Last Tuesday was an emotional and highly rewarding day. Facilitated by Rita Horanyi, Artistic Director if the NT Writer’s Festival, I had the great privilege of talking with poets Matthew Heffernan, Yvette Holt, Theresa Penangke Alice (see picture below) and Maureen O’Keefe about their beautiful work, and garnering a sense of their emotional journey when writing the four poems chosen for my latest orchestral song cycle commission from the Darwin Symphony OrchestraFour Lost Songs featuring the stunning voice of soprano Rachelle Durkin. I was completely floored by our poets’ generosity and honesty, giving my composer brain an invaluable look and feel into what went into these poems—absolutely essential to my musical and compositional process.

“Listen” A poem from Women’s Talk, Poems of Lyapirtneme from Arrernte Women in Central Australia, one of the featured poem’s in Four Lost Songs

When discussing the commission details late last year, Conductor Jon Tooby and I had a bit of a musical fan gush moment over Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), also discovering our mutual respect for Jessye Norman’s inimitable recording. Jon asked for a work of similar scope and length, to which I replied it’s a big ask, to model a work on such a monster of the orchestral lied repertoire, but I’ll certainly do my best! The Four Lost Songs do pay a certain homage to Strauss’s work, and feature texts that focus yes on loss, but also on joy, resilience and hope, like in Theresa’s poem above, and the vital importance of connection to country of our first nations people. I have incredible forces to work with…a symphony orchestra, an amazing soprano, poems that are visceral and emotive, and all those years of singing and coaching Strauss behind me…it’s all leading to this!!! I am so looking forward to sharing it with the world.

For now, I am finishing the last of my orchestration tasks for Our Little Inventor for the West Australian Opera, before moving into song cycle territory. OLI will be on in Perth on the 1st and 2nd October for four shows. Come along and bring your family, it’s a beautiful and uplifting story with lots of fun and adventure.

Click on the names above for links to the poets and their beautiful work. I am beyond grateful for their trust and generosity. Go well, and with music in your soul.

This week I have been busy distributing scores for an upcoming creative development week to be spent at WAAPA on the theatre piece The Big Sea, with director Frances Barbe. This has involved a deep dive into Frances’ writings in and around the time of her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. The result has been three small aria sketches to be performed by Australian soprano Emma Matthews and members of the the Darlington Quartet, Semra Lee-Smith (violin), Sally Boud (viola) and Jon Tooby (cello). Inspired by music Frances chose in a playlist of her favourite operatic arias, as well as instrumental music from more disparate sources (film and world music), I have tried to stay completely true to the text as it appears in Frances’ diary— editing words (cutting some text), but never re-writing; I felt this approach was important in order to remain faithful to the realism of Frances’ journey, her diagnosis, her “decision fatigue” and her survival. It’s an intensely personal story, and I feel very privileged to have been given access to these sources.

This emotional and often turbulent textual beginning has given rise to equally emotive music, and I have also begun work with Kieran Kenderessey from KK Audio Ninja on some sound design for the show, which has included Frances’ own recitation. I am very much looking forward to hearing the results of our recorded workshop showings from early May.

Storyboarding is a way to visually represent various scenes or story points sequentially on one or several pages or boards, most commonly associated with the planning of film or television programs. I find storyboarding to be an essential tool for analysis of other works as well as for the planning and drafting of my work, be it creative writing (libretto) or score-related (orchestration). At each juncture storyboard elements can be altered slightly in order to accommodate the elements of that specific creative task (story development, planning of musical scenes and elements, full orchestral realisation) but the basic design remains the same: a landscape-oriented table plotting scenes or events, often with a hand-drawn graph above indicating the natural rise and fall of dramatic tension in the piece. 

Recently I have used storyboards for my own compositional practice as work progresses, but I have also found them to be a great collaborative tool for use with directors and dramaturge, as well as being excellent ‘pitch’ tools when suggesting possible stories for operatic or balletic (music drama) to companies and funding bodies. They can be as basic or as detailed as you wish, and have been a fantastic way to streamline work and spot problems from afar.

