caerwen martin 2023
Raised on classical music with intensive instrumental education, my introduction to contemporary music was the Kronos String Quartet album Winter was hard (1988). This album was hugely influential on my choice of career path and early compositions. Since then, my work as a contemporary music cellist has had a profound impact on my writing style. The composers with whom I have had the longest and most productive, performance-based relationships are David Chisholm, David Young and James Hullick. Chisholm, Young and Hullick write with dense textures in conceptual scores with highly individual developmental practices, score presentation and notation systems, and approaches to subject matter which have inspired many of my works. Chisholm and Young’s rhythmic control, attention to expressive detail, and methods of manipulating the traditional notation system taught me how to present less conventional musical aims and theatrical direction using conventional means.
Hullick’s visually artistic methods of composition liberated me from my self-imposed expectations of adhering to any pre-existing or established approaches. This removal of inhibition allowed me to be open to unconventional ideas and working methods. Hullick’s grand designs taught me that visual art and conceptual notation systems can be the driver for the compositional outcome, an idea I have integrated into scores such as KING SET for solo prepared timpani (2020).
Young expressly encouraged me towards graphic scores: developing my auditory imagination and notation strategies to facilitate the transference of musical and theoretical ideas from mind to the page, through visual art-based practices including sketches, painting and photography. This was liberating for my compositional aims and outcomes as the restrictions of western theory and the conventional notation system were lifted.
Caerwen Martin performed with Mark Knoop (pictured) in David Young's Val Camonica Inventario for 15 Instruments at the State Theatre of Victoria 2007. Photo by Yatzek
Hullick, Chisholm and Young taught me that the underlying message of the work was key to the existential purpose of the composition. To this day, my experiences of working with these composers increasingly impact my own musical outcomes, even though I no longer perform their music. Other musical influences include Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Shostakovich, Rimsky-Korsakov, John Dowland, and traditional hymns.
The most influential composer on my writing style and realisation of concept has been Elliott Gyger. In 2015, Arcko Symphonic, of which I am a core member, performed From Sorrowing Earth, by Nigel Butterley, and gave the world premiere of Elliott Gyger’s From Joyous Leaves. The concert, performed at the Iwaki Auditorium October 31st, 2015, was held in honour of Butterley’s 80th birthday. Gyger, who has a long-held interest in the works of Butterley, based From Joyous Leaves on Butterley’s work for solo piano, Uttering Joyous Leaves.
Performing and studying Gyger’s score from a cellist’s perspective gave me some small insight into the orchestration of From Joyous Leaves. I was immediately struck by the open textures and exposed parts of the orchestral musicians who are often treated as virtuoso soloists, and the complex, underlying rhythms and supportive, inner lines within these parts. However, the aspect of the piece that had the most impact on me was the harmonic language of the solo piano, and the rapid distribution of pitch across the registers in much of the material.
The relationship between From Joyous Leaves and Uttering Joyous Leaves is deep and complex, particularly in terms of pitch and structure. Four main pitch structures, influenced in part by the pitch content of Uttering Joyous Leaves, were built using symmetrical intervallic scale construction and multiplication. Some pitches are represented on the piano as prepared notes. Register is used to influence which collections of pitches are allocated to different instruments.
Throughout the piece, different instrument families are used as focal points, which express another layer of the structure of the work. The limitations set by Gyger on the choices of orchestration deter
mine the textures of each section.
Learning about the method of construction of the pitch material, how to expand upon and orchestrate this material, and how to draw focus to different colours and sections, significantly increased my understanding of compositional strategies. From the viewpoint of an intuitive composer using improvised practices, Gyger’s analytical construction practices were extremely informative and enabled the development of a more advanced harmonic language and level of complexity in my work. Crucially, however, while Gyger uses constructive processes to generate an enormous amount of highly conceived foundation material, the way he draws on this material to create and design the composition is intuitive. In consideration of concept, Gyger intellige
ntly draws intuitive links between disparate factors to arrive at distilled singular points. He does this in the compositional phase as well. Once the foundation material is constructed, the weaving together of the material appears similar to how a painter might work, having carefully chosen and mixed their colours.
The possibly unintentional relationship Gyger’s work has to visual art is clear in works such as Ingressa (2009). The orchestration, voicings, focus on the exposure of finely detailed feature lines, and striking use of interior space within the texture creates an outcome similar to the experience of viewing a Miró painting or floating sculpture, like a large white canvas or suspended mobile where the featured details define and frame the negative space contained within the interior of the work.
The openness and clarity of the silent space is highlighted in and of itself, as opposed to having a canvas completely filled with colour with an external negative space surrounding the artwork outside of the frame, or a musical work centrally placed in a listening context surrounded by atmosphere and acoustic resonance.
Gyger’s method of working intuitively within a strategic frame is reassuringly simple in practice, although highly complex in design. Observing this liberated my creative trust that composition can be an improvisational act so long as the core ideas are designed to be complementary or compatible enough so that they may be combined or positioned together in various ways. Disparate ideas can be complementary. Compatibility can be designed through strategy or arrived at through intuitive response – response to a concept, or to existing or borrowed material.