BY HANLI SEAN BOTHA, COMPOSER
Composer Secrets is our interview series from Hanli Sean Botha, whose vision is to build awareness of new Australian composition. These interviews are produced as part of Botha’s PhD research project at the Western Sydney University, through which the composer generously offers us a deeper insight into what drives the creation of music in the modern era. You can support Botha through an Australian Cultural Fund campaign.
Melbourne composer, performer and multi-instrumentalist Christina Green shares multi-coloured stories, life experiences, textures and hope with her audience. Her musical output includes works for string orchestra, percussion, organ, winds, piano, guitar, various choral and small instrumental ensembles. She writes music for acoustic guitar and voice in a range of styles that stretch from folk to cabaret, and has also composed a selection of songs for use in music therapy.
Christina has been active as a composer/performer with the Brunswick Composing Women’s Group and ReGroup in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges, and has also undertaken residencies at the Banff Centre (2009) and the Bundanon Trust, NSW (2012). Christina improvises on a range of instruments and has had works performed by ensembles and soloists in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Recent highlights include a performance of her wind quintet, Five Journey into Smooth Space Together (2015) by an ensemble from the Sydney Youth Orchestra, Eileen’s Vision (poem by Eileen Myles) for percussionist and speaker by Kaylie Dunstan at the Sydney Conservatorium (2016), and Stone (poem by Charles Simic) by New York brass/wind/vocal quartet Loadbang (2016).
I recently sat down with Christina and explored her musical history and compositional endeavours.
Tell me about your music education and background.
I come from a musical family, with listening and learning encouraged from early years onwards. My grandmother played the accordion and my mother played the piano. My mother’s father was a fiddle player in bush bands, and both folk and classical music were part of my family background.
I started learning the piano at the age of seven. My parents gave me a three-quarter sized guitar when I was seven and I learned to play from lessons and books, with blues and jazz lessons later in life also.
Music at school included playing the recorder and in later years a program of choral music, and this inspired me to want to pursue music further, with interest in teaching. In 1979, a suite of instrumental pieces, Tasmania Suite, became my first composed work. From 1984 and onward I composed choral music, and had the chance to write incidental music for a theatre production in the first year after finishing my music degree.
Your wealth of life and music experiences stands out in your music. How do your emotional events or life moments inform your music?
I am thinking of my piano piece Just Swim. The process of writing this piece was a way to sit with and integrate the loss of my father in 2011. Both the piece and the process were important, and I took a year to write it. It has basically two main sections, with contrasting feels – the first reflects the initial shock and knowledge that my father was gone. The second section came from the regathering and regrowth of energy, written as I began to listen to music in preparation for my PhD.
I am also thinking of my string orchestra piece Free!, written in 2008. Here, I used a tango feel to express my sense of a kind of ‘dance with death’ – an indefinite period in the jungle that Ingrid Betancourt and her colleagues had. There is a rebuilding of texture, moving gradually back from pizzicato into ordinary bowed/arco playing.
I used this textural progression to try to represent the rescue from the jungle – a move from uncertainty to the point at which Betancourt and her colleagues could begin to believe and trust that they were free. I tried to capture this progression with different musical feels, assisted by the textures available through the different string playing techniques. Harmonic nuance is another way I try to put emotional content into music.
Your classical compositions are rich in colour and I’d like to know more about your listening process and how it informs your overall creativity.
If I am composing a piece for ensemble, I use Finale. My music has a strong harmonic parameter, particularly my art music. I listen for the harmony, the overall effect and for the feeling of its successful journey through a trajectory to a point of completion that feels clear to me.
My deep listening is not just listening, it is finely tuned awareness to the whole thing. I think each performance is unrepeatable. It is like the Zen concept ‘not one – not two’ – a piece that you perform both is, and is not, the same thing every time. I have written some pieces following time spent doing deep listening practice, and am aware of listening on many levels when performing.
You have a strong presence in the Melbourne music scene. Your performance style is a combination of classical and popular music. How do you explore these physical gestures in your compositional and performance processes?
Physical gesture, in a separated compositional way, is not something I think about a lot, unless it is on some different level and I don’t realise that I am doing it. I am aware of trying to cover and make use of the whole range of an instrument or voice, and I did that in Stone (2016), with a clear attempt to use the whole range of the baritone voice.
