Light versus Dark
Stuart Greenbaum is a prolific composer in a wide range of genres with a large back catalogue of chamber music works including the Australia Ensemble UNSW’s 2008 commission of Easter Island. We caught up with Stuart Greenbaum about his work Easter Island, how his relationship with his music has changed over time, and what he is up to in 2022.
Can you tell us about the early days of this commission and what inspired you to compose Easter Island? Easter Island was commissioned by the Australia Ensemble UNSW for their 2008 season. I’ve always found the giant stone heads imposing and monumental. But reading about the rise and fall of that society likely due to deforestation really drew me into the story as a metaphor for the planet generally. And subsequently I wanted to create music that had contrasting light and darkness; foreboding but also consoling.
How do you approach writing a work like Easter Island? And were there any particular challenges writing this work for the Australia Ensemble UNSW? The writing process starts with the history and trying to get inside of what life on Easter Island might have been like to live on three centuries back as it perhaps dawned on the inhabitants that all was not going well. What might that feel like? What do you do? And from that stand point one can then imagine fragments of sound, harmony and colour that resonate with that.
And once you have living, breathing musical material, you can start to order and develop it into a narrative that hopefully pulls the listener into this other world. And alongside that, also trying to write for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet in a way that is engaging and rewarding for the seven performers. That septet has excellent balance and variety already so it was a pleasure to write for. Though, I did write for bass clarinet (instead of a standard clarinet) precisely to enhance the foreboding darkness of the stone heads silently facing inwards.
What listening tips can you share with the audience members in the lead up to the concert? Maybe it’s most useful for audience members to listen in for the alternating moods: light versus dark, major versus minor, high against low and such. All those dualities are in play throughout the structure of the work and the engine behind the narrative.
Has your relationship changed with this work over time? How do you now feel about Easter Island 14 years on? I plan to come up to Sydney for the performance in May and I’d ideally answer that question after hearing it live again. It was also performed in Melbourne in 2009 and in Akron (USA) in 2016, so I guess this is the fourth performance (that I know about) and lovely for it to return to the place and people of its premiere.
As to the work itself, in retrospect I see it as an important work in my development as a composer. I’ve always written harmonically grounded music with clear pulse; but from around 2006/2007 I think I was increasingly seeking atmosphere – to be able to sustain a mood across longer journeys. And I think writing Easter Island helped me to fi nd that in my writing process and what I personally most deeply seek as a listener.
"...that process often requires both composer and performers to go to the well – to dig deep. And that requires a leap of faith and good will – not to mention deep concentration and reserves of energy."
As a composer what is it like handing over a new work to an ensemble? I can imagine in some ways, these ensembles act as temporary custodians of your work, as they share and realise your music for audiences.
Handing over the music is easy – exciting even. But first rehearsals typically unearth issues that are unexpected and require discussion, collaboration and a preparedness to try out alternatives to make a work resonate and sing. And that process often requires both composer and performers to go to the well – to dig deep. And that requires a leap of faith and good will – not to mention deep concentration and reserves of energy. But maybe all great music making requires that. No doubt we’re working together with the aim of trying to create great listening experiences. Something that might transport an audience.
"I am currently in the final stages of mastering a new album of my clarinet music (A Trillion Miles of Darkness) with none other than Australia Ensemble’s own David Griffiths."
2022 sees the premieres of Brought to Light - Symphony No.5 commissioned by Cantori New York and The Night that the Museum Burned commissioned by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Are you able to tell us about these premieres? And perhaps what else you are working on and what we can look forward to hearing in the future? Brought to Light is an hour-long 6-movement choral symphony that premieres in New York on 14 and 15 May (a week before the performance of Easter Island). It was written across 2020/2021 in lockdown. Ross Baglin’s text takes the modern engineering of train tunnels as a metaphor for our descent into the underworld and our emergence back to the surface. It eerily mirrors what the world has gone through over the last two years, though the text was unfolding before the pandemic outbreak. It also, curiously, shares the duality of darkness and light with Easter Island.
And the text for The Night that the Museum Burned is also written by Baglin; a shorter work it also features contrasts – here the opulent luxury of a high-rise penthouse suite function while the museum is burning below at ground level. That premieres in Sydney and July and I hope to be there for that too!
I am currently in the final stages of mastering a new album of my clarinet music (A Trillion Miles of Darkness) with none other than Australia Ensemble’s own David Griffiths. Progressing that project through lockdown was challenging, but we’re both thrilled to get to this point with it sounding so good and hope to be able to share that very soon.
Further reading on Stuart Greenbaum’s Easter Island can be found at: www.stuartgreenbaum.com/downloads/index.html and a recording of Easter Island can be loaned from the Australian Music Centre: https://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/product/music-for-large-ensembl...