The Silence of Thousands – new song cycles and hip modern chamber music

The name of the next Hourglass Ensemble tour comes from the title of my newest commission, the song cycle for mezzo soprano and chamber group.  I was at a barbecue early this year and heard a true story from a cruise ship entertainer – that a man leapt overboard in the middle of the ocean, in the nighttime.  An extraordinary situation followed – the boat was turned around, all noise was stopped, from engines to music to conversation, and any willing passengers were asked to step up to the railings and observe for signs of the passenger.

The end of the the real story was that the man WAS FOUND!  Apparently he told someone that the moment he jumped, he changed his mind.  What fascinated me about the story was two-fold – why we act so rashly when we are in two minds, and what it might feel like, not just sound-wise, to have thousands of people silently straining their sense in the coldness of an ocean.

The music is at times vigorous, like the smashing of a ship on waves.  It also references the entertainment on board the cruise, before turning to floating introspection – a view back up through green water to the yellow moon, living in the land of dolphins and mermen.

This concert will also be a bit of a dream come true for some of us, for Ewa playing Carl Vine’s flute sonata (although she did perform it three times in Poland), and for me finally getting to do Michael Torke’s very groovy “Telephone Book” – check it out on YouTube!



Explaining the narrative – from Poland to the Underworld

Phew!  So glad to be home from the Hourglass Ensemble’s big Polish tour, where Ewa and I collaborated with Anna Mrutkowska-Schock (piano) and Malwina Lipiec (harp), both professors at the Academy of Music in Wroclaw – exporting recent and premiere pieces by Andrew Ball, Carl Vine, Colin Brumby, Kris Spike, and me.

JOURNEY TO THE UNDERWORLD is our next tour, joining with Barega Saxophone Quartet from Queensland as we did in 2014, for shows in Brisbane (St Andrews Southbank) on 24 July and Sydney (Utzon Room) on 31 July.  The title comes from a world premiere of Andrew Ball’s new piece for flutes, clarinets, and saxophone quartet.  We have been perfecting our own parts and are very excited to hear it all for the first time next Friday at rehearsal in Brisbane!

HGE Barega 570w 320h second

Andrew Ball does tend to write highly explicitly narrative music, this time addressing mythological aspects of the afterlife, and how they are represented in ancient Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, Nordic and Chinese legends.  But it’s not only him that tells exotic stories with music – Margery Smith’s premiere work is “Fly Away”, about when you just want to scream, bash your hand on the wall, and escape!  And my new piece, “Sunken City”, is about a real Atlantis, the city of Port Royal, Jamaica, that was consumed by the ocean in an earthquake in 1904.  There are other Australian composers to be presented, Gilmour, Lam, and Garton, before adding a few of our foreign favourites – Ligeti, Piazzolla, and best of all Ginastera, with a very pastoral and poetic sonic description of the Argentinian grasslands, “Impresiones de la Puna” for solo flute with saxophone quartet.

Ink Games

Coming up fast, the first concert series of the year with the Hourglass Ensemble!  I’m looking forward to some experimentation on stage, as the “Games” referred to require us to play and interact with ourselves and the audience in unorthodox ways – playing music the moment it is written onto the page, busking, folk music, translating visual art to aural, and making a bridge between music, literature, and emotions.  The rehearsals have been very stirring stuff.  And I get to have a quick flash on piano, too, albeit as a backup to the amazing Gregory Kinda…

There is of course a lot of other more traditionally organised music.  Since Michelle Urquhart and I are playing the Bruch double concerto for clarinet and viola with orchestra in May, we’re including it in Ink Games.  Bruch’s music is lyrical, colourful, and beautiful, with the typical romantic era shading of solemnity and desperation up until cheekiness and joy.  It’s like an operetta for a woodwind and a string soloist.  We might ham up the drama a little bit.

And as is the mission of Hourglass, we have a small stack of Australian works, from Spike, Hair, and Holley, written in the last 20 years, and showing radically different approaches to modern art music composition.  Spike’s Ecosaisse is very sweet and evocative, a sweeping dance, showcasing Ewa Kowalski on flute.  Holley’s trio sans piano, Edward Harvey Portrait, is a pointed splash of abstract textures – we’ve been thinking and discussing at length what the meaning of it all is!… but we’ve grown to love it.  Then, Graeme Hair’s Frenzy and Folly, Fire and Joy is a wild mix of the most outgoing clarinet personalities, probably somewhat reflective of my own nature!

Hourglass Beach – composer’s perspective, what’s it all about?

In my music career I’ve swung around from clarinet to singing to composition, and played solo recitals and with massive orchestras.  Definitely the most wonderful moments are the first time you hear someone else play your music, and when people respond to a performance of your new piece.  I especially like blending less common combinations, and that’s why in the Hourglass Ensemble performances you will always enjoy woodwind, strings, and piano, often with voice.

