BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Welcome to Con Fuoco, CutCommon’s interview series with emerging musicians in Australia.
Sydney-based Rhys Little (born 1998) may be young, but his career is packed full of performing, composing, and conducting across the industry. Rhys has performed and worked with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Chamber Opera, Conservatorium Wind Symphony and Choir, Gondwana Chorale, State Schools Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Ensemble, among others.
A Conservatorium High School alumnus, he is now studying composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Rhys is also a founding member of the student-run Konzertprojekt composer-performer collective, dedicated to performing new and old music, and to reworking the musical experience in fresh and inventive ways.
Your all-time favourite piece of music?
Mahler Symphony No. 10 – controversial, I know. If the value of music is how it expresses inexpressible things — our most complex feelings, life and death and all the things in between — then Mahler 10 is important piece of music to me. I don’t know another piece that contains as much intangible meaning as that symphony. The mystique around the piece itself probably helps. Even incomplete, what we have of it is technically masterful and emotionally powerful with few comparisons.
I should add that it hurts a bit to have to exclude all the other music I love, because there’s a lot of it.
Biggest fear when performing?
Counting rests. Don’t laugh! I’m completely, genuinely terrified of counting rests. This is probably because I’ve stuffed it up more times than I’d like to admit. And as a euphonium player in my non-composing life, I have to count A LOT of rests.
Most memorable concert experience?
This is as just as hard as the first question! There’s a few, so here are some highlights: Singing in Fauré’s Requiem in my last-ever concert at Conservatorium High School. That was the closest I’ve ever come to crying on stage. Other pieces I’ve done which have stayed with me are Britten’s War Requiem, Mahler 2, Ravel’s version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, among others.
And then there are concerts I’ve watched! Simon Rattle and the Australian World Orchestra playing Bruckner Symphony No. 8 stands out for me. I’m not religious, but that felt like meeting God.
How do you psych yourself up for practice on a lazy day?
This depends what I’m doing. When I compose, I don’t really have to motivate myself at all — it just kind of happens. It sounds esoteric and random, but it’s true. I suppose it’s different not having to do super-regular hours of practice like a proper instrumentalist.
With the euphonium, I mostly practice whenever I like. This is kind of the luxury of being a composer — it makes playing infinitely more fun when there isn’t that ever-present career pressure on your shoulders.
Most embarrassing moment on stage?
I try not to remember this sort of stuff, but it’s probably something to do with counting rests.
Best piece of musical advice you’ve received?
Don’t bother with defining yourself as a composer. That is for other people to do. When you’re more concerned about what your art is than making your art, you can only fall into a pit of existential despair – or worse, a big vat of egotism. Simply trying to write as best as you can is all you can really do. As composers, the only thing we can try to make ourselves is better. I think it was my composer friend Johannes MacDonald who first told me this, or our former teacher Jack Symonds.
Favourite post-gig ritual?
I don’t seem to have any real ritual — I think I just have a little period of hyperactivity where I slowly come off my post-concert high, at least to the point where I can actually get [to] sleep. If the concert was too good, I can’t.
What are you most proud of in your musical career so far?
This is also hard, because I don’t spend much time being super proud about singular things. I think more than pride, I’m really content with all the musical things I’ve accumulated over time — all the concerts and compositions and richness of experience that I have with me forever. That’s what my pride looks like, and it’s a nice feeling.
What do you love most about making music?
This will sound cheesy as hell, but I love it because it is my life. It makes you aware of the full extraordinariness of life like not much else does. I’ve been doing this music thing for as long as I can remember, and I suppose it’s become inseparable from my whole self. I love music because it makes you notice how life is filled with interesting noises, and that in turn makes you appreciate everything else.
What’s your ultimate goal?
The ultimate goal for every musician in our time, in one way or another, is to figure out why we make music at all. What value does all our dedication, all our practice, have to the wider social consciousness, non-musicians, and everyone? I’m convinced we have something unique and invaluable to offer, and that ‘art music’ isn’t only the preserve of people who can afford it. The solution to all this lies in outreach, crucially in music education, in innovative programming, and in reconstructing from the ground up the stuffy, off-putting, stratified charade of traditional concert-going. The trick is to do that without dumbing-down what we already have.
More personally, I see huge opportunity in the very young compositional tradition in Australia. I think it is at the perfect age for hijacking, when we are swimming in opportunities and unrestrained creatively, and when we are just about ready to take a real cultural role internationally.