Monday, April 28, 2008

That ol' chestnut - motherhood

This evening I had a surprise phone call from a good friend who recently took on a very full-time job in a town far away. We spent a little time catching up, as you do, talked about our children and other bits and pieces and she said, "So, are you teaching at the moment?" I patiently explained that no, I am on maternity leave because Lillian is only 6 months old and I don't plan to go back to work outside the home until Feb 09 at the earliest. The tone of the conversation suddenly changed, and it has thrown me somewhat out of kilter this evening. Suddenly I felt like I had disappointed her, and I had nothing of interest to talk about.

I found myself trying to justify my non-teaching life by explaining that I have a commission that I'm working on. But an hour or so earlier I happily talked to my husband that even though our children have been sick for the past five days, of course I enjoy caring for them even though it's hard exhausting work. That's my "job" and my first priority at the moment. Who else is going to do it, and why should they?

I certainly don't intend to criticise working mothers because I am one even though I work at home and in the evenings. I think it was the sudden assumption that, because I'm at home with my children, doing the kinder drop-offs and pick-ups, taking care of my baby and not going out of the house to work, I'm not really doing anything productive or meaningful.

I believe that despite what the government wants (more women in the work force), there is a cultural swing towards women staying at home and caring for their families while their children are very young (under 2 or 3). Whether that means they restructure their lives so, like I do, they juggle work and children without losing their career, or whether they even put their paid work on pause while their children are young. I do believe it is happening a lot more than is being talked about in the media. Perhaps it's all part of the generational change. The median age for a woman having her first child has risen, and many women have already reached significant career and financial goals prior to starting their family.

Of course there are also many women who would go insane if they had to stay home full time with children! If you absolutely love your job and the people you work with, you're lucky - whether or not you have children. In recent years I haven't been as fortunate, so I'd rather stay home and work on what I want to, rather than beat my head against a brick wall at a place where I'm not appreciated or taken advantage of, in the best sense...

Recently I read an interview with the composer Liza Lim, who said that she did no composition at all during the first year of her son's babyhood. I completely understand how she felt:
There was the period beforehand – gestation – where I really felt my creative power go somewhere else. The tide really went out a long way, and I wrote a couple of crappy pieces where I just couldn’t get it together. I was just in La-la land. I had my child, and I didn’t do anything for the first year of his babyhood – I didn’t even try to. Then there was that whole thing of trying to rediscover my creativity on the other side, which I think lots of women have. ‘Am I the same person in some way, on the other side of having had a child?’

Composition is such a mentally draining activity, that by the time you get through the day's work caring for small children, if you have any brain cells left to write music it's probably happening in your sleep. But I digress.

If this subject interests you, go and read this book, which I found a revelation when I read it a couple of years ago. Not everyone will agree, and that's fine. But do we need a Queensland or overseas holiday every year? Do we need those giant 4WD tractors mowing everyone down in the city streets? A giant-screen plasma TV? A new wardrobe every season?

Whatever. We are lucky that we really can choose what we want to do. The main thing, for me, is that our children are happy and healthy.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Composers - don't forget!

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Australian Composers' School 2008 applications close on Monday 2 June at 5.00pm.

Are you wondering how to move ahead with your career as a composer? If so, this development program is for you.

We need a 5-7 minute orchestra piece, plus application form, available from the TSO website, where you can also listen to snippets of previous composers' works and interviews.

The past two Australian Composers' Schools have asked for applicants in two categories (Emerging and Training) but this year there will be just one category. There were so many high quality pieces submitted that we decided to give a few more composers the opportunity to send new works for full orchestra. This year a maximum of five composers will be selected. The wonderful thing is that there is no age limit, so even geriatrics over 35 can apply! *grin*

The Composers' School is a great experience and a real foot-in-the-door to the Australian orchestral music scene. If you can't attend as a participant, it's well worth coming to Hobart as an observer. So get those black dots going and send in your piece by Monday 2 June!

Questions? email

American V

David recently bought American V: A Hundred Highways, Johnny Cash's last recording which was released posthumously in 2006.

It's truly wonderful. The liner notes, by the producer Rick Rubin, describe a poignant picture of the final months of work in between Cash's hospital stays. He knew he was not going to live much longer, but the tone of many of these songs is of a man heading towards his final rest, almost in anticipation of it. You can certainly hear his failing breath in some of the tracks, particularly the first one. It's the same raw baritone from the great early songs, but his age is palpable. Some of the tracks are simply beautiful - my favourite is If You Could Read My Mind - sparsely accompanied with a mature sense of pace and breath.

At first I thought the lyrics were rather morbid, on his knees praying for forgiveness in many of them, but on further listenings I totally agree with one online review that: "There is something quite heart-filling as much as heart-rending in these songs and in these performances."