Storyboard for use in studio for The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie
Very basic story breakdown of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant
Progressive storyboard for use in studio for the opera Beyond the Wall
Draft Storyboard for libretto and score formation Beyond the Wall

A little background…

The Bell Birds Suite for string quartet is inspired by Henry Kendall’s poem Bell Birds, first published in 1869, in a book of collected poems entitled Leaves from Australian Forests. Each movement of the work is loosely programmed around the five stanzas of Kendall’s poem, and although the work itself contains compositional elements that mimic Australian birdsong (Bell Birds, Golden Whip Birds, Djidi Djidi or Willy Wagtails, Currawongs and Bar shouldered doves) the intention of the piece is that this is the poet’s experience of the bush, an emotional and profound expression of their love for the Australian bush and its animals. The focus of the piece is the expression of the rich melodies that underpin the poet’s feelings portrayed in the text. It has a loosely symmetrical structure, with themes recapitulated or inverted in movements 1 and 5, 2 and 4, and the central movement being a big romantic love theme as the poet expresses their desire to “loiter for love in these cool wildernesses”. A tiny snippet of this theme appears at the conclusion of the 5th movement, one in which the poet expresses their longing for the past as a balm against their world weariness.

I had wanted to write a string quartet for some time, and after experimenting with some extended string techniques and bird calls in my opera Beyond the Wall, I was interested in particularly trying to write something that evoked the birds of Australia. I grew up in the Hills in Perth and have just recently moved back there after living in the city, and in Sydney and London for spells of time. A piece dedicated to Australian flora and fauna appealed to me as I have always been struck at how profoundly homesick I became for these things (the sounds of the birds, the trees, the smells of the earth, the gums, the flowers) when I lived away. Australian animals are so raucous and audacious, and although I love seeing the world, it really was true for me that Australia was always a place I called home, one that I missed terribly.

One of a composer’s greatest modern challenges (especially one who is music drama based) is negotiating rights to text with authors, or finding work that is in the public domain. I often write my own text, but absolutely relish the opportunity to collaborate with other writers, and although this has sometimes been a fraught experience, the majority of the time it has been very enjoyable process. The poem Bell Birds I discovered quite by accident when searching through Australian literature, and I loved it instantly as it reminded me of the kind of poem my Grandmother would have known and loved. My grandmother was a beautiful letter writer and correspondent, and loved poetry. I was lucky enough to receive her copy of Henry Lawson’s collected prose works as a gift after one of our visits, and classic Australian poetry always reminds me of her. My mother subsequently told me that she had been required to learn Bell Birds for recitation at school, along with Dorothea MacKellar’s I love a sunburnt country, so I was delighted to learn that perhaps lots of people of certain generations in Australia know this poem well!

My Grandma lived in Blaxland in the Blue Mountains for many years, and I have very fond memories of visiting both my grandparents in Blaxland—both as a child and when I was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium in the early Noughties. The train journey from Central to Blaxland is a lovely one, especially as you cross the Nepean and start up the mountain. All of a sudden my student cares would melt away and I’d gaze out the window and relish the scenery, secretly wishing I lived there instead of my tiny bedsit in Potts Point. Grandma always made a beautiful sit down lunch, and I’d listen to them talk and tell them my singing plans and travel goals. She’d sneak something extra into by bag for my train ride home, and I’d arrive back in Sydney feeling much refreshed and ready to get back into the fray. Grandma and Grandad would often drive me around the mountains on my visits, up to Katoomba and the Three Sisters. They also took me on a special trip past Bell, where we got out of the car so I could hear the Bell Birds. I’d like to think of this piece as my expression of love for Australia, and how lucky I feel to be a part of this place. It’s also got a lot of my love for my grandparents in there, and as I composed these movements, I was constantly drawn back to those moments in the Blue Mountains, mixed with the love for the scenery and wildlife around my new home here in WA.

