In our sixth installment of The Chamber of Musical Curiosities podcast, Paul Kildea is joined by contemporary classical, jazz and experimental composer, Alice Humphries.
This insightful conversation touches on Alice's early years and her love for a wide range of musical genres and instruments, they discuss creativity and pushing boundaries within arranging music and composing during a pandemic. Her anticipated compositions for upcoming Musica Viva performances in our Melbourne Morning Masters series and for Musica Viva In Schools.
Listen to the full episode now.
Alice Humphries' new work for viola and piano was commissioned by Geoff Stearn and will be premiered by Christopher Moore and Caroline Almonte on Tuesday, 16 November in the Melbourne Morning Masters series.
Watch Joey Niceforo's 'Winner Takes It All' referenced by Paul.
Visit Alice's website here to learn more about her and listen to Salt, a collection of chamber music and solo works.
Paul Kildea: Hello and welcome to The Chamber of Musical Curiosities, a podcast in and around the world of Musica Viva Australia, I am and Pau Kildea, the Artistic Director and it's a huge pleasure today to welcome the composer Alice Humphries. I think I'm gonna ask, Alice, as a start in this new and optimistic year how 2020 was for you and as a way of framing it. You know, it was meant to be this wonderful, concentrated time for composers and for authors and I certainly didn't write anything substantive and none of my author friends did. So I wonder how it was for you just in terms of your own practice, in terms of the level of creativity that you are able to maintain over the year?
Alice Humphries: Hi Paul and thanks for having me on the podcast. Yes, 2020, what a year. In terms of my how I felt my creativity went; because I was in because I live in Western Australia, there was a period of lock down at the beginning of the year, but it didn't affect me in terms of that, but as much being that in lock down, I have a child and it's very difficult to access childcare from lock down. But apart from that, I was very lucky to have had a relatively normal year. But I did find it a very distracting year because there was just so much going on in the world and it was hard to do concerts, so to kind of get that motivation to write for for an audience as compared to YouTube videos and stuff like that. So I found 2020 a real mixed bag. I did write, I wrote a few pieces about a lot of short pieces, a lot of solar pieces, but and they were all workshopped over the Internet. So it was just a totally different year and hoping for a lot more face to face collaborations this year.
Paul: Yeah, it strikes me, you know, with a child working, you know, in your own studio, having to meet deadlines or to generate new ideas, commissions, collaborations, potential projects, that that's a very delicate balance that you're already having to maintain, let alone throwing into that something like, a you know, a lock down, a pandemic. The withdrawal from those normal creative communications and rehearsals and collaborations. And so the whole very delicate ecosystem of your practice is obviously going to be changed by what happened, and I just wonder how optimistic you are about it this year returning to normal and for you to be able to work much as you did before and and perhaps with the knowledge of what you've been through?
Alice: Yeah, I mean, I think we all have to be optimistic. One day it will turn to normal or there's gonna be a new normal, and we'll all, you know, evolve and develop new ways of collaborating. I certainly miss the chats in the in the concert hall or in the bar after a concert that with musicians and other composers that that's what I really miss those kind of hallway meetings, the vision of a water cooler meeting in in the arts, which is after a gig. And I certainly missed those interactions which were always just, you know, seeing your friends and peers and hearing what they're doing. But I'm hopeful this year will be better. I hope to be able to travel to Melbourne and Sydney. But I guess you just got to roll with the punches and keep making and keep rushing and one day will play to people again.
Paul: Tell us a little bit then about how you make, and I think there's the example of Britten who would take the walk on the beach and then, you know, formulate everything in his head and come home. Or Chopin, who also loved the walks. And, uh, that was a great improviser. Exactly how do you do that? And how much of it now is just kind of driven by someone reaching out to you saying, Hey, we want to commission you to do this piece. How does how does it work and therefore, how were you affected, kind of almost practically, in the art of writing?
