Our annual concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York City is coming up on November 22. One of the pieces included on our program will be Conversations by Australian composer and bassist, Robert Davidson. In short, this work is a beautiful and joyous celebration of life.
We got to know of Rob in our usual way: through Ina’s wanderings on the Internet. When we begin relationships with composers in this way, there is also almost always a funny side story. Ina graciously agreed to share a bit here about her adventures in research and initial contact with Rob.
“For many years, I taught viola group class. Choosing pieces for this class was always a challenge. I needed to find a piece challenging enough to spend three to four months working on but not so hard the students couldn’t perfect it.
Having run out of ideas, I trolled one of my favorite web sites, the Petrucci library. Under viola ensemble, I found a number of works by the composer Robert Davidson. I had never heard of Rob, but his music looked interesting and most importantly, it was free to download. After a great deal of thought, I chose Message Ground, a round in two parts, with a ground (repeating) bass line to be played by the cello. In his liner notes, Rob writes that the ground was taken from a popular song.
My students worked hard on the piece and as the performance came closer, I asked our cellist Matt to record the ground bass, so they could rehearse with it. He dutifully did so, repeating it over and over again. Neither of us could place the familiar line.
A few weeks later we were out to brunch. All of a sudden Matt looked at me and told me to listen. What was playing on the sound system? Message in a Bottle, by the Police. That was the base line for Message Ground!
Eventually my students performed Message Ground. It was a big success and the audience loved the piece. I put Robert Davidson’s name in the back of my head, wondering if there would be a piece for our trio and a year later, we found Conversations.”
We are very excited to have Rob as our latest featured composer. Happy reading!SG: How did you become interested in music? What/Who were your earliest influences?
RD: I have very early memories of loving music. I had a cassette tape that I listened to obsessively from the age of 2 – it had on one side Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach and on the other The Essential Beatles, a popular compilation. These were my father’s choices. He also nightly bounced me on his knee to records, and tells me I was very enthusiastic. Those records were mostly things like Tijuana Brass, but also a lot of Tchaikovsky and Bach.
My independent interests really arose in my teens, in the early 80s, especially in (the contemporary) punk/new wave music, but also in older music, especially The Beatles, Queen and, oddly enough, Henry Mancini. I had an obsession also with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, having been first exposed to it at a screening of Fantasia when I was 8 or so.
I started my first band at 11, playing versions of Beatles songs, and music from Mary Poppins and other Disney films alongside songs by David Bowie and other 70s artists. My biggest musical education really came from working out the parts of Beatles and Queen songs, learning to play the various instrumental parts. I had some formal training at that time, on piano, but didn’t seriously learn instrumental tuition, on double bass, till I was 17.
SG: Did you start off as a bass player and then become interested in composing later?
RB: I started composing my own piano pieces and songs at 8 or 9, long before I thought of the bass. The way I got into double bass was via punishment – I had been at high school without my electric bass and some of us wanted to have a jam session, so I naughtily “borrowed” a double bass from the orchestra room at school. The music teacher caught me and for punishment I had to play in the orchestra and take lessons. I loved it so much I never stopped.
I started composing by modifying my piano lesson pieces by Mozart and Bach until they became my own, and by writing little songs. I soon moved on to writing Beatle-esque songs, and then by late high school had a wonderful teacher, Denise Jones, who encouraged my scored compositions. At 16, I composed an orchestral work which won the Australian Broadcasting Corporation composition prize, receiving multiple performances. That was such a wonderful experience that I’ve never stopped composing since.
SG: Conversations was composed shortly after you returned from seven months of travel, which included studying music in India and then Europe and the United States. How did you become interested in Indian music and what led you to Kerala?
RD: One of the big things in India was the intense focus on small ensemble music, with a huge melodic focus and little harmony and counterpoint (in the classical and folk music.) I totally loved that, but I was really ready for some counterpoint when I got back, so started writing very contrapuntal, conversational music.