A few weeks ago I had a meeting with Semra Lee-Smith (violin) to discuss some bird song sounds I wanted to integrate into my latest commission, a string quartet based loosely on the five stanzas of Henry Kendall’s famous 1869 poem, Bell Birds. Semra is an excellent musician and came up with some suggestions to the Golden Whip Bird call I had been having trouble with, and also some imitations of the Willy Wagtail or Djidi Djidi (Noongar name). I recorded her playing and, although we will undoubtedly come up with alterations in rehearsal, the notational solutions I came up with looked something like this:

The whip bird notation borrows from notational devices I noticed in Peter Sculthorpe’s string quartet music, particularly the arrow heads, and studying his scores has been very informative in how to present intentions to performers as clearly as possible. The Djidi djidi scratch tone I have utilised previously in the cello part for Beyond the Wall to great effect, it works particularly well in the cello, however Semra noted a better technique for performing this figure on the violin, mainly by damping the strings using her left hand across the fingerboard and producing the scratch tone ordinarily across the bottom G and D strings. It doesn’t carry as well however, I may leave the Djidi Djidi to the cello and concentrate on using the violins for the higher set “tweety” bird sounds.

The Bell Bird itself has been mainly executed as high pizzicato in the two violins, along with imitations by ear of birds from audio samples of birds within the Bell Birds terrain (mainly in NSW) but I admit to being quite influenced by the birdsong in my own backyard, in the Darling Ranges of Perth, Western Australia. I have so far not included the distinctive Currawong sound I remember so well from my time living in Sydney, and am at a loss to know how this can be done on a string instrument, but I’d like to try! For now, writing remains to be completed, and then the rehearsals can begin. I’m feeling very excited at the prospect of another work coming to life.

JANUARY 2020: The last few months have been very busy preparing the piano score for use in the creative development of my latest commission from WA Ballet, The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. This piece began creative development (choreography with the very talented WA Ballet young artists) on January 13, 2020, and had its company showing for creatives and sponsors on February 10. Prior to this, I began story development with the choreographer Andries Weidemann in early November. After this first session reading May Gibbs’ 1918 work The Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, which is the first set of stories from the collected edition The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (2007) we refined story elements and chose our characters, jotting notes and scribbles on a whiteboard and forming a rough storyboard arc. Storyboarding is a way to visually represent various scenes or story points sequentially on one or several pages or boards, most commonly associated with the planning of film or television programs. I find storyboarding to be an essential tool for analysis of other works as well as for the planning and drafting of my work, be it creative writing (libretto) or score-related (orchestration). At each juncture storyboard elements can be altered slightly in order to accommodate the elements of that specific creative task (story development, planning of musical scenes and elements, full orchestral realisation) but the basic design remains the same: a landscape-oriented table plotting scenes or events, often with a hand-drawn graph above indicating the natural rise and fall of dramatic tension in the piece. 

I took away this storyboard arc, and reframed it into a word document very similar to the one I used in my opera development. We then both edited and refined as ideas progressed using the Word review comments sections. 

Then we went away with our separate tasks. Whilst Andries worked on the narration, I began working on the piano score for use in the rehearsal period in January, firstly by developing several themes for characters and situations. This first score was to be for a piano, with percussion indications for cues and clarity. I work with the piano firstly as it is the generally accepted mode of musical rehearsal in both ballet and opera companies, and as it is also the best way for me to write broad sketches of a work, to formulate easily melodies and their basic harmonies, and in this fashion it also allows you to work more speedily than if you were bogged down in the task of orchestration. What’s wonderful about this layered approach is that it’s much easier to make changes quickly, and at the end of the whole process, you have a completed rehearsal score that can be used again for subsequent productions. 

Much along the lines of modern film music and Wagnerian leitmotif, I began developing a piano score by experimenting with lots of character themes and leitmotif devices.  Most of these themes were developed with Andries’s developing adapted text, and greatly inspired by May Gibbs’ wonderful drawings of characters and situations. You can see these all on my project board that was utilised in my study as I worked (Figure 2).