Alice: Yeah, well, I am a mix of the walking on the beach and the improvising in terms of how I make. But in terms of what I choose to make, certainly, 2020 was directed by people reaching out. So I wrote a lot of solo works and a chamber voice work. Short pieces that could be, you know, recorded in a YouTube video. So actually, I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed writing lots of solo and small chamber works, but in terms of the practicality of what I do, I'm lucky to have a lot of support here in Perth from family in terms of managing my role as a parent. So I get I need full days to immerse myself in what I'm writing. So I have those contemplated times to go for a walk or go for a surf and let things just kind of stew and developed in the background, as part of my creative process. And then I could sit down and improvise and a bit of paper or a bit of our record myself a lot improvising, and I'm really lucky that the practicality of that was only affected in that I had less days in 2020 in which I was able to do that. But as I was running short pieces, it wasn't, too that I wasn't trying to write a major work for Symphony Orchestra or anything like that.
Alice: Yes, well, that pays in particular. That was That was a, I guess a real goal in it was, for one thing, I was trying to communicate that expansiveness and immensenous of the ocean and immerse the listener in my response to it, if you will. And there were times when I think, can I can I just sit here? Part of my creative process in that piece was constantly asking, has this happened for long enough, or can this happen longer? But, you know, it's that delicate balance as the person writing it. I know what's happening, I know that I know that material so well so you try and put yourself in the position of the listener that's never heard this before. And do they need to hear that motive kind of evolve for a little bit longer to really get it? So if you say it seemed brave, then I would say yes, there were times I felt scared writing that face because I did push the boundary deliberately. And I think as a composer, you've got to take risks to find out about yourself and about how you and music are kind of interacting and yeah, and I'm really proud of the peace in my experience listening to it live, I felt like it worked. The sitting in a in a concert hall experience to hear it was, it felt right, that temporal experience of time. It didn't feel 20 minutes when I listened to it live. It felt shorter.
Paul: Talk a little bit about how on earth you can put yourself with fresh ears into the seat of the audience while you're writing it. I'm just kind of going, wow. Like you said something a moment ago that really struck me. Have I dealt with this material for too long or have I not dealt with it enough? And that just seems an impossible judgment. But of course, that's why you're composer, and I'm not.
Alice: I think, for whatever reason, it's been it an interest of mind in terms of… I often when I listen to other works that on my own or my own, I hear my own work after a period of time not hearing it. I think my usual reaction, especially to my own work, pre Salt, was that felt rushed that felt cramped. So Salt was a reaction against, you know, against those feelings. So if I said well, if all my previous works felt cramped and rushed, then maybe I should push myself within that creative process to be slightly uncomfortable with how spacious or how slowly evolving a piece was. And in terms of how you put yourself in the listeners shoes, yeah, it's a real conscious effort. When you’re starting to doubt a motive for something, well, you think the strength of that motive. When I first wrote it, I was you know, that creative process of incubation and then you have to decide is this worth pursuing and I you got to stick by your creative decisions, so you make that decision. This is the motive, for this is the rhythm, whatever it is, and eventually you have to commit or you never write anything. Of course, there’ll be times down the road where you think this is the worst little melody that's ever been written. But usually that's just a bad day. You've got to commit and ride that roller coaster and make something and finish it and then make another thing. And then you look back over what you've done, and hopefully you're happy with the result.
Paul: It's a really interesting concept that you're talking about post Salt, because it means, therefore that that that there was something just so different about that piece in your own output that you now go wow, I now have courage to explore other things that I may not have felt comfortable in my writing beforehand. I just wonder if time has been one of thumb what something else that you think might change, having had the experience you have had of writing Salt?
Alice: I guess Salt was a kind of a point where I decided to allow myself more space. But for me, every piece is for lack of a better word, a reaction against something I'd previously done, because I'm trying always to explore something different, something new. So, you know, Salt was about space. And then I wrote a solo guitar piece about and the solo works that wrote after Salt, were all about idiomatisism, as the core. That's what it's about. It's about small gestures that just physically on the instrument of just made for it, you know? So I have a guitar and I've been writing a solar each other piece. So it's is limited to instruments that I can actually play. But the idea of the space and that realisation of the possibility of that has fed through into all my works, and I think that's what composing is. You're a snowball or sponge and you just gradually soaking up musical experiences, both positive and negative that you think that was not so great, won't try that again, or that was I felt good about that. I'm gonna keep that in my musical sponge. I think it's sort of more of a snowball effect than a real sign. Post moment, if you will.
