What we learnt at the TSO Composers’ School

Four young composers share their experience



This year, four leading young composers took part in the Symphony Australia/Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Composers’ School. Undergoing an intense week of training in composition (along with the obligatory trip to MONA and the odd drink or two), these talented artists worked with industry professionals such as Richard Mills, Hamish McKeich, and James Ledger. They heard their works performed by the TSO and were also given challenges in orchestrations and other activities.

We chat with the fabulous four – Timothy Tate, Chris Williams, Jakob Bragg, and Stephen de Filippo – to hear all about their compositions and find out what they learnt at the composers’ school.


Chris Williams

Credit: Hayden Shepherd

My piece: Kolam

Kolam tries to play with the very small and the very large, too. The word ‘kolam’ is used to describe the geometric designs drawn in front of houses in many different countries around the world, a ‘drawn prayer’ for the household. These intricate, beautiful designs create infinite complexity and interest from very simple, repeated gestures, and I approached my piece in a very similar way, building everything from two very simple musical ideas, which interact, build upon themselves, and eventually dissolve into one another.

What I learnt

One of the most important things I learnt at the composers’ school is about the contradictions of scale in working with an orchestra. At once, the orchestra is this amazing monolith, sometimes most effective (or only effective) in broad brushstrokes, but at the same time, it is a monolith made up of many extraordinary, individual players, each of whom has incredibly detailed skill and knowledge to impart when you have the luxury that we had with the TSO of simply striking up a conversation. A simple question about a single note in your part might lead to a detailed discussion about articulation, doubling, and phrasing, proving the fallacy of the orchestra as a monolith. As a composer you are constantly stuck, and pulled between the two seemingly contradictory natures of the orchestra, and that’s one of the most exciting challenges of writing for an orchestra, the very large and the very small.

About Chris

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently called Chris Williams’ music a “a lovely shade of wistful”, while the Daily Review noted his “brilliantly unsettling music”. His music is elemental and monolithic, as ‘elegant in the making as in the made’. He is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and completed a Master of Philosophy in composition at the University of Oxford in 2013. In 2012, Chris was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, where his work San-Shih-Fan was premiered. Last year, he was the inaugural Friends of the National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellow. He is an Associate Artist at the Australian Music Centre.

Want to hear more from Chris? 

Head along to the Sydney Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Sydney Opera House until October 22; and the Bourbaki Ensemble at 2.30pm December 4, St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Newtown.

Jakob Bragg

jakob bragg

My piece: Atmosphoria

The school culminated in the performance of my work Atmosphoria (a sort of textural tone poem depicting a Brisbane summer downpour), reworked for the TSO forces, and an orchestration task (we were each given) of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 9, Book 2. No Hobart trip was complete without a visit to MONA, which I squeezed in before flying out, and equally compositionally insightful; a vast cavern of confronting artistic ideas and practices. You can learn more about Atmosphoria in this interview with CutCommon.

What I learnt

Symphony Australia’s Composers’ School has been a program I’ve had my eye on ever since my undergrad. With an intense five days working alongside the TSO (when does a composer ever get access to a symphony orchestra for this length of time?!), the ‘school’ taught me to refine my orchestral writing: from notational issues, to harnessing the most from each performer and instrument. Alongside the combined expertise and experience of James Ledger, Richard Mills, Hamish McKeich and the staff at TSO, I also learn just as much from my fellow composer participants, more often than not over a few drinks.

About Jakob

Jakob Bragg writes highly detailed, excessively ornamental, microtonal works, influenced by the avant-garde. Jakob has worked with ensembles including Kupka’s Piano, Kurilpa String Quartet, The Song Company, Halfsound, The Australian Voices, and orchestras such as the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Australian Youth Orchestra, and Queensland Philharmonia Orchestra. He has received prizes including the Adolph Spivakovsky, Sydney Eisteddfod, A.G. Francis, Silver Harris & Jeff Peck prizes, and the Owen Fletcher, and Australian Postgraduate Award. 

Want to hear more from Jakob?

