BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
A city deserted. Fog, light, movement through the shadows.
This is the concept behind young composer Alex Turley’s latest creation City of Ghosts, which will be premiered alongside works by Steve Reich and Unsuk Chin at the Metropolis New Music Festival this week.
Alex is a Perth composer and arranger, and his music has been performed by Gondwana Choirs, Voyces, and various Australian symphony orchestras. He was chosen as one of five Australian composers to take part in the 2015 Cybec 21st Century Composers Program – as was Michael Bakrnčev (who we’ll feature later this month). The works composed by the two have been selected by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and will be brought to life under the baton of Robert Spano.
So, City of Ghosts. Sounds mysterious…how’d the idea come to you?
I wish I could tell you I came up with the idea all by myself, but I was just following instructions, really. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave me a brief to create an orchestral work inspired by some aspect of city life, and it took me a while to formulate a solid idea because there are a lot of different directions in which that theme could be taken. With City of Ghosts, I eventually settled on trying to capture the experience of travelling through a deserted city, clouded by fog and rain. What I always try to do with music is create a tangible sense of space, a world through which the audience can travel. It’s meant to be more of an atmospheric experience rather than one which is narrative-based.
Is this deserted city somewhere you’ve been, or an imagined place?
It’s definitely an imagined place, though there have been a few times where I’ve been walking home through the city after work late at night with nobody around, and it’s certainly interesting to see how a place usually so busy can be completely transformed at night. That being said, I tend to stay away from being too specific with descriptions of my pieces as I find it can kill the mood, and limit the audience’s experience. Personally, I am drawn to musical works that are ambient and atmospheric, and I think (hope) that comes through in this work.
Your instrumentation is very specific, scored for a “slightly reduced orchestra” featuring a set number of percussion, harp, celeste, and strings. What moves you to choose the instruments you do and what effect does it have on the sound?
For starters, I had to work with what was made available to me. It’s a reduced orchestra, but I was lucky enough to get a few doubling instruments in the woodwinds and brass, and two percussionists alongside a celeste and harp, which can make some really killer combinations. I also love making use of woodwind doubling instruments (cor anglais, contrabassoon, etc.) to venture into slightly more exploratory combinations of instruments – the poor flautist has to alternate between three flutes in my piece (a big flute, a little flute, and a regular sized flute). Throughout the work, I try to keep the foreground and background constantly moving, so melodies emerge and shift between different places in the orchestra, creating movement. That’s something people can maybe listen out for.
The other works on the program also focus around the idea of cities – can you see any similarities that draw the pieces together through this theme?
Actually, not really – and that’s probably what will make the concert interesting. None of the featured composers are anything like eachother, so we’ve all probably taken the theme to different places. Unsuk Chin is a really innovative composer, and I haven’t been able to track down a recording of her work for this concert, so I’m really excited to hear it. Her work is focused on building an impression of the many forms of graffiti and street art, from stark and refined to dense and labyrinthine. And Steve Reich is a giant of contemporary music, and I’m obviously thrilled to have my work played alongside his.
You’ve said this premiere of your work is a “huge step forward” for you as a composer. What do you hope to get out of this opportunity to have your work performed in front of the festival audience?
Well, it’s exciting and its daunting, and it’s by far the coolest gig I’ve ever landed. The opportunity to have your work performed in a venue like the Melbourne Recital Centre in front of an audience of new music lovers is something really special, and it doesn’t come around for composers very often, so I’ll definitely be soaking it up! As for what opportunities I hope to get out of it…the experience has left me with a few contacts here and there, and hopefully I’ll be doing more stuff in Melbourne sooner rather than later. It’s also been a thoroughly enlightening experience into the world of orchestral commissioning and performance.
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Want to perform more of his music? Explore his full collection of music through his shop page.
Image supplied. Credit: Daniel Aulsebrook.