Paul: Yeah, well, what did you grow up playing? If you've mentioned guitar, piano and cello at the moment?
Alice: Well, I started out as a young child on piano and then had played cello for quite a long time and also dabbled in violin and viola throughout early years. But my main instrument and all my training at University until Postgraduate was in jazz. Jazz saxophone. Jazz was and still is a great love with mine. And I yeah, such as improviser playing standards and writing songs and then started writing and arranging more big band music and then somehow ended up writing chamber and orchestral and electroacoustic music. And I think jazz in terms of the improvising part of my practice and how I think about harmony and how I think about music in terms of structuring pieces. It's all informed by my mainly my jazz background, but that pre jazz I had a very strong grounding in classical music as a child.
Paul: Yeah, I couldn't work out whether the jazz was because you're young enough to just say I'm not interested in the distinctions between different genres, so I'm going to take from there and take from there and give to their or whether there was actually something fundamental in your training about jazz playing, but you've kind of answered that. But you are young enough to be interested in a lot of different genres, aren't you?
Alice: Yeah, very much so. Ultimately, people gonna put labels on your music and that's fine. And at the moment I would say I would agree when I'm writing is contribute classical music and that's great. I love that. But I also have written a lot of jazz and love to listen to jazz. And but there are some things that a lot of music, other music I listen to. It isn't really on that spectrum, and I think you can really take from everything and I would say I've taken a lot more from jazz thing classical music, mainly because my whole try me was in jazz, as in my fundamental grounding is in that, but I've taken it into this classical world, which I love, and it's just really fun. I don't know what what I'm doing next, but keep doing this for now and see where curiosity takes you.
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Paul: It's interesting. One of my favorite contemporary classical pianists at the moment is Kirill Gerstein and he grew up just playing jazz and today if you give him you know I Got Rhythm or all these amazing Gershwin preludes he will go to town on them and improvise. Yet also the pianist that Tom Adès chooses, you know, to write a piano concerto for us in the most you know, difficult and virtuosic piece. So I do love the fact that the different worlds feel together it was gonna take saddens me. It doesn't sadden me that people want to put labels on things with that's who we are as human nature to try and categorize things. I wonder also because you've written for Kate Miller-Heidke, Josh Pyke, Missy Higgins and others. I'm just interested in that process in how you arrange and how much of it is saying, okay, I know exactly what they're harmonic languages, if you like, and I will I will stick to that. Or how much of it is you saying, Okay, this is a fantastic germ of an idea, but I can expand on that to make that into something kind of really, really different and does it depend upon who the musician is that you're working with?
Alice: I think it's very much the brief. Most of those are very were taking their songs that had been recorded and broadcast on writer. That's the thing and preparing it for a collaboration with an orchestra. So it really mainly stuck to the form and the harmonic structure off the song. But you got a whole orchestra deal with rather than maybe just a guitar, you know, a band. So you can add some more layers of, you know, counter melody. And for me, it's about I've got a whole brass section, let's fatten up these chords and just make it well, if you don't put him enough in. It's like, what's the point of having an orchestra? But then, if you put too much in, ultimately, your role as an arranger is to support the singer and the song. So if the song is about something really sad or death or whatever and your going to town with these ridiculous spring gestures, then it's obviously not going to fit. So every breath is different. But for the most part, your role is very much about making that orchestra and that song and that singer fit together for a beautiful thing. And ultimately, it's a bit like I've heard someone talk about film music that you almost don't want them to notice. You want them to notice the orchestra, but you want them not to be noticing you as an arranger. Your job is to make the orchestra and the singer sound great together. The arranger shouldn't be going, look at me.