I believe that art music should express modern ideas, real stories, and profound emotions, just like visual arts, theatre, and dance.  We shouldn’t shy away from talking about death, the environment, justice, fear, and hope for the future.  Since I went to Africa in 2014, and through new friendships and relationships, I have started feeling very uncomfortable with inequality in the world, and the damage caused by the first world in exploiting resources and poorer nations.

“Hourglass Beach” is a response to my concerns.  It is, like all my other song cycles, a very personal story, with unquestionable autobiographical elements.  A man realises that the lies sold to the first world citizens about growth, consumption, and luxury, to control their behaviour, are much more poisonous than the simple lies we tell to children to make them grow into responsible adults.  The system Australians and others live in is directly causing death and suffering of many vulnerable people, and yet we ourselves are expected to assuage our guilt by volunteering and donating to charity.  But isn’t it the responsibility of our government to start changing the system?

In my composition, the solution the protagonist finds is to flee to a distant place, of tranquility, freedom, and absolution of guilt.  Wracked by regret, he hears a faint song in an unknown language, calling him from far across the water.  He picks up a shell, treasured from his childhood, and listens to the ocean… he is magically absorbed into the dark interior of the shell, and is transformed into a black and white hourglass dolphin (a real species, living in the Southern Ocean).  From there he flees through the dark seas for thousands of miles, to find Hourglass Beach.  There he will end his days, denying rescue, bonding with a variety of animals, in fact blending himself in with the environment.  This is the fourth world – unseen and uncontactable, he fades from the memory of others, and lets his identity and relationships slip away.

What his fate is, we will not know.  Perhaps it was a dream?  Perhaps he went insane?  Or maybe he really did flee, and killed himself on a remote island, or maybe he lived a long natural life.

Hourglass Beach – rehearsing new contemporary music

On Friday 16 October and Friday 23 October my chamber group, the Hourglass Ensemble, will play two performances in Sydney, with three big world premiere commissions.  What’s it like to rehearse brand new music for the first time?

A living composer doesn’t have all the history, honour, and assumptions available, compared to the great writers. When you play Beethoven or Brahms you know basically how to play it.

This week on Monday and Tuesday we played Smith, Kennedy, and Rosiak, along with the well-known grand Aussie Sculthorpe, and all of their works were unknown – the harmony, rhythm, ideas, voicing, narrative … every element could be radically different to our past experience, and that’s why contemporary music is the highest challenge for musicians!

However, we’re not daunted, we love exploring these new worlds and learning rapidly to interact, converting notes on page to a story, and to art.  It’s akin to the explorers of the 17th and 18th century finding other continents – novel, but still on Earth – next to those in the 21st century who are bending frontiers in space and in quantum mechanics.  So many weird and beautiful things to discover!

Music, life, and community

Doctors in tune: Medicos and musicians Andrew Kennedy and Saras Cauhan.

“She’s definitely in tune with her patients!” Picture: Jane Dyson

I see myself as an artist working in sound and storytelling.  When I think about the audience, I always consider, how do Australians generally consume their art music?  Many people only go to one classical concert in a year, but are often exposed to it through other media such as film, or on special life occasions like birthdays, weddings, funerals, or perhaps as a tool to augment or diminish emotions.  We musicians also use it to heal, inspire, and draw attention to political and social issues.  So, I work towards balance between artistic and intellectual satisfaction, and the context-sensitive satisfying experience for the listener.

One of my favourite times of year involves a most grand engagement with community – playing with the various Doctors Orchestras.  There are chapters representing New South Wales, Victoria, Australia, and even the “World”.  Later this year the I’ll play Mahler in Barbados, and Beethoven in Brisbane, but just recently the NSWDO raised $10,000+ for the charity PRaMM, “Perinatal Research and Maternal Medicine”, at Royal North Shore hospital, and $10,500 for the Sydney Eisteddfod Instrumental Scholarship.  See the link below, where I was featured in the St George area newspaper, spruiking the performance.  And in a few weeks I’ll be judging the heats, and on 21 August the grand final, of the scholarship.  That will be an amazing night of music!

St George Leader newspaper online story for NSW Doctors’ Orchestra

Info and tickets for Friday 21 August – Sydney Eisteddfod Instrumental Scholarship


Le Voyageur… – what’s it all about?

Why do I have an actor in my latest concert series?

Glad you asked! – the piece “Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano” by Darius Milhaud is actually part of the incidental music for the play “Le Voyageur Sans Bagage” by Jean Anouilh. Both written in 1937, the music and play describe the darkly comedic search for identity of an amnesiac French soldier.

