Composing to the beat of a new drum

Naomi Johnson interviews Holly Harrison and Rhyan Clapham

What defines an Australian composer today? How do they create music? And where do composers see new music heading in the future? Naomi Johnson speaks with emerging composers Holly Harrison and Rhyan Clapham.

Music history is littered with pianist-composers; Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt. Even many of our own prominent Australian composers such as Elena Kats-Chernin and Carl Vine began their musical life at the piano, so thinking of their harmonies and structures from the point of view of the piano.

But is this legacy of the pianist-composer as true of our younger generation of Australian creatives? In a musical culture where lines between artforms and styles are increasingly blurred, does the composer’s voice also change?

In the lead-up to Australian Music Month, I caught up with two young musicians who’ve bucked the piano trend, beginning their creative process from the drumkit.

Composer-drummer Holly Harrison and rapper-drummer Rhyan Clapham come, in many ways, from very different styles of music. Holly describes herself first and foremost as a composer, writing works that “embrace stylistic juxtaposition, the visceral energy of rock, and whimsical humour”, while Rhyan inhabits the hip-hop sphere as rapper Dobby and rapper-drummer in the band Jackie Brown Jnr. Yet within minutes of sitting down, they are both getting very excited about each others’ creative ideas.

“That’s dope! Can’t wait to hear it!” exclaims Rhyan as Holly describes a recent work written for American new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. Holly’s compositional practice draws strongly on the works of Lewis Carroll, and while she doesn’t always set text, this piece asked performers to speak a whimsical quote from Alice in Wonderland. “It was just set in groups of semiquavers, so it was almost like a quasi-rap,” she explains. “I just set it quite rhythmically.”

“I jam on drums for a bit,” says Holly of her process for thinking about a new piece, “and then I get out my trusty Zoom and record it all. Less so now though because I have an electronic drumkit. I’ve found that my process on acoustic kit is quite different to on electric kit, because now I can load samples, say of string pizzicatos, and have different notes all around on all the different pads.”

LISTEN to Ensemble Offspring performing Holly Harrison’s Vibe Rant and other new Australian music performed by Ensemble Offspring. (Holly’s is the first in the collection)

She used to think that pianists and guitarists had a real advantage as composers, conceiving of harmony and vertical textures more naturally than others. But now she’s not so sure. Could the laborious process of recording one line on her Zoom, inputting it into Sibelius and then playing her trumpet over the top, make her consider each harmonic relationship all the more?

“My music’s all about stylistic juxtapositions, and I think it comes from a drumming thing – if I want to have a quasi-hip-hop part or something, that means I need to have rhythms that are going to suggest hip-hop. Even if I’m doing something that’s pulseless, I still need to be thinking about, to use the high school term, duration. How do you play that sort of duration to suggest all those things? I’m also interested in tempo, morphing tempos, changing them. I really like molto accelerandos and stuff like that.”

Rhyan plays the piano as well as the drumkit, though in most cases starts to work on music either from the kit or from his rap lyrics. “Piano and drums are so compatible together,” he muses. “It’s the same kind of style, and they’re so rhythmically based as well. It’s not linear, it’s more the textures on top.”

Texture seems to be the key word. He goes on to talk about Alistair Spence, an “amazing jazz pianist” whose music is often inspired by the sounds of his surrounding environment – “cracks in the walls or plumbing above his head. He makes those sounds on the piano, or streaks and scratches on the double bass that represent those environments. I think that’s an amazing way to make music.”

Rhyan came to the attention of ABC Classic FM through his involvement in the 2017 AMPLIFY: Indigenous Composer’s Initiative, working with the musicians of Ensemble Offspring.

LISTEN to Rhyan Clapham’s Pitara Yaan Muruwarikiand other new chamber music from the inaugural AMPLIFY: Indigenous Composer Initiative. (Rhyan’s is the final work in the concert!)

Writing for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, cello, and vibes was an eye-opener, allowing him to re-engage with the piano and think about composition from a different angle. “I actually found myself almost forcing these rhythmic notions. Groups of seven and groups of five, really trying to come at it from a rhythmic perspective because that’s what I was more comfortable composing. I was thinking like a drummer, as I was playing the piano, and I found that really interesting.”