I was led to Kerala by loving the music (I was introduced to it by an Indian friend at my church) and the way dance, drama and music all combined. While there, I was hanging out with a fellow artistic seeker, Lee Breuer, the successful New York theatre director. We had a lot of late night conversations while at all-night theatre events in the open, around enormous fires in the Kerala manner. He persuaded me that I should follow my heart and be a composer (I was headed into a musicology career, studying Indian music), and to do that I should hang around with the composer I admired the most in the world. That turned out to be Terry Riley. I knew someone, Sarah Hopkins, who had his number, so I called him and asked if I could come and spend time with him, he said yes, and I had a wonderful year in California staying at his ranch in the Sierra Nevada, alternating with staying in the Bay Area and travelling up twice a week.
SG: Please describe your experience in the United States and working with Terry Riley.
RD: I stayed for most of 1995 in the Bay Area and at Terry’s place, being his secretary while there to earn my keep. I edited a lot of his music, and just basically hung out in a sort of apprenticeship situation, which was marvellous. Terry has a very disciplined practice – getting up early to sing for an hour, then piano improvising, going for walks, composing, and so on. It’s why his music is so rich – it flows out of dedicated, performance-based connection with his music. He encouraged me to start my own ensemble, which I did when I returned to Australia, and Topology, the resulting ensemble, has grown into a key organisation in Australia’s contemporary music scene.
I also totally immersed myself in the scene in the Bay Area, going to the Other Minds festival, going to two or more gigs a night of a huge range of music, visiting galleries, getting to know many composers and artists, and gate-crashing composer courses at Mills College in Oakland. Then I did a similar thing in New York, staying at Lee Breuer’s place in the East Village for a couple of months. I had a great time meeting many of my heroes, including John Adams, John Corigliano, Steve Reich, John Zorn, Phil Glass, Lois Vierk, La Monte Young, Tan Dun, Cecil Taylor, Joan La Barbara, and many many more. It was inspirational, and encouraging. I loved the maverick nature of so many creative people in those scenes, and found that there was richness spread all over the country – I encountered amazing scenes also in Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere. I wish I had more time to explore all over the country.
SG: Did you also work with other composers in the US and in Europe at that time?
RD: Yes, I actually also went to London and spent time with Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, John White, Howard Skempton, Michael Parsons and many others of the old experimental tradition in British music, also maverick, but in a more eccentric style in some ways – a different flavour from US experimentalism. I had the privilege to meet many other interesting composers and musicians, including Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès (then just starting his career), Brian Eno, members of Björk’s band, and all sorts of excellent performers.
SG: How have all of these experiences influenced you?
RD: Mostly by encouraging me to stick to my guns and do what I really want to do – write music with melody and counterpoint and emotional authenticity, connecting with audiences in a specific scene through working with specific musicians and on specific projects. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since – creating all kinds of projects in my own town, with musicians I’m committed to (especially Topology), spreading out by touring, and by connecting with awesome musicians such as Eight Strings & a Whistle.
It was a pat on the back to be oneself, not to feel constrained by any fashions or “rules”, but to make the music that was in my heart, with emotional honesty. For me, this means direct, melodic, often quite joyful-tinged-with-melancholy moods, but with some odd bits of quirkiness. Basically putting myself out there in musical form – making my personality into a sonic object, that I hope others can identify with.
SG: I had a chance to watch some of the videos on, your group, Topology’s website. As a member you are active as a performer, composer and educator and your involvement with it seems like it must pretty intense. Can you tell us more about the group, and its vision? I am not only interested in the group’s musical diversity and flexibility, but also its involvement and influence on music education. Can you expand also a bit on the state of music education in Australia today?
RD: We have a pretty complex vision, but it focuses on creating authentic, surprising music through strengthening communities. We do a lot of collaborating and love to spread that quite far regarding genre, working with people of different backgrounds from ourselves (we’ve worked with Aboriginal Australian, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, jazz, pop, metal, classical, electronic and many other musicians to create new works and put on shows). We do a lot with education, because that’s part of our vision of strengthening communities – we work with young people the same way we work with professionals – just collaborating, treating people as they are, with everyone being stretched and learning. We play alongside students, performing their compositions and they performing ours, and developing new works together. It varies depending on the needs and desires of the students, the school (where one is involved) and the project.
