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Susan Frykberg


Born: 1954 Died: 2023 Website  


I'm a sound artist and composer of electroacoustic, instrument and vocal music and chant. I like to try different approaches to sound and composition and so my output is an expression of the variety of my creative, intellectual and spiritual life.

In my early compositional days in New Zealand, I was involved in computer-music research at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, in the areas of notation, compositional aids, aleatoric processes and harmonization. I even co-authored a paper with a team of about six from the School of Engineering, Canterbury University. It was published in the then prestigious International Journal of Man-Machine Studies. I helped with much of the overall project but my main interest was in devising stochastic processes that I could control in real-time, to create compositional drafts which were then fine-tuned by hand. These found their way into a number of compositions - most notably three short pieces for clarinet, available from the composer. I also attended the renowned Cambridge Music School for several consecutive years, studying composition under John Rimmer and Barry Connyngham among others.

In 1978, I had the privilege to attend two very important summer compositional schools in Europe - The Centre Acanthes in 1978 with Iannis Xenakis and the Fete Musicale De La Sainte Baume with John Cage. Both of these composers, interested in aleatoric processes yet from vastly different perspectives, have continued to influence me to this day.

After a brief spell in London, my computer music interests led me to Toronto, Canada to work with Bill Buxton at the Structured Sound Synthesis Project (SSSP), at the University of Toronto. I spent eight years in Toronto, very actively involved in composition with the SSSP, the Music Gallery and with the Canadian Electronic Ensemble. I was also part of a composing collective called the Gang of Three with Bentley Jarvis and Jim Montgomery. I wrote for the contemporary music magazine MusicWorks, and briefly worked for the CBC, for the radio program Two New Hours, creating documentaries on contemporary Canadian composers.

An important work during this time was Machinewoman which used dance, movement and live saxophone as well as pre-recorded sound, diffused by the main character Machinewoman, a portable sound-system which was part of her costume. This was performed a number of times at Harbourfront, an outdoor public space on Lake Ontario. The work addresses issues of what it means to be human when we are being continually augmented by technology so many levels.

Other 80's works explored voice, synthesis and piano and can be heard on the cassette(!!), Transonances, released at that time by Underwhich Editions but now available online.

After the birth of my son Esha, in the mid-80s I moved to Simon Fraser University to do an MA with Barry Truax. Here, I learned a large number of computer and electroacoustic music techniques including granular synthesis - a method that has an aleatoric component. As a consequence of my minor in theatre, I also began to incorporate more non-musical elements into my compositions, as can be seen in works such as Woman and House. Most significantly however, I was introduced to the idea of soundscape. A decade before, pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer began significant research at Simon Fraser University that resulted in a brand new field called Soundscape Studies, or Acoustic Ecology. From this discourse I finally learnt to listen! It is a remarkable thing to learn to really hear everything round you, identifying rhythms, pitches, textures and the huge variety of acoustic relationships found in the simple sonic stuff of our lives. The experience of soundscape has had a major effect on many aspects of my life, from my relationship with others, to the environment and of course on my compositional approach.

One of my most important large scale works during this period is called The Audio Birth Project, funded by the Canada Council. It is based on interviews with my sisters and mother on the process of labour and birth. The suite of four works explores the terrain of labour and birth from three different perspectives. The works contain spoken voice recordings, instruments - cello, violin and piano - soundscapes and a large variety of electroacoustic techniques including granular synthesis. Crucial to the concept was the use of the actual words my sisters and mother spoke, which were also edited, abstracted and embedded into the large-scale soundscapes. I wanted to make music with not only what they said, but how they said it. Thus the timbre, rhythm and tonal qualities of their voices were hugely influential on the compositional quality and structure of the works themselves. For example, each of their voices inspired specific modes; there was a certain amount of intuitive transcription of their rhythmic qualities and the gestalt of their voices gave me a sense of how each work would be 'orchestrated'. Specific aspects of how concepts around birthing can be explicated in instrumental writing can be seen in the work for violin and electroacoustic track called Astonishing Sense of Being Taken Over By Something Far Greater Than Me.

The Audio Birth Project is a suite of four works. I Didn't Think Much About It uses my mother's voice with piano; Astonishing Sense of Being Taken Over By Something Far Greater than Me uses my sister Margaret's voice with violin; Remembering Robin uses my sister Kate's voice with 'cello. There is a fourth work Margaret, which is a short pre-recorded prelude to the violin work. All of these, with the exception of Remembering Robin, can be found on the CD Astonishing Sense of Being Taken Over By Something Far Greater than Me, or on iTunes. Labour and birth is a fascinating subject for musical exploration and I believe there are many more compositional explorations to be done in this area.

