Syzygy presents new music from Cheney, Aronowicz, Lyon, and Sdraulig

A chat with the composers



Syzygy Ensemble will this week present a series of world premieres from some of the brightest living composers on the Australian music scene. The works, commissioned by Macedon Music for performance by Syzygy, come from Harry Sdraulig, May Lyon, Lisa Cheney, and Andrew Aronowicz.

Ahead of the Macedon Music Society – Glen Johnston Composition Award concert at Lowland Farm, Macedon on September 18, we speak with all four composers about their works.


Harry Sdraulig

HARRY SDRAULIG is a Melbourne composer of solo, chamber and orchestral music studying a Master of Music degree (Composition) at the University of Melbourne, supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award. Harry completed a Bachelor of Music (Honours) degree at the same university, and has previous studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Harry has received awards including the Adolph Spivakovsky Award for Composition (2013), the Frank Albert Prize for Music (2011), and the VCE Premier’s Award for Music Style and Composition (2009). He recently completed a commission for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2014 Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program, and has participated in the AYO National Music Camp Composition Program (2014) and the 3MBS Student Composer Project (2009). Harry has been commissioned by Plexus, the Syzygy Ensemble through Macedon Music, violinist Ole Bohn, Mads Sørensen (trumpet), Andrew Frampton (piano), Kim Falconer (flute), Leighton Triplow (tenor) and Alden Cai (horn). His Fanfare for 8 Trumpets was recently premiered at the 2015 Melbourne International Trumpet Festival, and his work Spells was recorded and toured internationally by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Brass Ensemble in 2014. In 2015, Harry’s Elegy In Memoriam Peter Sculthorpe was premiered by the University of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall, while his Sinfonietta was given two performances by the Zelman Symphony Orchestra. In 2016, trombonist Don Immel premiered Harry’s Trombone Concerto with the University of Melbourne Wind Symphony at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

What is the name of your piece for Syzygy’s upcoming concert?

Prisms for flute, violin and piano

In a nutshell: What’s it all about?

I wouldn’t say that the piece is ‘about’ anything in particular, but it does have a musical thread of sorts. As suggested by the title, much of the work focuses on the concept of musical colour. Take a prism, for example. A prism will separate a beam of light into its constituent spectrum of colours, in turn drastically transforming the visual appearance of the original beam and creating a spectacular display of colour. The ways in which the work’s musical objects (for example – melodies, chords or textures) are developed, dissected and transformed could be considered analogous to how a prism behaves.

Having said all that, I am a strong believer that music shouldn’t need an explanation or justification to be appreciated by the listener, regardless of genre. So basically what I’ve just said is largely irrelevant. I hope that it is heard and enjoyed for what it is – pure music!

What did you love about composing it?

It was a real thrill to write for the Syzygy Ensemble, and I thank Macedon Music enormously for this opportunity. They are an outstanding group with a real passion for today’s music, especially in the Australian scene. I’ve worked with Leigh Harrold many times in the past and he’s an absolutely world class pianist, though very modest about it! I hope the trio doesn’t mind that I’ve taken advantage of its fantastic virtuosity by writing quite a difficult piece. I always hope I can give players something to get their teeth into, something challenging enough. It seems to provide that extra buzz and energy in rehearsal and performance!

And what do you hope audiences will gain from the experience of listening to it?

I’m hoping that the audience will hear a sense of narrative or journey in the work. It’s in four movements, yes, but they’re linked together like a large panorama. It all starts with an intimate, gentle duet for piccolo and violin. Then comes the flickering Dance, where the piano joins in and everything happens at a frenetic pace. Then the third movement: a lyrical, more emotional Nocturne with a strong climax in the middle. This leads without a break into the finale – an intensely rhythmical Toccata, but with references to music from the opening three movements to round off the piece!


MAY LYON is a Melbourne composer studying her Masters in Composition at the University of Melbourne. May completed her BMus Honours in 2014 and has studied with Stuart Greenbaum, Elliott Gyger, and Andrian Pertout. From 2009-2012 May was the recipient of the Victor Fox Scholarship. In 2009, May received the Desma Woolcock Scholarship as well as the Adolf Spivakovsky Scholarship for Composition of Music for her acappella work verse re-rhymes, which was premiered by Ensemble 21 in August 2010.

May is part of Meld Ensemble, a collaboration with three other Melbourne composer/performers: David Campbell, Evan Gainsford, and Luke Hutton. In October 2014, May’s first orchestral work Orchestral Equations was work-shopped and recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey.

What is the name of your piece for Syzygy’s upcoming concert?


In a nutshell: What’s it all about?

