Extraordinary women are all around us. Our friends, our sisters, but most especially, our mothers. In 2022, Camille Barry, Kellee Green and I recorded a new work for ABC Classic, for violin and piano, in five movements, inspired by mothers. I composed the work while Camille and Kellee who performed it; they are two wonderful musicians who are mothers.
This music is, down to its very core, inspired by those extraordinary women, and is an homage to their strength, courage, wisdom, insight, gentleness and passion. Like the stories of the women it reflects, it isn’t without its moments of frailty, challenge, confusion, guilt, anger and passion. Mother’s Suite, Sweet Mothers is in five movements, each movement representing an episode in the life mother and child:
Movement 1: Overwhelmed
This is music for the very beginning of the journey. In the hospital, or maybe those first few hours at home, where this new person is here, suddenly. Utterly wonderous and utterly overwhelming all at once. The mum is new to this, and there is great joy, beauty but on the edge of her control, into a new world. You will hear, at the end, a statement of the infant’s theme, which is the key to the whole work. It is a palindrome and represents cycles.
Movement 2: Wonderland
A little later, the mum and child are beginning to venture out. Things are still capricious, with new experiences every day. The child notices things we have forgotten – tiny flowers, or seeing patterns in leaves. The baby likes to be silly but is always getting hurt (you can hear the baby fall over in this music!). The mum is there to comfort them, and shares in the child’s heartfelt sorrow, but quickly we come back to calm thanks to the mum’s graceful soothing. In this music, there is a figure in the violin which means “there, there,” or the calming words of the mother, reassuring the child.
Movement 3: Anger and Guilt
Yet, we parents get it wrong, all the time. There are things we’d liked to have done differently. We’ll never stop those emotions that flood back when we think about it. And also, there is frustration. Trying again and again to do something the “right” way. But even here, there is a kind of release, when we allow ourselves to let it go. Kellee and I, on a relaxed afternoon, listen to the magpie families. Right near the end of this movement, you’ll hear the repeated call of a baby magpie as it again and again implores its parent for food.
Movement 4: Love
There are many kinds of love, aren’t there? This music is for the innermost. It’s music for all mothers, all parents, but it is also an homage for parents who have lost a child, or suffered with a child. The kind of love that cannot be spoken of, a cosmic love, an unknowable intensity which is our reason for existing, and we hope the music can be where no words can be.
Movement 5: Letting Go
Camille has a young daughter, and Kellee and I have older boys. So together we can see the span of the journey (well, the first journey)! At the end of this first journey, we look back across the years, and feel so grateful, yet melancholy, because this is the end of our road with little children. We have watched them grow, seen them grow into themselves, and now we know it’s time for us to let them go, so they can continue to grow. Our music concludes with a restatement of the infant’s theme (introduced in Movement 1), and a bittersweet acknowledgment and inexpressible gratitude for our experiences with our children.
This music is available as video from YouTube (above), and the audio may be listened to at via all major streaming platforms.
I have almost religious feelings about the string quartet, and I don’t say that flippantly. I can’t quite recall how this came to be, but it was either in my late teens or early 20s, and it had to do with a composer called Béla Bartók. I was a music student, and I had a portable CD player—an expensive purchase for me at the time—which had the crucial non-skip feature (using a memory buffer; that may invoke a little nostalgia for those of you who are my age). Among my treasured memories is endlessly waiting for buses and walking around town listening to the six Bartók quartets, over and over. Among the many feelings it evoked was a sense of “how far must I climb this ladder to be even a fraction of the distance towards this?” For a composer, Bartók’s quartets are delightful but intimidating. I often think of a composer’s development like learning to loosen the tongue, as if one’s own internal barriers and blockages are all that are in the way of utterly free expression, and old Bartók was, to my ears, completely unencumbered in all the best ways. I know now that’s not all there is to it, and in fact Bartók was quite a calculating composer. Still, hearing music that sounds free had a lasting effect. Here’s one of his, to give you a sense of that:
1. String quartets are historical and contemporary all at once
At the same time, I was learning what the string quartet means. How it’s rooted in European tradition, and how for an Australian composer that is surprisingly confusing. I was coming to understand that it is a time-spanning entity, with its roots all the way back to Haydn or earlier, yet still one of the world’s most important ensembles—though it has European baggage it has grown well beyond being merely historical and European. Composers still love this group. It’s vital, vivacious, fertile and new-sounding in spite of it’s ancient roots. Here is a relatively recent work, titled Strum, by Jessie Montgomery, which to my ears sounds exuberant and fresh, as it relishes a selection of the seemingly endless timbral potential of this format.