It’s always a thrill for me as an artist to cross-collaborate, especially with non-musicians. Upon finding this opportunity to involve my friends from the drama world, I knew we could enhance the music and make it more than just a “recital” to be appreciated formally, from a distance. French-Australian actor Yoann Bretonnet presents Gaston and other characters alongside the charming, sunny music of Milhaud, giving a taste of the original theatrical event and providing more intimate access to the narrative behind the notes.

When Gaston arrives in a town that could well be his home from before the Great War, 18 years ago, any family that lost a son, brother, or husband naturally wants to claim him. What he hoped to an enlightening time turns into a tiresome slog and almost a farce, as he meets with hundreds of grieving people with no remote connection to him.

But suddenly the light of recognition goes on, Gaston meets “The Duchess” and she introduces him to the Reynouds, who seem to have not only the feelings but the evidence that he belongs with them. Initially dubious, he becomes happy and excited. Then these emotions turn full circle to dread as the shameful secrets and truly wicked actions of his supposed past self, “Jacques”, are revealed. So…. should he accept himself, and this shady identity? Or could he take a chance with a blank slate?

Le Voyageur Sans Bagage – Milhaud, Bruch, Schumann, world premieres, and surprise favourites, 18 and 19 April 2015, Sydney.


Sweet and romantic date!

Ready for the easiest and best value date EVER? Tomorrow (Sunday 15 March) for $30 you get an exceptional classical chamber music concert in North Sydney, brilliant musicians who you can meet afterwards, and all right near heaps of cool lunch-spots, the train station, and watering holes for post-performance libations! This will make a fully impressive experience for your current squeeze, your life partner, or even you and your mum or the young budding musicians in your family.

It’s a the first in my series of three concerts in March/April featuring Bruch, Milhaud, Beethoven, Schubert, and more, with Yoann Bretonnet, James Beach, Tracey Tsang, Ben Chan, Kian Woo, and Michelle Urquhart.

Le Voyageur Sans Bagage

“The Traveller Without Luggage” – a soldier with no memory chooses between his past and a new identity. Sydney’s finest soloists present a dramatic concert of Milhaud’s incidental music from Jean Anouilh’s classic play, for actor, clarinet, strings, and piano, plus celestial masterworks by Bruch and Schumann, and Australian world premiere commissions, all with the shimmering backdrop of the harbour.

My next series of chamber music and solos visits the iconic Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House, the charming, intimate Independent Theatre in North Sydney, and the glorious acoustics of the Pitt Street Uniting Church.

After World War I a French soldier remains in limbo, unable to remember his family, home, or even his self. Finally with a single clue to his hertiage he takes a risk to discover who he was decades before. However, he had not considered that there could be memories in the past that would be unwelcome guests in his future, or perhaps that he would be an irresistible symbol for many people of a lost son brought back from the edge of hope.

Written in 1936, the concert centrepiece, the suite from Le Voyageur Sans Baggage by Jean Anouilh, author of landmark theatre works including Antigone and Eurydice. Darius Milhaud wrote sunny, sentimental, and witty music to illustrate the tale of an amnesiac solider trying to find his forgotten place from eighteen years ago.  What starts as a light comedy evolves into a heavy drama, meditating on youth, identity, and memory.

In addition to the masterworks of Bruch and Schumann, I am thrilled to be bringing to the performances Andrew Ball, leading young composer and virtuosic contemporary saxophonist from Brisbane, to attend his world premiere.  Andrew has a dazzling deft compositional voice, and has keenly turned it from single-reed instruments to the unusual combination of three stringed instruments with piano four hands.  He writes solid, riff-based, layered and shifting music, and uncannily changes the timbres of instruments, warping them into a soundscape that will charge and inspire you.

GUEST ARTISTS; Tracey Tsangviolin; Michelle Urquhartviola; Benjamin Chanpiano; Kian Woopiano; Andrew Ballcomposer; Yoann Bretonnetactor; James Beachdirector


PROGRAM includes…

Schumann – violin sonata

Bruch – eight pieces for clarinet, viola, and piano

Milhaud – suite for clarinet, violin, and piano

Kennedy – “Sun and Moon” for clarinet, strings, and piano four-hand

Ball – new work for strings and piano four-hand


Jekyll and Hyde live soundtrack

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 6.58.34 pmA world premiere of this version of the 1920 silent film, derived from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore – AND also of the brand new live musical soundtrack.

Andrew will be working for the first time with noted Australian composer and musicologist Karen Lemon, who has imagined a soundscape of love, exoticism, vaudeville, torment, and terror, played by a quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.

Grab you tickets for the performance at 7.30pm on Wednesday 26 November via the Pozible link on the right side of this page, and take the opportunity to pre-order the live DVD.  Other details can be found at the Seymour Centre website.