BY SAMUEL COTTELL
Four emerging composers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music have been selected for the first National Women Composers’ Development Program.
Through the two-year program, the students are undertaking workshops with leading Australian women in music such as Anne Boyd and Maria Grenfell, and will have their works performed by groups including the Goldner String Quartet, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
Traditionally, it seems female composers are under-represented in composition. For instance, women only make up 26 per cent of the Australian Music Centre’s represented artists, and 44 per cent of the undergrad students at the Sydney Con. So to celebrate this new program for women in music, we interview the four composers involved.
About Natalie Nicolas, NWCDP participant: In 2013, Natalie participated in the National Composer’s Forum and worked with Andrew Ford and the Australian String Quartet. Her work Turning in the Widening Gyre was premiered in Adelaide’s Ethereal Elder Hall. Natalie’s Rhapsodie L’Insanite was premiered in 2014 by Viet-Anh Nguyen.
How did you first get into composing and how would you describe your own sound, style or compositional philosophy?
I was always interested in arranging as a young girl, and played piano since the age of six. I would sing and ear-play modern pieces, and as I progressed through high school, I’d end up rewriting popular songs for bigger ensembles than they called for. I’d definitely say I’ve come from a pop music background, which is pretty rare for a composer at the Con. I was lucky enough to get into the Con straight out of high school, and despite my reservations of my abilities having come from the background I did, I was nurtured and put in the hard yards to get to where I have. I would say my style has developed from a beautiful duality of classical minimalism and popular music. It means I utilise a lot of theme and variations, both tonality and atonality, and the effectiveness of counter-rhythms found in both styles that, through minimal material, can affect something so incredible. My developing philosophy would be to stay true to your intuition. Composition is an artistic expression that, after all, will suffer from too much strategic procedure.
Who are your top five all time favourite composers, and who is your biggest influence?
I’m not sure I have a solid top five, it really all depends on the genre! I also think versatility of style and preference is what makes a good composer. In saying that, of course the incredible Hans Zimmer has always had one over me. No matter whether he touches a full blown orchestral masterpiece or a thematic chordal progression for 10 minutes, it’s incredible. Along with Johan Johannsson who is a more minimalist, theme-and-variations composer which is very akin to my style, John Adams also for his minimalist work, Sculthorpe for his innovative techniques particularly on strings…the list goes on!
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a composer in Australia, and how do you approach these challenges?
I think the playing field for a composer in Australia is totally different to that of in Europe or the States. There is somewhat a lack of awareness and therefore appreciation (through education, I personally believe) of the fine arts, and in my case, classical-based composition. I think being such a young country, and the art form being so rooted in history, there has yet to be such a presence for it, at least in my generation. In terms of approaching the challenge, I think it’s important to be the best at what you do in a market that’s so limited. You need to network, believe there is a place for your work, and do it how no-one else does. Whether that be in your compositional form, research, personal aesthetic, whatever.
You are one of four people enrolled in a post graduate degree in composition specifically designed to give female composers further opportunities. Why do you think this is important?
I think it’s a huge step up for us as composers, that those who have paved the way for us have been generous enough to reach down and give us a hand up. Gender inequality will continue to be a thing of the past as long as our generation, and those to come, continue to act with the same ethos.
You are reaching the end of your first semester now. Can you give us a bit of information about this National Women Composers’ Development Program and the projects you’ve been working on?
Unlike undergrad [courses] that don’t really take off so quickly, we’ve been head-down since day one. I’ve just finished up a solo cello piece written for the incredible Georg Pedersen, which was so rewarding and challenging at the same time. Current work in progress is a solo percussion piece for marimba for Claire Edwardes — on the other end of the spectrum! Also, of course, is my research for my thesis, which seems to take up the biggest chunk of time. There is a lot of reading and literature analysis at this point, and working with your advisor to narrow down what it is exactly you’re trying to do. I’m undertaking Masters via research, meaning I’m taking on only a few electives. I’m enrolled in Postgraduate Research Methods and Independent Arts Professional, a business subject, along with the composition portfolio and thesis.
Why do you feel there is an imbalance in regards to gender in composition, and how do you feel that a program, such as this degree, contributes to addressing this imbalance?
I actually don’t think the discrepancy is due to much other than our own efforts to do what we are doing. I may be naive, but I don’t really think, for example, the Australian Music Centre is analysing artist submissions and actively under-representing females. When I graduated, there were two women and two men in my cohort. Perhaps if there is a trend in gender discrepancy, I think it’s on its way out and the program we’re participating in is making a solid contribution to that. Even the fact that the program was conceived by a male says something in itself— there are many females at the Conservatorium, and the effort didn’t come from that avenue. It takes a certain confidence and self-assertion to make a successful artist and businesswoman/man. I think if anything, over time, we as females have possibly felt intimidated by a corporate world traditionally dominated by males (and let’s face it, it doesn’t matter that we’re in the business of art, we’re still in a business). But as that changes, so should our attitude towards our own abilities to stand in the same shoes as any man, and vice versa.
For more about the National Women Composers’ Development Program, visit the website here.
Image supplied. Credit: Mandy Campbell.