Neheh explores five deities in the ancient Egyptian mythology, attempting to express their associated celestial bodies, elements, and/ or roles in Egyptian cosmogony. Amun-Ra: Sun – The Creator; Khonsu: Moon – The Marker of Time; Sekhmet: Goddess of War – Desert Fire / The Lioness; Shu: God of Air; and Osiris: God of the Underworld – Death, Immortality & Resurrection. Although there is no exact translation, ‘neheh’ loosely represents Amun-Ra’s continuous travel through the sky and the underworld.

What did you love about composing it?

What I loved about composing Neheh was creating within the strict parameters that I gave myself and then making it work. I got a little (delightfully) lost in the technical details of Khonsu, as there are rhythmic, melodic and mathematical restrictions governing the whole section. I also enjoyed developing the finer details and articulations that bring each movement to life.

And what do you hope audiences will gain from the experience of listening to it?

At some level, composers all hope audiences will simply enjoy and understand our music. At the least I hope some of the listeners can lose themselves in the deeper moments, and perhaps tap their foot or be inspired by those that are faster paced. I always hope the that the performers have fun playing it as well.

Lisa Cheney
LISA CHENEY is a Melbourne composer who has written for a variety of mediums including orchestra, chamber ensemble, choir, ballet, theatre, short film, animation and electronic tracks for live performance collaborations. Her composition accolades include the Glen-Carter Varney Award for Composition (2009), first places at the MTAQ Gold Coast Composers’ Competition and the ASME Young Composer’s Competition (2004-2010), the Bill Murray Encouragement Award for Composition (2009), first prize at the Keys Festival for Australian Music (2006), the Griffith University Owen Fletcher Postgraduate Award (2008), an Australia-Korea Foundation Scholarship (2011), The Silver Harris and Jeff Peck Composition Prize (2014) and the Festival of Slow Music Quiddity Composition Prize (2015). She has participated in the 2010 Atlantic Music Festival (Maine, USA), the 2012 Australian Youth Orchestra National Music Camp, the 2013 Brevard Music Centre Institute (North Carolina, USA), the 2013 Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Cybec 21st Century Composers’ Program and the 2015 Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s Composers’ School. Her work The Pool and the Star, written as part of the Cybec Program, was most recently selected by the MSO for performance at the Metropolis New Music Festival under the baton of Finnish maestro Olli Mustonen.

Cheney is the co-director and partner of Making Waves, a new online space dedicated to the discovery and promotion of new Australian music composers. She is also a tutor for Composition Studies and Music Language at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Melbourne University. In 2016 – 2017 she will have works performed by Gemma Tomlinson, Melbourne Chamber Choir, Melbourne Conservatorium Wind Symphony, Kupka’s Piano, Syzygy, Australian Discovery Orchestra and attend the 2016 New Music Workshop at the Yale Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

What is the name of your piece for Syzygy’s upcoming concert?

The work I have written is titled Hold Me Not Back, for flute/alto flute, cello and piano.

In a nutshell: What’s it all about?

I took the title from a line in a poem by Derek Bourne-Jones called No Distant Place. When I first read the poem it was in a rather unusual location; standing in the middle of a beautiful cemetery visiting family plots with my Mum. It is interesting to me, now looking back, that by reading the words of the poem in this environment influenced me to interpret the meaning and subtext in a certain romantic way. The poem begins with the line, ‘If, dear one, I should die, my constant prayer will be that you share my belief and know the reason why you must go on, and live’. Powerful stuff, right?

Standing in that hallowed garden surrounded by strong emotions and memories, the words seemed quite fitting – a romantic and sweet gesture asking the poets partner to live on without him. At the time, I found it so fruitful for inspiration that I wrote two movements of music based on the text for another wonderful Melbourne ensemble, Plexus, in the beginning of 2015.

Thanks to this commission from Macedon Music and Syzygy Ensemble, I have been able to explore my ongoing fascinating journey with this poem – one I no longer feel the same romantic connection with. Over a year on, when I read the words I could not summon the feelings of sincerity and warmth that I had previously felt standing in that garden. Instead, Bourne-Jones’ words began to sound hollow and selfish. There is a line of text that I ended up incorporating into the work which best displays this: ‘But let me be assured, that one more gift you’ll give – That joyly you will live, and love the things I loved, and hope the hopes I held. I then shall ready be to wait at heaven’s gate, your soul’s approach to see’.

I find this passage so conflicting to read, even now. It’s clear that the poet was attempting to express kind thoughts and wishes. However, is it not selfish to ask his loved one to go on living by loving the things he loved and hoping the hopes he held? Would it not been more kind, thoughtful and loving to wish his partner live on by doing whatever made them happy? Perhaps I’m just getting more cynical as I grow older! However, I really loved being aware of this sensation of growth between readings.

What did you love about composing it?

