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An interview with composer Connor D’Netto

April 5, 2019

Composer Connor D’Netto interviewed by Barry Mitchell.

What pieces of yours are being performed at the 2019 Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM)?

The festival’s artistic director, the wonderful British pianist Kathryn Stott, has programmed a really varied selection of my work, so audiences will get a to hear a pretty good cross-section of my music. They include my sonata for cello and piano “Traces”, my set of short piano pieces “Adoxographies”, “too, the moon” for viola and electronics, and two of my string quartets, String Quartet No. 2 and the world premiere of String Quartet No. 3.

Can you tell me more about the pieces?

The best place to start would be with “Adoxographies”, which are some of my earliest pieces of music. (well, earliest that I still allow to see the light of day!) I wrote them towards the beginning of my undergrad – at the time I was writing the first movement of my String Quartet No. 1, but I had been working on it for months and was taking forever to come up with material. My composition teacher at the time, Robert Davidson, suggested an exercise to help me out of my rut: to once a week write a short, complete piece of music in a single day. I did it for a few weeks, and the three short pieces that make up “Adoxographies” are based on some of my favourites, having made a few tweaks from original versions. It’s strange, these pieces are so different from the music I was writing a the time (have a listen to the recording of my first quartet, it sounds nothing like anything of mine since then), but these piano pieces in a way pointed towards where my musical style ended up developing.

My first piece audiences at the festival will hear is “Traces”, my sonata for cello and piano. The piece came about when towards the end of my undergrad studies two close friends asked me to write each of them solo pieces. I ended up combining the two projects, with this resulting work equally a sonata for piano and cello as it is a sonata for cello and piano. The first part of the piece centres around a constant rollicking piano riff – a long form pattern that pours out notes in a regular yet unpredictable stream. The second movement opens with fragments from this pattern, now set as delicate cello harmonics, and slowly builds to the emotional core of the work, a lush chorale. The final coda brings the together the drive and punch of the first movement with the heart of the second in a splashy ending.

Also on the programme is a taste of my work for electroacoustic music in the form of my solo viola and electronics piece “too, the moon”. I’ve been working quite a lot with electronics, particularly in the last couple of years, with this work being my earliest attempt at creating my own electronics. The piece was written for one of my best friends back home in Brisbane, violist Kieran Welch, to form part of his debut album of viola and electronics works. It takes as its starting point “Cold Companion”, a song I wrote a year earlier that was really personal to me, transforming the slow undulating chord progression of the piano in the song into a long scale passacaglia in the pulsating synths of the electronic-track. The rest of the original piece is torn apart, reassembling the song’s plaintive outlook into and emotional outpouring.

My last two pieces on the program are two of my string quartets, No 2. and the world premiere of No. 3. The string quartet has been a reoccurring feature in my career. I guess this is somewhat by design; while most people have a bucket list, it’s pretty likely that most composers have a bucket list of things they want to write, and when I first started to get serious about composing I added to that list the challenge to write a string quartet in all 24 major/minor keys, a la Bach fugues. I don’t necessarily write strictly to a key anymore, but its still a challenge I’d like to see through – why not! I also feel that doing this, essentially needing to write a quartet every couple of years from here on out, is a way of keeping track on how my music has developed. My first quartet (in D minor) really shows that it’s one of my earliest works. It shows its influences on its sleeve, and it’s obvious I hadn’t found my own style as yet. The second quartet (E minor) was a bit of a coming-of-age piece, me finding a voice, a direction that would take me forward into my next stage. As for my latest quartet, to be premiered at the festival – well, you’ll have to wait till the festival to hear where my music is going now.

Do you have one method of composing a piece?

I don’t think I have a singe method, but there are a few things that recently I’ve been exploring more frequently, particularly mathematical patterns such as working with fractals to distribute out the timings of all the events and structures in a piece.

However the basics are always the same. I start out with creating a mind map, brainstorming ideas for the piece, about the commission, textures, references, text or theme or other extra-musical ideas if it has any. I then begin to organise these ideas in time, if/how different ideas relate to each other, how one idea might connect to the next, eventually creating a timeline of the whole piece, planning out in as much detail the piece as possible. All these steps are pen/pencil on paper, often sitting at a local cafe. From there, it’s back and forth between the piano working on paper during the day, then on my computer typesetting things out at night. Then of course goes the crucial stage of workshopping the piece with performers, often grabbing a friend that plays the instrument at hand to test passages, or getting out my otherwise quite neglected violin or cello to test it myself.

