BY YEN-RONG WONG
We would like to welcome Yen-Rong Wong in her first story as a CutCommon contributor.
At the ripe old age of 22, John Rotar has already racked up a range of accolades.
The Brisbane musician, who also plays piano and trombone, has taken out the Wagner Society Prize, Artology Fanfare Competition, and has had his work performed in the iconic Sydney Opera House.
John is fresh out of a Bachelor of Music at the University of Queensland, and has leapt straight into a PhD in composition. He’s still keeping busy writing works for The Australian Voices, Gold Coast Chamber Orchestra, and others – but his most notable engagement is as the Southern Cross Soloists’ Next Gen composer.
We chat with John ahead of the Southern Cross Soloists’ concert One Thousand and One Nights at QPAC this month, which will include the world premiere of his Dances from The Wolf of Zhongshan.
What made you interested in composition? Was it a particular piece of music, or a person in your life?
I was always interested in making things, and growing up in a household filled with music perhaps made this choice inevitable. I started piano at six, and after a year or two began coming up with corrections to the repertoire I was playing, much to the chagrin of my piano teacher. This then led to writing little piano pieces.
I remember playing one of my experiments to my dad and he basically said, ‘well, if you want to be a composer, you’ve gotta check this out’, and handed me the orchestral score of The Rite of Spring. As I listened to the work unfold, I remember thinking that I could never have imagined music being like this. I was immediately enthralled by its compellingly visceral rhythms, orchestration and harmonies, and after the final crash of the sacrificial dance I was completely hooked on the world of sound, and have been completely passionate about expressing myself through the language of music.
Tell us a little bit more about Dances from The Wolf of Zhongshan, the piece that will debut on 18 June.
This work is based on a folk tale that originates from China. The music itself, though significantly transformed, has its origins in a larger orchestral work of the same name, which I wrote as a balletic-type narrative in 2014. This version of the work uses material from the sections which describe a Chinese imperial hunting party, a Buddhist monk meditating on nature, and a hungry, cunning wolf who gets beaten to death in a sack at the end!
These pieces will all be presented in concert hall reverse mode, in which the audience will be seated in close proximity to the performers on stage. Instead of performing to the main auditorium, the artists will face the choir balconies and seats. What do you think this type of presentation will lend to your piece in particular, as well as the concert in general?
Reverse mode in QPAC Concert Hall provides a very intimate setting which is perfect for the sort of programs the Southern Cross Soloists present. Many of the works that the soloists play are transcriptions of larger works, and this set up allows the audience to really be up close and personal and to come inside the music, which, for me, is the most exciting thing about hearing something like Scheherazade as chamber music.
I’ve noticed that you’ve also arranged a number of pieces for the Southern Cross Soloists’ season. What have been the joys and challenges of condensing something like Scheherazade or Peer Gynt for a smaller ensemble?
I have had the pleasure of working as an arranger with the soloists since 2013 now, and it has been great experience transcribing works as wide ranging as Beethoven’s Second Symphony to Ravel’s La Valse to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The benefits of doing this sort of job are manyfold – as a composer, it is great to be able to look at and dissect such great music from the inside. Scheherazade is basically an orchestration textbook itself! But overall, I think the opportunity to work with such great players, not just the soloists, but also their fantastic guest artists, is a real privilege for a young musician like myself.
What is your usual compositional process? Do you like to use pen and paper, or are you more comfortable on the computer? Is it easier on your own, or do you prefer to collaborate with others?
In regards to pen and paper versus computer, it doesn’t make a big difference to me now. I think that getting started composing with pen and paper and developing a strong inner ear are highly important for a young composer. But I tend to work straight onto the computer nowadays, simply because computer-formatted music is the general expectation, and transferring a handwritten score onto the computer is just another step. I’m certainly more comfortable on my own when composing; I get very into my own thoughts and my own mind’s ear. Collaborative improvisation can be very fun, though!
How do you find yourself starting a piece? Is it a phrase you can’t get out of your head?
My compositional process will mostly start conceptually, working from an idea which I want achieve in a piece. Then for the music, I will turn to the piano; I often like to feel my way through the initial stages of composition.
Once I have one musical idea that I like, it can sometimes feel like more ideas spring forth almost unconsciously, and an avalanche of workflow follows. I often find myself working quite quickly and intensely; often forgetting how time works. When working like this, I’ll often look up at the clock and be suspicious of someone tampering with it!
If you had an unlimited amount of time and money, what would you compose, and who would you compose it for?
What a fantastically indulgent question! I find myself loving more and more works for orchestra and choir. In particular, the tradition of religious works of this nature compels me with such works Bach’s B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, as well as 20th Century masterworks such as Janaček’s Glagolic Mass, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Britten’s War Requiem, Ligeti’s Requiem, etc.I think I would most like to write something in this tradition. And as far as whom I would compose it for, one does occasionally daydream about the Berlin Phil…
Do you have any advice for other up-and-coming composers?
I think the biggest thing is just to engage fully in music. Listen to a new piece every day and try to compose every day, if not at least most days. But for me, if you’re really passionate, this is almost harder not to do!
Support composer John Rotar when you see his new piece performed by the Southern Cross Soloists at QPAC on 18 June.