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 Hanli’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 Hanli through her Australian Cultural Fund campaign.
It was at the 20th anniversary concert of Ensemble Offspring, held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, that I met composer and performer Daniel Thorpe.
Last November, I had to make a decision regarding composers to approach for my academic study of texture in music written in the 21st Century for string instruments, and Daniel Thorpe was my first choice.
From hearing his music, I knew he was no stranger to pushing the boundaries in 21st Century composition. He brings his own unique life experience, passions, and view of the world to those who listen intently.
Daniel’s qualifications include a Bachelor of Music (First Class Honours) in the Sonic Arts (2013), and a Master of Philosophy in the Sonic Arts (2014-16). Furthermore, he was part of the Hatched Academy program in 2015 with Ensemble Offspring, and the SoundStream Emerging Composers Forum in 2016.
Last year alone, he was awarded the Australian Cultural Fund for his Concrete Collective’s tour to the San Diego Fringe Festival, the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund for False Cognate, and was a finalist in the Fresh Minds Festival at Texas A&M University. That same year, Daniel was also nominated as the Most Popular Experimental Artist by the South Australian Music Awards.
Daniel turned his full attention to composition in 2010 after injuring his arms, which caused him to stop playing 19th Century virtuosic piano pieces. He openly shares his love for creating heavy technological art music, which is clearly audible in his instrumental and voice works. He brings a raw and natural form of composition to his music, and in doing so pushes the boundaries of 21st Century art music.
How have your musical endeavours, the composers you admire, and your mentors shaped your journey as a musician?
I started playing electric guitar when I was eight years old […], and swapped over to the piano. I had an amazing piano teacher, Sharon Chng, who introduced me to classical music. As my piano skills started to improve, she introduced me to Hindemith, Takemitsu, and […] more contemporary music. During that time, I was also mostly listening to Emo, post hard-core, and heavy guitar music. Anne Boyd was one of the first Australian composers I focused on, and [her work] changed a lot for me in terms of how I thought about texture. I also listen to Brain Ferneyhough, Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt. Felix Mendelssohn is a huge role model: his energy and his life, and his vitality.
Minimalist and silent qualities can be heard in your music. How do you approach these concepts?
I learnt to become a composer when I was in the United States. That is where it happened for me. It was American experimental music that clicked with me. I feel I come out of this American experimental tradition with a weird side of Australian basement noise-making, which is a beautiful tradition, especially in Adelaide.
Gestural minimalism in terms of what you do with your body, with material minimalism, is a conceptual minimalism that is something that can be contained and explored from multiple angles, and illuminates it on a microscopic level. This is how I trace what I do. A big part of my scoring practice is to create shapes. The literal shapes on my scores, I explain to the performers, is the way that I draw. [It represents] the performance of a gesture or physical movement.
What is your compositional process, specifically for string instruments, and how do you combine various electronic sounds to create texture?
I am interested in a tension between the natural resonances of the instrument and what is artificial to that. I work a lot with harmonics and open strings. I counterpoint that with things that are totally in the wrong key, to have it resonate properly.
The sense of openness and ‘closedness’ of vibration and resonance can create a tension within the sound world, and is how I think about it almost exclusively. I think glissandi and arpeggios are good at shifting in and out of these little zones of extreme resonance. I write for the piano as a percussion instrument, especially prepared piano, because that is how I like to play.
You speak of your own vulnerabilities in your work, and sign-posting your presence within your musical works. Can you explain how emotion has influenced or shaped your compositional style?
My radical queer politics is one of vulnerability, and it is terrifying, but I also think it is important. It is what I am invested in – being vulnerable, and putting my body on the line in my music. What I feel emotionally is on the table for the audience, but also a lot of who I am. I think a lot of myself is in my music, and I am open about who I am to the audience.
I think my voice in all my work is such a sign-post for the audience. It is a very vulnerable position to be in. What I am also interested in is how queer people hear my music, being present, and being queer in my music in a way that is legible to queer people.
The textures you create in every piece are raw, stretched, open, resonant and embody a physical presence that pushes the performer to new ways of engaging with the gestural aspects of each sound-shape. How do you explore physical gesture in your compositions and how does it contribute to the texture within the work?
Firstly, every time you play a note, you move it, and there are ways you can write notes that explore physicality. In my SoundStream-winning piece, during the third movement, the cello has a riff that is quite difficult […] and it comes back [as] touched natural harmonics. For the audience, it won’t be the same thing. But for the cellist, it is in a context where suddenly everything is a lot softer and more delicate, more exposed. It is a very basic example of how you can use physical gesture to tell a story to performers.
I generally use notes and graphics to inform a type of play that ends up having a choreographic result or a physical result. I think there is something innately physical with the way I write – it is not something I have to push.
What is your listening process when you are composing?
Aside from physical listening, I sit quietly and try to hear an entire piece in my head, or sections of a piece. I have quite a strong sense of structure, form, and proportion when I’m writing. My music has very harsh AB transitions, and I tend to listen that out in my head. What I tend to hear is physical gesture, and the notes are like placeholders in the process.
This year is already proving to be fruitful for Daniel, filled with new compositional challenges and further performance opportunities. He has been awarded funding by Carclew Youth Arts for a mentorship with artist Amy Beth Kirsten in the United States, and while there he will collaborate with Conrad Tao. To learn more about Daniel and his work, please visit his website.
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 her website.
Hanli’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.