Caroline Shaw‘s work, Entr’acte, demonstrates that she finds fascinating the very same thing as I do: a deep connection between the historicity of the quartet and its place in contemporary music: Shaw intentionally mimics Haydn, at the very same time creating something new and delectable. This occurs here didactically (a facility in composing that has been rare but I’m happy to see more of recently).
So, the String Quartet—the ensemble and the music created for it—is both a thing of deep history, the there and then if you like, and, indisputably, the here and now. Which is just one of many reasons you need to pay more attention to it. I’m going to list some more for you. And I am going to talk about my own works for quartet as I do, because I’m in the midst of creating a heap of new music for this ensemble. Some of it is being released as an EP very soon, performed by Black Square Quartet – an extraordinary Brisbane-based ensemble.
2. String quartets are exquisitely intimate
I learnt this best when, in 2010, I attended a composer’s forum with the Australian String Quartet. It is hard to put into words what it’s like to sit just feet from a professional quartet as they perform a work by one of Australia’s most accomplished composers, Carl Vine, who is himself sitting right next to you. I mentioned religiousness before, well, maybe this added something too. But you don’t have to have been there; any quartet performance invites closeness. A string ensemble has a comparatively wide dynamic range, especially because of how softly they can play. There is something uniquely visceral about the way these performers move. Now, I don’t want to get too provocative, but goodness me it’s a sexy thing. It’s not the overt sexuality of a rock group; it’s more exquisite, maybe more real, in its way. If we were to divide all music into three realms: mind, body, and heart, then many would suppose that classical music has sometimes lacked an emphasis on body. If there’s a grain of truth in that, then the quartet is the antidote, because a quartet is all about bodies. Their movement, their facial expressions, their eye contact, their self-consciousness, their flamboyance, their chagrin, their delicacy.
3. There’s an emphasis on equality, teamwork, and togetherness
Quartets serve as a composer’s autograph. We can look at historical composers and notice that their quartets exemplify that point in their musical development; this is as true for Bartók as for Beethoven. One reason for this is because the quartet is exceptionally well-balanced. Its powerful internal forces (and they are many) are matched at each of its extents, so that even as the first violin captures a listener with a virtuosic flourish, the cello can bring things back to solid ground with the heftier body of its tone. That balance of the group’s physical characteristics feeds a requirement for balance amongst the performers, even their personalities. Where any quartet has fully succeeded it seems to me to be when its members are as close-knit a team as is possible in any situation, musical or otherwise.
I have been lucky enough to join forces with the Black Square Quartet, founded by violinist Camille Barry. In all honesty, it’s like having a second family. If you have ever played in a musical group you may have a sense of what that’s like, but a composer isn’t always so involved. That intimacy that I mentioned earlier is something a composer can be a part of though, perhaps uniquely with a quartet. This may be especially true for me, because I am not a string player myself. It has been something like joining a family who speak a different language, and I’ve had to learn to be bilingual.
4. String quartets are a voice for new composers
If you are a classical composer, that chiefly means you want to write music for a collection of what we call classical instruments—the very ones you’d see in a symphony orchestra—but (and you may know this if you’re a composer), it’s not so easy to get an orchestra together to give your music even a single play through. Quartets are more down to earth.
Now pardon me while I venture off-topic momentarily, but I am a big fan of chess.
Truthfully, I’m not much good at it, but I’ve enjoyed learning about the game and the people who play it. It has been gratifying to see a remarkable rise in its popularity over the last year or so; there are a few contributing factors, including Covid lockdowns and a certain TV show called The Queen’s Gambit. I think that newfound popularity is wonderful, not just because it’s an enjoyable game, but also because a) it has deep historical roots, b) it’s totally sexy in a way most people don’t anticipate, and c) it was the province of nerds during my teenage years (no, I didn’t play it much back then, but yes, I was nerdy). Ah, you see some parallels then. I am not just hoping for, but anticipating a similar rise in interest in all things chamber music, and in string quartet music particularly. Young folks are becoming interested in these enchanting, cerebral, historical, yet secretly visceral pursuits, once again. Composers, get your hands on chamber ensembles, help them to do astounding things. How can a life be better spent?
5. individual groups can have their own sound
I have spent the last three years creating new music for this ensemble, with the help of Black Square Quartet. Together we are releasing an EP, which is my Quartet II, titled Five Quick-Tempered Dances. It was composed during lockdown (hence its quick-tempered nature), and was commissioned by Black Square as a danceable work. The recording was completed with the assistance of the venerable Monica Curro, who was able to musically direct the session, and I doubt we’d have as musically gratifying a result without her. The wonderful thing about Black Square is that they are cultivating a unique sound. To me it is earthy, precise but not prissy, gritty, gut-driven, with a dusting of punk. I wish I could release some rehearsal footage, but the language and jokes are not for a general audience. The point is, they are their own thing, and the more I learn about it, the more I come to understand this is true of any good quartet: they sound anything but homogeneous. If you thought string quartets are that group that plays at weddings, I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to it than that!
