Play On commissions site-specific music from Fia Fiell

ambient electronic music



Play On will hit up the Mission to Seafarers’ 1917 Norla Dome as part of its Melbourne Music Week debut.

The new music initiative, founded by Lydia Dobbin, has commissioned Fia Fiell (Carolyn Schofield) to craft a site-specific work, which draws on the composer’s background in classical and ambient electronic music.

It’s the first time Play On has commissioned a new piece, and it’ll be the first time this work has ever been performed. So we think it’s a pretty special time to chat with Fia Fiell about how the opportunity came about for her, and what we can expect from the gig.

Hi Fia, congratulations on your commission with Play On! How did you get to team up with the initiative?

Thank you! I was approached by Lydia from Play On about composing and performing for Play On after she saw me perform at a little gig at Longplay earlier in the year. Despite there being issues with the sound that night, obviously she saw some potential to do something special with my music. And I think the idea appealed, because it was an opportunity to do something a bit different to what Play On have previously done – something more experimental and intimate, perhaps.

For the classical element of the show, Lydia encouraged me to work with somebody who I thought would gel well with what I do, so I asked my friend and collaborator of a few years, Zela Papageorgiou, to perform a program of contemporary solo percussion music (which actually includes a piece I wrote a few years ago for vibraphone and electronics that Zela suggested we perform together for this show).

Your work is site-specific. Tell us about the Norla Dome. What’s the space like and how did you first explore it for ideas and inspiration?

The Norla Dome is a really unique space – it’s a 100-year-old dome that was originally built as a gymnasium, but has really special acoustics because of the myriad sonic reflections you get that change drastically depending on where you are in the room. In the middle of the dome, for example, the slightest, quietest sound you make will sound extremely loud to you but not others, while creating many tiny echoes – these kinds of properties makes performing percussion music there particularly interesting and exciting, I think.

The dome’s shape also makes experiencing musical performances a little different to usual, because of its ‘endless’ circular nature which makes a multichannel performance perfect for it. It’s also full of natural light that comes in through the middle of the ceiling, so the times that I’ve seen it, it’s been a really inviting and fascinating space to be inside and explore.

The first time I was there, I basically just walked all around it making sounds with whatever I could, and tried to imagine the possibilities the space would offer. I’m sure I looked silly, but I came away very excited about it all.

It’s a Mission to Seafarers location – how have you also used the narrative of this historic building in your work? Or is your music more specific to the venue’s acoustics?

The music and performance is more specific to the acoustics and style of the building. Actually, most of my music does not involve a narrative or specific idea behind it, and is more about creating unique and arresting atmospheres and emotional states. A review of a recent live performance of mine called my music ‘glorious, stately ambience’, and I found it fitting that those same words can be applied to the location itself. I want to amplify those feelings of being inside such a special structure, including the peacefulness and the ‘glorious’ intensity of it, and its unique acoustic characteristics.

As a multichannel performance, it’s also about creating a very different experience for the audience, where they can hear music and sound coming from all around them, and move and explore the ways things will sound different depending on where they stand or sit or lie. People tend to sit or lie on the floor during my performances, so it’s nice to be performing in a space where this is actually encouraged and a comfortable thing to do.

It’s also my first time writing music for a multichannel setup, so that’s really influenced the music I’ve written, although I’m not making it the main focus of the music.

So what does your work sound like? How is it presented in an aesthetic sense?

Most people use the words ‘ambient’ and ‘experimental’ to describe my music, because it’s mostly electronic, mostly lacking a beat, and mostly floating around putting you in a dreamy state, perhaps. However, I don’t think my music is ambient in the sense that it’s not just background music to lull you to sleep – it’s actually very emotive and expressive music that often has a strong sense of propulsion forwards, with huge climaxes and build-ups of tension. People tell me they enter a very relaxed state during my performances and lose a sense of time, or could somehow sit there listening for hours, apparently, which may have something to do with the repetitiveness but gradual transformation of the musical ideas over time, and of course my intention to write beautiful, free-flowing music that people can get lost in. However, it does have a lot of intensity and roughness around the edges.

A really important aspect to my performances is the fact that a lot of it is semi-improvised with plenty of rhythmic freedom – I want to create a sense of constant, natural ebb and flow, while making each performance unique. Usually, I perform my music completely live on multiple synthesisers, with no prerecorded or sequenced elements so that all the sounds are created in real-time, which seems pretty unusual for electronic music. Unfortunately, I can’t do that completely for this performance if I’m really going to make use of the fact that I’m performing in quadraphonic sound. However, I will be performing the music in real-time as much as I can on the three keyboards that will be in front of me.

What do you hope audiences take away from the experience?

I think this a really special event because the classical and electronic music worlds rarely collide, and when they do it often feels not quite right. However, I actually consider this a really perfect pairing of performances because of the similarity in vision of myself and Zela. And the fact that we’ve put together a program of contemporary classical music that audiences who like my music would probably really enjoy or listen to at home, yet would rarely or never go out and experience live – especially not in this setting.

I’m also really happy that people who know my electronic music will get to hear my notated ‘classical’ music for the first time (which Zela and I will perform together), and perhaps it will broaden some people’s perspectives on what classical music can be. There might also be fans of contemporary classical music that don’t go out to experimental electronic gigs often and don’t know much about that world, so I hope it’s a unique experience for most audience members in that sense.

But generally, I hope it will be a special experience because of the music itself and the unique way it will be experienced, and because it’ll be a chance to hear a program of really amazing and contrasting contemporary percussion music chosen particularly for the dome, that really makes use of the strange sonic effects it offers. The most impactful performances that I’ve experienced have left me with a sense of wonder while really connecting emotionally to me in an indescribable way. So it would be amazing to me if audiences at this show can walk away with similar feelings.

Any parting words?

If you’re just a little bit curious and enjoy ambient or minimalist music such as Terry Riley, or if you like the music of Cage, Xenakis, or Pateras, I get the feeling you might have a good time at this show. There’ll be cushions and seats so you can get real comfy.

Zela Papageorgiou


Check out this Play On premiere in Melbourne Music Week this November 24 and 25. Full details can be found on Facebook. Melbourne percussionist Zela Papageorgiou will perform Fia Fiell’s music along with works by Cage, Xenakis, and Pateras.


Images supplied.

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