In a funny way the recording reminds me of Strauss's Four Last Songs, which always bring me to a standstill whenever I hear them. The contrast between the scratchy wheezing Johnny Cash and the impeccably elegant Strauss in his old age is fairly transparent, but both share the expression of an old man, coming to the end of his life, wanting to leave the world with a last and lasting contribution, and doing it with the years of experience and expertise behind them.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The ten o'clock heebie jeebies

I am a night owl. At 10pm I'm usually heading down to my study to poke about on the computer and write some little black dots.

For the past few nights, Lillian has woken up screaming her little noggin off at 10pm. And the only thing that comforts her is a bit of a cuddle. I have no idea why she does this. Nightmares, perhaps? The sound of my footsteps or the heater going on?

And she's still carrying on. Arrggh.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh Elgar

This morning on the way to school I heard a snippet of Elgar's orchestration of Handel's Overture in D minor on ABC Classic Breakfast. Heck! it was AWFUL!

Why oh why did he have to do it? There were massive trombones in big walls of sound, booming away in what should have been a nice Baroque walking bass. There was a screaming piccolo. Now, I have nothing against piccolos - for obvious reasons - but that piccolo should have been gagged and put back in its box. And there were tense vibrating violins all over the place. Urkle.

It was interesting, though, pondering the fashion for orchestrating different repertoire at different stages in history. Stokowski did a bunch of these things, not quite as awful as the Elgar but still not a good idea. I once had to orchestrate one of Boulez's Structures which is originally for two pianos and has no meter. The only way to do it was very sparsely indeed, and of course put in a meter because funnily enough musicians en masse like to know when to come in and how long to play for. Fortunately the thing was never heard, as it was an examination question, but it was actually a really good thing to do for the technical challenge.

Thank goodness that changing entirely the character of a work from a certain period by adding bits here and there is no longer such a good idea. I wonder if Handel would agree.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

And there's more

There were six in her head and the little one said:
"Some more please! Some more please!"
So the teeth moved over and two more popped out.

Ai carumba!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Food for thought

After an extremely productive day, this evening I decided to go all out and cook North African Lamb with Chilli, Ginger, Chick Peas and Couscous - thank you Jamie Oliver. The result was delicious and the best part is that there's enough for two more dinners, hooray! Not having to come up with tasty nutritious meals night after night certainly makes late afternoons easier in a house with a small baby, tired kindergarten boy, tireder husband and trying-hard-to-do-everything composer masquerading as a mother/housewife.

If you want to see spectacular meal planning though, have a peek at Dani's website. Dani is a great cook and what always strikes me about her food obsession is the imagination that goes into all her recipes.

I love to cook and I love to eat. At the wedding on Saturday there was a choice of roast beef or Jamie Oliver's fish pie, with three salads and some gorgeous crusty bread rolls. I have to say I'm a big Jamie fan. His recipes always work and they're delicious. The chef on Saturday agreed with me.

There are times in life, though, when you just lose your food mojo because there is so much life going on around you and you can't keep up. Fortunately I don't feel like that at the moment, I'm just trying to clear the decks in the evenings so I can write. But when you have small children in tow it's difficult to make many stops on a food-shopping outing to get exactly what you want at a variety of different shops. So creating meals becomes fairly predictable and unimaginative, using ingredients that you can get hold of on one quick trip.

What did I do today? Alexander was back at school and Lillian slept for enough time for me to get back into the piece and I'm reaching the end of the first poem (of three poems). There's a nice bubbling motive going on and while part of the poem is a little puzzling -- "Ice light of the aurora veils Canopus" -- I quite like what I've done with it, some quartal harmony and a mournful oboe obbligato which will morph into a flute line and back to the oboe. It's nice to be thinking clearly about my work again when those moments allow me. And also to feel like I'm getting a bit done in the day so I can make something nice for dinner!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy days

My dear friend from my mothers' group was married yesterday. David played while the guests arrived, then accompanied her while she sang to her husband. Then there was a delicious catered lunch, the wine flowed, the sun shone and the kids had a jumpy castle, fairy entertainment and reliable babysitters to look after them so the adults could relax. A beautiful day.

Much love and happiness to the 'newlyweds'.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Ahh sleep.

This has been the house of mixed-up sleep patterns for the past couple of weeks.

Lillian has decided that napping in the daytime is an option for whenever she feels like it. And she's been waking at night again. I blame the teeth. I've been watching her little choppers and what I thought would be tooth no. 6 is still under the gum up top, but today I noticed that actual tooth no. 6 has popped though in her lower jaw. So there it is. Six teeth and no. 7 almost sprouted. Last night was the best night's sleep she's had in ages. 7.15pm to 6.45am - heaven! Wish I'd been asleep for that long.