A defining element of both Rhyan and Holly’s artistic practices is that they both write and perform music. Rhyan naturally writes his own rap lyrics, and all of what he creates is written with his own performance in mind. The two sides of Holly’s musical personality are a little more separate, on the one hand composing notated works for others to perform, and on the other playing in an experimental duo with guitarist Joseph Tabua. Both relish the variety of opportunities on offer, and find it exciting to have a range of different creative projects on the go all at once. They’re quintessential portfolio artists, and yet that’s so much a part of the way they work that the exact word isn’t even articulated.

One thing I was keen hear, though: with such diverse creative paths ahead for young musicians and composers today, what should they be learning during their formative years?

“What is a composer?” came Holly’s reply. “Is it manuscript and paper? Gosh, I can’t remember a time that I ever wrote on manuscript…Now we use all sorts of software to make all sorts of sounds, and different ways to manipulate it, that’s half of it. How do you transform it into new ideas?” Ableton Live, Logic, Max MSP, the list of available softwares is already long and dazzling, and both Holly and Rhyan see a great advantage in some level of – for want of a better word – ‘literacy’ in this area. It’s an avenue to a very different sense of musicality and timbral exploration, with composers inspired to mimic electronic sounds with acoustic instruments, as well as manipulating traditional instrumental sounds in the digital space. But neither do my guests believe electronics and composition software should be at the kernel of music education.

Holly’s thoughts stem from her experience as a sessional teacher of a hybrid composition/performance subject at Western Sydney University: “I think it’s less about the material or subject content and more about helping people find what it is they have to say, or what really resonates with them. To get a bit touchy-feely. I think it’s more about that – finding what someone’s true musical voice or compositional voice is, before you even start thinking about the content or material, or style.”

“If people are interested in a type of music, don’t feel like you should stray away from it first to be a ‘musician’ (quote, unquote) and then study it,” adds Rhyan with a wave of fingers in the quotation gesture around musician. “Incorporate it from an early age, because that might be the way that music is heading in the future.”

Speaking of the future, what sorts of goals are important to our young composer/performers of today? Where would they like to be five years down the track? In the past, achieving a premiere performance of an opera or symphony might have ranked highly on the to-do list, but for Holly and Rhyan at least there’s a clear move away from the large-scale musical forces.

“I’d love to have an album with recordings of my works, actual studio recordings,” muses Holly, “and to have a whole album of top quality performances that I was really happy with. I think it’s actually really hard as a new music composer, especially if they’re works for different ensembles of different sizes.” She concedes that, considering the difficulty of arranging such a project, it might be more of a 10- than five-year goal.

Rhyan is thinking in a very different direction: “Festivals have always been on the radar for me. To be a rapper who is composing his own music and drumming at some festivals. Groove in the Moo, or Falls Festival, that’s always been a dream of mine.”

In the more immediate future, both are releasing albums and have an exciting array of projects coming up. I leave them chatting excitedly about these – Holly’s entirely improvised album as part of experimental duo Tabua-Harrison, Rhyan/Dobby’s imminent rap album. And in the more ‘classical’ sphere, Holly is working on commissions for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. It’s a dizzying array of styles, ideas and creative endeavours, and an exciting insight into what makes young artists of today tick. Stay tuned, perhaps, for a hip-hop take on the texts of Lewis Carroll?

Composers Rhyam Clapham and Holly Harrison outside Dr Who tardis, ABC Ultimo. Photo Naomi Johnson


This story was first published on the ABC Classic FM website.


LISTEN to Rhyan Clapham’s Pitara Yaan Muruwarikiand other new chamber music from the inaugural AMPLIFY: Indigenous Composer Initiative.

LISTEN to Holly Harrison and fellow Australian composers Michael Sollis, Daniel Thorpe, and Lisa Young talking about their music.

LISTEN to Ensemble Offspring performing Holly Harrison’s Vibe Rant and other new Australian music performed by Ensemble Offspring.


Images supplied. Holly photo Steve Broadbent, courtesy the artist. Rhyan Clapham aka rapper Dobby photo Megan Carew, courtesy the artist.

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