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SOUNZ interviews Sarah Ballard - NYO Composer in Residence 2014




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Sarah Ballard is the National Youth Orcestra 2014 Composer in Residence. Sarah completed her Masters in Composition in 2013 and was Composer in Residence for the 2013 National Youth Orchestra Summer Residency. Sarah’s works have been performed by the SMP ensemble, The Karlheinz Company, the Estrella quartet, The Committee and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Sarah was the winner of the University of Auckland’s 2012 Llewelyn Jones Piano Prize and the Douglas Lilburn Trust Award. The same year she also won the NZSO Todd Young Composers Award.

Her mentor for the 2014 NZSO National Youth Orchestra commission is Eve de Castro-Robinson.

How did you come to apply for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s (NZSO) National Youth Orchestra (NYO) Composer in Residence scheme?

The opportunity had come to my attention through participation in the NZSO Todd Corporation Young Composers Award programme. I’d also heard a piece by Alexandra Hay back in 2011 for the NYO. I had a pressing idea for a longer orchestral work during my Masters in Composition and thought this would be an ideal opportunity for it to be realised.

What experience do you have of writing for orchestras?

I have written a couple of orchestral pieces previously for the NZSO Todd Corporation Young Composers Award workshops and it is quite startling to look back and reflect upon the leaps and bounds made between each piece. The first piece I wrote grew out of a short composition assignment - five bars for orchestra. I took this opening and expanded it into piece to enter into the workshop. After being selected and having that first experience I was hooked on writing for orchestra. The enormity of the sonic palette you have to work with is exhilarating – endless possibilities and combinations of sound.

Tell us about the work you have composed for the NYO – Synergos.

The piece is structured in two parts: I - Alizarin and II - Aurum (both titles relate to colour). The second part has a coda-like ending attached to it in which themes from both parts synergize and meld together.

The piece presents my interpretation of colour through sound. This idea presented itself to me while I was painting. More specifically, painting red beneath gold. I'd become interested in this after briefly studying 14th Century Italian Renaissance art and learning about the tempera painting method. This method involves bole, a reddish-brown clay, to be used as an underlay upon which to gild. The presence of this earthy bole beneath the gold leaf enhances the resultant hue and enables a warmth to emanate through the gold tone. I was very taken by this visual phenomenon.

Ultimately, my aim with this piece was to translate the heightened sense of warmth and interaction of colour that I experienced visually into sound. In my eyes this could only be experienced after presenting each colour individually, as somewhat two-dimensional tonal palettes that then evolve and synthesize into a multifaceted symbiosis of sound. As for describing the music itself in any detail, I’ll leave that to be heard!

Your work is situated between two very established works in the canon, Strauss’ Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra.Were you able to tailor your work to this? Did you take the audience's experience into account?

It offered me extensive orchestral resources to draw from. However, I did not use the full scope of the instrumentation on offer, as I like to be sure I have good reason for each instrument being present in the score. I have utilised two harps as I adore the instrument and it’s not every day you get the chance to write for two harps in an orchestral context. These take on a duo role in the second movement. I incorporated the bass tubular E bell from Also Sprach Zarathustra into the piece as I was after that burnished timbre it can add when combined with other low-sounding percussive instruments. It will be interesting to see how this comes out alongside its usage in the Strauss as the bell is used fairly similarly in both cases.

The piece will be an enormous contrast from the two Strauss works and I think some of the more unexpected moments in Also Sprach Zarathustra will tie over nicely into the experience the audience will have with Synergos. To be honest though, the programming and the fact that there would be a broader audience did not really affect the actual music I wanted to write.

I can only really take the audience’s experience into account through my own perceptions of listening. I try to hear the music objectively when I’m writing it so that I can craft and pace the music in a way that I hope will be satisfying. I can’t do much more than that as an audience is such a diverse thing. An audience is made up of individuals with varying perceptions.

Where to next? And what have you taken from this residency that will help you along in your compositional career?

I have a couple of smaller projects in the works at the moment. Following those I’ll just keep writing and take advantage of the opportunities that crop up. There are a fair few technical details I have learnt about in more detail that will hold me in good stead the next time I write.

I have also realized I must allow the music to breathe more. Perhaps even more than I think it needs to. I guess a piece of music can reflect your mental state hugely. Your perception of time and the way it pans out varies extensively when you’re ‘within’ the piece to when you’re looking back on it retrospectively. It all seems so excessively hyperactive now! This is something Eve de Castro-Robinson and I had discussed while working through the piece, so it had already been in reined in somewhat even at that point.

I have been thrilled by the response and enthusiasm of the performers. It has been a privilege for me to be able to work through things with them on an individual level prior to getting stuck into rehearsals. Communication is key in all its forms and I will always remember that when working with ensembles.


Read more about Sarah's work here >>