Paul: Yeah, except that, and I don't know if you know this, there's this fantastic version of all things, an ABBA song, The Winner Takes it All, and its sung by Joey Niceforo* and it's just this kind of amazing Abbey Road studio arrangement by this kind of great pro, and the arrangement ends up being a lot about look at me, and look at what that you know rather simple but beautiful song could be turned into. And I found myself completely in love with the audacity, and I couldn't work out whether it was because of its or audacious nature, or whether it is this idea that you can hear just the incredible power and beauty of a symphonic orchestra in a way that people who wouldn't normally listen to a symphonic orchestra suddenly find themselves in that world and overwhelmed by the power and beauty.
Alice: Yeah, I think there's definitely a lot of spaces, and becoming more spacesnow in orchestral music for the more audacious take. The reimagining rather than an arrangement or orchestrations, a real reimagining of a song. And there's a lot of that going on, which is really exciting because I agree it's bringing a different audience into the concert hall and helping them experience the power of the symphony orchestra. I've just done a project that is more of a, was taking something that's a lot more electronic and almost experimental pop in nature, and that has a lot of electronics and manipulation of audio in in the recording. And then I've been given a small chamber orchestra to make that. I don't have any of the electronic toys, so how that sort of re imagining of an acoustic reimagining of a more electronicly driven piece, and that's completely different to the other arranging I've done that's been really, really challenging and really fun. If it sounds audacious, it probably was fun to write.
Paul: I read that you did some work at the Granger Museum, which is something that I also did when I was a Post Grad, just working in research there. And it struck me that at the time, you know, stupid young, naive thinking that all these eccentricities were just so out there. But if you think of them, he's interest in linguistics, sexuality, clothing, the long walks, the intense friendships with with much older composers, these now seem to be very modern on and ahead of his time. And I'm just wondering if you had a kind of sympathetic response to Granger because of that connection.
Alice: It was such a strange experience because I had this room in the museum where I would work, and so I'd walk through the different exhibits and whatever they were showing. And so it was always sort of this background filtration of Granger into my subconscious. But I think that it just opened my eyes to what an extraordinary, original man he waas and yeah, in that way very modern. But I'm not sure if modern js even the right word, or if he was just original and creative and just pushing boundaries and taking risks beyond what I feel I could possibly do. And it's very inspiring and wonderful for toe have that collection I think there. It's a really wonderful thing.
Paul: Yeah, and it's a beautiful building. And it is this idea that Granger knew his worth. He knew what he had achieved and on felt it really important that Australia know this is well and to think that this was Australia in the fifties or sixties, that it needed to know and recognize its relationship with classical music, high art music, and that he was the person to do that. And so for that I feel really grateful for him setting up that museum and then also for him showing, as you quite rightly say, it's about originality rather than about modernism. There was just no one like him. This is a person that could have forged and did, in fact, forge for the first decades of the 20th century, an enormously profitable and successful career as a concert pianist, but that kind of wasn't interesting enough for him, you know, and there were different phases of his life. And to be able to do that and say, yes, I want to do something different is a real mark of his originality and for that, as I say, I'm really grateful. I wanted to ask you, you're writing a piece for us. Tell me, how how you getting on with it? It's a lovely piece for Chris Moore and Carol Almonte. And it was something we wanted to work with you again. And, of course, if you're writing and performing the wonderful viola piece that Chris is going to play. You kind of think, gosh, that's a big ask to ask a composer to come and, you know, stick you up next to you know, one of the great pieces for Viola.But you said yes. And so yeah, I’d love you to talk about the process. And then and then how you thoughts about the peace along the way?