David and I have been staying up too late catching our breath, as it's such a whirlwind with two young bunnies in the house who occupy every waking moment. What do I do staying up after the kids have gone to sleep? Well, I do the dishes and make the lunches. I tidy the lounge and kitchen, as it's really difficult to relax when there is chaos around me. I might fold clean laundry and put it away. Occasionally I iron shirts. Sometimes I mop dirty floors. I watch a bit of tv, but not every night. And of course I pop onto the computer to check messages and catch up with online friends, and I also write some little black dots.

Speaking of which, I think we have good progress. I'm up to just over 3 minutes (15 min max) and past halfway though the first text. I wish the person from Penguin would get back to me about rights to the poem, as the author's son has given his approval for its use, which is very kind. Just need the official 'yes', otherwise the piece is going to have to have a lobotomy. Eep.

I'm pleased with how it's going so far. A lot of it is in my head, which is a little alarming when I look at the blank staves, but as I work in short score with lots of jottings for orchestrations etc, it does come back to me. As a necessity the most important part is the text setting and resultantly the harmonic and rhythmic language, which, in SATB setting, creates itself anyway so there's my kick-off for the rest of the score. And actually I'm enjoying the bits of pre-composition I've got going on a sheet of manuscript in front of me. Chord sequences in various inversions, relationships from one chord to another, little diagrams of interval patterns, and some a-rhythmic vocal writing. Nice to be at this stage of the piece where it's starting to flow. I just need more time and more sleep.

The only person who's been getting good sleep at night is Alexander, bless his cotton socks.

Anyway, I'm off to bed.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A letter to Oma and Grandad

Dear Oma and Grandad,

Thank you for the hug and the kiss!

I'm taking a few moments in my busy schedule of trying to stay awake all day and drive my mother to the nut house. That's why Mummy hasn't been composing much. Yes, I'm 6 months today and I celebrated by staying up late the night before, as well as waking up at 1.30am for half an hour of gurgling and scooting backwards down the cot. Mummy wasn't impressed but at least I slept in this morning a little bit. Our clocks went back one hour but I don't really take notice of such things.

Today Jackie came over and gave me a huge bag of hand-me-down clothes from 00 to size 3, including around 15 pairs of shoes! I have 4 teeth and my 5th and 6th teeth should be here this week as well. I'm eating a little bit but I don't really enjoy the high chair for long as it's a bit tiring. I prefer to sit on Mummy's lap and suck on some food and then put my sticky hands all over her. Great fun! In the past 10 days I have tried chewing/sucking on steamed apple, carrot, broccoli, potato, and some raw pear and banana, and today I tried parsnip and sweet potato.

Lots of love,
Lillian xx

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Some great articles

By Gordon Kerry, a composer who also writes brilliantly about contemporary music issues.

You know you'll enjoy an article that begins:

You must remember this: ‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ It’s a great line - part of Harry Lime’s justification for his murderous criminal activities in Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man.

Have a read.

Managing pressure

I found this wonderful little list of key points that David had made for me, from a page in his old Filofax.

1. Make the best use of your energy, and pay proper attention to your health.

2. Balance work with recreation - and set aside a time each day for reflection.

3. Review your values - make sure that you are not putting yourself under unnecessary pressure by confusing your priorities.

4. Express your feelings - discuss with others possible areas of conflict before they become acute.

5. Accept what cannot be changed - have the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.

6. Use negative experiences as positive steps to learning.

7. Check your time management skills - don't set yourself unrealistic deadlines, order your priorities, delegate effectively, and approach tasks methodically.

8. Regard symptoms of stress positively, as early warning signals, and do something about them.

9. Face squarely anything that worries you. Often identifying honestly the worst that can happen will help relieve anxieties.

10. Count your blessings, not your afflictions, and live each day as it comes.

So true.

So we're well on the way, then.

Yes, we have 19 bars and things are looking up. I should say, that's 19 bars of vocal music, but I'm still pleased about it.

Of course, if my daughter decided she'd sleep during the day instead of shout at me, it would make life a little easier. But them's the breaks.

I am working on a Gwen Harwood poem. However I just heard from the publishers that they do not hold the rights to the poem so I've had to write to someone else about it. I hope they let me use the poem, it would be a big step backwards to have to find another one. You've got to love a text that starts:

"Late-night music: frogs' irregular rhythm,
bubble-recitative across the hill."

It's interesting when setting very musically-inspired texts, and ones that use direct links such as the names of instruments or obvious statements like "irregular rhythm" because it's very easy to be obvious right back in the way one shapes the music, the metre, the instrumentation. I find that I try to avoid the obvious links, but it's rare to find a wonderful poem that sounds musical enough without having to draw attention to it. So where it says "frog-fugue", I won't be writin' a fugue. Too hard! I think I'll let the text speak for itself. As it should.