I’ll tell you what, here’s just a tiny little sneak peek at Black Square rehearsing my new quartet (preceded by a snippet of an earlier piece of mine, Passacaglia) . The premiere was just a little while ago, but the EP is imminent:
I mentioned before that one of the beautiful things about the ensemble is that it is both historical and contemporary, at once. This greatly appeals to me (someone who has, for example, always enjoyed historical or alt history fiction!), because I can draw on those classical forms which are close to my heart, while creating something which is, at least by the broader definition, contemporary. Have I told you about fugues? I haven’t, have I. Fugues are the best. Really. Just thinking about a fugue can make me tear up. I will write a separate blog post about fugues, there, I’m committed. If you don’t know what a fugue is, all you need to know is it’s perhaps the most fun thing for a composer. It is to take a line of melody, then repeat that same line, forming new material underneath it. Then it is repeated again, and again, all the while the music grows in its complexity. This is a great thing for a quartet to do, because there are, naturally, four channels for that melody, ready to go. Fugues are dreamily, marvelously, steeped in history. Yet here I am, in the 2020s, wanting to write a fugue. It’s the best. Here’s my little attempt (the third movement of my first quartet), brought to you by the delicious Black Square Quartet:
In 2019, I was gratified in contributing to Katie Noonan’s album, The Glad Tomorrow, with the Australian String Quartet. Of course, Katie is a national treasure (I’m nowhere near the first person to say that!). These were song settings of the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, our dear local, world-renowned poet whose work I was lucky to study all the way back in high school English. Just when you thought quartets couldn’t get any more beautiful . . .
There are many other ways in which the quartet encompasses binaries: how they can be both classical and pop; how they can be both virtuosic and musically fulfilling all at once; how they can perform in front of the most sophisticated listeners or just in front of your Mum and Dad, and so on. Certainly, there is a symmetry to it—the world’s most pleasing semicircle—a beautiful division, divided again, coming together.
Be on the lookout for our new EP, and follow my page for updates.
The Black Square Quaret is Camille Barry, Michael Patterson, Charlotte Burbrook de Vere and Dan Curro.
Turbine is a new work presented byCollusion Music and Dance. Three dancers, two violinists and live electronics present an hour-long micro ballet exploring power and identity. I composed the music. Let me tell you how.
Who am I ?
All my life I’ve been trying to work out what my music is.
Some people know from early on exactly what music to make. I didn’t. I am still not really sure. Even still, inch by inch, I’m starting to find a sound which is all my own.
Turbine is about struggling with identity. Gareth Belling, our choreographer, explores intimacy, power dynamics, and gender, in this work.
So the music needed to be disparate things, coming together.
So I looked for broken things. Tarnished, old – with their own sound. I visited local markets where they run steam engines, and I captured those sounds. I collected a number of old toys and recorded them. I broke some electronics (doing so often didn’t make any useful sounds, but I enjoyed it). I prepared a piano (again). I recorded a harmonium of indeterminate age, and a hundred year old Swiss music box.
In all my electronic music, when I collect sounds in this way they come together as one single palette. I use my computer and samplers to pull them apart, into their micro elements (their grains).
Ben Greaves – one of Collusion’s violinists – visited me. We recorded a host of unusual sounds generated by the violin, in every which way (save the manner you’d normally play it). To this palette I added a number of analogue synthesizers. Mainly because they’re fun.
The violin melodies woven around and through the electronic part are intentionally anachronistic; harking backwards centuries perhaps, but also backwards in my own life – my earlier musical experiences being bound up with string and wood. Together these disparities, and scuffed and fragmentary elements provide a means to reach into the center. To see a way through.
Turbine is happening this week in Brisbane, beginning Wednesday evening. Details for the event can be foundhere.
