Composer Miriama Young on her singular search for the sublime

Dr Miriama Young writes music for film, dance, radio, live electronics and fixed media, voices and instruments, and lectures in Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Get to know her here. 

My great joy in music is encounters with works that convey a sense of the sublime – whether that be in Beethoven or Björk, integrating new forms of technology, or through a simple but exquisite vocal melody. In my own music, that singular search for the sublime is a preoccupation.

Since February 2016, when I joined the Conservatorium, my main teaching roles have been in composition, electro-acoustic music, and harmony and counterpoint for Music Language I. In the electro-acoustic music course, rather than borrowing pre-existing recordings from the web or using musical instruments in traditional ways, we explore sound for its own sake, transforming and manipulating original material to create something unique.

Dr Miriama Young. Image supplied.

As a teacher, I try not to let my own subjective tastes in music influence my opinions of students’ work. Composers all present with a wonderful range of aesthetic approaches, and I try to nurture that. I want to help students facilitate their own personal language as composers.

I was actively engaged with music from age five, much to my parents’ surprise. That said, my mother is a visual artist and my dad is a writer, so I don’t think I was ever destined to be a scientist.

As a child growing up in New Zealand, I was lucky to have inspirational teachers – including Alison Dalmer, an amazing singer with original ideas about sound. An early musical memory was when she opened up the upright piano and let us pluck the strings inside – those experiences of sound are formative. It was she who encouraged me to audition for the Wellington Cathedral Choir, which formed the core of my musical training, under the inspired guidance of music director, the late Peter Godfrey. Peter was trained in the British Anglican choral tradition, so we were steeped in Byrd, Purcell, Handel, and Mozart.

My composing grew out of a curiosity about sound and how notes and textures can be combined to create magical new forms of expression. After clarinet lessons as a child, from my mid-teens I graduated to jazz saxophone among other things – singing, playing piano … But after a background in performing, at some point I realised I preferred the solitary act of dreaming up new sounds and crafting sonic structures.

As a young woman, I was torn between music and prose. I completed a double Honours degree in Music Composition, History and Literature at Victoria University of Wellington, and my love for both music and prose now manifests in my dual existence as a composer and scholar.

As an undergrad I created a couple of pieces that conveyed something quite personal and poignant for me. One – Speak Volumes – combined cassette recordings I’d made of my voice for a make-believe radio show when I was eight, with recordings of my adult voice, and I created an electro-acoustic piece around that. The piece went on to have quite a long and successful life and that was a real turning point for me.

When I finished my degree in 1999, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and found myself heading to the USA – first to New York and then to Princeton for my PhD in music composition. As well as writing music for professional ensembles and voices in the greater New York area – everything from So Percussion to New Jersey Symphony to Now Ensemble, I wrote an extended thesis which eventually formed the basis of my 2015 book Singing the Body Electric: The Human Voice and Sound Technology. My musical experiences in the States were inspirational and formative, and the lessons learned prevail in my approaches to composition now.

I like the process of composition because it combines my very technical, rational side with an esoteric, dreamy side. I usually have a pretty clear concept of what I want, the kind of instrumentation, the structure, the constraints and the kinds of sonic qualities I’m going for – after which I’ll go into a more liminal place and take it from there.

Currently I’m interested in ubiquitous sound machines – by this I mean using mobile devices or smartphones as musical instruments. A piece toured with Chamber Music New Zealand in 2017 was The Grey Ghost for piano and electronics, with the electronic soundtrack being played through an App on the audience’s smartphones during the concert. The soundtrack was based on the sounds of the forest in New Zealand and a bird – presumed extinct – called the South Island Kōkako.

In 2010 I worked with Scottish Opera as part of a series called 5:15, for which they paired a composer with a librettist to write a 15-minute opera, entitled Zen Story. It was amazing to collaborate with such wonderful musicians, producers, costume and set designers, and to see the whole production come to life upon the stage in the major cities of Scotland.

A significant piece for me, in terms of shaping my compositional trajectory, was Titlipur, a collaboration with a dancer in New York, which used hand-built sensors attached to her body to create interactive music, meaning she created the music with her movement in real time. That was in 2003, when that concept was really new, and some of the work I’m doing now is still building off of that research – trying to integrate technology with our experience of sound and music in ways that are seamless. I’m really interested in that idea – how our physical bodies engage with a performance.

After my PhD I took up a lectureship at Aberdeen University. I have a lot of Scottish ancestry, so there was a personal connection I was really curious about. Scotland proved to be quite a contrast to the New York scene. Still, I taught there for five years and it was a good place to be while I was establishing my teaching and research.

I love living and working in Melbourne. There’s plenty of music, arts and cultural events happening all the time. It’s also got that really liveable aspect, where I can sustain a creative life and still go back to New Zealand easily to see my extended family.

I find teaching really energising. Students often come to lessons with new artists or composers that they’re excited by. I think that’s the true virtue of teaching in the university setting – yes, you’re giving, but students bring lots of great ideas to the table, too.

A lot of my scholarly work centres on the layers of mediation that go on before we hear a recorded voice, and I’m also interested in the way that’s changing voice production. I don’t think Björk would have had such a successful career if headphones hadn’t been invented – the kind of whispering aesthetic she pioneered is now huge.

My musical tastes are very eclectic and maybe that’s partly because I have young children. If you look at my Spotify playlist you’ll see Bach, Tristan Perich, György Kurtág, Laura Marling … and then the Trolls soundtrack, which my children demand gets played 50 times in a row, and then, for a calming contrast, some Palestrina.

— As told to Paul Dalgarno