Alice: Yeah, well, it was wonderful to be asked to write a piece. Caroline has played one of my pieces before, and I love her playing, and I've heard Chris play as an audience member and he's just, you know, divine viola player so very excited to work with them as musicians. And the brief was really, I kind of got this email about it saying, you know, it's gonna be with the Britten, and I thought, can I do this? But Luke who emailed me from the Musica Viva, sort of framed it really well, he said, In terms of relating to the Britten, if you can pick something out with the Britten having the Dowland as that leaping off point, that it could be anything as a leaping off point, and that's the connection. So finding it, because it is a shorter piece that I'm writing and it's got to fit in a program. So I was thinking about, you know, I had lots of fun looking for at least somewhere to leap off. But I've I came back to an old favorite, Hildegard von Bingen. So I kind of really just It was just listening a lot to her music and kind of decided on Ave Generosa as a leaping off point in a much broader sense, as compared to the Britten and the Dowland, because with a shorter duration, you don't have time to do kind of those intricate things, like taking this interval and spinning it around to create a new melody and really developing it, because it's a shorter vignette type of experience. So I'm just taking the modal structure of Ave Generosa, which moves between like a Dorian and Trajan mode and sometimes combines, um and then just sort of taking the mobile language of very old music, like Hildegard von Bingen, and then filtering my language through that mode of language and basically showing how how modern she is, like she can still sound, I think. So that's sort of been my my take on it and filtering myself through the mobile language of Hildegard von Bingen. It's what's happening.
Paul: It is so fresh. I remember the kind of explosion of interest in her music in probably the nineties, and then, you know, suddenly one had access to recordings and there was real scholarly interest in her. And you just went, wow, the imagination and the palate, so powerful. It was a language of dissonance and release and in a way that seems so bold. And then somehow she was followed by people who were less bold. And that's often the way. And then suddenly, 300 or 500 years later, she's rediscovered, so you're in good company, I'd say if if that's the language that you want to explore. Where you at and what will the rehearsal process be this year, doing full circle from how we started the conversation, let's talk optimistically as we as we come to the end of it, how you envisage this will be rehearsed and performed?
Alice: Well, the performance was originally going to be in May, but it's been pushed back to November, so I'm delivering the score at the end of June. So I'm just in the beginning process of it, though I was diving in and out of it, but I'm hoping to be able to come to Melbourne in June or July to workshop with Caroline and Chris, but that’s the kind of thing you organize the week before and hope that everyone's been vaccinated by then or something like that. But that's when I'm hoping to come over. I'll certainly come over for the concert, but I'm hoping to come over as part of it rehearsal and development process because it's just my favorite part of making music, in the rehearsal room, the back and forth between a composer and a instrumentalist, because I learned so much from those experiences, and that's just when you feel that creative energy and I just love it. So if I can get to rehearsal I am pumped. I don't know if everyone feels that way.
Paul: Yes, everyone does, and you will and even though it's a coincidence that you're delivering at the end of June, it's really funny, certainly at Musica Viva, but a lot of the people that I talked to in the arts tend to say, you know what, I reckon from July we might be able to do some more flying. We might be able to kind of get back into something. So that's how we've planned it and therefore, that's how we're going to have you in the rehearsal room in Melbourne. It is gonna happen. You're doing something else for us as well. For the Musica Viva In Schools project with what the wonderful Thea. Tell us a little bit about that?
Alice: Yeah, well, it's a piece that is gonna be for flute and percussion and obviously percussion that can be easily transported toe all these lucky kids in schools all over Australia. At the moment where it's we're in the early planning, but they're looking at endangered and rare species, and the goal of the project is to get kids outside and listening in nature, so the pieces will connect with aspects of nature in some way. And I'm going with insects at this stage. So you know, there might be some patterns of different insect rhythms, and there's lots to explore. But it's just such a wonderful program that Musica Viva do, and spreading the that love of music and listening and creativity and encouraging that in all children this script project to be part of.
Paul: That's wonderful. My favorite insects are probably in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. You really did do similar things where you just kind of went, okay, I'm going to get the rhythm of the sound that they make And put that into the speech, of course that the insect had to sing. So you're in good company Alice!
Alice: Okay. Insects are the go. Looking forward to it.
Paul: I'm really excited and a huge fan of your music and your mind and you have just demonstrated all that in the conversation we just had. So I really look forward to seeing you in the rehearsal room or the concert hall later this year.
Alice: Great. Thanks so much for having me, Paul. It's been a pleasure talking to you.