Praxis Axis is a really stupid name which I came up with very quickly over ten years ago now, and at some stage it became too late to replace it with something better. It represents, broadly, my electronic music, especially the material which is too far removed from my (supposed) “art music” for anyone to believe that it’s all the same stuff. Even though I must insist that from my point of view it is. It IS damn it. Ok, I know you don’t get that; fine, that’s alright. But now maybe you understand why I use the stupid moniker. And I liked the rhyme. Actually I still like it. But there’s nothing to it besides the mouthfeel. Well, it is also great anagram fodder…
There are, though, elements in it which are less easy to employ in “serious music,” like being silly or funny. (Actually, even when I was young I thought, “that’s dumb” and I have never felt bad about writing non-serious serious music, though that’s another story). Axis Ax Rips also serves me in permitting any musical whim: I’m rarely *asked* to make more Ax Sir Ax Sip music, so it sits there waiting for when I feel like doing something comfortable, or crap, or over-adventurous, or whatever. The only real element of cohesion is that it’s almost entirely electronic.
The reason for that is not interesting: I play very few acoustic instruments, and the ones that I do I’m pretty poor at. Yeah yeah fellow electronic producers, laugh it up, I’m a stereotype. Actually I’m a reasonably broad-spectrum composer, and can assure you I do even music bro, but yes, my days of locking myself in a practice room with some fancy noise plumbing are long gone (not that I ever did that very well). But Axis Sax Rip would be a very different thing if I was a good player of real instruments, not a shit player of the musical equivalent of office supplies.
Honestly though that’s perfectly fine by me, I like where this has gone. It has offered me a pathway to rediscovering the aural delights of childhood exposure to late 70s electronic media music (especially TV shows, cartoons and videogames). It has allowed me to riff on one-time popular tropes like dubstep wubs, glitch hop flubs, breakbeat krugs and IDM tugs (I’m just making those up). It has enabled my reveling in post-African repetitions (that’s an in-joke), and my…sort of…, as some might say…, highbrow posturing (that’s an even more obscure in-joke, but apt, I spose).
Which (somehow?) brings me to the point: I’m putting out a new album. It’s called Moughe Diving. Rather than what could very well have been a haphazard collection, these are unified by being tunes for driving. According to me. That’s probably an important disclaimer, because god knows what you people listen to when you’re driving, and it’s time for you to learn what I think you should listen to when you’re driving: me, AKA Six Ax Pairs. Some of the time. Not when you’re not ready for it.
By the way, when I did this, it sorta occurred to me that I have not commercially released anything under the Six Ax Rip As title in the better part of a decade. I also realised I probably could have. Trouble is, now I hate too much of it. But I tell you what, there’s probably no reason I shouldn’t make some of it available. So along with this new album, I’m going to pop up a few new (old) tunes on my Bandcamp page for some crummy price that you and literally everyone else in the civilised world can afford. Oh yeah, I have a Bandcamp page now. No idea why I didn’t before, turns out I’m some sort of old idiot who doesn’t understand the digital world anywhere remotely near the bare minimum required for artistic survival in our present era. You will also find Moughe Driving on all major streaming outlets (Spotify, YouTube etc.) when it is released on the 20th of September, available for pre-order from iTunes and Spotify from the 4th of September, and available to pre-order right now from Bandcamp. The bonus tunes will turn up periodically, so follow me on Bandcamp if you want to get notifications of them.
What order should things happen in? This is a question which has all sorts of different facets when working on music. Making electronic music, I’ve cycled heaps of equipment in and out of a workflow whose labyrinthine, capricious pathways are like an animated M.C. Escher, and known in its entirety to me alone; part signal flow diagram, part chess strategy.
The whole darn thing is complex. But the main complication is this: My “instrument,” meaning the collection of electronic bits and pieces I use to create and perform music, needs to be one-in-the-same item for both production and performance.
“Dude!” I hear you exclaim, “laptops for production and performance have been a thing since the mid 2000s!” I know full well that some of you will hate me for saying this, but I just don’t dig laptops for performing. And I don’t particularly dig Ableton. There, I said it.
Don’t confuse this with a claim that Ableton is bad. Obviously it is not. Very many people do excellent work with it. Ableton’s division between Session and Arrangement views was groundbreaking for DAWs, and for many people resolved the very problem I have stated above: the problem of integrating electronic production and performance.
Why avoid the proven laptop-DAW combo then? Well, I’m not really going to get into that, except to say that I rather use distinct physical modules to a controller plugged into a laptop. Personal preference I guess. The combination of hands-on and physically separate devices doing specific things has meant I have been able to develop a solid performance strategy which is no more or less than the upshot of my studio production.
But being stubborn about this has had some drawbacks. Gear cycling is a problem. I’m now at a point where I my workflow is less erratic and prone to constant alteration, but only because I’ve spent years refining it where, for so long, experimenting drove most of my choices. And sometimes they were expensive choices, being honest.
