Computers and composition with Kirsten Milenko

Unashamedly Original



If there’s one composer who embodies the ethos of ‘Unashamedly Original’, it’s Kirsten Milenko.

The young Sydney composer’s new work ex aere (‘the air’) unites live and electronic performance elements, drawing on no less than 300 samples of vocalist Sylvie Woods reciting fragments of a Latin poem by Hildegard von Bingen. It will be performed at the Unashamedly Original festival this week.

Kirsten says this music, part of her Artefact Series, will evoke “a loss of connection with the ancient rhythms of our world, yet a continuation and persistence of their presence”. Its title was inspired by Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and the ancient and unique character of living forests that enable us to survive through ‘ex aere’; the oxygen they provide.

Kirsten’s works have been performed across Europe, but in this concert she will be heard at the City Recital Hall presented by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where she is a student.

As part of the festival, this Ivan Zavada-curated concert Interplay will also showcase electroacoustic works by Kurt Mikolajczyk, Campbel Barnes, Dale Keaveny, Milan Monk, Harry Burgess, Takahiro Shirai, Paul Mac, Damian Barbeler, and Benjamin Carey.

Kirsten talks us through the music she created.


Science and music. Why do they work so well together?

I think that science and music work beautifully together. Both fields observe and challenge our society, its history, etc., and in doing this, have so much to say. It’s very inspiring. They’re really interesting mediums when placed in conversation with one another and I often find the sciences inspiring my music.

For your composition, you sampled 300 vocal tracks of the same singer – Sylvie Woods. What made you choose that number, and how did you know when enough was enough?

It kind of just ended up being 300. I took 33 original samples and gave each of them eight to 11 alterations -depending on the sample – to have a very subtle inflection of texture so that the ear doesn’t tire of hearing.

Nothing is repeated directly; even repeats of microphrases will be altered. Each of the raw samples were composed and recorded as the original files. So as the alterations kept growing, I would compare them to make sure the original ideas were on track.

What did you learn about the voice when listening so intensely to it alone?

For this piece, I really learned how to use the specific inflections I was looking for in my own work. I think it’s a real process of discovery to work in this way; the original sample was of a chant I had composed. I guess I learned how the voice can warm to inhabit certain phrases, and really bring to life some inflections.

Kirsten worked with singer Sylvie Woods (pictured) to capture more than 300 samples of her voice.

Tell us about the inspiration for the piece. Why did The Hidden Life of Trees move you, and how can we hear its and your strong message through this work?

The Hidden Life of Trees is such a powerful book and I strongly encourage anyone to read it. What I took from the reading was a sense of time – and also a sense of loss. So much has already been lost in time, and I started wondering what will be left of us in the future. It’s not a question that comes up very often and it’s interesting to think about.

In this piece, the idea can be heard in the fragments of Latin poetry that the chant was set to, and layering of voices to represent a network of identities working as one singular entity of many faces. This is designed to represent this idea, and also embellish the facade of a living forest – truly ancient and untouched by people. There are so few; if we could listen to them, they must have something interesting to say.

What’s been your experience with computer music in the past? Why does it appeal to you?

I’m not entirely sure when I started listening to computer music; certainly much more in the last three years. I have always been drawn to the idea of being able to zoom into a particular sound and uncover the inflections of the way it was played in that particular moment. It separates not only individual performers, but also the way that they expressed themselves at a particular point in time. There’s so much more, but this is the main attraction to computer music – that uncovering of personality in sound.

What skills are required for a composer to learn how to incorporate technology into music? Do you feel these are taught well in uni?

I think that the process is different for each person – but I find myself being influenced by acoustic music when composing anything electronic. This process has started to influence the way I write traditionally scored [music], and the sounds that first come to mind often aren’t melody anymore; that’s working into my pieces much later now. It’s actually really exciting. At, uni we mostly focus on the technical side of computer music so it’s really up to the individual to work out where their own compositional voice sits within this.

What are you most looking forward to seeing and hearing at this event? 

I’m really looking forward to hearing the diverse range of music not only in Interplay, but also the works being performed in the Unashamedly Original festival. It’s really wonderful to have computer music performed in this way in such an iconic venue.

Parting words?

Computer music is a really interesting field to keep an eye on – it has always been interesting and pushed boundaries and only keeps expanding. It is so diverse and I’m really excited to see how the field grows and works with other art forms as well.


Listen to Kirsten Milenko’s composition in Interplay at the Unashamedly Original festival, City Recital Hall, 5.30pm July 22. Learn more about Kirsten on her website.

Check back in again soon to see Kirsten’s original scores feature in the CutCommon digital music store, so you can support the artist and perform her music, too!


Image of Kirsten supplied. Credit: Clique Photography Sydney.

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