Tell us about what it was like working with such personal material – How did you approach it creatively, did you meet the family of the solider whose letter you selected?
It was very difficult working with such emotionally charged material. It is very hard to imagine the hardships and the horrors these soldiers had to endure on a day to day basis. I chose letters by a soldier who was the same age as me when he wrote them in the hope that it would help me empathize, to understand. The truth is that the sheer inhumanity of the experiences he was put through was almost completely unfathomable to me. My heart was literally in my mouth the first time I read the letter I chose. It is only through the cinematic clarity of his writings, passionately charged yet incisively nuanced, that I could even begin to understand the gut-wrenching human cost of the war. I think humanity’s way of dealing with the horrors of the past is to turn remembrance into ritual; adorning the incomprehensible, the chaotic, the inhuman with familiar structures and repetitive patterns. It is only by stripping them of their hysteria, grotesquery and sheer furor in this way that these events become manageable and we can come to terms with them. I took a similar approach in my work. The music and the text are developed over the course of the piece through a series of long, drawn out processes which occur within very distinct structural boundaries. The text is broken down into its constituent phonemes which are stressed or repeated in different ways to create dramatic syntax while the music stems from a single musical formula; a kernel of material that is drawn out over the duration of the piece. It was only through the creation of these processes and rituals that I was able to really come to terms with the magnitude of the material I was dealing with.
What was the process like working with APO and Ken? What kind of opportunities did having workshop sessions afford yourself and your music? Did it help with the final work?
The workshops with the APO were absolutely invaluable, not just for the development of this project, but as a wider educational opportunity, teaching transferable skills and valuable knowledge which are absolutely applicable in compositions to come. Working with the APO musicians was incredibly special, and talking to them and working with them really helped to shape and develop the final piece. They were so open and receptive to discourse about the internal workings of the music, really working with me to help get the sounds and effects I wanted. It was these personal interactions that I found most magical about the workshopping process, adding a fresh element of dynamism and an injection of new ideas into what was quite a long and very personal compositional process. That is what is so rare about these workshops: usually the process of composition consists almost exclusively of hours spent at home with pen and manuscript in hand; we are not usually lucky enough to see our ideas, in their embryonic stages, come to life, with real musicians and to then receive real feedback on these ideas from such seasoned professionals as Kenneth Young and Hamish McKeich. This is what made these workshops so cherishable.
Now that the project is over, how do you feel about this kind of process of working? Did it help the work? Are there clear advantages over the more traditional forms of developing a piece of music?
Any way of working has advantages and disadvantages. Being afforded the luxury of such fruitful and sonically engaging workshops completely changes the way one composes, each workshop effectively adding a new layer to the poiesis of the work. It has the effect of opening up the mind to sonic possibilities previously unimagined, helping to expand the scope of the music’s various syntactical elements. The downside is that, especially for someone as easily stimulated as me, the workshops very easily led to inspiration-overload and perhaps led to me over-thinking and even over-developing my piece. It’s very easy to want to put every new idea you get from the workshops into the final product: a temptation I found hard to resist.
Is your work is very specific to this time and place of the ANZAC centenary? In what kind of context could you see the work performed in the future?
I don’t think this work is necessarily time or place specific. The ANZAC centenary certainly played an important role in the poietics of the work insofar as it acted as a catalyst for the creation of the work and informed the way the piece took shape. However I think the themes of the piece are universal and, when packaged in this ritualistic, shamanistic, process-based format become open to interpretation in other contexts. The finished product strikes me as the kind of music that truly flourishes when explored for its themes and structures rather than the specificities of its creation.