In 1998, I moved back to New Zealand. This was in part so that my then 13 year old son could get to know his New Zealand family, in part so that I myself could get to know New Zealand again, but also because I had decided to attend to my religious inclinations which included serious study in theology, ancient languages, Gregorian chant, Christian spirituality and Christian notions of social justice.

For some time, my studies precluded much composition but I did learn and regularly sing Gregorian Chant within a mass setting. This inspired me to compose three chants: Virgin Mother, based on a text from Bernard of Clairvaux found in Dante's Paradiso in English; Sancte Venite in Latin and Kai in Ancient Greek. I also composed a mass in Gregorian Style for International Women's Day, and later an anthem called Ubi Caritas for the 21st Century.

From 2005 to 2010 I created a number of community liturgies for the churches I was working for. These were either for particular spiritual seasons - e.g. Advent and Lent; focussed on a particular historical church character e.g. Hildegard of Bingen; or celebrated an aspect of the church culture, such as multiculturalism. I also composed a number of short prayers, chants and hymns for community use, as well as an organ voluntary for one of my liturgies.

From 2009-11, I incorporated Gregorian chant into my electroacoustic music practice using the software Ableton Live. Salve Regina Electronica was first presented at the ACMC 2009 in Auckland and Ubi Caritas Electronica at the International Festival of Women Composers in Pennsylvania. Suffering, a work for live and fixed media, large shadow puppets and poet, was presented at ACMC 2011. From 2010 to 2012 I had regular radio shows on Radio New Zealand on Electroacoustic music. These were thematically based, dealing with such issues as world music, spiritual and sacred music and protest music. Most of these are still available as podcasts from Radio New Zealand.

Other works include composing for piano: Music to Watch Cows By, written when I lived in Taranaki, a dairy farming area; Five Studies on Ancient Idioms, commissioned by Ross Carey; a short birthday present called For Kate's Forty-Sixth Birthday and an even shorter work called Dead Cow By The Road Side, written for photographer Peter Peryer from a photo of his. In 2017, I began composing a large scale piano work. Inspired by Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant Jesus and the writings of contemporary theologian Ilia Delio, (The Unbearable Wholeness of Being), the first seven of these were premiered by pianist Danaë Killian on November 12, 2017 at Monsalvat in Melbourne and number eight the year after, called The Inevitability of Mary 2018 in the same space.

Between 2010 and 2012 I started working in regional art galleries of Whanganui and New Plymouth with an improvisational group called Let The Art Sing, who played world instruments, western ones and electronics. Our work gave 'voice' to visual art. It was a joy to work with so many highly skilled musicians who, given a rigorous structure, were allowed to let their creativity fly when it came to realizing high quality visual art in a sonic medium.

A Day of Hours was a 2012 sound art commission from RMIT Art Gallery, Melbourne, created as a kind of poetic re-sounding of the city of Melbourne through time, from pre-settlement to now. This installation, situated in a 21 speaker environment in the gallery for several months, offered an almost archeological approach sonic design, with a large number of layers of sound, (natural, industrial, instrumental and media), constantly revealing then occluding themselves. It was a great project for me and I loved exploring my new city through this sonic lens. I also wrote about this in a short article called Sonic Archeology - to be found here. All Of Creation is Groaning is a sound art work created as part of my 2015 residency with SCANZ, New Plymouth, where I also created the audio for a resolume projection in Pukekura park.

Te Ao Mate Kite was commissioned by the Sarjeant Art Gallery in 2015, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Paikotore/Matua Gardens Occupation in Whanganui. I asked 150 people from all walks of life in Whanganui to give a one word response to the occupation. I then edited the words together, creating clusters and ‘pointillistic’ words; mixing them with soundscapes and combining them with music. Te Ao Mate Kite was heard in the gallery in a special exhibition to commemorate Paikotore.

I spent five months, 2016-2017, as the Tylee Cottage Artist-in-residence for the Sergeant Art Gallery in Whanganui. This residency is documented in detail in my Facebook page. I composed a number of works for this including: The Artists of Tylee Cottage (Electronics, Taonga Puoro, Actor, Audience), Whanganui Soundscapes (String Quartet), It Shows, Really, A Rather Beautiful Spirit ( (two versions, 1. video installation; 2. mini opera version, (flute, keyboard, soprano, actor, boy soprano, video). This is based on the paintings of Whanganui artist, Edith Colier.

