Elliott Gyger on Composition – In Conversation With…
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Elliott Gyger on Composition – In Conversation With…

August 26, 2019


I’m Elliott Gyger…. I’m a composer and I also teach composition at the University of Melbourne. Every young composer, I think, stresses about finding
their voice. And, the best advice I’ve ever heard about this is basically that the less
you worry about it, the more naturally it will happen. It’s a bit like that saying “life is what
happens while you’re making other plans”, style sort of emerges. Essentially I think what it’s about is you take in your influences, you listen to the music that’s
around you, the music that you love, the music that you hate, and you respond to those in
various ways. If you’re a composer like me you take some; you make pre-compositional
plans and strategies that might be more or less sort of systematic, but ultimately
at the end of the day what determines your style is your ears, because everything that
the system or absence of system throws up has to pass the ultimate censorship test which
is these guys. And ultimately it comes down to “what do I find acceptable in a piece
of mine?”. And that’s changing, I hope it will always be changing, but it doesn’t
change suddenly. It gradually evolves. I think that there are two things that I respond to very directly
as a composer. One, fortunately for someone who has written a lot of vocal music,
is text. I love literature, I love poetry, but also novels, plays…
I’ve written a lot of instrumental and vocal pieces inspired by text, um…In terms of
other inspirations I don’t tend to be a visual person very much, but I am, I do get
very inspired directly by sound, sometimes that’s music by other composers. Often
it’s the sonic possibilities of instruments and voices and combinations of instruments
and voices. I’m a big believer in the orchestration as something that applies not just to what
you do when you’re writing for orchestra, but what you do when you’re writing for
any ensemble no matter how small, even down to a solo, but, when I’m writing, for example,
for a chamber ensemble or voice with piano, or a couple of voices with a few instruments,
the combinations and the ways that they can blend together. Those nexus… Those points of intersection
are really, sort of compelling and exciting. Compositional process is a multi-staged thing
for me. Ideally if I’ve got time, it starts out with a long period of thinking about the
piece in the background, having an idea, letting it mature. Um, while; usually while I’m
working on the previous piece or maybe, in the case of larger pieces or pieces with a
longer lead time, the previous several pieces, it’s going on in the background. And, that’s
partly I think a subconscious process. When it becomes conscious it might be that when
I manage to go out for a walk, or I get some time to think because I’m sitting on the
tram, or under the shower or whatever, any time that I’ve got sort of down time
where my brain can work. It’s just sort of, trying to imagine for myself what the
piece is, what it’s guiding questions might be, what it’s guiding metaphor might
be. In the case of writing vocal works, that’s usually easier because the text provides the
first stage of that. In the case of pieces that don’t involve text, I have to dream
up an idea out of, for example, what instruments the piece is scored for. With a vocal piece
that comes into play as well, but it’s sort of at the next stage. Having gone through
that process of maturation, when I start working on a piece in earnest then it’s often a
matter of juggling musical materials, shaping some constraints that I can work within.
For me those most often have to do with choices of pitch, sometimes they have to do with ways
that time and structure are organised as well. And a lot of the time it’s about establishing
a global vocabulary for a piece, and the way that the piece is composed is then an
improvisational dance within those general parameters.

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