An exciting event that the Flinders Quartet hold annually is the Composer Development Program, a concert dedicated to playing the works of upcoming Australian composers. The concert featured the work of five Australian composers, all of which were written specifically for the event. The pieces were then workshopped with the quartet and composer Stuart Greenbaum and premiered in front of a live audience on the 12th of August 2018 at Library at the Dock, Docklands. The diversity of compositional styles was incredible – a perfect demonstration that creativity can take many forms and that the artist’s compositional styles are as unique as the people who composed them. It was interesting to see the different fields that the composers come from, which includes mathematics, philosophy, musicology and of course music. Melbourne Conservatorium’s very own Claire Higgins, a composition student was part of the group and it was incredibly inspiring to see her work Song for Yingabeal performed for the first time – way to go, Claire! The other composers were Claire Farrell, Derek Brookes, Jet Kye Chong and Philip Eames.

Left to Right; Stuart Greenbaum, Miki Tsunoda, Helen Ireland, Claire Farrell, Zoe Knighton, Jet Kye Chong, Derek Brookes, Philip Eames, Nicholas Waters, Claire Higgins.

Flinders Quartet members are Miki Tsunoda (guest violin), Nicholas Waters (violin), Helen Ireland (viola) and Zoe Knighton (cello).

I found one Piece really stood out to me, and that was Clare Farrell’s Transient Rush – an exciting and musically mature work for such a young composer. Claire is based in Hobart, Tasmania and is in the second year of her Bachelor of Music through the Tasmania Conservatorium of Music. Claire’s work reminded me of Nigel Westlake’s musical voice and had such spirit to it – beautifully tonal but not a standard type of traditional tonality. It is inspiring to see a fellow composer not doing away with tonality, instead deconstructing and reconstructing it in a way that sounds fresh and distinctive. I felt the energy of the Tasmanian wilderness in the work and hope to hear it performed again sometime soon. Claire describes her work as “a string quartet that explores the simultaneous fear and excitement experienced through a monumental rite of passage”.

Claire Higgins from the MCM produced the work Song for Yingabeal – a piece that depicts a river red gumtree that is in the Heide Museum grounds (Melbourne). Yingabeal is over 500 years old and is sacred to the Indigenous people who are the traditional custodians of the land. Song for Yingbeal used techniques I had not even thought of – like blowing air through the sound-holes of the instruments. This was very effective at bringing to life the great tree that she was depicting. The airy sound alongside tapping the body of the instruments in a percussive fashion was a very tasteful piece of sound design, expanding the possibilities of the instruments and setting a mood that captured the spirit of the great gumtree. When I asked Claire how she notated the air-effect, she said that she just wrote the direction to blow air through the sound holes out in English. To begin with, Claire wanted the instrumentalists to use their bows on the side or ribs of the respective instruments, Cellist Zoe Knighton really gave everything and firmly bowed the side of her cello, adding to the effect but unfortunately, the other members instruments were very delicate – that is the wood was fragile on their (expensive) instruments, so blowing through the sound holes arose as an option to replace physically damaging them. Although blowing through the instruments was an effective alternative, Violinist Nicholas Waters showed a near-disregard for the welfare of his violin, giving everything to the percussive effects.

Derek Brookes is in the final stages of completing a Master of Music (composition) the Sydney conservatorium, under the supervision of Ross Edwards. Brookes presented his String Quartet no.1 which draws influence from Japanese Haiku poems and the woodblock prints from Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo (1857). Aside from being a formidable composer, Derek has a PhD (philosophy) from the ANU. String Quartet no. 1 pushed the boundaries of tonality and I felt that his work portrayed raw emotions and different states of the human psyche, demanding the attention of the listener.

Jet Kye Chong is a Western Australian based composer who produced the work Umbral Orbits. Chong describes his work as a representation of a “simple, rotating shape (a 5-cell) from an array of fleeting perspectives”. Chong then goes on to say that “from the right perspective, everything can be simple”. I do respect the work and although I felt the work was perhaps too avant-garde for my tastes, he won a prize for the piece – the award being a composer’s retreat in the picturesque surrounds of Tasmania. Jet is perhaps ahead of his time and his extensive training in mathematics may add to the fact that I had trouble understanding this piece. Who knows, I must just be a sucker for a good old melody! Even though my musical voice is vastly different to Chong’s, I deeply respect and admire him.

Philip Eames produced the third movement of his String Quartet No.2. The piece goes under the title of Rustica and was influenced from the grinding rhythms of Bartok and the melodiousness of Percy Grainger. Extensive Bartok Pizzicato was used and when I was chatting with the sound engineer after the show, I asked if she had any clipping from the diabolical ‘whack’ of strings hitting wood. She said that there were one or two (clips) and we both agreed that at least the sound of the Bartok Pizzicato was so harsh that the clips would probably be masked. It reminded me of when I recorded the Queensland Wind Orchestra and in one of Frank Ticheli’s pieces there was a wicked-wood block slap that made the meters go instantly red! Eames displayed a firm understanding of the instruments and constructed the entire piece from four-note motives. He also said that there were musical quotations – some direct and others indirect of Charles Ives, although I am not familiar enough with Ives’ work to have recognised them.

The concert was inspiring and after the show the quartet came to the Woolshed, a bar in Melbourne’s docklands precinct. I was amazed at how humble each of the members were and talked in length with Violist Helen Ireland, who has a great sense of humour and was in the bar with her Viola, having a wind-down beverage with the composers and supporters. All the composers were at the Woolshed and are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet, maybe it is because we all share a common ground which is the love of music and music creation. It was great to chat with the whole crew – whether they were active participants or just supporters of home-grown music, it was a great atmosphere and a true celebration of Australian music.

Check out the livestream of the event!

5:30 – Introduction from Cellist Zoe Knighton

8:40 – Word from Prof Stuart Greenbaum

11:50 – Claire Farrell

22:43 – Claire Higgins

33:25 – Derek Brookes

46:32 – Jet Kye Chong

55:02 – Philip Eames

Thanks for reading and supporting the future of Australian music!

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