I’ve begun work on a series of simple art songs. The first was written for my mum's 90th birthday. Ninety's a Number That Doesn't Mean Much (2014), is for soprano, oboe and piano. The text is by my mother and is a love poem to my father, who died in 2007. I'm trying to portray him in the oboe part, as he accompanies her in her life, even past his own. Other art songs include: an ANZAC song for tenor and piano, The Day Is Come (2014) (mezzo and piano), based on a text from an Australian soldier; a work based on a poem of Hilary Davies, called Christ Receives His Cross (2015); Dr Hodgkinson and the Women Voters (2018) (soprano and percussion), Worm Song (2019) (soprano and piano, with text by my mother, Pat Frykberg).

In 2015 I created the ‘opera music’ and libretto for an enormous, extravagant production that included soundscapes, real flying drones, lasers, projected video, and special lighting effects. Drone Opera was conceived by artist Matthew Sleeth. It ran to critical acclaim in Melbourne in September 2015. I am currently reworking it, creating an ‘oratorio’ version for three singers, flute, cello, percussion and electronics/soundscapes. Called Drone Opera Recast, a small portion of this was presented at the Canberra Symposium on Women in the Creative Arts in August 2017. This work has recently been turned into a short film, (International Sydney Film Festival, 2019), and an installation, Carriageworks, Sydney. (2019).

This ambitious project attempted to create a weekend sound-artist/composer open studio to run in conjunction with Whanganui Artists Open Studios weekend. It combined sound-art sessions for newbies; open master classes; a concert and several pop-up performances and took place at the Whanganui Opera House. More information here.

At the end of 2018, I commenced a PhD at Monash University in spirituality and electronic music. An article summarising my first year of research has been submitted to an upcoming issue of Organised Sound. I am currently rendering an electronic tracing of Haydn’s Nelson Mass.

“a tour de force in both composition and subject… sumptuous and dynamic sound textures throughout.” —Anna Rubin, Computer Music Journal

Composed (43)

A Day of Hours

a sound installation

A Distant Singing

for synthesiser and tape, 12m

American Edgings

for electronic tape, 10m

Birth/Rebirth/Bearing Me

for mixed tapes, 8m

Breathing the Word with Wind and Water

for five voices, trombone and taonga puoro


for tape, singer and two actors, 16m

Dr Hodgkinson and Women Voters

for female voice and percussion


for electronic tape, 7m

Heralding Change

for french horn and tape, 15m

Honouring the Hosts Honouring the Guests

for six world instruments and sound technician


for live mixed and diffused tapes, 18m

I Didn't Think Much About It

for piano and tape

Insect Life

for tape, voice and signal processing


for tape, saxophone, dancer and actor-singer, 45m


for tape, 3m

Mother Too

for voice, tape, live signal processing and small meditation bells

Music to Watch Cows By

for piano, 7m

My Mother

for male voice, tapes and signal processing, live mixed and diffused, 16m

Ninety's a Number That Doesn't Mean Much

for soprano, oboe and piano

Om 152 - Getting There

for cello and tape, 12m

Piano Study #1

for piano and tape, 6m

Processional for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary

for singers, ensemble, percussionists, stiltwalkers and children

Radio Life

for tape, voice and signal processing


for electronic tape, 7m


for counter-tenor, actress, tapes, synthesisers and electronics, 45m


for tape and voice, 35m

Sue and Kathy Telecompose Across the Country

for tape, voice and live communications systems

Suite from Saxarba

for tape, 16m

The Day is Come

for tenor and piano

The Garden

for tape, mixed media and actors, 35m


for synthesiser and electronic tape, 12m

Ubi Caritas for the 21st Century

for SATB choir and organ with soprano and baritone soloists, crotales and woodblock, 3m 30s

Virgin Mother

for unaccompanied low voices

Virgin Mother

for unaccompanied high voices

Waxing your Cloth

for live electronics and tape, 15m

Ways of Perceiving

for voice and chamber ensemble, 10m

Whanganui Soundscapes

for string quartet

Woman and House

for singer, actors, electronics and tapes, 55m

Recordings (1)

Performances (2)

Music From Her

Our Music From Her festival, held in mid-October, will celebrate, support and encourage diverse v...

Suffrage Songs Recomposed

Featuring nine female composers, this concert will see a collection of New Zealand women’s suffra...