What this means is that I can put it all in a box. I mean an actual box, not “ITB”. So, I built one. I could have bought one, but to get it exactly the way I wanted it would have been expensive. I’ve built flight cases before, and I know they’re not too difficult. But, you might ask, is this not a time-waster? Couldn’t I be spending this time, I dunno, programming Reaktor ensembles or something?
Here’s the thing. Using your hands – or learning how to use your hands – is good for you. We all stare at screens too much. I’m not condemning you, I am entirely guilty. For an experienced composer, “writer’s block” is no longer much of an excuse, but all the same breaking out some tools out literally getting my hands dirty is a great way to reinvigorate my practice.
What is music? That’s a question I keep returning to when its boundaries are always being called into question. For instance, to write well for violin, a composer needs to understand a player’s relationship with the violin. Which means the composer must meet violinists – to study them, but become friends with them too – which means music is gestures and music is relationships. Music looks a certain way. Music feels and smells a certain way. Building a flight case is making music. A trip to the hardware store is making music.
I’m going to put my photos of my case here, because you might want to build one too. It’s not too tricky!
“It’s a dangerous business, walking out one’s front door.” – Gandalf.
Flight cases are generally made from 9mm plywood. Even if you buy the pre-covered wood, it’s 9mm. It’s best to do a plan of your box, so you’ll know how much wood to buy.
You’ll also need something like this:
Ruler and square
Drill (and adapter for screw driver if you want to save some trouble)
Rivet gun. Manual, if you enjoy muscular pain. Some of the thicker rivets are extremely difficult to put in manually. I did it because I am a masochist.
A clamp or two
This one is not strictly necessary:
I inexpertly cut the timber with a cheap jigsaw which meant uneven edges. I leveled them off with a plane, but you could do this manually with sand paper.
Make a box. Use wood glue and reinforce with timber screws. This is simply a matter of putting together the six sides.
Ok it’s this next part which totally blew my mind when I found out about it. It is indeed this very next thing which convinced me that I too could build a flight case. Ready?
You don’t build two separate halves. You build a single box (as above) and chop it in half.
Doing this ensures you get a perfect fit, sans expert woodworking skills. Which is important in my case. Case. . . get it? Ok, moving on.
Paint it black (or any colour):
I wanted it to look somewhat alarming, so I added some saftey stripes for good measure. Once you’ve painted it you can start fitting the aluminium. I won’t go through all this in detail, but you basically need:
Angled extrusion, 30mm x the combined length of your sides. This is visible in the image below, and forms the neat metal edges.
“Hybrid” extrusion, 30mm x the combined length of your sides (because it goes on the top and bottom halves). This is the part that goes between the two halves, allowing them to joint seamlessly in the middle. It holds the whole thing together when the box is closed. You’ll easily see how it works if you put it into google; here is the link for your convenience. Google Image Search for Hybrid Extrusion . Hybrid is easier than “male/female” because you only need one lot of it.
Corners, X 8 (in an image below).
L Brace plates, X 8. These are the bits that go in the inner corners, where the halves join (see images below). From top down they look like an L.
Latches, X 8. These come in different shapes and sizes. You have to take some care with selecting the correct ones – it’s easiest if you ask for help at the shop. Some have raised sections to accommodate the extrusions. I didn’t use those this time though.
Handles, X 2 (or however many you want).
You have to cut out the spaces for the latches and handles. You can do this even after you’ve put your extrusions on, using a general purpose jigsaw blade, after drilling some holes for the blade to enter.
And we’re done! Well, the outside of it is done. I’m not going to lie, it weighs a tonne. But, it has a hope of withstanding the occasional airline staff toss from the cargo hold routine.
That’s just the start of it though, because the real challenge is in fitting out the interior. I could have done this in a number of different ways, and the main alternative is just getting foam custom-cut. But I wanted to keep it possible to swap gear in and out in future, so custom foam presents a difficulty that way. Instead, I used “floating” boards inside, lying on a layer of foam, with the equipment fixed to these boards.
I started with self-adhering foam.
Fitting all the equipment means custom cabling. Building your own cables is another cost-saving/time-wasting activity which I will make another Zen-and-the-Art-of post about sometime.
Here’s the interior, all laid out. I use both halves of the case.
So that’s done. This turns a half hour elaborate setup with check lists into a one minute box opening. There are some more bits and bobs which go in, not currently pictured. I’ve put it together so I can reconfigure it in future, and so the patching can remain in place during transport (two reasons I avoided custom foam).
It also means a clean studio (a good cleanup is always necessary for this kind of thing). It meant a few days away from screens. And it means a commitment to my existing workflow – maybe a few albums’ worth if I’m lucky. And. . . it’s going to mean a trolley, because that thing is heckin heavy, believe me.