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Neville Hall | SOUNZ Contemporary Award Finalist 2022

Neville Hall is a finalist for the 2022 SOUNZ Contemporary Award | Te Tohu Auaha for the work ‘more full of flames and voices’ for clarinet, accordion and cello. We caught up with Neville to find out more about the piece.

How did ‘more full of flames’ come about?

The Society of Slovene Composers organise an excellent series of concerts called Concert Atelier in a small theatre that forms part of the society’s premises. At these concerts, new works commissioned by the society are performed alongside recent works by composers from the broader international scene. The performers are drawn from the deep pool of excellent musicians in Slovenia. Normally, established ensembles or soloists are featured, but sometimes ad hoc configurations are put together especially for the concerts. In the case of more full of flames and voices, the featured ensemble was Trio Tempestoso, an award-winning young Slovenian ensemble with the rather unusual line-up of clarinet, cello and accordion. The trio is currently based in Berlin, and its clarinettist, Andraz Golob, is a member of the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert, which was broadcast live by Radio Slovenia, took place on 17 November 2021.

Was there anything unusual in your approach to composing this particular work? Did it pose any specific challenges?

The accordion is a very specific instrument and it’s always quite challenging to write for. It’s an instrument that is particularly prominent in contemporary music today and has a growing repertoire. Fortunately, it is unusually well staffed in Slovenia, with some exceptional performers who are well known throughout Europe. Of particular note is accordionist Luka Juhart, whom I wrote a solo piece for a few years ago. The experience of writing for solo accordion came in handy when I was working on more full of flames and voices.

Where did you start when you began composing this work? Can you tell us a little about how you work as a composer?

My point of departure is always the previous composition. In this case, it was the orchestral piece so flamed in the air, which was a finalist in the SOUNZ Contemporary Award last year. My approach is to gradually refine a very specific set of compositional techniques from one composition to the next, so that the works form an unbroken chain with a gradual metamorphosis. This is something we see all the time in visual art, where artists take a specific set of ideas or techniques and refine them by applying them over and over again. In visual art it’s very clear what’s going on because we can stand in a room and view multiple works from a particular period of an artist. In contemporary music it’s less obvious, because it’s rare that a chronological series of works by a particular composer is available to us. Anton Webern provides a particularly clear example of the approach of the gradual refinement of technique because his 31 works with opus numbers fit onto just three CDs, so it’s possible to sit down and listen to the progression of his musical thinking from beginning to end in just a few hours.

My approach to composing could be summed up with the motto “form as a product of growth”. Each composition is a forensic examination of the growth of a musical organism, and every musical event tells us something about the genetic evolution of the musical organism as a whole. In recent years, my pieces have been made up of collections of short movements, each of which encapsulates one phase of growth. This is true of both so flamed in the air, which has seven short movements, and more full of flames and voices, which has only three movements.

Can you describe your feelings when you heard ‘more full of flames and voices’ lifted from the page and performed?

more full of flames and voices is notated in a very specific way so that there is no pulse or time signature for the performers to rely on for orientation. The duration of the musical events is determined by their relative position on the page, with points of coordination between the parts being indicated in detail with vertical lines on the score. This means that the performers are faced with a very pure chamber music performance situation: they have to collectively decide exactly how the music moves through a very flexible temporal space. Solving this problem would be very difficult for an ensemble that wasn’t playing together on a regular basis. Fortunately, Trio Tempestoso is a very tight unit and the musicians know each other well. I worked closely with them in shaping the music, so the resulting performance was expected to some extent. Tomaz, Sanja and Urban nonetheless took the music to another level at the concert and their commitment on stage was really quite striking.

What does being a finalist for the SOUNZ Contemporary Award this year mean to you?

Of course, it’s an honour to be selected as a finalist, and it’s very motivating to gain this kind of peer recognition. It also means that a few more people will (hopefully) listen to the recording of more full of flames and voices on YouTube and perhaps also notice the excellent work that my colleagues in Trio Tempestoso are doing.