Cityscape caught up with former Christchurch composer John Young, whose specially commissioned piece Spirit opens (with its world premier) the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s first official 2018 season concert Eroica, and celebrates its 60th anniversary. Tell us about Spirit.
Well the CSO have been very generous and allowed me to write for quite a large orchestra. I was really pleased to accept the commission because, although a lot of my music has been solely in the electroacoustic area, I very much want to explore instrumental writing again with the perspectives I have gained through working so much in the studio, shaping and re-designing sound.
How did you approach the composition?
I’m interested in exploring what you might think of as the ‘inside’ of sounds. I’m fascinated in the way sounds evolve in time, their textures, richness and the sense of space they can create. As a composer this means for me that working with sound is about allowing time for timbre – or the colour of sound – to naturally evolve and find direction while giving the material enough gestural impetus to maintain a sense of motion. What can we expect?
I’m aiming to create an experience of sound that is very immersive, hopefully giving the audience a sense of following a path through the motion of sound textures and colours. There’s no narrative as such, but movement through a shifting soundscape. The title really reflects some of the emotional qualities I aim to evoke as a result: the idea of the spirit brings us to contemplation, but also to resolve and compassion. Will the CSO have to get in any special equipment to pull this off?
The piece includes electroacoustic sounds which formed the starting point of the work’s harmonic design. Hopefully that part of the piece will feel integral to the sound world and be quite transparent for the audience How tough is it composing for a home crowd?
Very! What sort of influence has the CSO had on you?
A huge influence, really. It was something to aspire to in my mid-teens, but then as a member of the orchestra it was amazing to gain insight into the repertoire through many international conductors and soloists: I remember concerts with Erich Bergel, Donald Thulean, Vanco Cavdarski and Carl Pini particularly well as all of them had wonderful ways to inspire us. The Brahms First we did with Donald Thulean was very special for me. There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie in the orchestra with enjoyable social as well as musical times – like the summer garden party picnics! I was a member of the orchestra’s board and players’ committee too, and that was a very good introduction to the administrative and financial side of the arts. Several of us were also very well supported in the formation of a contemporary ensemble ‘Continuum’ and we were able to commission several new pieces for the group. But I would also say that before that I had a complementary kind of experience in the Skellerup Woolston Band – where we played some very good contemporary pieces – I especially remember Volcano by the great British composer Robert Simpson. Tell us about your work in the acousmatic music field.
I am Professor of Composition in the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre at De Montfort University in Leicester. We’re a group of 12 staff working across all areas of music and technology. It’s true that I have gravitated toward mostly acousmatic music – which is music created solely for projection on loudspeakers. My attraction to it? Quite a few things: the potential to draw directly on sounds from the natural world, approaching all sounds as musically viable and the capacity to tell ‘stories’ in sound. Also the way we can create an immersive experience for the listener and use technologies to transform sound into new and exciting forms. Other recent pieces have been a 24-channel work for the Vienna Acousmonium (an ‘orchestra’ of 32 loudspeakers surrounding the audience) that was performed there in September and I have just been at the Bludenz Festival in Austria for the first performance of another acousmatic piece commissioned by an ensemble who design very innovative concerts around mixes of instrumental, audiovisual and acousmatic pieces. Along with Spirit, next up is a piece for a specially adapted piano called the magnetic resonator piano, written for Xenia Pestova who is very well known to New Zealand audiences I think! What do you miss most about Christchurch?
Family mostly, of course, but many other things – the light, the space, and the wineries ... I think one must always feel something special for one’s home town – familiar places and old haunts. I have not lived in Christchurch for nearly 30 years, so in a way I see mostly what has changed. The effects of the earthquakes have been really saddening but also unimaginable from a human perspective. But there is something about the sky, sun, and light that always makes me feel very relaxed when I visit – so it’s a funny mixture of ‘natural habitat’ and memories of people, places and events that I guess most expatriates must feel.
Air Force Museum, February 24