Music education is pretty diverse in Australia – we like to challenge the top-down approach that is rather widespread, and try to encourage drawing out of students existing musical knowledge, which is formidable, and often beyond ours in genres they’re interested in. We foster diversity and acceptance amongst the students, so they can be more effective in supporting each other (I love seeing a metal-loving student making helpful and detailed, perceptive comments on another student’s country-and-western song, for example, as happened not long ago). I’m convinced that Ken Robinson is basically correct in the idea that kids have creativity educated out of them – all little kids are making up songs all day long, and they rather need to remember how to do that rather than learn how to be more like adults. That said, they can learn a lot of critical and technical skills and we like to help them with that – but often the first thing they need is just a reawakening of their creativity that has been latent. That comes out well in a collaborative approach.
SG: I read that you are undertaking research into links between language and music. Could you expand on that a little? Although Conversations was first composed in 1993, does it tie into any of this?
RD: Yes, I do a lot of finding melodies in spoken language. Conversations is indirectly linked, because the melodies in the piece were developed by my reading out loud passages from the Psalms. The slow movement, for example, is directly a setting of Psalm 61 in the New International Version:
“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.”
I listened to my own intonation in reading these passages and the melodies came from that. I’m very interested in ways that musical expression are related to spoken expression, and in emotional communication.
SG: I found the quote below on the Australian Music Centre’s website page about you:
“I enjoy music that celebrates the body as well as the mind, that responds to how our primate brains operate. We’re living in the most exciting musical period ever, and I’m thrilled.”
I love this! In your notes about Conversations you write about the wide range of sources you drew from: Hymns from your Methodist upbringing, Bach counterpoint, Sibelius Harmony, Beatle tunes and rhythms of Kerala, are some of them. You write that you were approaching composition with a sense of openness at the time and that you attempted to allow your musical intuition full rein. This was in 1993. Would you say that this still holds true – and do you see this approach as a path to a celebration of both the mind and body?
Can you expand on this exciting musical period we are living in – what are your thoughts on new music in general?
RD: There are more people making more music than ever, and new technologies have allowed people to realise their musical imaginations without necessarily being virtuoso performers, even while the level of performance amongst virtuosos is higher than ever (eg. Yo Yo Ma, Hilary Hahn, Edgar Meyer, Yuri Bashmet, Mark O’Connor, Christian Lindberg, Robert Dick, Brodsky Quartet, U Srinivas… need I go on?). There are too many incredible young composers to name, writing fantastic string quartets, symphonies, electronic music and more. There’s more communication between musicians than ever, leading to incredible collaborations that are wonderful. There is so much amazing songwriting going on, and there are amazing operas (John Adams for example), orchestral works, musicals, everything – so much that it’s hard to see it, since nothing stands out obviously. I am in love with so much popular music today – Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Sigur Rós, Fiona Apple, and a long, long list. People can sometimes tend to just look at manufactured auto-tuned pop and think that’s everything, missing the vast richness of today. And I haven’t even started on Korea, India, South Africa, Mauritania, and everywhere with unprecedented richness of music.
In the area of new classical music, for want of a better term, I’m thrilled at the renewed emphasis on melody, communication, unfettered expression, without a need for nostalgia or self-conscious handwringing – I love the diversity. The downside is there is not really a strong common language to communicate in, but perhaps that is still emerging.
Rob is Head of Composition at the University of Queensland School of Music. He studied composition with Terry Riley after studying Indian music in Kerala and before completing his composition PhD. He was a bassist in the Australian Opera, Sydney Symphony and Queensland Symphony orchestras, and has been featured as bassist at many festivals, performing chamber works with artists such as John Williams (guitar), the Brodsky Quartet and Ensemble 24. He has also tutored as bassist and composer at many conferences, including the Mt. Buller Chamber Music Summer School and the Australian String Association National Conference. He regularly tours internationally with Topology and other ensembles, and his compositions are frequently performed, recorded and broadcast around the world.
All of Australia’s professional orchestras and many leading festivals, soloists and ensembles have commissioned and performed Rob’s works: the Brodsky Quartet (London), the Australian String Quartet, Karin Schaupp, the Southern Cross Soloists, the Paul Dresher Ensemble (San Francisco), Newspeak (New York) and many more.
To read more about Rob and Topology, please visit: http://www.topologymusic.com