Once we had a more definite story arc and a developing narration, I began to piece the ballet score together with connecting music, using the narration as a kind of skeleton framework. Andries and I would then have a meeting where I played him what I had been working on, and I took copious notes on what he wanted changed or developed. This had been an ongoing process of edit and refine, even as we have been choregraphing, so the work is certainly still developing even today. 

My next task will be to begin orchestration of the work which will be for wind quintet: Flute (piccolo), Clarinet (and bass clarinet), Oboe, Bassoon and French Horn, as well as tuned and untuned percussion. Percussion is a very important aspect of this score which may not have been as evident in the MIDI playback rehearsal recording in the showing. The tuned percussion will include vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel, and the non­-tuned percussion will include temple blocks, castanets, guiro, bass drum, snare drum and triangle amongst others. Percussion has been identified not just by me, but by many other composers working in children’s repertoire to be especially effective in complementing the pace of works, adding dramatic effect and tension, and keeping the timbre of the overall score as varied and colourful as the original May Gibbs’ illustrations. I chose this instrumental combination due to the soloistic characteristics of the wind quintet, which allows for virtuosity and loads of characterisation through the differentiation between these instruments. 

I have also written a cheeky overture, March of the Gumnuts as I loved the way the 2019 Peter and the Wolf production opened with all cast on stage dancing to the Prokofiev March Opus 99, Allegro. This overture was one the dancers ran out of time to choregraph for our showing, but I’m looking forward to orchestrating it and its inclusion in the performance. 

I want to thank WA Ballet, Andries Weidemann and all the dancers for their support and hard work, and I look forward to sharing the completed work with you in the near future. 

Gibbs, M. (2007). The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Including Little Ragged Blossom and Little Obelia. Sydney: HarperCollins.

Storyboarding has been a vital tool for me as a composer over the last few years. Although frequently used and advocated as a basic approach in film and television, when researching methods for my own opera project in my PhD I never found an example of a storyboard used by a composer or librettist in any literature. So I developed my own, mainly informed by Robert McKee’s approaches in his—perhaps overly wordy— but nevertheless excellent book Story. This was suggested to me by the director Rachel McDonald, along with the snappier Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Both of these books suggest the board and story card approaches, but the storyboard I developed came from discussions with visual artists Lyndall Adams, who sketched out a rough table like template, which I then went away and adjusted to include and allow for musical elements and sections.

For purposes of definition, a storyboard is a way to visually represent various scenes or story points sequentially on one or several pages or boards, most commonly associated with the planning of film or television programs. I found storyboarding to be an essential tool for analysis of other works as well as for the planning and drafting of my work, be it creative writing (libretto) or score-related (orchestration). At each juncture storyboard elements were altered slightly in order to accommodate the elements of that specific creative task (story development, planning of musical scenes and elements, full orchestral realisation) but the basic design remained the same: a landscape-oriented table plotting scenes or events, often with a hand-drawn graph above indicating the natural rise and fall of dramatic tension in the piece. 

I use storyboards in two main ways. Firstly, as a way to plot the basic story points or beats of the storyline. This can either be an original story you have developed, or a story you are adapting yourself from an existing text. Here are some examples

This is a story breakdown and rough arc of action for the Selfish Giant
This storyboard for an opera includes musical elements (in red)

Secondly, I use a whiteboard in studio to plot the basic action and musical developments as they progress. Sometimes this will also include design elements of images, almost like a “mood” board. Some example I have used previously include:

Planning board utilised in studio for the opera Beyond the Wall
Planning board utilised in studio for the Ballet Snugglepot & Cuddlepie

My next opera commission is a comic opera adaptation of Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. I have utilised the same storyboard process to great effect in order to plan the new libretto, and will soon be onto setting up my studio whiteboard once musical realisation begins. Storyboarding is a way for me to keep a somewhat organised plan, in what often becomes a very messy process. It helps to have those tools to keep yourself sane!

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.