Jane Stanley talks composition and the Hildegard Project

Beilman and Tyson tour new work with Musica Viva


Subscribe to CutCommon by October 14, and you could win a free double pass to see this concert in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, or Brisbane.


Jane Stanley says the commission for her latest work “came out of the blue”.

Musica Viva approached her to write a piece for violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Andrew Tyson for their Australian tour – and now it’s time to hear it live as it makes its way around the country this October.

Jane Stanley’s work Cerulean Orbits explores the relationship between the two instruments as they “orbit” around the same notes. The composer wrote the piece as part of the Musica Viva Hildegard Project, which aims to address gender imbalance in Australian music by encouraging female composers to create new works.

“There is never a simple panacea for gender imbalance, but my hope is that The Hildegard Project, by shining a spotlight on women composers, will bring to the fore talented women who may have previously been overlooked,” Musica Viva’s Artistic Director Carl Vine AO says.

Jane features impressively in this project; among other achievements she has a PhD in composition from the University of Sydney and has spent the past decade lecturing in music at the University of Glasgow. We chat with her about Cerulean Orbits. 


What do you feel is the relationship between the two instruments, violin and piano? Why was it important to you to explore their connection?

In this piece, I was particularly interested to explore blurring between the instruments, looking for ways to create points of fusion and ambiguity. For example, in the opening section both players hover around the same pitch, agitating this note with different rhythms, playing techniques, and dynamics. This creates quite an antagonistic relationship, actually, because they avoid coming to rest at the same point in time. I also play around with subtle changes in pitch (for example, bending and trilling around a central note), which generates a lot of tension. Additionally, I’ve been interested in exploiting the piano’s capacity for resonance, creating harmonic ‘veils’ within which the violin’s melodies are woven. And then later during the piece there are points where the players break away from each other, demonstrating greater autonomy in terms of material and gestures.

Have you had the chance to hear your piece performed live yet? How do you feel Beilman and Tyson are suited to the work?

I’m based in the United Kingdom these days, and I wasn’t able to make the trip because I recently had a baby (he was just two months at the time of the premiere). However, I was glad to be able to meet with Ben and Andrew in London earlier this year during the composition process to workshop ideas for the piece, and they also sent me a recording of them playing it through recently in preparation for their tour.

Ben and Andrew were brilliant to work with. They performed my sketches with great sensitivity and insight and we had a fruitful discussion about how ideas might develop. I have heard recordings of them performing a variety of repertoire exhibiting a very broad expressive range. They are clearly adaptable to different musical styles. It was no surprise to me, then, that they seemed very ‘tuned-in’ to my language. My music makes a particular feature of instrumental colour and requires performers to pay close attention to detail, such as subtle changes in the position of the bow on the string, and they are very sympathetic in their approach to interpreting what I had composed.

You’ve produced this work as part of the Hildegard Project, which aims to encourage female composers. How important do you feel a program like this is in the musical landscape today?

Initiatives like this are vitally important, so long as they are done carefully. I believe this is one of a number of schemes in Australia, which is very encouraging (others I’m aware of are at the Sydney Conservatorium, and Ensemble Offspring have been very proactive too in highlighting work by women). Hopefully this will have a longer-term impact on approaches to commissioning and programming both nationally and internationally.

Who are some of your own female composer role models?

Dulcie Holland was my first composition teacher, and I notice that some of her music was featured in Musica Viva’s season last year. I studied with Holland in the early ’90s towards the end of my high school years. She was the first living composer that I was aware of, I think because of my early exposure to her work in music education (theory books). Anne Boyd is also at the top of my list of female role models, having been one of my teachers at the University of Sydney. Other Australians include Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Liza Lim and Mary Finsterer, and further afield Kaija Saariaho and Augusta Read Thomas.


Benjamin Beilman and Andrew Tyson are touring Australia for the first time. For more information and to book tickets in your city, visit musicaviva.com.au/Beilman.

CutCommon subscribers have the opportunity to win a free double pass to see the event in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra or Melbourne. Click here to subscribe by October 14, and you’ll go into the running.


Images supplied. Jane: Bridget Elliot.

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