Gordon Kerry is the first Australian composer to write for both the electric and acoustic versions of the viola da gamba. He is also the first classical composer to work with the electric viola da gamba ensemble, Elysian Fields.
Kerry was Musica Viva Australia’s featured composer in 2012 and has held fellowships with the Australia Council, Peggy Glanville-Hicks Trust and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Gordon spoke with Philip Pogson about the 2020 world premieres of two new viola da gamba settings he has written for Jenny Eriksson’s ensembles Elysian Fields and The Marais Project.
Philip Pogson (PP): Gordon, firstly, I wanted to congratulate you as the first Australian composer to compose for both the acoustic and electric versions of the viola da gamba. How did you come to write music for these instruments and Jenny Eriksson’s two ensembles, they are hardly mainstream?
Gordon Kerry (GK): I have known and admired Jenny Eriksson and her work for longer than either of us would like to admit, but listening to recent recordings of both groups I suddenly thought ‘I’d love to write for these musicians’. It’s always good to move out of the comfort zone, and I hadn’t written for either combination. The traditional gamba is, of course, very beautiful, and I was struck in particular with how the electric gamba could blend with and then separate, from the saxophone.Eriksson with her 7-string electric and acoustic viola da gambas
PP: Jenny Eriksson’s ensembles, The Marais Project and Elysian Fields, are almost at the opposite ends of the music spectrum. The first is an early music group playing replicas of ancient instruments, while Elysian Fields is a creature of the 21st century straddling the boundaries of jazz, world and classical chamber music. Did you feel a little schizophrenic when writing “I dreamed I moved among the Elysian Fields” (for Elysian Fields) and “Christchurch Monody” (written for The Marais Project), or is there something that holds the pieces together in your mind?
GK: I was listening to some William Lawes recently and that strikes me as extremely ‘modern’ music in a way, so I think it’s quite possible to write something idiomatic for The Marais Project which doesn’t necessarily sound like ye olde pastiche; likewise I know that Elysian Fields can produce a range of sound and moods so I hope I have tapped into that.
PP: There are also the different aesthetics between jazz/improvised music and the mainstream classical tradition. How did you approach this challenge?
GK: Improvisation was of course a major element in Baroque music and lots of classical composers were known to have been great improvisers. And it isn’t unheard of in contemporary music though not all classical musicians are comfortable be asked to improvise beyond the kind of aleatoric counterpoint you get in, say, Lutosławski. And I am a bit of a control queen, so tend to write pretty detailed scores. But I am very happy in this instance for the players to embellish what I’ve written once they know the kind of mood I want to establish. For example, the drum part in the work for Elysian fields was in the first instance very simply notated by drummer Dave Goodman and I have talked about how he might improvise – I know he’ll do wonderful things.
PP: Over the years you have written a number of highly regarded vocal works and song cycles. You said in an interview once that you are very attracted to literature and poetry. Can you tell us a little about two poems you have set for Marais Project/Elysian Fields singer, Susie Bishop?
GK: An eminent opera conductor once told me that the voice was the hardest instrument to write for, which is true in some ways, but I do love working with texts so I try as hard as possible to make it ‘singerly’ an at the same time expressive of the words’ meaning.
Both of these pieces are in a sense memorials: I lost a very dear friend, Marena Manzoufas, this year (2019), and while I was looking for a poem to set for Elysian Fields I came across Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘I dreamed I moved among the Elysian Fields’. It describes being in the ancient Greek version of heaven, I suppose, and the poet sees and talks to a number of the great women of Greek mythology. Given Marena’s background and her generosity to me it seemed a perfect way to remember her – I read the poem at her funeral. I know Susie will sing it magically.
I wrote Christchurch Monody in the wake of the atrocity committed against Muslims at prayer by a white Australian terrorist as a small gesture of horror and apology. I also thought that I wanted to stake a claim to the Western civilisation that such people monstrously claim to defend, so used a biblical text that begins with a sense of futility and bleakness (Ecclesiastes), but which offers the image of the dead now being safe and at peace (Wisdom).
PP: Is there an interplay between the sounds and rhythms of life in regional Victoria where you have your home, and your compositional processes?
GK: It’s hard to say definitively, as I moved here at a time of life when you might expect a change of style anyway, but certainly it is a wonderful part of the world in which to live – it is scenically beautiful, quiet, and has a sense of real seasons that one doesn’t always appreciate in cities. And certain works have been written in response to that. But with beauty, terror – I have seen bushfire and drought and on occasion written music about that – after the 2003 fires I wrote a piece for Opera in the Alps that commemorated the event, in 2004, using the words of local people so it was about and for them. And I have worked with other local performers, professional and amateur, and one naturally tailors the music for them.
PP: Finally, it’s a big question, but how do you see the role of the classical music composer in 21st century Australian life? What motivates you to keep going?
GK: I believe that music offers experiences that nothing else can, taking us ‘out of time’ while the music lasts, offering a way of processing feeling, a way of stimulating the senses and the mind. And if my music does that I am happy to keep on trying to write it.
- Elysian Fields will give the world premiere of “I dreamed I moved among the Elysian Fields” by Gordon Kerry at their concert “A Singular Path” on 30pm on Sunday February 23 at The Independent Theatre, North Sydney.
- The Marais Project will premiere Gordon Kerry’s “Christchurch Monody” at “Baroque Songs & Interludes”, 3.00pm Saturday May 16 at The Independent Theatre, North Sydney.