In celebration of International Women’s Dayon the 8th of March, we spoke to 2022 Season composers Brenda Gifford and Jessica Wells about their work, what inspires them and more.  

You can hear Jessica and Brenda’s work at upcoming Musica Viva Australia concerts. Brenda Gifford is composing an original work to be premiered by Vocal Detour during our Sydney Morning Masters series in October.

As part of the Signum Saxophone Quartet & Kristian Winther concert series taking place between 6 - 24 November, Jessica Wells has been commissioned to arrange Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto for the quartet and soloist.  

All Responses edited for clarity. 

Brenda Gifford

What can you tell us so far about the process (or concept) of the commission you are creating for Vocal Detour? 

The piece is called Minga Ngumbudhaa. I had been thinking about the piece and decided to call it Minga Ngumbudhaa meaning ‘Mother Love’ in my mob's Dhurga language. I thought I would call the piece this because the theme for the concert is For the Beauty of the Earth, and this ties in with that notion. Mother Earth is at the core of our culture. She gives us love and we give her love in return. Looking after Mother Earth is an act of love. 

Have you worked with many acappella groups in the past? What is unique about composing for vocal groups? 

I have written for acappella groups in the past. Acapella music is unique because of the beauty of the human voice and its range, the tones, and textures it gives us as listeners. 

What has been the highlight so far in your Master's Degree, focusing on Women in Composition? 

The highlights so far include Claire Chase in New York, which Liza Lim organised. Having my piece Mungala (Cloud) played by an artist such as Claire was amazing because she took it to another place. Because it was for solo flute and clapsticks (Bree Vanryke), the piece highlighted the flute beautifully. Additionally, the diversity in the Master's group and learning from others and their approaches to composing has been a highlight, and the support from Professor Liza Lim. 

Another highlight whilst doing my masters was the premiere of my piece Djiribiwal at the 2021 Canberra International Music Festival, played by the Australian Art Orchestra, which Roland Peelman, the Artistic Director of the festival commissioned me to do. The Art Orchestra are great musicians and how they played it was wonderful. It was a great opportunity for me and was beyond all my expectations.  

Are there are any fellow Australian female composers who inspire you, or whose work you particularly enjoy? 

Composers such as Liza Lim opened my ears to new sounds. I also enjoy Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans and Dance of the tea leaves, with Riley Lee on the shakuhachi (an instrument I am fascinated by). These composers have really interesting composition voices and inspire me. 

What excites you most about the future of Australian commissions in contemporary classical music? 

I am excited by the diverse voices now being heard in the space, people such as Lou Bennett, Chris Sainsbury, and Pinchgut Opera. These people and organisations are breathing new life into the contemporary classical music canon and to me, that is vital. 

Jessica Wells

What’s the key piece of advice you would give to emerging composers?  

Composers are in the long game. We are appreciated more when we are older and more experienced. So treat your career like a long winding path where you are gathering up skills and achievements as you go. Being young it can feel like an eternity. Remember to relax and absorb and don't be hard on yourself as you travel. 

What can audiences expect from the new arrangement of the Weill Violin Concerto that you are working on? 

Kurt Weill wrote this work in 1924 and I believe it was the first combination of violin and Wind Orchestra ever to be composed. It is a very colourful and challenging work, deriving its melodic and harmonic material from highly chromatic scales and atonal chords, and rhythmically challenging with ever-changing meters. It is sonorous and dark in places and percussive and tempestuous in others. It’s an exciting piece to listen to and is a fascinating view into the musical world of a century ago. 

What interests you specifically about arranging music? Are there any special considerations when arranging for a saxophone quartet + violin? 

I am particularly interested in the type of arranging that brings new perspectives to musical works. For example, I have just arranged a Clara Schumann work for piano solo into a string quartet (Flinders String Quartet). For me, it’s all about colour, with instrumental combinations creating new colours that illuminate a work from new angles.  

Trying to reduce a wind orchestra, complete with percussion instruments such as a xylophone down to a Saxophone Quartet, was rather challenging! When Weill had used a big dissonant chord of seven notes, I needed to use discretion to try and capture the core of the harmony in four notes. I used many techniques such as tremolos, trills, changes in tessitura, different articulations and contrasting dynamics to try and creatively distill the music down to its essence.  

This arrangement has been commissioned under the Hildegard Project, which aims to commission more women to write chamber music. What do you think projects such as these add to our musical landscape? 

Endeavours such as the Hildegarde Project have been created to address the imbalance of opportunity for women composers that have existed for so long. Being heard and represented is so important, and I’m so pleased to be involved and to bring my craft to a larger audience, and to also hear the other works by women composers that may not have had a performance if not for Musica Viva’s commissioning support. Our “musical landscape” should be varied and inclusive, as it makes it all the more interesting and exciting. 

I have worked over the last number of years mentoring and supporting indigenous composers through various programs and it’s so exciting to see their work being put on stages and recorded and broadcast. Their voice is also so important to be heard and represented. Australia has an amazing crop of composers of all walks of life - and music should reflect our whole society.