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Ones to watch
Liam Furey

In this series ‘Ones to watch,’ we catch up with an up and coming composers to talk about their latest work, what drives them, and to find a bit more about them. Nina Lesperance from SOUNZ caught up with Liam Furey to learn about his work in the NZSM Composers’ Competition.

Kia ora, my name is Liam Furey, and I am a pianist and composer. I am a current student at the New Zealand School of Music, studying Classical Piano and Instrumental/Vocal Composition. I love to perform and compose throughout Wellington wherever I can!

Tell us about yourself and the music you write. (Instruments you play, special interests, how long you’ve been studying, what you hope to achieve with your work, influences, musical pet peeves, etc.)

My life has always been musical from an early age, with various rock, pop and rap musics being in the background of my home. I was taught the basics of piano from my mother when I was nine, but I initially never took a huge interest in the instrument. What changed for me was hearing Jeno Jando’s 1988 recording of Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata” at the age of eleven. Compared to the popular genres I had been exposed to up to that point, this recording transfixed me in the powerful, visceral nature of the writing. I made my father purchase a score of the work for me (and my weak hands) to learn. From that, every new composer and work I encountered contributed to that love of the instrument.

I started piano lessons with Gillian Bibby in 2011, and worked my way to study at Victoria University under her guidance (and very helpful technique regimen!) My experience with Gillian was fantastic, as she helped foster my love of the genre even further, as well as broadened my horizons as a pianist and composer. I have just finished my fourth year of a Bachelor with Honours at the New Zealand School of Music, under the tutelage of Jian Liu and Michael Norris primarily.

I have grown to love eclectic approaches to my programming; inspired by the NZSO Shed Series, or the quirky, sarcastic approach of Marc-Andre Hamelin. The culture at the NZSM composition department helped me find the musical gems I wanted to include in my performance and compositional practice, such as Boulez and Saariaho. New Zealand composers have always been a huge inspiration for me, such as the orchestration of Salina Fisher, the form and drama of John Psathas, and the rich harmonies of Jenny MacLeod’s Tone Clock Pieces. I hope that my future work as a pianist and composer can be a good contribution to the exhilarating contemporary music scene in New Zealand, and that I can find newer ways of expression within it.

Tell us about your work in this year’s NZSM Composers’ Competition.

Currently, I am fascinated in the role of the musical “process”, and the effects of the process as I consciously shift my role as the composer. I usually want to maintain full control over all of the musical parameters and the performers, thus providing a specific musical picture. This year, I decided to challenge myself by sometimes letting the material; or performers; influence specific parameters on their own terms.

My composition for ten-part ensemble “Emerge” explored using algorithms to determine my motif order, creating logically, yet spontaneously developing textures. The work uses simple motifs; differing versions of arpeggios, runs, repeated notes and trills; and uses them in different contexts to create the different kinds of textures that define the piece. I would describe the final result of Emerge as a mixture of logical development and uncompromising forward momentum and theater.

The work was lucky to receive funding from the generous Susan Rhind Award 2021 and a Freemasons Music award, originally planned to be premiered on September 17. This was cancelled, but the work found a premiere in the finals of the NZSM’s Lilburn Composition Competition on September 25. The ensemble were amazing, pulling off the writing effortlessly under Luka Venter’s leadership at the podium. I was proud to have won the first prize at the competition, with my flautist Isabella Gregory winning the performer’s prize.

How do you go about creating a new piece? Could you describe your process? Does it change with each new work?

The bulk of my process is in the drafting of the work. I view my compositions as unique entities, so I develop close relationships with my works to truly understand what they demand to say. My drafting tends to surround motifs, harmonies, and form/structure. Each of these three parameters are initially explored independently from each other, so they do not directly influence each other and I can understand what each one represents on their own. I will then start drafts of openings (usually about 20 to 30 seconds), to see how the parameters will fit together, and then tweak and play around with anything I think is needed to fit. By the end of this drafting process, I will have the start of my work completed and a full idea in my mind on how the work will be composed. From that, I write the work in full chronologically.

This compositional process is the result of four years of developing ideas on how I can compose. At this moment in time, this way is the most suited for what I want to do as a composer. However, I try to always keep an open mind and change my compositional process when I am inspired to find new things in my musical expression.

What aspects of your piece are you particularly proud of?

The hardest struggle for me as a composer is the realisation of the piece itself. I have always felt that sometimes my ideas on how the piece will go doesn’t fully work for other people, and that there is that kind of disconnect. “Emerge” for me was a huge breakthrough in this struggle. I remember watching the performance and feeling for the first time that I was able to know that this work can communicate what it needs to communicate in a convincing and effective way. This of course was helped by the professional-level of performance by the ensemble, who approached my piece with an open mind and a lot of confidence.

What projects do you have coming up?

I have a few more compositions done this year that are in need of a premiere; thanks to complications with COVID. Hopefully over the summer I can get those prepared and done with the incredible performers I have recruited. Unfortunately we don’t know what Delta will do, so fingers crossed that these works can be played in a safe and healthy capacity!

I have one more year at the NZSM before my Honours degree is completed, and I want to use this year to explore cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration. I have always centred my compositional process around my techniques and identity, and I am interested to see what new forms of expression I can find if I subvert this aspect of my process. I expect next year to be a very colourful, novel and empowering year for me as a musician.