Ruth Thomas spoke to two composers, Kate Milligan and Nate Wood, who are current students at the UWA School of Music and will be featured in Tura’s Totally Huge New Music Festival Breaking Out concert.
Ruth Thomas: Can you tell me a bit about your piece?
Kate Milligan: My piece is for electronic media, snare drum, and bass clarinet. The premise of the work is taking speeches from vocal Australians who are political in some way and extracting words from those speeches and reshaping them such that the words are no longer recognisable, but the tone of the voice is still there. You might think ‘I recognise that from somewhere’ but you’re not sure where from. The material is from people that I like and whose opinions reflect my own, so there are a lot of politicians, public speakers, and people who have loud opinions. I’ve tried not to inject too much politics into the work, which is why the words are deliberately unrecognisable. I think to overtly politicise your work is not my style, but I like people to read into it what they will upon listening to it. The instrumental component has improvisation, so I chose the snare drum to reflect the consonants – the hard sounds – and the bass clarinet for the vowels. It’s a bit of an experiment – this is the first time I’ve worked with electronic media really, as I normally only work with acoustic instruments.
Nate Wood: My piece is for piano and percussion. The percussion part is temple blocks and wood blocks. The piece doesn’t have any explicit extra-musical connotations, but it deals with gesture. The score is graphically notated, so instead of depicting melody and what specific notes to play, it depicts the dynamics and speed that the performer should play as a graph, which means you can be more precise than when using conventional notation. The indeterminate aspect makes it different every time the piece is played, and there’s an increased complexity from the interaction of the rhythmic parts.
What is your process for composing?
Kate: This is the first time I’ve incorporated a heavily weighted improvisational aspect into my work, and I think because of that the work belongs as much to the performers as it does to me. Since the 1950s music has had a lot more back and forth between composers and performers, especially in performance art, and collaboration makes for the best results.
Nate: I mainly wrote the piece before the rehearsal process, but I’ve changed a number of things, three main things, since the rehearsal process began. There’s always a balance between what you can achieve on the night, and what you aspire to achieve, and that’s important when producing a piece because if you have something that you know you can’t get done – like specific passages which are hard to get together in an ensemble setting, with a lot of difficult interlocking rhythms which are just not possible to get done without hours and hours and hours of rehearsals then there’s no reason to keep them. And there’s always going to be things that you hear and go, ah that looked better on the page.
Do you ever revise your work post-performance?
Kate: I tend to have that perfectionist attitude, and I think with any creative process you can’t be too complacent and you always have to be self-criticising to improve, so I tend to leave a piece for a couple of months, and then rethink it – see it as a constant process. I mean, you always have deadlines, ‘cause that’s the way the world works, so I guess it’s just about walking the line between those two mentalities.
Nate: I wouldn’t go back to it after and say, actually I want to completely change it now. If it is going to be performed again I might, when we start rehearsing again, go well this didn’t work last time so we’ll change it this time. I like the idea that you can keep multiple editions of each work, where it’s like this was what it was like once, and not just throwing it away and saying I don’t like it anymore, I don’t want that. You have to acknowledge that it is part of the process and part of the history of your expression.
Kate: Especially as students it’s important to know where you’re coming from, and to know what made a change happen – that’s part of the learning process.
How do you consider your audiences when you’re writing music?
Nate: I think you always have to take into account and write something appropriate to the context, and that doesn’t mean saying “I’m afraid of any kind of negative reaction, so I’m just going to write a sonata, classic, whatever”. You wouldn’t write a piece for 50 electric guitars all making as much sound as possible cause obviously –
Kate: That piece sounds amazing.
Nate: Although yeah that sounds good, maybe I would do that in a different context. It’s also just as much about the performers, which is another kind of dichotomy you have to deal with as it’s a threeway between the composer, the performer, and the audience, and it’s just about getting that balance right.
Kate: There are lots of composers who don’t really bother looking after their audiences in terms of what an audience wants and their aesthetic tastes, but I had a recent revelation when my grandmother came along to the Ransom Prize Concert last year, and she just had no idea what was going on, so now the standard for me is something that my grandma can enjoy, then I’m happy with it. I don’t think that restricts pushing music into new areas, or prevents creativity. The piece I wrote for the Ransom Prize this year my Grandma really enjoyed, and I’m personally really proud of that piece.
Nate: Yeah that piece was fantastic.
How did you like working with student performers?
Kate: My performers are fantastic; we have Eljo Agenbach, a second year at the UWA School of Music, who’s very versatile and one of the most productive members of Perth’s New Music community, and my percussionist Ben Green is part of an improvisation ensemble, and is very open to this genre of improv, and I found working with them really fantastic.
Nate: I’ve got Mae Anthony and Claire Orman – it is their first time playing new music, but they’re both really open to it and it’s coming along well.
How do you find the Classical New Music scene in Perth?
Kate: I think for a relatively small and isolated city we have a lot of opportunities. I wouldn’t say we’re saturated with opportunities, but I would say there’s a limit to what Perth can hold, and Tura is amazing – these eleven day events are so great. What Ii’d like to see is a bit more student activity around New Music, with a few more student driven things
Nate: Yeah Tura is this driving force behind it New Music in Perth. Earlier this year WASO did the Berg violin concerto as well as the Beethoven triple concerto, which are complete opposite things, and I think the Beethoven got all the love.
Kate: yeah WASO tends to program their new commissioned works with things like a Tchaikovsky symphony in order to just get people along. Our teacher Jim Ledger was programmed with Tchaikovsky 6 or 5, and he was sitting in the audience – – his piece was first before interval, and the Tchaikovsky was after interval, and after the interval a man sitting behind Jim leans over to his partner and goes “Now that’s how you write a symphony” knowing that Jim was sitting right in front of him. You get a bit of a mixed bag with these things, but that’s a whole different can of worms – how to market new music.
Do you see much crossover between contemporary classical and experimental music?
Kate: It’s pretty seamless – they seem to occupy the same space. I would call both experimental.
Nate: I don’t even really think there’s any distinction. What is classical? I mean, it’s in a big hall or something?
Kate: I’d prefer to call it New Music because we’re in an era where anything goes just so long as it’s thoughtful and considered. The way we’re taught to think about art is just the thinking behind it and the processes the rigour. I think a composition degree is not really a skills based degree, but more of a philosophical approach to music – it teaches you to be critical about music, it teaches you a specific way about thinking about music that you can’t get from a performance degree.
Kate: we’ve got a set at RTRfm’s big 40th birthday event – we’ll be on the Difficult Listening show. My work in this concert is half of a whole, so on Difficult Listening I’ll be doing the whole work. I’ve got a graduation recital coming up, so this work will also be played again as part of that.
Nate: I’ll be doing an improv set with Eljo Agenbach, and I am planning a show over the summer with improved musician and dancers. I’m also looking at going to Germany and the Darmstadt course. If I can wrangle that it could be really good.
Kate: Yeah a lot of big names have come out of there. Next year I’ll be doing my musicology honours, looking at women in music. I’d like to study with Liza Lim who is based in Sydney and would be amazing as a teacher. There’s so many options to look at overseas. I think to be a really well rounded artist, especially in Australia, you need to travel, to get to Europe, expand your cultural perspective.
Interview by Ruth Thomas