Composer Secrets: Hanli Sean Botha

Textural secrets in sound shapes

Hanli Botha, captured by Hilda Bezuidenhout



Have you heard the music of Hanli Sean Botha?

If you have, your musical ventures into new Australian composition have served you well.

If you haven’t, you’re one of the reasons Hanli has started her PhD project. The composer, sound artist, and writer is undertaking research as part of her Western Sydney University PhD, and her vision is to build awareness of the newest music in the contemporary classical scene.

The project is titled: An investigation of texture in 21st composition for string instruments through the lens of spectromorphology. Through her commitment to new music makers, Hanli has set about interviewing leading composers in Australia to learn, and to teach us, about the way these artists use sound and silence to create unique textural landscapes.

In the coming months, CutCommon is collaborating with Hanli on Composer secrets – bringing you these interviews so that you can gain a deeper insight into what drives composition in the present era. To kick us off, Hanli tells us about her own musical background and what led her to start this ambitious project.

Hanli completed a major in classical guitar through her Bachelor of Music – Performance in 2014, and her Honours the following year. At the Western Sydney University’s Creativity Unlimited Festival 2016, Hanli presented two experimental pieces which included pre-recorded electronic sound, and inharmonic percussive sound on guitar. She’s also had works presented at the Electrofringe Festival and Tilde New Music Festival. Hanli would like to acknowledge the Western Sydney University School of Humanities and Communication Arts in supporting her interview series.


Tell us all about yourself. When did you get into composing?

My creative life has a long history and has its origins from South Africa, where I was born and raised. My love for creating new music and performance is a passion that was supported especially by my classical guitar teacher Charl Lamprecht. I started composing and writing Afrikaans songs when I was a teenager and absolutely loved every minute of it.

I had a long break from my creative endeavours when I finished school in 1995, and was off to become a nurse and midwife. I went back to my music in 2011, and it was in 2013 that I started to compose experimental pieces of music for the guitar. I was in the process of completing my Bachelor of Music – Performance in classical guitar, during which 20th Century music grabbed hold of my imagination, and composition took on a new meaning and life for me.

I love composing with sound concepts and not limiting myself to scores. It means that the work I have already completed cannot be replicated, because it is based on aural analysis and what I hear at a given time.

Three other wonderful musicians have influenced my music endeavours: classical guitarist Clair Wenborn; music educator and musicologist Dr. Eleanor Mcphee who is based in NSW; and singer, music educator, and performer Pat H. Wilson in South Australia.

What are you studying at the moment and how did you get there?

I am currently busy with my PhD studies at Western Sydney University, School of Humanities and Communication Arts with the guidance of wonderful musicians and composers Diana Blom, Clare Maclean and Ian Stevenson. I am exploring how texture is created in sound-shapes for string instruments. My interest in texture comes from how I have listened to various forms of music since I was a child.

Initially, my focus has been on words and the movement of words together with the harmony, and as my listening process has changed over several years, I noticed my mind is drawn to density, timbre and the layering of sound. The work of John Cage, the spectralists, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Matthew Hindson and the work of Elena Cats-Chernin have fuelled my interest to unpack sound and silence in the most untraditional way imaginable.

As part of your PhD studies, you’ve started a project in which you explore the working lives of new Australian composers. How did the concept come about?

Yes, I am interviewing five composers but they are also writing brand new music, specifically for string instruments, which will be premiered in 2018 in Western Sydney, NSW. I’d like to think that the composers are more the focus rather than the fact that it is a PhD project. When I did my Honours project, I found myself talking about raising the profile of Australian composers and at the same time promoting new classical music, which pushes the boundaries of sound, silence, and life as we know it. The concept is something that I think has been with me for longer than just the last four years.

I love meeting and engaging with musicians, new ideas, collaborating with like-minded people, and it seemed to be such a natural process when I started digging into sound and silence. The entire process from getting my confirmation of candidature, ethics approval, even approaching musicians who are working with these concepts seemed to be a series of small, yet significant events which have made me feel part of something bigger than myself.

If I see an opportunity to get someone’s work out to the wider music community, I will take it.

I also seem to be hearing a great number of musicians saying that they want their music to be heard, and the first thing I think is ‘well then, let’s get your work out there, let’s roll the dice. Take a chance – you never know, it might just take off’. If I see an opportunity to get someone’s work out to the wider music community, I will take it.

What are some of the things you’ve been interested in learning through your interviews with the composers?

I want to know how composers use various sound entities, silences and even quiet spaces to create texture. How their reflective process determines what happens with each sound event as it progresses through the music. The listening process seem to be an integral part of performance and composition, and how this informs their practice is interesting to delve into (mainly because of the work of composer Pauline Oliveros).   

As a composer yourself, how did your background fuel your questions?

I was studying for my last history exam in 2013, and specifically looking at the work of John Cage, when I looked out into my garden and suddenly all the sounds, the birds singing, the cars driving by, became music. The quiet spaces soaked into my world and everything had changed. I was listening to spectral music to calm myself down, and any music which features a cello immediately has my attention. It is essentially a love for anything that allows rule-breaking that sparks my interest to see how far other musicians and creative individuals will go to break boundaries in their art.

The quiet spaces soaked into my world and everything had changed.

The questions are further fuelled by the work of electro-acoustic composer Denis Smalley, the work of Pierre Schaeffer in the field of sound which had already become a topic of interest when I completed my Honours project. The project looked at emotional response to texture in atonal music. The listening process and sound concepts and ideas from the project has become the building blocks for this project.

What are some of the insights that you weren’t expecting?

The movement away from traditional composition and the lengths to which the composer will go to create texture. It also seems as if graphic scores have become a norm, which is a wonderful departure from traditional notation. I do still think traditional notation is of great value and should not be lost in any shape or form.

Another wonderful discovery at this stage of the project is how the composers approach the physicality of their work, and specifically how it influences how the sounds are communicated by the performer.

How would you describe the experience of being a new music composer in Australia today?

It is a very new and exciting experience, and I find the musicians that I am working with or meeting to be very supportive. I think that the way I treat sound and want to incorporate it into different formats is very welcome in Australia, and there is a potentially younger audience who are already familiar with so many different forms of electronic sound. I have found so many micro-specialities in Australian composition; no electronic piece sounds the same, and the possibilities for classical guitar is endless.

What do you hope will be achieved through your stories?

I hope that Australian composers, especially female composers and those from the LGBTQIA+ community, will gain more ground in the music community and enjoy an influx of new projects to fuel their careers. I am keen to work towards developing new methods of textural analysis, and that the project will bring a new audience, especially to the Western Sydney region of New South Wales.

Visit us in the coming weeks as we launch Hanli Botha’s interview series with new composers in Australia. You can learn more about the composer on her website.

Image supplied. Credit: Hilda Bezuidenhout.

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