Composer and performer talk [epic] collaboration

A chat with Thomas Misson and Jack Barnes



It’s the work that took Thomas Misson 1000 hours to write.

The Tasmanian composer is about to hear the world premiere of his Piano Sonata – a 27-minute long work exploring “psychological and emotional atrophy”.

It was written for pianist Jack Barnes – the two had studied together at the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music. Jack will perform the work at the Hobart Town Hall this month. We chat with the pair about what it was like to collaborate on this work.


Jack Barnes, performer

How did you get involved in working with Thomas Misson?

I met Tom back in 2012 when we were both undergraduates, but the first time we worked together as composer/performer was the following year. Tom had approached me to perform a couple of piano compositions for his third year folio.

Wanting to continue working together, I commissioned a new piece from Tom in 2014, which became Saturday Night Tuberculosis – a ferocious showpiece that catered toward my love of progressive rock/metal bands. Perhaps it was our similar tastes in musical aesthetic and mutual fondness of contemporary styles that resulted in the strong professional and personal relationship we have today.

Have you worked with many composers so closely in the past? How did you find this experience?

Not before Tom. He was the first composer I collaborated with and the one to spark my interest in collaboration. I wouldn’t have anticipated back then that this would result in me writing a 10,000 word thesis on these composer/performer relationships, earlier this year. I have since worked with a few more composers once I got the ball rolling, and ended up commissioning a total of three new works for my honours degree over 2016-17.

The great thing about collaboration for me was the development of a new piece of art; a never-before-heard work. There is something very personal and special about being involved in the creation of new art, and rendering the composer’s fresh ideas in performance. It is a stimulating experience and also an opportunity to develop my own creativity.

What did you learn about composition by working with Tom?

That a composition can be so much more than a pleasing series of notes. They can and should extend to expressing the infinite range of human emotions and experiences, including the ecstatic and miserable moments. A piece of music can range from the profoundly sexy harmonies of Scriabin’s eighth piano sonata, or the monstrous and painful dissonance of Ustvolskaya’s sixth piano sonata. In a way, my upcoming recital deals with this as well.

Tom’s Piano Sonata is particularly unpleasant in its programmatic themes, but it is paired with a euphoric movement from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. I think of the limitless expressive potential of music as a testament to how complex human life is.

As a musician, how much impact do you like to have on the compositions you’re going to perform?

In performance, I’m in a constant battle trying to compromise respect toward the composer’s intentions, and my own interpretation on how the work should be played. I admire performers such as Glenn Gould, who did extraordinary and crazy things with the music he played. I personally find him very interesting to listen to.

In the case of preparing new works where I have worked with the composer, I’m always making suggestions to the composer that I feel add to the effectiveness of their piece. Sometimes, the composer has agreed with my differing interpretation on certain passages, and other times they had more specific intentions. Often with Tom, we have reached a compromise interpretation for a passage that is a ‘best of both worlds’.

I think it is important to acknowledge the composer’s intent, but I also think it is important that a performer does not feel chained by the composer, and allows their own creative voice to speak freely at times.

What was the biggest thing you learnt through this collaboration?

This collaboration resulted in my first performance where I needed to hire a venue. All my other performances had venues prearranged by other people, be it the con or an associate artist. So this was a rather significant for me to learn how to do it myself. Having gone through venue hire and the various forms, email correspondence and money deposits required, I can appreciate why touring performers have agents to do all that for them.


Thomas Misson, composer

Tell us how you came up with the idea for this 23-minute sonata. 

Without being too personal, this piece was a cathartic and therapeutic response to a rough patch for myself and loved ones. The narrative of the piece is one of gradual psychological and emotional atrophy. The five movements all begin with A, which is a quasi-tonal centre for the sonata (1 – Auspices Ex Avibus, 2- Ardent Narcosis, 3 – Asphyxic Purgatory, 4 – Amygdalic Blitz, 5 – Aftermath).

It took you 1000 hours to write. Talk us through this a little – what’s your working process?

When writing more complex works, I try to work small and elementally, starting with rough details about the musical ‘events’. Then I will work with harmony/pitch or rhythm independently for each part of the texture, slowly pushing and pulling the layers until they are as I’d like independently and cooperatively to one another.

Sometimes, I use mathematics to employ a sense of inevitability. Sometimes, it’s purely intuitive. Rinse and repeated phrase-by-phrase, section-by-section.

This is all constrained by nailing down the objective facts of the piece. I normally write an extensive document with my expectations of the piece – its form, length, effect. Also, I supplement each piece I write by educating myself on art, literature, film, science, history, mathematics, and nature so that I can harness the parts of those subjects that complement my intentions. It gives the music extra ‘oomph’ – and it’s a good excuse to not be one of those boring musicians who only knows about music!

What is the biggest thing you learnt at the end of your 1000 hours?

Don’t rush! It’s easy to get intimidated by the output of composers like Hovhaness, Haydn and Bach. For me, though, it’s mostly the composers with small outputs that influence me most. Berg, Ravel and later Ades produce lavishly detailed works that are exquisitely communicative and expressive. They reward first listeners, but also obsessive repeated listenings because they have laboured over achieving what they want from the piece.

What was it like collaborating with Jack?

Jack is a good friend of mine so it was very enjoyable. We usually try to keep the process focused but informal and relaxed, so that we feel free to discuss our ideas about the piece. He’s very intelligent and well-read -on music and a multitude of other areas – as well as a capable composer in his own right. This makes the discussions so stimulating and valuable. I’m really lucky to have met Jack, who sinks so much of his time into committing himself to new, current, relevant contemporary works. It’s a special relationship and I owe so many of the opportunities I have now to him.

How much has your composition changed through hearing the way Jack realises it?

Sometimes our ideas about expression of the narrative of the sonata differ; sometimes it was very similar. We often came up with compromises. After all, every performer is different in their strengths and their ideas and it’s nice for us both to be able to take ownership of the piece – and it helps me get to know Jack better as a performer.

On a technical note, although I’m experienced in piano playing and writing, Jack has suggested plenty of helpful alternatives to make the piano writing more comfortable. Jack also helped to brainstorm helpful, clear ideas on how to notate some of the contemporary effects.

Why is it important for composers and musicians to collaborate directly?

The bottom line is, pieces generally turn out better the more you collaborate with and learn from performers. This applies to every stage of the development, from the initial brainstorming, to the workshopping of the final copies. It’s important for future performers to see that you have that instrumental knowledge, and that you’re piece works with the unique capabilities of the instrument.

Some performers have impressive composer-instincts as well, and can enrich your piece so much with their musical suggestions. It shouldn’t stop with composer-performer relationships, though. Understanding what others do – violinists, composers, copyists, accompanists, conductors, etc. – day-to-day gives you access to much greater depths of musicianship. Sometimes, I’m baffled by the ignorance of successful musicians, and it can result in pretty obnoxious conduct and attitudes towards music-making. Breadth and depth are important.


Attend Avian Ruin and Rapture at the Hobart Town Hall, 3pm November 25. More info online or follow on Facebook.

You can also jump the gun and purchase Thomas Misson’s original score, if you’re keen. It’s right here – and he has other works in our Digital Music Store if you like playing his style.

Piano Sonata. Thomas Misson. Score for solo piano. 2017. From the composer: “Cast in five movements, this piece tracks a 27-minute journey from comfort and love to mental illness”. Five movements include: Auspices Ex Avibus, Ardent Narcosis, Asphyxic Purgatory, Amygdalic Blitz, and Aftermath. This piece took 1000 hours to write and was composed for pianist Jack Barnes.


Images supplied.

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