BY HANLI SEAN BOTHA, COMPOSER
Composer Secrets is our new 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.
Sydney musician and composer Peggy Polias has been making wonderful inroads in the classical music industry of Australia. Her music captivates the imagination and invites you into unknown worlds of colour, hope, and beauty.
Peggy graduated in 2010 with a Master of Music (Composition), which was supervised by Professor Anne Boyd at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and is an Associate Represented Artist with the Australian Music Centre. Peggy collaborates with Lisa Cheney on the Making Waves new music playlist, and their most recent venture Making Conversation is a series of 30 podcast episodes with Australian composers, which went live on April 21.
It was Peggy’s enthusiasm for new music, her minimalist, feminist approaches, and her love for fractals and handcrafts which prompted me to sit down with her to learn more about her work as a composer.
Where did your love for composition originate?
It was throughout the time that I was learning piano. I was often writing tiny sketches as I was learning piano and a little bit of improvisation quietly on my own as a child. I guess it grew out of there and in high school there was space to investigate a bit further.
Which 20th Century composers had a major influence on your compositional style?
Hugely influential, I would have to say Arnold Schoenberg. Early on in my composition training, I was obsessed with 12-tone: it was something that didn’t resemble anything else I had ever heard. It was quite amazing to be introduced to all that stuff – I became obsessed with: ‘You’ve got this tone row, and what do you do with it?’. I had to understand what approaches serialists were taking with it. It was really interesting how Schoenberg brought [the 12-tone row] into classical structures. He was looking at universal aspects of what went on in sonata form, or what went on with folk melodies. Whether or not I prescribe to his methods is irrelevant, but it got me thinking of what can I do with this row.
You’ve worked on a Masters degree – can you tell me about your project?
For my Masters, I wrote a portfolio of small works and then one large work, which was the Hanging Rock piano suite. The metaphor I used to tie all the pieces together was the matryoshka doll (Russian nesting dolls). It was a blatantly feminine symbol and I liked the idea that it has structures that resemble fractals as well. It touches on elements in culture but I also looked at what was happening in my music that might have resonance with Russian nesting dolls, or smaller components nested in larger components, or smaller structural elements that are replicated at a larger level. Because there is a lot of abstracts going on in the music.
The smaller components of sound inside larger components of sound, and how it is replicated in your music, piqued my interest. But first, I have to know more about how you use the 12-tone row to write for string instruments.
Last year, I wrote a trio call Hives […] and that was for clarinet, viola and piano. It deals with honey bees, honeycomb, different social aspects of bees. I couldn’t help using a 12-tone row across the whole suite, and doesn’t sound like Schoenberg. What I am doing is looking at breaking some of the rules, treating the row hierarchically, treating it minimalistically.
The solo viola piece Drone Bees, the third movement […] is with delay. For example, the viola plays a straight row in two note firsts, then there is a delay which brings the row back against itself in a different order to what’s been played – it is two rows.
Is there a quiet space in the delay that is created between the sounds?
The first time it happens, they are playing fairly slow quavers, then it’s coming back one quaver later. It is not so much silence as resonance of the pizzicato ringing and then the repeat of that slowly dies off. It starts sparse and there are heaps of silences at the start, because the violist plays one tone and then there are four quavers rests, and then his tone comes back. Imagine silence and a very sparse beginning that grows.
Do you prefer the quiet spaces to have its own voice, or do you want it to borrow texture from the previous sound?
It depends on what I am writing. On the piano, I am a bit obsessed with the pedal. I would, say, hold the pedal down; I want that note to carry. In chamber contexts, it is very different. Phlogiston for flute, clarinet, and string quartet starts with a lot of space between the initial notes and there is a repetitive approach of increase. It starts in a skeletal format and fills in – there, the silences are important because they are filling in: you are going from A which is sparse to B which is full, and you really get that effect when it is empty like that.
Do you think of sound as a shape?
Absolutely. There is an architectural level; there is a lot of drawing that goes on at the start […] on graph paper. It starts with the visual ‘shapes’. When you are dealing with a spatial format like that, first of all, part of the question is: ‘How in this piece am I going to get that into sound?’. I don’t start with the music and the shape at the same time. Often, there is a long time of reflecting on that question.
You’ve spoken before about yin and yang concepts when creating shapes. Do you view yourself as a composer who breaks the rules of composition?
I do in the sense of deliberately bringing feminine approaches to traditions. The idea of mushing serialism and minimalism together isn’t about doing it for its own sake, but it has to be relevant to the work and there has to be a reason.
Is there an emotional aspect in your process and do you allow those emotions to filter into your compositions?
Yes and no. A lot of it goes back to childhood and really strong nostalgic flashbacks – initially, there is something strong and emotional in there; I am not sure if it comes out as strongly and if I am doing these drawings as an elaborate way of detaching from the emotion, or if I am just keeping something to myself and not just giving it away to the audience. Certainly, there are emotional motivations, and maybe that distance and slightly making it clinical is almost a way of processing.
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.