BY LEWIS INGHAM, COMPOSER
Solomon Frank finds a “wonderful cathartic power” in free improvisation. He likens it to “throwing paint at a canvas or dropping rocks off a cliff”. As well as being a composition student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Solomon is the facilitator, clarinettist, and founder of the Sydney Composers’ Ensemble – a young and emerging group exploring new sounds through improvisation and notated composition.
The ensemble, which explores such sounds as playing a clarinet through a drumhead, will perform with Benjamin Carey and Spiral as part of Vivid Sydney’s Vivid New Music at the Con event on June 17. Solomon has a chat with CutCommon about the Sydney Composers’ Ensemble ahead of their upcoming performance.
Tell us a little about the Sydney Composers’ Ensemble. Who makes up this ensemble, and why did you form?
To put it simply, we are a group of composers who enjoy playing and creating music together. We improvise and we play each others’ works. There are currently seven of us and we are a pretty motley crew of instruments: Naomi Dodd (flute), Ella Seabrook (cello), Will Hansen (double bass), Lewis Mosley (electric guitar), Joshua Winestock (tuba and electric guitar), Angus Davison (piano and occasional conductor), and myself (clarinet).
We formed in the early part of 2015 with most of us being first-year composition students at the time. There weren’t many opportunities for composition students to play their instruments, so I was eager to give myself opportunities to play the clarinet.
Originally, I conceived the group as an entire orchestra made up of composers. However, this was logistically hard, so we eventually settled on a smaller roster of performers. We started out mostly playing each others’ notated music, but, as our musical practices and tastes expanded and evolved, we started to focus more on improvisation and other forms of notation. The ensemble has been a testing ground for new works and ideas, as well as a way to hone our instrumental and improvisational skills.
Exploring new sounds seems to be a feature of this ensemble. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard the sound of a clarinet played through a drumhead! What advantages come with the territory of your approach?
An exploratory approach to improvisation is certainly something that I personally resonate with. In an improvisational setting, having a wide palette of sonorities to draw upon is invaluable, especially when trying to blend instruments that are not traditionally paired. As composers, I believe we all have an appreciation for sound, especially the ones we don’t often hear. Within an improvised setting, there’s no need to consider forms of notation or a performer’s ability to make obscure sounds, as you would as a composer creating notated music. One can purely focus on sound. We’re not necessarily thinking about experimenting for the sake of being edgy or subversive, we just like cool sounds.
How do you collectively approach improvisation as an ensemble? Is the result impacted in any way by having so many composers in the group?
Our improvisatory practice is certainly a sound-driven process. Using a noise or sound, not necessarily pitched or regularly rhythmic, is often our starting point. If, from this starting point, harmony or a pulse emerges, we explore that idea. Alternatively, if we end up cacophonously screaming or making fart noises, as sometimes happens, we investigate these ideas too.
Our focus lately has been to try to bring a greater and more profound sense of structure to improvised pieces whilst still excluding predetermined parameters. We want to let forms organically configure themselves.
Our divergent artistic tastes often show themselves in our discussions after an improvisation, which we do to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of a piece in order to helps us improve future works. This dialogue is invaluable not just for our improvisational skills, but also for our compositional practices. I am of the mind that improvisation complements our own compositional practices.
What does a performance context bring to the ensemble’s improvisation that the rehearsal room can’t?
In a performance context, there is definitely a feeling of pressure with our improvising. Having an audience there promotes quality in our performance. In the rehearsal room, our improvising can often lead us in directions that are interesting but not necessarily compositionally sound. On stage, we listen to each other so intently and respond in ways that are often more sensitive and profound.
It’s also just incredibly rewarding showcasing our work to a willing and open-minded audience.
Tell us about your own composition that is being performed by the ensemble as part of your program for Vivid New Music at the Con.
My piece in the program, Cheap Polish Toilet Seats, is a notated interlude between two improvised works. It’s deliberately prescriptive and austere, juxtaposing the improvisational works. I came up with the idea for the piece while in Poland at a composition summer school. A lecturer at the course said there were too many ideas in my work. Concurrently, in the room I was staying in, I opened a cupboard to find it full of roughly 10 spare toilet seats. So, of course, I needed to name a piece Cheap Polish Toilet Seats. The idea of lots of one obscure thing is what’s behind this piece.
Is the composition process different for you when you write for this ensemble, which features other artists trained in composition?
There is definitely a marked difference. When I write for the ensemble, I don’t have the usual insecurities about accessibility. I can write a piece that is unashamedly experimental without having to worry about what the performers might think of it.
One can also consider a more unconventional approach to notation and the role that improvisation plays within notated music. For me, it’s very liberating and exciting.
Being composer/performers also has downsides in that we are not as technically expert as performers whose focus is solely their instrument. However, often our knowledge of extended instrumental techniques means we can write far more obscure and unique instrumental pieces. We are also writing for people we know, meaning we know exactly what techniques they are capable of performing.
Tell us a little more about the other works featuring in the program for this performance.
We are playing three pieces in total: two improvisations and my notated piece, Cheap Polish Toilet Seats. The first improvisation I mentioned earlier, the second improvisation is a structured improvisation called Split, written by Angus Davison. The piece uses a number of pitch sets that determine the structure. It’s an eclectic mix of music that’s engaging and diverse.
We are doing one improvisation where the improvisational parameter is to adapt or warp our instruments. For example, I’ve been experimenting with mixing and matching my wind instruments; using a clarinet mouthpiece on my trumpet or other configurations of my cheap collection of Chinese instruments. While this process of perverting our instruments can be limiting, it brings to the fore sounds which cannot be achieved by our instruments in their natural form.
The Sydney Composers’ Ensemble is featured with another young and emerging ensemble, SPIRAL, as part of the concert. How do you feel about the opportunity for emerging artists to feature in large-scale festivals such as Vivid Sydney?
These sorts of opportunities are an invaluable learning resource for fledgling ensembles like SPIRAL and us. It’s one thing to rehearse every week, but to have something to work towards gives us drive and inevitably promotes growth and better quality music. With an established ensemble, an audience goes into a concert having certain expectations and preconceived ideas about the experience. Audiences have this less with emerging ensembles, which is a benefit of being obscure.
What’s next for the Sydney Composers’ Ensemble? How do you approach creating new opportunities to showcase this ensemble’s craft?
Once semester is over, we are planning on spending a couple of days in the recording studio, doing some meaty unplanned improvisations with perhaps an album in mind. We record most of our rehearsals but getting some studio-quality recordings will be really rewarding for us. To improvise for one or two hours straight will be a lot of fun, too.
In the meantime, I simply want to keep making music with my friends and honing our craft. In the end, we are not making music to achieve commercial or even professional success. We are doing it because we enjoy it and we want to be better at making improvised and notated music.
The Sydney Composers’ Ensemble will perform with Benjamin Carey and SPIRAL as part of Vivid Sydney’s Vivid New Music at the Con event on June 17 at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Tickets and further info online.
Want to perform some of Solomon’s music yourself?
Images supplied. Featured image credit: Hamish Heath.