This weekend, one of the most ambitious commissioning projects in Australian history will take over Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent. The ANAM Set is a series of 67 works by Australian composers, who were commissioned to write a six- to eight-minute piece of music for each of the 67 musicians training at the Australian National Academy of Music in 2021.

This week, Limelight will feature the stories of five pairs of composers and performers, learning more about their work, their process of collaboration, and what they learned about themselves – and each other – through this process. Today we talk to composer Bruce Crossman about his piece Fragility and Sonorousness, written for pianist Kane Chang.

Composer Bruce Crossman, whose piece <i>Fragility and Sonorousness</i> will be performed as part of <i>The ANAM Set</i>. Photo © Vincent Tay.

Composer Bruce Crossman, whose piece Fragility and Sonorousness will be performed as part of The ANAM Set. Photo © Vincent Tay.

What does this project mean to you?

Bruce: It is an exciting opportunity to work with a brilliant young Australian pianist, Kane Chang, and be part of a wider cultural creativity statement in Australia on being resilient and transcending the lockdowns, deaths and uncertainty (a liminal space) of the depressing devastation of the worldwide pandemic. It was also wonderful to be paired with an Australian pianist who is not only of superb technical virtuosity but with whom we share values about the spiritual qualities of sound, its vibrancy as a sonic product in itself, and resonances with his Chinese heritage and my work for many years in East Asia, especially working with my friend Chiu Tan Ching, a Hong Kong-based guzheng (a traditional Chinese zither) performer in the Hong New Music Ensemble.

It means a lot to me that the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) would treat us both with such artistic respect and profile our work in this amazing ANAM Set Festival. When I heard Kane’s premiere of our music late last year, I was stunned; it seemed to me there was this massive strength and virtuosity, cheeky dance intrusions and held back understatements, that allowed the piece to take on an explosive structural sonic quality in his interpretation – something that told me we can still be creative within the depressing liminal space of the pandemic and come up with music together that is sonorously resilient.

Kane: It is a quite interesting experience for me to be involved in a piece through the entire process of composing it. Composers like Chopin and Rachmaninov used to ask friends sighting reading a draft of their new compositions and took their feedback into account when finalising the work. This project is one step even further: the composer and performer have already communicated their thoughts before the work has even began. Therefore, I had a sense of familiarity when I played it for the first time, like my fingers have already touched those notes in a dream. 

How did you approach the collaboration and work together?

Bruce: Kane and I have never met in-person due to the lockdown and travel restrictions, but we managed to find a way to collaborate across time and space, different generations, and shared and differing cultural perspectives to come up with a piece that was a fresh collaboration for me creatively. It was not something I could write on my own but rather it was different and renewed by Kane’s fresh, energetic perspectives on sound itself as a vibrancy in its own terms. We communicated through email and Zoom despite the travel and lockdown restrictions in both Sydney and Melbourne. I think we both found the long lockdowns in our respective cities tiring, repressive and inhibiting for creativity but also allowing us through the liminal spaces of time a place where all we could do, mostly, to survive mentally was to be creative to transcend the pandemic limitations.

Initially, I sent a proposal of words and architectural images to Kane based on my love of East Asian contemporary architecture as a metaphor for music, especially from Shanghai-based architects Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu and their ideas of a cheeky collision vibrancy of life, such as a “Rich experience of residing in a typical Shanghai nong tong alley, where everyday living is full of discovery and surprises, and there is no such thing as true privacy,” and yet based in the culturally resonant materiality of things where “the distinct rawness of the material palette establishes an intense sense of time, place and being.”

Kane responded with sound. We had this amazingly adventurous Zoom: Kane Zoomed me from his phone on the train and then followed a pathway up to his house, and then the camera settled on the top of his piano. He explained that the material qualities of sound were what interested him; what impressed me was the incredible virtuosity that he dashed off in-the-moment on the piano in front of me. His technique was impressive and I understood his love of the understated spiritual qualities of Bach, the voice leading and surging of sonorous romanticism, and his sonic transliteration of guzheng sounds to the piano with ease. He shifted the emphasis in my thinking from the conceptual to the sonic and his deep engagement with the European tradition.

My question to myself creatively as a composer, was how do I resonate with my own European tradition, including my Polish heritage (which I was sort of in denial about) in order to connect with Kane, and yet at the same time also link to my own love of the sonorous and sumptuous visual environment of the Asia-Pacific that we both live in?

Kane: Dr Crossman and I had a discussion before he started working on this piece. I introduced him the concept in the program of my recital: I decided a prelude of JS Bach and the last piano sonata of Brahms, and I wanted to bring out the sonority and dramatic dynamic change in the Brahms to make contrast of the purity and evenness from the Bach prelude. We shared thoughts about the use of resonance in the piano and how to make best use of its nature sound.

What is your piece about?

