SOUNZ asks Anthony several questions about his work 13 Theme and Variations, written as part of the Auckland Philharmonia Composer Development project 2012/13.
How closely did you work with Rachel to write/edit the organ part? You mention that there are many differences between writing for piano and organ – what are some of the key differences that impacted on this piece? Initially I didn't work all that closely with Rachel. I think I may have sent her one or two early drafts, and double checked some organ scorings (e.g. the opening theme with simultaneous same pitches on different manuals), but it wasn't until the two of us had a run through in the town hall that there was a lot more collaboration. And in that, most of it was Rachel demonstrating how various passages could be played differently. Rachel has been lovely to work with - always so patient as I go through what seem endless combinations of stops to get the right sound.
There are lots of things which make the piano and organ so different, especially a grand piano compared to a top concert organ, and they're all very primary elements. And almost all of them means, put simply, fewer notes needed on the page. With the organ having so many possible stop/timbre settings for each manual, you actually don't need to write as much for the instrument to have a full sound. One instance of editing with Rachel's guidance was removing parallel 8ves between hands. As I didn't want different sounds, we could just add stops for the extra 8ve and it didn't sound empty. Simply having sustained tone makes a huge difference. In a piano you can have a lot more going on, and sometimes you need a lot more going on, to make a full sound. Limited dynamics through the hands effects things too.
Can you explain more about the religious theme you’ve used in the work? I spent about 6 months in Italy in 2009 - 10, and one of my favourite interests was religious art, be it still in its original setting or in museums. In particular, Renaissance art, which abounds in the most inconspicuous hidden corners of unassuming churches all over the country. Much of the art focuses on saints shown with their attributes, and if they were a martyr, the attribute was connected to their death. These days, I think we would find the focus on often brutal death quite morbid, if not a little obsessive. But I was struck by the strength of the images, enhanced through the strong colours, form and repetition through various works. I also admired the head-on confrontation with mortality in the name of a cause. I chose the Apostles at the Last Supper for the subjects of the variations because I thought that as a group they would be more widely known by a New Zealand audience. In Italy, many of them hardly figure at all in religious art, and very rarely as a group altogether.
Each variation is shaped by aspects of their lives, deaths and personal characteristics, although for the latter details are very sketchy. For instance, the first variation, Simon Zealotes, the music has a impetuous and bold character, as he is thought to have been a zealot, a revolutionary sect seeking to end Roman occupation. He travelled to Armenia, amongst other places, and therefore elements of Armenian musical modes are used in the variation. And he died, according to legend, by being sawn in half, and this a depict quite graphically at the end.
What do you want listeners to take away with them after hearing the piece? It's hard to say. Although I'm pretty much an atheist, I have a deep love of religious music over the centuries and I'd like to find ways of continuing the tradition. I think whether or not you are religious, you can still enjoy and perhaps learn something from biblical stories, much in the way one doesn't need to believe Zeus and Athena actually exist to enjoy the Odyssey.