you to start composing a work or do you have the beginnings of pieces come to you and wait for the right project to be developed into a greater work?

C.W. Being commissioned is a good way to finish composing, for me. I find that I am always starting pieces, but I’m usually reluctant or just unable to put aside the sometimes large amount of time required to finish a piece, without knowing that it’ll be useful, without knowing it will be heard, played by live musicians. It means I’ve got lots of ideas sketched, and have the hope that I will one day be able to get back to all them. In truth, though, often a commission will inspire a new idea or direction, making those sketches good compositional ‘exercise’ without necessarily being destined to be pieces in their own right. Though it might seem more abstract, I suspect composing has similarities to instrumental performance, and perhaps these sketches are the compositional equivalent of running through your scales, so you’re ready for when you need to draw on those skills in a real performance.

R.G.  Have many of your compositions been written for friends? How does this affect your approach and the process of creating?

C.W. This actually reminds me of a letter Nigel Butterley once showed me. It’s, understandably, an item of great importance to him: a note to him from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Nigel and a colleague at the ABC sent Vaughan Williams a Birthday telegram and Vaughan Williams took the time to reply. I may be paraphrasing, slightly, but Vaughan Williams thanked them for their note and then said “Isn’t it wonderful that music can make friends of those who would otherwise never meet?” It’s such a beautiful and powerful idea, and I find that the best musical experiences make friends (‘of those who would otherwise never meet’), and that friends tend to produce the best musical work. I’m extremely lucky to know remarkable performers I am humbled to call friends, and if I can keep writing for them, then that’s exactly what I hope to do. What is perhaps more unusual this time, working with you, is that though music played an early role in our relationship, it wasn’t necessarily an instigating force, just a happy byproduct. I’m sure it makes a difference in a thousand ways big and small, but I think I’d be hard pressed to articulate them all precisely.

R.G. I’m so impressed by your knowledge and understanding of the capabilities and practicalities of different instruments. I only really have to be an expert in my own instrument. Obviously you’ve studied for years and have worked with musicians. How does this play into the creative process? Do you have wonderful ideas you have to discard because of instrumental peculiarities or to you find a different sort of creative language for each composition?

C.W. I think it can work in two distinct, or blended, ways for me. Sometimes ideas will ‘arrive’ in an instrumental form, a flute line for example, and there’ll be something very particular about the idea, either its colour, or structure that will mean it’s clearly for a particular instrument. Other times, however, a ‘musical idea’ will arrive without this level of specificity, and then there is a real process of working how best to give voice to the idea, of thinking through the instrumental possibilities, in order to find the best way of finding its expression.

The ‘Three Horizons’ tour, featuring Rebecca Gill (Violin) and Paul Cheung (Piano) is being performed on the following dates:

-July 31, 2pm – ‘Fine Music Live from the Joan’ broadcast from the Joan Sutherland there, Penrith. This free concert will feature a shorter program.

-August 13, 2pm – The Rose Music Room, Burradoo.

-August 20, 1pm – Adamstown Uniting Church, Newcastle. Part of the first Newcastle Music Festival.

-September 25, 3pm Wesley Music Centre, Canberra.

-October 1, 2pm Sydney Opera House: Utzon Room

Tickets available through ClassikON, except for the Utzon Room Concert where tickets will be available through the Sydney Opera House website, and ‘Live from the Joan’ where information will be on the Fine Music 102.5 website.

A piece half a lifetime in the making

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