A finishing school for composers of orchestral music has existed for some time in Australia, and most of our renowned composers are alumni. For the past eight years, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has hosted it with financial support of Symphony Australia.
I received my first book on orchestration (by Walter Piston for those taking notes) as a teenager, and was fascinated with the idea of manipulating the sonorities of an entire orchestra. That fascination has never left me (although the copy of the Piston has – if you have it, please return it). Last year I submitted a score for the TSO Composers’ School which was not accepted, but I did take up an invitation to spend a few days in Hobart as an observer. This 2013 experience taught me a great many valuable things, not least of which was an understanding of the criteria my music would have to meet to be accepted the following year. This could be called ‘the invisible brief’ and is a familiar enough idea to artists in all media.
The score of my piece ‘Angelus’ was submitted in January and accepted. This made me extremely excited. Soon after my tutor for this event, the wise and encouraging Andrew Schultz, started the email lessons. And some of them were very frank lessons, but this is not kindergarten and there is no time to waste. I also received my orchestration assignment – the second half of Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet’ to be orchestrated in the style of Ravel himself. Oh, and can we have a score for this in ten days? Why, yes; yes you can. Did I mention that this is not kindergarten and there is no time to waste? I found this slight tinge of bootcamp and the implicit expectation that I could and would complete these difficult tasks in the limited time allowed exhilarating.
Over the subsequent weeks, I prepared a final version of scores and parts for the event. This presented one of the hardest challenges of all – finding a printer who can has B4 paper and can bind A3 on the long side.
As one of four participating composers, I was provided with my flights and accommodation. The observers have to pay their own way. When I arrived at Hobart, there was a driver waiting with my name on a piece of cardboard, just like in the movies. No lie. I was also given an apartment bigger and better than my own. Totally rockstar – a composer could get used to this.
The slight feeling of being a someone continued the next day when the TSO gave us access to their security systems which are fingerprint activated. Rockstar and astronaut. We then had some time with the thoroughly professional conductor Hamish McKeich who asked perceptive and penetrating questions. There was then a longer session called ‘score exchange’ at which the participant composers introduced our pieces to one another. It is always interesting to watch a gathering of composers – it is like a gathering of cats in that we all watch one another extremely carefully to see what will happen next. It was reassuring to see no fur flying for the entire week and we all got along very well indeed. This long session, guided by our excellent tutors Andrew Schultz and James Ledger, focussed very heavily on the technical; the correct way to notate certain effects, the vital importance of clear parts for the musicians and the paramount importance of keeping those musicians happy.
After lunch and smiley welcomes from the high-ups in the TSO, one of the big moments of the week had arrived – the first rehearsal of our pieces with the full orchestra. The pieces were rehearsed in alphabetical order by composer (one of those rare occasions when I wished my name was Yateman), so up I went first. And by ‘up’ I mean sitting on a stool next to the conductor, a stool that became known as the electric chair. I am not a person who is easy to intimidate and very little frightens me (apart from clowns, obviously), but that first read-through was a little harrowing. The musicians of the TSO are wonderful players and are friendly and supportive. However, like all orchestral musicians, their time for rehearsal is extremely limited and they are apt to be impatient with any notation which is not perfectly clear. So the questions came, “why are there only 3 beats in this 4/4 bar?”, “please rewrite our parts with page turns that we can manage”, “Why is there a ¾ time signature when we are already in ¾?”, “how do you expect me to play this impossible passage?” and so on. I learned more in that twenty minutes than in half a semester of lectures. Hard lessons, but valuable and welcome ones too. I no longer felt even slightly rockstar-astronaut. The rest of the day consisted of receiving some useful tips from the sympathetic librarian (including when and where to find him the following day to print my rewrites) and rewrites.
The following three days fell into a pattern of full rehearsal, demonstrations from the principal players and private tutorials with the two expert composers. There were also sessions best described as ‘lecture-rehearsals’ in which James and Andrew had a piece each played through by the orchestra with commentary from the composers. Their pieces differed substantially in style and idiom, but were identical in the quality of their presentation. There were no ambiguities of notation, no questions or misunderstandings from the orchestra and nothing but flawless clarity in their scores and parts. Another lesson. Goodness, my brain is getting as full as my notebook.
The main event each day was the full orchestra call to rehearse the student works. In total, the orchestra spent nearly two hours on each of our works which, for a student composer, is lavish indeed. Naturally, our pieces sounded better and better each time and it wasn’t long before each of these full rehearsals was a genuine thrill. The orchestra, too, became more relaxed as the week wore on and it was good to be able to make and strengthen professional connections with some of the players.
I also got interviewed by the ABC’s music man in Hobart who wanted to put together a package of interviews and our pieces for Classic FM to consider broadcasting. This is an excellent idea. Yes indeed, an outstanding idea.
By Friday by poor brain was really feeling the strain. It was interesting to reflect on how wrong I was when I first saw the schedule for the week and thought ‘that doesn’t look very demanding’. Friday evening, though, saw the ‘public outcome’ of the week. About fifty invited guests were in the TSO rehearsal studio to hear us talk about our works and our week and to hear the TSO play the pieces themselves. The ABC recorded this event so we can have excellent quality recordings of our works. They also consider future broadcast of the pieces. Did I mention this is an excellent idea?
It was a great joy for all four of us to hear such a wonderful orchestra and conductor play our pieces; it has been a long time since I first dipped into Professor Piston’s orchestration book and started dreaming. After the performance, there was a drinks thing at which we had strict orders to mingle and schmooze – not things I always find easy, but there was a very buoyant mood in the room. After a very convivial dinner with my sister- and brother-composers, the week was over.
This week is one of the most instructive experiences an emerging composer can undergo. To the great credit of the organisers, participants can be Australian composers of any age (so refreshing not to encounter that piece of narrow-minded bigotry) who may or may not be enrolled on courses of study. This event has been on the musical landscape for years now and it is time it became much more of a landmark.
Jim Coyle is a Sydney-based composer, teacher and student. He is currently completing his MMus degree at Sydney Conservatorium.