As I composed, I revelled in the knowledge that as human beings we were was capable of reflecting, wallowing, fantasising and indulging ourselves in romantic sentimentality, even at the expense of others. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this at some time. I also really loved starting the work with a sense of indignation that spurred me to write some of the more gestural, forward moving music first. I also loved unashamedly writing the stuffing out of the flute’s role in this work – in a way, a tip of the hat to the self-centred tunnel vision of the poet that I was now reading in the poem.

The music is divided in to four small movements, each exploring a musical language that journeys through textural and delicate landscapes – at times reaching for the metaphorical afterlife, and at other times expressing indignation at the thought of someone naively suggesting that you should live the way they did. I pushed myself to try some new things and I can’t wait to hear if they work!

And what do you hope audiences will gain from the experience of listening to it? 

I hope that audiences can give themselves over and get lost in to the musical journey. As they do, I wonder if they too will ponder his space of confliction in love, life and death within the poem. It’s easy to understand where the poet was coming from, yet it’s also equally important to point out why his sentimental last wishes might have been more selfish than he knew.

Andrew Aronowicz. Photo: Greg Barrett.
Credit: Greg Barrett.

ANDREW ARONOWICZ holds a Master of Music from the University of Melbourne, and was an Australian Postgraduate Award recipient during his post-graduate candidature. He is also the recipient of an Australia Council ArtStart grant. Andrew has composed music for a number of major Australian ensembles and performers, and his music has been broadcast on 3MBS Fine Music Melbourne and around Australia on ABC Classic FM. He has received various commissions, from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Cybec Foundation, Arts Centre Melbourne, Syzygy Ensemble, Forest Collective and Sarah Curro (violinist), among others. His music has been performed as part of the Melbourne Metropolis New Music Festival and the SoundSCAPE Festival in Maccagno Italy, and he has been a participant in Speak Percussion’s Emerging Artists program and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Composer School.

This year in 2016, Andrew has been commissioned to write new works for Plexus Ensemble, and also for Syzygy Ensemble as part of the Macedon Music Festival. Andrew is also excited to be composer in residence for a second year at the 42nd annual Border Music Camp in Albury. You can read more in our interview about Blackbird in the Garden

What is the name of your piece for Syzygy’s upcoming concert?

The piece is titled Gossamer, for alto flute, cello and piano.

In a nutshell: What’s it all about?

I suppose I like to evoke other worlds in my music. And in Gossamer, this world is white and silver, and impossibly bright and ethereal. The word ‘gossamer’ means the lightest spider silk. But it is also associated with shimmering, diaphanous veils, and there’s even an insect called a ‘gossamer-wing’ – another name for the damselfly, whose wings are translucent. These various associations of the word ‘gossamer’ inspire the instrumental colours, textures, and melodic lines I use to form the piece.

In the work, I experiment with the cello and alto flute playing the quietest possible sounds. The cello bow is almost constantly flirting with the very edge of the instrument’s bridge, while the alto flute’s tone quivers on the threshold between air and pitch. These two instruments interact playfully throughout the piece, like two fluttering insects, with the melodies becoming increasingly excited and energised as the piece continues.

The piano’s role is usually to provide colour and shade. I make regular use of a drinking glass stroked on the strings of the piano to produce haunting and otherworldly sound effects. Towards the end of the piece, I introduce quite a special sound: a small collection of cello bow hairs, stroked on the strings of the piano, creating a gentle wash of colour and sound.

What did you love about composing it?

This is actually the first piece I’ve composed whilst travelling overseas – in fact, for most of the compositional process, I was participating in a summer school for young composers, in a small town outside of Warsaw, Poland. I didn’t have my usual tools, like my piano, my desk, or the generous desk space in my home studio. But I was in the perfect environment for composing – attending lectures, rehearsals and workshops of new music with some leading voices in contemporary composition, as well as bouncing ideas off other participants in the summer school.

There are numerous techniques and colours, which would never have made their way into the music, had I not attended that summer school. So while it was a bit stressful trying to finish it overseas, I feel the music has still been shaped in various ways by my experiences there, and that’s a fantastic thing, really.

And what do you hope audiences will gain from the experience of listening to it?

I hope the audience finds it intriguing. There are a number of non-traditional sounds used in the piece, and I think overall the work is quite subtle and gentle, so they shouldn’t find it too hostile. I’m a huge fan of any piece that creates an atmosphere in which I can dwell, and which inspires my imagination. I suppose I would love this to be the audience’s experience – that they feel free to create their own images and interpretations, whilst listening to my musical spider silk.


Listen to these works at Syzygy Ensemble’s performance for the Macedon Music Society – Glen Johnston Composition Award. Lowland Farm, Macedon at 2.30pm, September 18. Tickets online

For the month of October, Syzygy will offer its digital album Making Signs for free to The Committed CutCommon subscribers. Click here to learn more how you can subscribe to CutCommon, and you could access this release with works by Katy Abbott, Brett Dean, Gordon Kerry, and more.


Images supplied.

Listen up!

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