The Novice’s Guide to Change

Locally Sourced with John Parker

BY JOHN PARKER, COMPOSER

 

John Parker is one of the composers taking part in Locally Sourced – a Brisbane classical and jazz musician initiative from Ensemble Trivium. It’ll also feature works by composers Robert Davidson, Steve Newcomb, Rafael Karlen, and Thomas Green; along with fashion from designer Sharka Bosakova.

John, founder of Trichotomy and lecturer at Queensland Conservatorium, tells us about his work at the event – The Novice’s Guide to Change.

 

I was asked by Ensemble Trivium if I would like to write a piece for their concert series Locally Sourced. I mused for a long time on what that term could mean for me and how it would relate to a piece of music. Did the term have any particular significance for me, or rather just my thoughts on the contemporary community movement?

I became fixated with the notion that the most local anyone could get would be from within oneself. This worked in well with the large changes that were going on in my life, so I tried to draw upon this as inspiration for the piece, The Novice’s Guide to Change. I always felt like a beginner (or novice) when it comes to new situations or challenges. Hence the title.

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The piece forms a narrative, but is not meant to be completely autobiographical. I’m not sure how successful I’d be if I tried to express this in a piece of instrumental music, anyway. I didn’t want to impose a scenario or set program for the audience or players. I wanted to keep it open to interpretation, write material that elicited an emotional response in myself, and let the people experiencing the music make up their own minds as to what the piece means to them.

In relation to exploring change through music, this was probably one of the easiest and difficult things to portray. Change is easy. Play or stop playing: There’s some obvious change. But that’s a binary response. Change in real life is seldom like this. We experience nuance in almost every option presented to us. That’s where it gets difficult to express this through music. Hopefully some of this cognitive dissonance comes across in the piece.

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As an individual, I’m on an internal journey. I don’t see an end in sight to this. I want to develop as a person, better myself, try not to be too hard on myself or dwell in the past.

As a composer, I struggle even starting a piece. I self-sabotage, doubt myself, set unrealistic expectations, find it difficult to structure things, try and find easier ways to achieve excellent results, get depressed; generally have a good time of it. It’s not meant to be easy, right? But if something finally stands out, I can really enjoy seeing where it goes.

Eventually, when a work comes together, it’s immensely satisfying hearing and seeing the musicians perform your piece. You realise why you struggled and sweated over it so much, and crave the next opportunity to write something.

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Two of the instruments in The Novice’s Guide to Change were set – bassoon and flute, both of which I had only written very little for in the past. For the third instrument, we had the option of percussion or clarinet/bass clarinet. Even though I’d like to write for bass clarinet, I gravitated towards percussion. I come from a classical percussion and jazz drums background, so I thought marimba would provide an excellent compliment to the bassoon and flute.

As mentioned earlier, I really struggle with structure and form. There are just so many options. I eventually narrowed it down to six mini-movements to represent various stages of change. This made it a lot easier for me to focus on manageable chunks, rather than an imposing monolith 15-minute work looming like Mt Everest.

Compositionally, I take a lot of influence from Stravinsky and Prokoviev, but my range of influences are vast and varied. I listen to so many different genres, it’s hard to pinpoint things. Anything that makes the hair stand up of the back of my neck is a good starting place. That’s a real emotional response to music. If I can get that happening, then I’m on the right track. A large motivation to write this piece was from my internal journey and how it’s reflected in the real world. I’ve been reading a lot on the subject. I’m particularly drawn to Eastern philosophy.

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The Novice’s Guide to Change ranges from tonal to polytonal/atonal, rhythmic to free-time, groovy to super-groovy. I couldn’t help throwing some infectious rhythm in there. All my favourite composers and musicians have mastery over the combination of rhythm, harmony, and melody. I love how the three elements interplay to create a memorable piece of music. Much like the members of Ensemble Trivium: Even if the harmony or melody is on the outskirts of tonality, rhythm can pull it all together for the listener.

It’s been such an honour to be involved in Locally Sourced. We have so many fantastic composers in Brisbane let alone the rest of the country. It’s a great idea to showcase the talent that’s around you in your own city.

I’ve learnt to try to be kind to myself. Don’t start with a goal of writing something that sounds excellent. It already places the finishing line somewhere out of reach right from the start. There’s no substitute for hard work. It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be frustrating. Really frustrating! Just keep going. Something might come out of your hours of toil. Don’t get caught in polishing a single banister when you haven’t even built the staircase. Software is a necessary evil. Don’t let it bog down your writing process or let it distract you. Ask the musicians what they like and don’t like playing. What works well on their instruments. What are common mistakes that composers make that really annoy musicians. Be flexible.

I’m really excited about this premiere and to hear all the other pieces. I hope as many people from Brisbane come to the ABC on Sunday to hear all of the amazing works on show.

Ensemble Trivium captured by Chris Dixon

 

Locally Sourced will be held at the ABC Studio 420 at 3pm on December 3. 


Images supplied.

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