BY MX HANLI SEAN BOTHA
Felicity Wilcox is an interdisciplinary composer based in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. Her body of work includes music for film, improvisation, theatre, live events, concert music, radio and installation.
Felicity is a composer with a natural ability to combine traditional composition methods with electronic mediums, raw and new sounds. Self-taught for many years as a professional screen composer, Felicity embarked on a mid-career change and returned to study at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music under Mary Finsterer, Michael Smetanin, Nigel Butterly and Damien Ricketson. She pushes her compositional boundaries and brings fresh timbres, dissonances and percussive qualities to 21st Century music. She has a passion for improvisatory methods of composition and performance, and speaks of her love for raw sound since she was a child.
Felicity has received many commissions including Vivid Sydney, Ensemble Offspring, Ironwood, the Australia Piano Quartet, Kammerklang, Sydney Art Quartet, The Australia Ensemble, Halcyon, Decibel, and the Sydney Symphony Fellows. I sat down with this composer on a rainy Monday afternoon at the end of 2017, and spoke with her about her creative approaches to composition in 21st Century music.
When did your career in composition start?
I started quite young. I was doing film music when I was in my 20s. I was doing a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University and had classes with Peter Sculthorpe, Eric Grosse, and Peter Platt.
I was asked to submit a film score for a film my mother was making […] and by the age of 26 I was doing quite a bit of work in film music and that kept going. When I started doing my PhD, I crossed over into concert music.
At this point, I was working in film for over 20 years and I was ready to try something different that allowed my voice to drive the music.
Your relationship with sound holds a great deal of depth that builds blocks of shapes, silences and timbre. These qualities are evident in Gouttes D’un Sang Etranger (Drops of Foreign Blood). I want to know more about the work. Did you use chance or indeterminacy in your work?
No, it is completely scored. The only slight improvisation in the piece is notation where you set up loops. You write out the phrases and set up looping points and the players are free to loop in their own time. It is like a fragment with a repeat bar and it then goes back to the beginning and then go to the next phrase; back to the beginning and then to the next part of the phrase. So, it is loops that keep extending, and I tried to encourage the performers to try and not stay together.
I love the technique: it creates an echo within the music. It is a bit random and you get lovely heterophony where unison lines are slightly out of sync.
You have an ability to create quiet sounds which grasp the listener’s attention off guard. It creates unexpected curiosities in timbre and depth of sound in your work. Do you consider yourself a composer who creates texture in silence?
Yes, silence is part of texture. Building in gaps and allowing sounds space to fade; I love the idea of a sound world that humans cannot access.
Considering sound worlds that cannot be accessed poses the question of how these sounds are notated in her work. Do you prefer graphic or traditional notation methods in your work?
I am more of a traditional notater. I work from graphics, but I guess for me: if you leave something as graphic notation, you are giving a lot of control to your performer. This is fine if the performers are great and they do it really well, but if I want to send a score to America, and I send a graphic score, do I have more control over the work or not?
I need to be close to my music. I can hear where the music would go gesturally, but I could not hear the pitches from the graphic score. I can hear register. When I notate it, I get to the nitty gritty of the pictures and rhythms.
I still love pitch enough to want to retain control over it. I have strong relationship with pitch and I like creating beautiful combinations of sounds or dissonances.
With indeterminate writing, you can set up a structure for rhythm. I did it in a work for Ensemble Offspring, where you put free time on the bar and you have vertical correspondences of certain notes that you want to sound together, otherwise you let them play notes in their time. It is very collaborative between composer and performer, by giving the performers a map – but you are not telling them how to go on the journey.
Does it mean that improvisation is then part of the composition?
Yes, when you give the performer guidelines and ask them to improvise, they always do it so well. I am an improvising musician myself and I want to develop more types of indeterminate writing – and it is possible.
How do you approach physical/performance gesture in your work?
I think it through physically: how are the performer going to move from a sustained trill straight down to a pluck?
I think through the physicality of performing and I write that in with consideration for its execute ability. When you are writing double stops or multiple stops, you need to know for strings, they can’t execute that all in one. They have to change the gesture from a solid note to a arpeggiated note. The physical and gestural constraints start to inform how you hear the music.
Is listening an integral process when you are composing and why?
I am an ear person and that is why I like to notate it – because then I can hear it in Finale. You have to imagine all the extended techniques that Finale cannot do.
To begin the idea, I have to imagine the sound. I can imagine something and then I sit down at the notation program. I can hear the gesture in my head, and then how do I get that into notation? Once it is notated [I ask myself]: ‘Is that what I meant? Is that the sound I heard?’ and then I will tweak it.
Do you think knowledge and experience of the performers influence the outcome of the music?
Definitely. I worked on a piece with Jason Noble in 2016. I had the idea and sketch for the piece and really strong conceptual stuff going on with the piece. Having Jason as a sounding board and being able to draft something and throw it over to him– and him say, ‘that technique works really well but only pp, let’s try this multiphonic rather than that one’ – [was a privilege]. He would give me great [feedback].
You have to find people you trust and who respect you. There has to be genuine equality and rapport. This piece owes a lot to Jason. Because of his input, he has performed it four times. I It is called Yurabirong (People Of This Place). It can be a massive help to have input.
Felicity continues to contribute new music to the Western art canon and to the Australian classical music community, which pushes the boundaries of sound, texture and timbre. She is artistic director of 100clicksWest in the Blue Mountains, and performances through this 2018 program will include the music she writes for Secrets Through a Soundglass, and Gouttes D’un Sang Etranger (Drops of Foreign Blood). To learn more about her work, you can visit her website.
Felicity was commissioned in 2017 to write a piece for strings and will be premiered on 24 February, 7.30pm at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre.
Exploring texture in sound and silence, this unique performance features the Sydney Art Quartet in its debut appearance at The Joan, presenting five new works in its playful style, deftly side-stepping cliché and orthodoxy. Written for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano by acclaimed composers Felicity Wilcox, Christina Green, Peggy Polias, Catherine Golden and Dan Thorpe; Secrets through a Soundglass takes its cues from experimental music of the 20th and 21st centuries, as researched by Sean Botha at Western Sydney University. Tickets available online.
Images supplied. Featured image of 100clicksWest.