BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
More than a century ago, a group of school girls ventured into the Victorian outback for a Valentine’s Day picnic. Some of them were never to return.
This is the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay which was adapted into Peter Weir’s famous film in the following decade. Now, Australian composer Peggy Polias has taken her own interpretation of the story in her Picnic at Hanging Rock Suite – a 45 minute work for solo piano. It was recorded this year in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music across two days, featuring talented guest pianists such as Ian Munro, Zubin Kanga, Philip Eames, Maggie Pang and more to present the 12 movements.
Peggy chats with us about why she decided to approach the story for a new work, and what it was like to bring to life with a range of pianists.
So, Picnic at Hanging Rock. You have been interested in this tale since your teenage years – why did it click with you?
Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel has such a quality of mystery and eeriness, as well as a wit and quirkiness about it. Lindsay crafted a very elegant narrative arc, and her attention to detail is breathtaking. I was especially interested in the additional chapter published after Joan Lindsay died, and the sci-fi angle this added to the story. Then there was also the fabulous Peter Weir film.
As a teenager, I could relate to the schoolgirl perspective of the novel, which wasn’t always a part of the literature we were studying. As I’ve grown older and consumed more literature and film, I keep coming back to connections with other stories that examine dimensions of time through the lens of the adolescent, a notable example being the film Donnie Darko.
When and how did you decide it’d be fittingly converted into an original musical work?
I think I had decided around the time of first reading it that it would be something I’d compose around sometime in the future. The years 2008-2009, during my Masters studies, ended up being the right time. By then, I was thinking about it as an entire suite. I started writing it on a 2-week residency at Bundanon, in September 2008, in the Musician’s Cottage, and was able to complete the work to include in my Masters portfolio.
Being 45 minutes long, it’s taken a while to find the right opportunity to bring it to life – now as a recorded album, and possibly in 2017 as a full live performance.
How can we hear the narrative through the composition?
There are 12 movements, like the 12 hours on a clock. For the most part, they don’t tell the story in a linear sense, but a dimensional sense, referring to some of the characters and events.
The terminology of Time I-III is introduced and discussed in the extra-chapter publication, The Secret of Hanging Rock, in an explanatory essay. I’ve drawn on this to structure the Suite in three blocks of four pieces each:
Time I is a grounded, present dimension, bringing in aspects of the piano tradition that might have been familiar to a private schoolgirl circa 1900 (sonata, waltz, fugue, nocturne).
Time II is a transient dimension, an aspect of time in which events loop, a realm somewhere between the corporeal and the spiritual. Here I refer to some of the mystical aspects of the novel.
Time III is a heightened dimension, where consciousness is set aside. In this section, I played with numbers and geometry, I guess it’s slightly Pythagorean.
Were there any other compositions surrounding this tale, or music from the film, that influenced your work? How do you avoid other people’s interpretations when it comes to scoring a story to give your own unique take?
While the character of Peter Weir’s film was an unavoidable influence, I mostly steered clear of its music. The only nod to the film music is that my Fugue is in 17/8, based on the meter of the electronic/synthesizer track by Bruce Smeaton accompanying the girls’ ascent on Hanging Rock. Meanwhile, due to thematic links I emulated the character of the music from the film Donnie Darko to a degree.
Why did you decide to have a variety of pianists performing the different movements?
I always imagined that the Suite as a whole could be tackled by anywhere from between one to 12 pianists. I felt that assigning a few pieces each to several pianists would be a really nice way to bring out the varied characters of the different movements, and to bring a kind of ‘community’ aspect to a normally quite lonesome instrument. Also, being a 45-minute Suite that we scheduled to record over two all-day sessions, inviting a group of pianists to take on a portion each would be a practical way of avoiding performer fatigue.
What are the challenges of having so many ‘voices’ (in terms of pianists’ individual styles) across one work?
In the end, it turned out to be not so much a challenge as a complement to the work. I found that the pianists – some whom I hadn’t previously met – were beautifully matched to the movements they chose to play, and I feel like this has enhanced the work.
Now that you’ve worked through Picnic at Hanging Rock, have you come to any new feelings or interpretations of the main story? And can you even stand to watch the film again, after you must have thought about it so much over the years?
I guess I’ve fixed my interpretation of the story somewhat – I kind of miss the ambiguity! I could definitely stand to read the novel as well as watch the film, yet again. I have probably spent way more time thinking about both than actually consuming the material, so it’s nice to occasionally come back to them and notice new things.
What advice would you give to musicians who would love to put their music out there but, as you have been, find themselves caught up in practical activities such as grant writing, business-related pursuits, and even parenting?
I think flexibility and the ‘slow game’ are both good qualities to bring to a portfolio career. The flexibility to be able to ramp one’s creative activities up or down depending on the work and time available. There have been entire years where I didn’t compose a note but knew I would again later. Then passion and persistence comes into it – you must pick up that pen again when the time is right!
Regarding the ‘slow game’, try not to be too competitive – this aspect of creative arts is somewhat problematic. There are always many more ‘rejects’ than successful applicants for grants, opportunities, competitions – and I’m talking about really talented amazing creative artists. Then there are the selection criteria: restrictions by age, location, etc. This can be disheartening at times, and cause a confidence slump. If you are keen on staying in a creative field, you have an entire career ahead of yourself to hone your craft. Study, learn, immerse, chip away at a pace that’s right for you, focus on building a body of work, and do the ‘competition circuit’ if you want to.
Any parting words?
The album is available for digital download from Kammerklang. With thanks to Cameron Lam, producer, and James Passfield, recording engineer, as well as pianists Philip Eames, Darci Gayford, Zubin Kanga, Ian Munro, Maggie Pang, Lara Raynor and James Wilkes for being a part of this project. The recording has taken place as part of my program as the Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellow in 2016. Special thanks to ArtsNSW and the Sydney Conservatorium for supporting this project through the Fellowship.
Read more about Peggy Polias and her Picnic at Hanging Rock project on her blog.