Growing up in the 1960s I had a voracious appetite for science fiction, much of which suggested that by 2020 humanity would have advanced to the point of eliminating famine, poverty, war and ignorance, and we would be living in peace, prosperity and universally shared purpose. This century has been a great disappointment.
These thoughts permeated my mind while composing my new clarinet quintet, Concord. (From the Latin concordia, from con – ‘together’ and cor, cord – ‘heart’.) For decades we’ve been absorbing the impending doom of climate change, coupled with the obvious depletion of natural resources, but now face the added burden of two pandemics, one of simple opportunistic viruses, the other of global fundamentalist nationalism and its inevitable companion, the decimation of intelligent discourse.
So what use is polite chamber music to a world facing such a storm of extreme challenges, any one of which on its own could spell imminent extinction?
Music has little power to affect societal change and I don’t want to delve into magazine music – music containing a ‘message’ to be conveyed to the audience by unknown means, probably magical. Instrumental music contains neither verbs nor nouns, and any “meaning” intended by the composer is perforce a vague innuendo arising from a suggestive title or program note.
On the other hand music does have great power, especially to remind us of the value of sharing and collaborative effort, of the overwhelming commonalities in our dreams and experiences, and of the things that unite rather than divide us. The very fact that music contains no intrinsic message is a measure of its universality, and experiencing the virtuosic coordination of live musicians is always inspiring.
So although I don’t propose blind optimism as an antidote to the horrors that surround us daily, by concentrating on notions of symmetry and consonance in this composition I hoped to remind its listeners of the most positive achievements of our species, and suggest that with sufficient shared experience we might collectively edge towards a more positive future.
But I still need to explain how I came to be writing a work for clarinet and string quartet.
I had known about Omega Ensemble for years but didn’t have the opportunity to work with it until 2021. The ensemble invited me to be the first mentor for its inaugural CoLAB program, a series of workshops designed to cultivate and encourage emerging composers, culminating in a concert of music composed for the program.
I have worked in dozens of programs like this for almost fifty years on three continents, alternately as participant, deviser, and mentor. They typically feature a dedicated band of musicians sequestered for a highly concentrated period (say 3-7 days) to work with a small handpicked cohort of composers (say 4-6) who bring along scores or small sketches devised for the ensemble. Although some days might introduce special assignments designed by a mentor, all revisions and improvements in this compressed hothouse environment must be made overnight.
I was delighted to discover that the CoLAB program was one of the best designed workshops I’ve seen, especially gauging by the end result – a highly polished concert of five new works presented at the Sydney Opera House. CoLAB cleverly consists of several two-day workshops spaced months apart with a different mentor at each stage. This allows the participants to work at their leisure on revisions and incremental improvements, an essential development tool denied in the hothouse model. The variety of mentors also offers the most diverse range of ideas and approaches to help the composers better develop their individual language in a realistic timeframe.
At the end of my time mentoring the 2021 CoLAB, Omega’s Artistic Director, virtuoso clarinetist David Rowden, asked if I would like to compose a quintet. Having been mightily impressed by the quality of the group’s musicians and their consummate dedication to new music, I leapt at the opportunity. I was fortunate to receive generous offers of support for the commission from two friends in music, Geoff Stearn and Kathie Grinberg, and subsequently the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra joined in as co-commissioner to bolster the Australian content of its chamber music program.
So here we are. At the time of writing I’m about to mentor the first phase of Omega’s 2022 CoLAB program before sitting down with the ensemble for the first read-through of my new Concord. I know how incredibly lucky I am to have such fine musicians tackling my music with their characteristic focus and commitment. I also have no doubt that over the coming years the new cohort will remember their experiences in CoLAB with profound appreciation for the unique, positive and supportive opportunity they received from the dedicated and ever thoughtful Omega Ensemble.
Every component of live concert music intrinsically demands cooperation, collaboration, and mutual understanding. Imagine how the world would look if every human enterprise had the same requirements.
Omega Ensemble will perform Carl Vine’s Concord in its Refractions concerts, in Newcastle (2 July) and Sydney (5 July), and across the Central West of NSW as part of the Ensemble’s Winter Regional Tour, supported by Music in the Regions (22 –31 July).