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COMPOSER Q & A WITH ALICE HUMPRIES

Byline: Sascha Kelly

Alice Humphries is a versatile composer and arranger, working right across the musical spectrum – from jazz, to pop, to classical.  Next year, Musica Viva has commissioned Alice to write a new piece for violist Chris Moore, and pianist Caroline Almonte, which will premiere in our Melbourne Morning Masters series, on Monday 16 November.

Her music has been described as “bursting with life and fun, as well as great beauty” and “deeply thought-provoking…offering both moments of incredible intensity and sublime serenity.” For our 12 Days of Extras series, we took the opportunity to talk to Alice about what musicians and artists inspire her, her compositional process, and writing music with a toddler.

How did you start composing? 

I started out very much from the jazz perspective, I did a lot of arranging, and a lot of improvising. After that, it sort of moved into composition, through writing for small jazz groups, big bands, and then a more classical context in the last few years.

You're writing a piece for the violist Chris Moore, and the pianist Caroline Almonte. Do you know them personally, and does this change your process? 
I don't know them personally, though, Caroline has played some of my works. Last year, she performed a piece of mine with the cellist Blair Harris. I have heard them both play and they're incredible, so it’s really excited to be writing a piece for them. As my work on the piece progresses, I will definitely be setting up some Zoom meetings and collaborations, as it's a really important part of my process to get input from the players as I write the piece.

Becoming a composer sounds inherently glamorous, but what does your day-to-day life look like? Can you give us a snapshot? 

[Laughs] Well, I have a toddler - a two-year old son - so that takes up a lot of my day-to-day life. But when he's at day-care, or with his grandparents, that's when I work. I love to exercise, so I’ll always make time for that first, before I sit down at the piano and spend the day in my studio. I have a room set up where I have a piano and microphones, and so I’ll record myself improvising at the piano, working through an idea, and then I’ll write notes on paper. But I have those recordings, just in case I play something that really works, and then I forget it! I don't use computers until later in the process of creating a work. It’s important to me to be really hands-on and tactile, so if I'm writing for cello, I've a cello that I’ll whip out, and play really badly. I've just done a guitar piece and it was really valuable to have that physical instrument in my hands whenever I could.

What music do you listen to when you're not working? What performers, artists or and musicians do you turn to for inspiration? 

I listen to a really broad variety of music. I quite enjoy ambient electro acoustic music -Taylor Deupree and music on the 12K label, which is really quite different to a lot of my own work. I just really find it very beautiful. I also listen to everything from Motown to Disco, and at the moment my son and I are listening to a lot of the Wiggles. [Laughs] I really like listening to early music too, and at the moment I’m listening to Hildegard von Bingen. I find it really relaxing. As to artists that inspire me…. In the classical world, I really love the work of David Lang, John Adams and George Crumb. If you ask me to list some people closer to home, I’ve heard wonderful music  from Kate Moore and Kate Neal. Truthfully, I’m just really inspired by my peers – hearing about what everyone's doing. Whether it’s a friend who has an album that comes out, or a project they’re involved in, it’s all about lifting each other up, because it’s just so exciting to be able to do what we do.

 

Can you describe your music to someone who perhaps hasn't heard it before? Do you have anything you like to tell audiences to keep in mind while they listen?

This is hard question! I would describe my music as immersive. I’m trying to write these engaging sound-worlds that you (as a listener) can just swim around in and really sink into. When it comes to the piece I'm writing for Musica Viva, for Caroline and Chris, well, I was briefed that another piece on the program is Britten’s Lachrymae. The subtitle of that work is ‘Reflections on a song by John Dowland’, as Britten took Dowland’s piece as a leaping off point, as a point of departure. I thought it would be great if my piece could have a leaping off point as well, so I’ve been drawing on a Hildegard von Bingen work - Ave Generosa. It's not a direct quotation, because my piece is only five minutes long, but I’ve been immersing myself in that world, really drawing on the modal architecture as the framework for my own piece.


Chris Moore and Caroline Almonte will premiere Alice Humphries' new work on Monday 16 Nov for our Melbourne Morning Masters series.