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Meet composer Mary Celeste

In this series, we present our new composers. We are proud to introduce Mary Celeste.

Please tell us about yourself and what you do.

I started learning piano at age five, and though it proved not to be my instrument, those lessons gave me a wonderful grounding in music theory.

I was wildly excited to discover all the musical opportunities of high school and availed myself of them all: choir, madrigal group, viola lessons and orchestra, and I entered every possible category in the annual music competitions. I started a little folk group, a guitarist and three singers, and I sang harmony as by then I had realised I could harmonise just about any tune. Some lovely friends gave me a guitar for my 15th birthday and I subsequently wrote and performed a large number of dismal (with hindsight) 'singer/songwriter' type songs for voice and guitar. As a church-going child I also wrote several hymn-like songs in three-part harmony.

Sadly, it never occurred to me that I could make any kind of career in music. And I was too desperate to earn a living (and thus be independent) to consider university so I worked at a number of jobs (housemaid at a boys’ preparatory school, small factory manager, bar hostess at a flamenco night club in Tokyo, costume designer for theatre, sewing teacher, textile and mixed media artist, editor of academic writing, writer of creative non-fiction) before settling on language teaching (English and Japanese). I eventually did get to university and finished up with a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics.

Along the way I sang in several choirs, learned to play the alto saxophone, wrote music for and played in an all-woman jazz/rock band, spent a year in South Korea and six years in Japan and studied Japanese folk song.

I would say that my musical aesthetic was formed by all of those experiences and especially by the music I’ve loved the most and listened to the most: renaissance, baroque, new music, jazz and Japanese folk song. I prefer to write music that is not too dense, where each line can be clearly heard, so I mostly write for small chamber ensembles and chamber choirs. I love a beautiful well-crafted melody but to meet my own standards I need to write music that is not only beautiful but also distinctly 21st century and not too predictable.

I like structure but I also like the unexpected, so although I like to think that my pieces have architecture, I’d be mortified if I ever accidentally wrote a piece that was a series of four-bar phrases. Having said all that, I recently orchestrated a fairly conventional piece for someone else and loved every minute of it.

My recent compositions have all been motivated by a powerful wish to say something or to demonstrate something, to tell a story or to prove a point.

Please choose 2-3 of your works/albums and tell us about them.

In 2019 I wrote Pentatonic polyphony: a Japanese folk song deconstructed (formerly titled 'Crimson') for alto saxophone, alto flute and piano. It was an attempt to see whether a polyphonic composition based on a Japanese folk song and using a similar framework could work as a piece of music in the Western art music tradition while still retaining a Japanese character. That framework being a pentatonic scale, no harmony and no chord progression, overt or implied. Here is a performance of an early version played by the wonderful TrioNique. It begins with an iteration of one verse of the folk song then launches into the polyphony.

I have since revised it several times. Among other things I shortened the iteration of the folk song, changed the time signature to make it easier to read, tweaked the solos and removed a pointless half-bar that seemed to slow the momentum.

I have been working for several years now on a seven-movement choral piece called 'Motet for a starling called Matisse' written about the starling who has lived with me since she fell out of her nest in 2013 when only seven days old. It tells the story of finding her on the ground, caring for her during those early days and our life together now.

Although all along I was thinking about Matisse and the sounds she makes, I didn’t attempt to reproduce her song except for a brief section where some of the choir perform a series of ascending whistles. These whistles are through the teeth, not pursed-lip whistles, and are a fair copy of a segment of Matisse’s song (and the only part of it that a human could hope to approximate). Matisse taught these whistles to me by sitting on my shoulder, singing the phrases in my ear, and having me repeat them till she was happy with the sound. Most days she and I do them together as a duet, she singing the first three or four notes and I completing the phrase. She loves doing this, and when we’ve finished she will say in her small (but clear) bird voice `gorgeous, gorgeous’.

Matisse has always loved the 'Motet' and invariably sings along with it. She doesn’t sing what I wrote; she sings her own song which somehow seems very congruent.
Chroma Chamber Choir, of Nelson, performed five movements of the 'Motet' in July 2021, with Matisse as guest soloist. Here is the video (with some lovely close-ups of Matisse):

What are you working on at the moment?

My output is rather low because, although I can write a fairly good first draft of a short piece in a few days, I will spend weeks, even months, rewriting it without ever really considering that it is finished. Deadlines are very helpful: if I have one, I can always get something nicely polished in time.

My most recent piece is for chamber choir and is called Strange creature.It is a further movement for Motet for a Starling called Matisse. It describes what Matisse looked like as a seven-day-old chick: tiny, strange, and terrifyingly fragile.

This piece marks a new phase for me. Right from the beginning, I had a clear idea of what I wanted, and for once I refrained from adding more and more `good ideas’. It is as minimalist a composition as I’ll probably ever write.

It is scored for SSAATT and features long discordant held notes that are handed around the parts, with a simple melody and harmony in the top parts. I was attempting to convey the slightly eerie sounds you get in a large space with a vaulted ceiling. In fact, I was thinking specifically of the Wellington Railway Station Booking Hall which fascinated me as a small child because of the wonderful resonance and the fact that you couldn’t tell exactly where sounds were coming from.