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 look at composer Kate Tempany and her piece Honeyeater, written for trumpeter and Nic Corkeron.

Composer Kate Tempany. Image supplied.

Composer Kate Tempany. Image supplied.

What does this project mean to you?

Regent Honeyeaters (a critically endangered bird endemic to southeastern Australia) are astonishing musicians, currently on a trajectory towards extinction. Composing Honeyeater with Nic was a way of grappling with the emotional reality of species loss.

The process of composition was very painful because to get to the truth of what I was trying to say, I had to sit with feelings of love and connection alongside the knowledge that the Regent Honeyeater population is dwindling towards vanishing point. As a little girl, I used to leaf almost every day through two large illustrated books of Australian birds. I dreamt of travelling to remote locations to observe species in their native habitat. Now over one in four of every Australian bird species is threatened, with many at risk of extinction. Honeyeater gives voice to bereavement mingled with hope.

How did you approach the collaboration and work together?

At our first meeting, discussion flowed suddenly from sniffing out our diverse musical backgrounds and aesthetics to Sir David Attenborough and his extraordinary life and work. Immediately we sensed we had stumbled upon the inner life of our project, with a topic rich enough to bring the best out of our collaboration. I told Nic that I had been reading about the Regent Honeyeater and the loss of its song culture, and all the pieces fell into place. We would use the trumpet to tell the story of the bird and its song, in this way voicing both hope and despair for the natural world.

Nic spent a glorious afternoon at my house demonstrating all the sonic possibilities of the trumpet. My first instrument is Indian tabla (semi-tuned percussion) so I was particularly interested in all the sounds which fall outside the diatonic scale, as well as the sublime timbral diversity of the trumpet. So many mutes, so many interesting techniques! We listened to repertoire and discussed practicalities.

My first draft was way too long and way too high – a lot of time spent listening to recordings of the honeyeater song had convinced me that the upper register would best convey a bird like sound. Nic made extensive and thorough corrections. He proposed to prepare for the performance by listening to wild birds in the park.

The composition is whole-heartedly experimental, and we had planned a play-through before the premiere. As this didn’t happen, I was in a state of great anticipation on the day of the performance. From the very first notes, I could hear that Nic had carried the burden of expressive intent way beyond anything I could have imagined.

What is your piece about?

This work explores parallels between the Regent Honeyeater song and our human melodic culture. Rhythms and gestures are freely inspired by original recordings of the bird calls. The opening imagines the honeyeater singing freely in the wild, followed by a call-and-response in which an older bird passes the song to a younger one. The melody dies away, fading into a lament as the species plummets towards extinction. An optimistic conclusion projects a recovery of the Regent Honeyeater, and its song culture. Ultimately Honeyeater is an enactment of the connection to Nature which underpins all human experience.

Were there surprises for you?

The sounds Nic could summon from his trumpet were a source of great surprise and delight for me. There was an intoxicating stream of sound, filled with possibility. I was astonished at the depth of trust and intuitive connection which flowed through our collaboration, in just a few short meetings. Finally, it’s hard to express how utterly humbled I was by the power of Nic’s commitment and vision in performance.

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

I had been a little uneasy about the work perhaps sitting too much on the side of an overt message rather than an artistic evocation. Nic and I are both very reserved in some ways; I certainly felt that the sincerity of our intentions helped us remain true to our goals. Nic really extended my understanding of co-design in the compositional process, imbuing me with trust and confidence in the potential for collaborative work to transcend individual perspectives.

In Australia in 2022, we are overwhelmingly concerned with human-to-human interaction, values and motivations. Our consciousness of nature is distorted, to the extent that we are mostly oblivious of other species and our interdependence with them. Earth, sky and sea are resources to be mined, rather than the very structures which uphold being.

If nothing else, I feel that through the Honeyeater project I have held true to a divergent viewpoint. While composing, I escape the meshes of data-driven materialism: I am a fleeting participant within the vast mystery of the natural order, filled with awe and love.

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

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

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

4. Composer Bruce Crossman and his piece Fragility and Sonorousness, written for pianist Kane Chang.

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