An effective suspension of the rules of reality

Adult female Iris oratoria performs a bluffing threat display, rearing back with the forelegs and wings spread and mouth opened. By CaPro [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

This interview first appeared on the blog of my ensemble Kupka’s Piano, ahead of our performance of five brand new works by young Australian composers in ‘ELEMENTAL’ on Friday 31 August, 2018. My fellow KP flutist Jodie Rottle chatted to me about my piece Mantis for 2 flutes + trio. We covered a lot of ground, from performer-composer-ing and alternative notation practices, to horror flicks and international new music festivals! Post-concert we were lucky enough to take these pieces into the ABC studio, recording them for a podcast that will be made public later this year, so stay tuned for that.

Jodie Rottle: One thing I’ve really enjoyed about Kupka’s Piano in recent years is how performers are becoming composers and vice versa. You started as a classical flutist, got into new music and then more recently dove into free improvisation and electronics – and through that into composition. What does this idea of being a ‘performer-composer’ mean to you?

Hannah Reardon-Smith: I think I actually started improvising seriously because I felt a growing need to be composing, but putting pen to paper was frankly terrifying. Improvisation revealed to me my own creative capacity and is still very often the most thrilling and satisfying use of that capability, which is a big part of why I insist on its inclusion in any notated composition I write. In a way, improvising is really the definition of being performer-composer – we’re composing while we perform, in real-time. Notated composition allows me to create my control-freak dream of an improvisation, in that I can fix certain elements and just about make everyone do what I wish they might spontaneously do while improvising! That’s kind of a joke, but sometimes notated composition feels a bit like that – selfishly enforcing my own will on others. Probably what I hope it is more like is a little window into the way my mind works musically – welcoming my colleagues and audience in to have a little look around and hopefully not get too freaked out.

JR: Your new piece Mantis is notated in a really interesting way. Like your earlier flute duo Olive that we recorded, it is very specific in some respects, but has a number of elements (precise rhythm for instance) left quite free, and there are sections that are guided improvisations for different musicians. What’s the idea behind this kind of notation?

HRS: This notation grew out of my wish to spend as little time getting the score down as possible. Maybe because I’m married to a “real” composer and have seen his laborious and very time intensive working process, I wanted to do something as far from this as I could. Like him, however, I wanted a sense of metric/rhythmic malleability – he approaches this through nested tuplets and changing bar lengths, and as precision was not my aim I settled instead on a roughly spatial notation. Articulation markers give phrases direction and extra weight and length to certain notes. I’m often working with a kind of heterophony that is more common in jazz (think Miles Davis’ Nefertiti) than in classical composition, and this way of writing seems to convey that flexibility more readily to musicians that are so trained in rhythmic exactitude. Written instructions then help direct the performer away from the score and into their own creative ideas.

Elemental Static05
Still from Amelia Hine‘s animation for ELEMENTAL, a commissioning project and performance by Kupka’s Piano.

JR: There’s something really whack and strange about Mantis – something to do with the microtones, the wonky rhythms, the near-unisons, and the abrupt formal changes. It’s also got serious horror vibes, particularly the sections with violin scratch tones, guitar fingernail scrapes, and screeching clarinet teeth tones. From the inside it feels and sounds like a horror movie – and a little confronting, because I suck at watching horror movies! Is there something specific you’re trying to express in this strangeness?

HRS: Maybe because I’m a little twisted (and love watching horror movies), but those scratch-and-screech moments are actually really beautiful to my ears! I freaking love clarinet teeth tones, even though they’re a little like fingernails down a blackboard. Those sections were conceived of as slightly uncanny holding patterns – like when a creature is holding perfectly still and you’re not sure if they’re thinking “if I don’t move they can’t see me” or plotting the right moment to attack. There also is a general sense I’m trying to capture of the violent aggressiveness of the praying mantis when she performs her bluffing threat display or when she rips the head off her mate while in the act of copulation, or the even just the creepy feeling of the little griphooks on her legs catching on your skin as she sits on your hand, but there’s also a beauty in each of those moments. But maybe that’s what makes it truly chilling – to me, the best horror movies are the ones that are most aesthetically arresting.

Beauty can be found in the strangest of places. I know there’s a bit of “nightmare is fantasy realised” in this kind of a statement, which I have mixed feelings about. It tends to refer to sexual assault as women’s fantasy, when used in the Žižek-Lacanian sense (as per its origins) – victim blaming in the extreme. But of course the horror movie is a safe space to work with our darker fantasies, even to reverse the formulation so as make it “fantasy is nightmare realised”. As an anxious human with a vivid imagination who has suffered PTSD, I’ve had problems with catastrophising, panic syndrome, and actual nightmares. Horror films are regularly both cathartic – giving a reason for anxious feelings in my body, helping them build up and release in a way that’s time-limited and within my control – and an effective suspension of the rules of reality so that I might see the beauty in a freeze-frame of fear. We think of horror (and contemporary art music composition, lol) as man-dominated domains, but actually women have long played a role in writing and directing stories of horror and do a spectacular job of it (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – more amazing women directors of horror are profiled here). Living with the threat and very often also the experience of violence is almost a universal experience by women, so in a sad kind of way this makes a lot of sense.

I think I see the female praying mantis as a spectacular lead in her own particularly gripping but also slightly funny horror flick, and maybe this piece is her soundtrack.

Sexual cannibalism in Mantis religiosa. By Oliver Koemmerling [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

JR: Ok… so steering back away from horror… You recently went along to the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music in Germany – in a way, one of the spiritual homes of ‘new music’. You’ve been there three times now (wowie!). What did you take away from this year’s Darmstadt? What’s the latest developments in the new music world and where does what we’re doing in Australia fit in?

HRS: I find Darmstadt to be a really interesting institution in ways both good and bad, and it has delivered a slightly different flavour to me each time I’ve attended. My primary motivation for attending is always the other participants, getting to work with my friends and colleagues from around the world and to meet a host of brand new ones. But it certainly is also an exciting place from which to take the pulse of new European (and increasingly also American) art music. It is however a bit of a funny thing because it has this combination of an established new music tradition – with the composers and performers (especially certain performers) that uphold this – and a desire to always be at the cutting edge of compositional innovation. There’s a tension between old and new even while nearly everything is new (except that some Stockhausen and Boulez always seem to find a way in). There is also a tendency to mistake controversial for ground-breaking, and at the same time a tendency to mistake technical mastery for engaging performance.

Back here in our much smaller scene in Australia, I get the feeling that we’re doing a fairly good cross-section of that music here already with a few notable exceptions – although it’s true those exceptions would look pretty out of place in the scene here as it currently exists. But I also feel there’s a lot more freedom in the experimental realm here than in Europe in general. There’s also the room that allows Kupka’s Piano to be quite an eclectic group that plays a wide range of compositional styles, rather than specialising in one particular school or another and trying to carve out a niche.

As with many of the bigger institutions (…and a lot of the smaller ones), Darmstadt had been dragging its feet on gender representation in its programming. They made a big effort to change that this year, with at least 50% of composition tutors and participants being women, and around the same (as far as I could tell) in the composers of works being performed as part of the official program. There were works by the incredibly influential French electroacoustic composer Éliane Radigue presented at Darmstadt for the first time. This did make a difference to the content presented – there was more of a presence of multimedia in a lot of works, and more creative approaches to how music was staged. This is something I think traditionally concert hall type ensembles like ours might learn from, and indeed I think you can expect more theatre-minded performances from us in the future.

* Header image: Adult female Iris oratoria performs a bluffing threat display, rearing back with the forelegs and wings spread and mouth opened. By CaPro [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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