BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Welcome to Con Fuoco – CutCommon’s interview series with emerging musicians across Australia.
Sydney emerging composer Sarah Elise Thompson (born 1996) actively creates exploratory music. She is in her third year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music studying a Bachelor of Music (Composition), under the guidance of Gerard Brophy. She has been commissioned by interstate ensembles including the Briar String Quartet, Sideband, and Ensemble Nouveau. She has also worked with the renowned Gondwana Choirs, the Allotropy String Quartet, and crafted two solo works for Claire Edwardes – her new piece II will premiere on July 6 as a part of Ensemble Offspring’s set in the Backstage Music series.
Her works have been aired on 3MBS and 102.5 Fine FM radio stations, and featured in Making Waves. Sarah was also a featured artist in the inaugural Sound Gardens: New Music at the Con project, with her piece So It Happened Like This… as a part of the Vivid Sydney Festival. She was resident composer at the Tilde New Music Festival in Jan 2017.
Sarah is preparing to attend the Atlantic Music Festival Composer’s School in Waterville, Maine, USA during July. She’s also working as a part of a new collaborative project lost+sound, an all female composer collective based in Sydney; and is the co-artistic director, keyboardist, and a composer in new music ensemble SPIRAL, where she curates and creates new, minimalist inspired works.
Your all time favourite piece of music, and why?
I’d say its a close tie between La Mer, Debussy, or Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto! Both made me seriously fall in love with classical music, and I still can put on those records and be transported back to how I felt the first time hearing them.
Best piece of musical advice you’ve received?
My composition tutor Gerard Brophy’s advice to me all through working together was to ‘chip away’ at your pieces every day so you never lose your train of thought, and to manage your career at your own pace – something I really needed to hear as a young composer/performer, where you often feel pressure to say ‘yes’ to any project!
Most memorable concert experience?
Earlier this year, all of SPIRAL and I flew down to Melbourne to see the current Philip Glass Ensemble perform Koyaanisqatsi live at Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre. We all were in awe of how technically proficient they were, closely working together; and the overall concert dynamic was mind-blowing with visuals and sound jam-packed together. It also made all of us closer as an ensemble unit, inspiring us to put even more energy into our sound and how we together can create memorable concert experiences.
Biggest fear when performing?
We play a lot of minimalist music, so my biggest fear is forgetting how many repeats we’re up to and falling behind: being super exposed.
How do you psych yourself up for practice on a lazy day?
Setting aside specific break times, i.e. 40 minutes practice, 15 minutes relax, so that I can achieve the most out of my practice. Plus, then, whilst I take the break, I make sure to do absolutely nothing so I’m not too distracted and I keep the piece fresh in my mind. Breaks should be rest and resuscitation, not for half the day!
Most embarrassing moment on stage or in rehearsal?
When I was eight years old, I performed in a choir on the Willoughby Town Hall Stage (now Chatswood Concourse). After we finished singing our piece, we all had to walk down these giant stairs towards the edge of the stage, and I flew face down all the stairs in front of a full audience! I walk down a set of stairs so cautiously ever since.
Favourite post-gig activity?
I love to go around after the gig and talk to people, see how they found the show and what they enjoyed. Our audience matters hugely to SPIRAL’s development as an ensemble. We take on board all feedback and grow towards becoming a better ensemble.
I also don’t mind a beverage post-show with the ensemble; we deserve the chance to celebrate every once in a while!
What are you most proud of in your musical career so far?
There have been so many moments that I’ve been super thankful for doing through music and compositional fields. But if I had to pick one, it would be my first interstate commission and performance last year in Melbourne. I was fortunate to have the Briar String Quartet perform my first string quartet First at the Composer’s Concert. And to be 19, flying to see your piece played, as well as meeting and collaborating with other Australian artists, is something I’ll always be super proud of!
What do you love most about making music?
I love having flexibility and freedom as a performer, collaborator and composer. To be able to create whatever you want with sound and experiment with whacky ideas is what gets me up in the morning, and excites me every day. Meeting likeminded people who are willing to experiment with me and share my musical ideas inspires me constantly.
What’s your ultimate goal?
I want to be creating music for the rest of my life, ideally!
I’d love to be one of the composers someday that school kids have to study for their end of year music tests, where they have to memorise my musical quotes so they can pass Year 12! It’d be passing the baton on, inspiring more artists to be creative and not afraid to take risks.
Sarah Thompson will perform as part of SPIRAL at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music this 17 June for Vivid New Music at the Con. Event details and tickets online.