Bruce: I think Fragility and Sonorousness reveals the materiality resonance that a grand piano presents – both its massive resonances and fragile dying transitory sounds – but in a way that the marks of cultural and personal resonances are present in sound to suggest fragility, cheekiness in resilience, and a revelatory sonic exultation that all bear the scars and surprises of the liminal spaces of the pandemic. The musical content came from our discussion; to resonate with Kane’s love of Bach spirituality, Chopin longingness and ancient Chinese guzheng virtuosity, the music veers from lingering tones to massive sonority conglomerations through juxtapositions of inspirations from ancient Japanese Gagaku spectral chords, Korean Gugak kyemyŏnjo modal lyricism, the New York free-jazz of Matthew Shipp, and Chinese traditional guzheng-like virtuosity but with hints of European baroque and romantic lyricism of Bach and Chopin.

It is both pure sound – lingering moment and explosive virtuosic piano textures – and philosophical, drawing on contemporary Chinese architects Rossana Hu and Lyndon Neri’s ideas of memory and surprise. Hu and Neri’s concepts of revealed raw memory of place and the sudden intimacy of a Shanghai nong tong alley “full of discovery and surprise” governed the structure of the piece. The music works as a triptych: the middle inner space is a distilled and disrupted interior sonic room with hints of Hu and Neri’s glass framed bath at the centre of a room; whilst the outer sections sit astride the ‘inner room’ moving in arching forms from nothingness to massive movement and back again, perhaps with hints of the architects revealed ‘raw red brick’ of scarred memory.

On a personal level for me as a composer, the piece’s inner central room of slowness explores Japanese Gagaku-like spectral colours of an almost static meditative quality of momentary peace disrupted by New York-influenced free-jazz energy, amidst psychologist Kylie Lapierre’s conceptual ideas on stasis – dancing movement but remaining still, expressed in the music through cheeky hints of Afro-Cuban salsa son clave harmonic stasis that surprise the logic of the musical structure. In a sense the emotional energy of the music is continually disruptive in the way that the liminal transitory space of the pandemic has been for me – sort of psychologically taxing; yet whilst it dances around it does not give up ground and hide away but always finds a type of colouristic joy and meditative centre in its static harmonies.

Kane: This piece follows a concept from architecture. As the title “fragility and sonorousness” suggests, two different types of sound involved in this piece, and both sounds reflect visual image. The quietness represents “hu tong”, a type of narrow, tortuous alley in Shanghai. When the audience follows the journey in the music, they walk through this misty and narrow alley and then surprisingly encounter with a busy neighbourhood filled with skyscrapers, which is represented by the thundering sounds.

Pianist Kane Chang, whose collaboration with composer Bruce Crossman, <i>Fragility and Sonorousness</i> will be performed as part of <i>The ANAM Set</i>. Photo © Pia Johnson.

Pianist Kane Chang, whose collaboration with composer Bruce Crossman, Fragility and Sonorousness will be performed as part of The ANAM Set. Photo © Pia Johnson.

Were there surprises for you?

Bruce: The surprise for me was that I found that I could embody Kane’s love of traditional European keyboard repertoire (which I had pushed against) and pure sound logic in the music through: firstly, ‘revealed red brick’ moments of sonic cultural symbols that reflected our shared cultural interests, and secondly, yet making them unified through the fragilities and sonorousness of the piano as an abstract communicator. It is interesting that Kane drew out of me references to my own European/Polish heritage which I ended up enjoying as part of a celebration of sonic materiality related to my visual love of East Asian architecture. What was surprising, was that I pushed the piece more into Chinese conceptual ideas related to Kane’s cultural heritage, whilst he did the reverse of pushing me into areas related to my own Polish heritage – although we are both Australian citizens not living in either China or Poland.

Kane: I was surprised by the usual way of using pedals, many times you don’t hear the sound of notes but literally the resonance of piano strings. Apart from the creative designed sound effects, the mutative time signature was also a big surprise and quite a technical challenge for me.

What have you taken from it and what do you think you have achieved?

Bruce: I think sometimes it takes another person outside myself – someone more objective – to show me the value of my own cultural roots whilst not denying my lived experience in the Asia-Pacific. I realised from Kane’s virtuosic energy and sharp observations about sound based in European culture and their intangible qualities, that I don’t need to avoid my own European heritage but rather it can be a natural part of my love of the sonorous and vibrant visual richness of the alive traditions of the Asia-Pacific where both the contemporary and ancient coexist with each other as the energies of life.

Kane: First of all, it is a pleasure I learned and performed this great work. During the process of learning it, i was dealing with very complex rhythmical patterns, i could sense there was a big improvement of my counting and beats. Also, because this piece uses the resonance of strings, i had to listen very consciously throughout the performance. Therefore, I also got better at listening to the instrument.

The ANAM SET Festival will run at Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent, 13–15 May, 2022. More information about the project, and the composers and performers involved, can be found here.

Read other articles in this series:

1. Composer Andriàn Pertout and his piece Mīmēsis, written for violist Henry Justo.

2. Composer Kate Tempany and her piece Honeyeater, written for trumpeter and Nic Corkeron.

3. Percussionist Al Fane, and the piece [sound is] A Body in Space written with composer K. Travers Eira.

4. Composer Anne Cawrse and her piece Ruby, written for clarinettist Clare Fox.

Sign up to the free Limelight newsletter