See the premiere of his work Unravelling Graphite with the Kurilpa String Quartet at 6pm October 21, Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Brisbane. Visit his shop on CutCommon to support and perform his music.

Stephen de Filippo

stephen de filippo

My piece: Salt Junk on Dolton Plates

Salt Junk on Dolton Plates is a work which was originally conceived for chamber ensemble. Appropriated to fit the TSO orchestra, the work toys with binaries – attempting to evoke something gritty and pair it against something more delicate and beautiful. The title is also an attempt to express this difference. As such, the work features aggressive stabs against more legato delicate lines, which then build up to a climax before leaving the audience with a stripped back and exposed view of the orchestra. The ending, although delicate and reserved, still features this dichotomy of beauty and grit, featuring pure string and harp combinations, and single woodwind lines which are subtly disturbed by impure wind multiphonics.

What I learnt

As far as conventional education goes (on harmony, notation, orchestration, etc), I feel that’s not necessarily what the TSO Composers’ School was about. We all were selected and attended with the understanding that we had some orchestral writing experience behind us, and a piece already written. What the course did emphasise, however, were more the logistical and communication sides to getting pieces performed. That, and the cultivation of relationships between the participants, staff, mentors, and players of the orchestra.

The orchestral institution in general is old and conservative. I’m not saying that disparagingly necessarily, it’s just the nature of the orchestra. As such, there’s a lot of unspoken etiquette and communication skills around how you speak and interact, both with the conductor and with the players. For me, the orchestra provides less of a collaborate and intimate environment than what I’m normally used to in my chamber writing. So the ideas generally need to be more concise and the notation styles less elaborate and exploratory, just because of the time constraints. However, the players of TSO were really approachable and kind – creating an environment open to experimentation within the short time-frame. This first-hand knowledge of working with the orchestra is probably the most important thing I took away from the course. However, learning about the other participants, mentors, and TSO staff was also really important. Especially for me, being hidden away in WA, it’s always interesting to see what the musical environment is like in other states, and to see what’s actually going on outside Perth. I feel the TSO was able to cultivate a safe and educational environment overall which lead to a lot of personal growth in myself.

Anecdotally, I also learnt that the weatherman in Hobart is like a male Lee Lin Chin: his outfits were phenomenal.

About Stephen

Perth-based composer is studying Honours in composition at the University of Western Australia. This year he participated in the Australian Youth Orchestra’s National Music Camp, and his works have been performed by the TSO, University of Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, and OperArt Lab Chamber Orchestra (Greece). He’s participating in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers’ program, and you can hear the premiere of this at the Iwaki Auditorium next January 21.

Want to hear more from Stephen?

Visit his shop on CutCommon to support and perform his music.

Timothy Tate


My piece: double negative

double negative, a poem by Richard Murphy, provided the inspiration and title for my piece. Murphy describes two people who see each other across a quay: one on a boat and the other on a pier. However, neither of them knows if the other recognises them. In response, I was interested in creating separate musical identities that inhabit the piece through a static landscape where musical motifs are slowly transformed by repetition and development.

What I learnt

I had an immensely stimulating experience at the 2016 TSO Composers’ School. Having the opportunity to workshop not just my own piece double negative and an arrangement of a Bach Prelude and Fugue, but also those by my fellow participants, gave me further insight into the unique grammar and timbral possibilities that orchestral writing allows. I think the most valuable part of attending the school was being able to hear the piece emerge and take shape over several days. Interacting with the orchestra and experimenting with various aspects of my piece allowed for new compositional possibilities and ideas emerge throughout the process, all the while meeting and learning from the other composers on the course.

About Timothy

Composer/violinist Timothy Tate (AUS/UK) completed his Master of Music in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and his works have been featured in festivals across the world including Spitalfields Festival (London), OzAsia Festival (Adelaide), and the New Music Network Mini Series (Brisbane) among others. He’s been commissioned by leading ensembles in Australia and the UK, and describes his music as “informed by extra-musical concepts such as drama, expressivity and simultaneity” working across concert music to installation.

Want to hear more from Timothy?

Visit his website to keep up to date on his projects.

Images supplied. 

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