What I think most about in the area of gesture is the physical gesture of strumming; for example, on the ukulele. I am aware of the physicality involved and that I can get complex textures with strumming on guitar and ukulele, and the relationship between movement and the sound/effect. I am also aware of harmonising my whole body with the strumming as I play. In piano playing, a gesture that I think of is the movement involved in playing a slur with a drop roll motion. I also have a broader awareness of myself as a physical being in the sound space.
Your musical skills are saturated with varied colours and textures. Do you set out to create shapes of sound in your work?
I do not set out to create shapes, or think of music in shapes, but there are other sets of references that I have. I think of, and work with music more as a narrative, usually inspired by one or more images and also often by having colour associations. As I write, I often find a fabric of mental associations with places arising and growing. I sometimes then title a piece after a place that has been in my mind’s eye as I have written it. I sometimes give a little bit of thought to the overall arc of a work and try to achieve something different in each piece, but I am not creating massive or long architectural structures as a composer.
My pieces are snapshots following a narrative or a programmatic idea, such as the Sydney Youth Orchestra work Five Journey into Smooth Space Together, or some of my piano works. I try to capture the essence of the thing that is my inspiration, and that can be the energy I feel it has. How it moves, or an emotional quality that it evokes. I want to try and get variety in texture that can include silence to some extent, which I did in Five Journey into Smooth Space Together. I am also aware of the need not to lose texture once it is there. If we subtract texture from a work once it is has been introduced or built, momentum can be lost.
How do you create texture in sound in your compositional work?
I try to have each part have its own space to occupy. I use motivic work and entries like counterpoint, and I make use of different tone and sound qualities. For example, with the strings of a ukulele, you can get repeated notes on different strings easily and I like to use that. I make use of the particular qualities of an instrument, and altered sounds like breath effects, pizzicato, including key noise. I like music that is transferable between instruments and that can be realised in different ways. In the Stone piece, I decided to make use of baritone Jeff Gavett’s ability with overtone singing, and I was able to use that as a colour effect which was particularly related to the text. I like the microtonal effects on the tin whistle, and rhythmic elements play a big part in creating texture. For example, I might have a part that is purely rhythmic (but not just a beat) that can be used as one contrapuntal line. I might use rhythmic devices such as hemiola and triplets, things that put texture in music that way.
How do you approach notation for your classical works?
For my piano music which is mostly classical/jazz fusion in style, I often begin with a pencil draft and use only note heads, keeping the rhythm in my own body and mind. Later on, I notate it on Finale when it’s become more settled. My process is of being with the music and playing it to myself and adding to it. My notation capacity is slower than my felt sense, my aural memory and performing capacities. Notating the music fully takes it into a cerebral realm.
Christina shows passion for performance and composition of new Australian art music. Her musical career is the embodiment of perseverance, a love for the arts and life experiences which has informed her creative life. She experiences the sounds she creates on a deep level and is visible in every performance she brings to her audiences. Her most recent achievement includes the launch of her new CD – Some Days/Life I Can Live. The album is available at Readings in Carlton, St Kilda, and Hawthorn and is on sale at her live performances in Melbourne, as well as through her website. She is currently writing a new textural piece for string instruments for the project Secrets Through a Soundglass, which will be premiered in Western Sydney in 2018. To learn more about Christina’s work visit her website, which includes links to her pages at the Australian Music Centre, Wirripang: Home of Australian Composers, and to her SoundCloud page, where a selection of her composed music and songs can be found.
Check back in for more in the Composer Secrets series, released each month in collaboration with researcher and series producer Hanli Sean Botha.
You can learn more about the composer on the website. Botha’s crowdfunding project Secrets through a Soundglass is live through the Australian Cultural Fund website. Support this creation of five new musical works here or follow on Facebook @secretsinsound. Botha is also seeking sponsorship from music bodies and fellow artists to make the premiere a reality in 2018. The Australian Art Quartet is scheduled to perform the music in Western Sydney on February 24.
New! Secret Soundglass merchandise!
The new Secret Soundglass pendant comes in two colour themes: sky blue, and red. Each pendant is hand-crafted in Australia on a silver-plated base and with its own leather cord, all looking a little different by nature. Please allow 7-14 days for delivery. Cost is $25 each (includes standard postage in Australia only), and the merchandise can be ordered through the Secrets through a Soundglass Facebook page via private message.
Catch Botha live in Melbourne this month.
Botha will collaborate with Alice Bennett on a performance art piece including poetry and spoken word for the Melbourne Fringe Festival on 22 and 23 September at the Testing Grounds.