Though I’m moving towards using multiple pattern-based processes in my work, I always strive to balance that with intuition – adhering to a process never comes above the musical outcome and I always allow myself the freedom to break from a pattern. My use of patterns is more a way of spinning out a series of possibilities, creating ideas and structures that I mightn’t have come up with otherwise, or structuring out the timings of a series of events but not necessarily the content.

Can you tell me more about Non-Place, the piece you are collaborating on with Matthew Lomax?

I’m so excited about this project, it’s been a while in the making! Matthew and I are both in the final year of our Masters at the Royal College of Music, and had for a while been scheming away at collaboration on something. We decided to pitch the idea of a ballet to RCM, a collaboration between us, the wonderful local chamber orchestra Cat’s Cradle Collective, run and conducted by our friend and fellow composer António Breitenfeld Sá Dantas, and dancers from the Central School of Ballet.

It’s an abstract work based around the ideas and themes of the writings of French anthropologist Marc Auge, who coined the term “non-place” to describe our varied relationships to place, transience, identity and anonymity in public spaces. Matthew had come across his writings while researching another project, and we both felt that they were a really interesting starting point for this multimedia collaboration, bringing together the music and dance with visuals depicting and transforming footage from public spaces around London, and exploring different facets of these themes.

As a whole work, it’s just under hour in total, split over 4 interconnected sections: full ensemble, collaboratively composed by Matthew and me; a trio for bass clarinet, piano and percussion, which I have composed; a cello solo by Matthew; and the final section for the full ensemble, collaboratively composed by the both of us. The whole work will also feature live electronics, which is a common feature of both Matt and my works and that we ourselves will perform.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with other composers?  Do you have a preference?

I really love the opportunity to collaborate with other composers. It’s not for everyone, it definitely takes a certain personality to be able to have two composers, creatures that are often left to build their own worlds working in solitude, to have them working in tandem. You need to be able to compromise, to be willing to challenge yourself constantly, to always be open to ideas other than your own even when you think you are right.

But that’s why I love it! If you manage to find someone else that you’re compatible to work this closely with, you have the amazing opportunity to see into another artist’s world, to get into their head, to challenge your own way of viewing things and learn so much in the process.

You can also be challenged to write in ways that you wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s been really wonderful working with Matt. We have really similar values as artists, but stylistically, besides the common ground of electroacoustic music, our musical style couldn’t be more different. So it’s been amazing to see how merging our two styles has created something really different that neither of us would have come up with on our own. Even in writing the trio movement that I composed by myself, by working on it in the context of this larger collaborative framework, discussing with Matt how it connects with the material around it, I’ve found that its challenged me to adapt how I write and grow in directions I probably wouldn’t have in another context. To me that’s so exciting.

Are there any double bass players you particularly admire?

Edgar Meyer. He’s incredible. My undergrad composition teacher Robert Davidson is also a bassist, he introduced me to his music and I love it. Would love to hear him live one day!

How are you enjoying life in London?

I love it here, especially now that it’s beginning to warm up! There’s just so much going on, so much to see, so much to do, so many places to explore, you just can’t compare it to anywhere else. I’m also really lucky to have an amazing group of friend and colleagues here that have really made London feel like my second home.

Do you ever regret not becoming a chef?  What is your favourite dish to cook?

Sometimes a little – I always had the dream when I was younger of having my own super radical Michelin-stared restaurant, and when I’m lucky enough to eat at a place like that I think about “what if”. But generally, to be honest, no. I had my taste of working in a kitchen (I worked as a chef for a couple of years during my undergrad) and I’ve well and truly gotten that out of my system! I also get enough of a dose of that each year when I cook Christmas lunch for the whole extended family back home (25pp+ most years), and it’s much nicer getting to do it for family and friends. And I enjoy just getting that chance to experiment at home. Don’t really have a favourite single dish to cook, I prefer to just see what’s looking good in the local market and go from there. But I do always enjoy the opportunity to make some sort of stupidly over the top experimental dessert thing when I have the time!

5 April 2019

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