Elliott Gyger at 50: the composer takes us through seven of his works
The Melbourne Conservatorium is about to present seven works by the award-winning composer Associate Professor Elliott Gyger, who will also conduct the performance. Here, he explains his choices.
By Elliott Gyger
In putting together a program of works to celebrate my 50th birthday, I realised that I’d written about six hours’ worth of chamber music that could be included. What I chose in the end is just one of many possible programs. Any choice was never going to be representative – just one path of many possible paths.
Quicksilver Elegy (2013)
This piece is a homage to American composer Elliott Carter, whose work has been very influential on me. He was a remarkable composer in many ways and quite unusual in that he kept writing music right up until a few weeks before he died at the age of 103. Half of his output he produced after he turned 75, so unlike many composers, he actually sped up toward the end of his life.
Quicksilver Elegy is for a very strange combination of instruments – bass flute, soprano saxophone, vibraphone, and guitar. That’s something that’s been a recurring interest of mine – taking eccentric combinations that probably nobody’s ever tried to write for before, and seeing what the possibilities are.
As for the somewhat contradictory title: although it’s a memorial piece for someone who’s died, when you’re talking about someone who’s lived so long and achieved so much, there’s so much more to celebrate than there is to grieve over in a way. It’s got its elegiac elements but it’s a very “upbeat” piece.
This is one of the earliest pieces that I include in my catalogue of works. It’s for piano trio, a common combination, but it’s unusual in that it’s anti-virtuosic. It’s quiet, subdued – perhaps a very strange piece for a 19-year-old student to write.
But when I was thinking about how to celebrate my work in this concert, I thought it would be interesting to go back and revisit this piece. Weaves, which appears later in the program, takes this work as its basis.
I wrote this solo guitar piece for my colleague at the Conservatorium, Dr Ken Murray. It was written as a retirement present for Professor Cathy Falk, who was the Head of the Faculty of Music when I arrived ten years ago. The title is just a pun on her name, because “Falk” means “falcon” in German. It’s a bit of a character portrait of Cathy.
Precipice is for oboe and piano, and I have a particular connection with the oboe because I used to play it. The piece was commissioned by the Sydney Conservatorium for its oboe students to play, when they commissioned 100 pieces from different composers for their centenary. It’s a piece that really explores the character of the oboe – particularly its melancholy character.
This piece starts out as an exact arrangement of Strands, but this time scored for piccolo, alto flute, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, percussion and double bass – and it just takes off from there. I dug out the old score to see what I was doing back then, and thought about how I could continue to write this in the way I write now.
It was quite interesting to see which things were still similar in the way I approach my compositions, and which things were different.
Incision is a solo piano work that I wrote for my colleague Professor Ian Holtham. It’s one of a set of pieces that Ian requested from various composer colleagues based around the last of Schubert’s piano sonatas. I don’t usually write music that is anything like Schubert’s in terms of musical language, so it was an interesting challenge.
My pieces tend not to be in keys, necessarily, but Schubert’s obviously do. This second movement of this sonata is in c# minor, so I’ve got Ian holding a c# minor chord silently with the sostenuto pedal on the piano, so everything he plays is resonated through that chord.
It’s quite an interesting effect, because you have things which are closely related to c# minor and therefore resonate very strongly, and other things which can be much further away, where the resonances become quite strange.
A Garden for Orpheus (1999)
I wrote this piece while I was a student at Harvard doing my doctoral studies. This is perhaps the first piece where I got into writing for strange combinations of instruments.
Each year the doctoral students would get together and discuss putting together an ensemble for everybody to write for. Most years we’d end up writing for a pretty standard combination of instruments, but one year I turned things on their heads and suggested that we choose something totally off-beam. Strangely enough everyone thought this was a good idea too, so we ended up choosing oboe d’amore, horn, percussion, guitar, harp, viola, cello and double bass. No flute, no violin, no clarinet, no piano.
As a composer I started off writing wondering if it was even going to work, but by the time I finished, I thought, “I wish I could write write another piece for this combination, because there are so many beautiful things to explore that I haven’t managed to put in”.
The title A Garden for Orpheus comes from a line drawing by Paul Klee. The reason for the title is that all of the plucked string sounds in the ensemble brought to mind the Orpheus myth where he’s inventing the lyre and inventing music.
I didn’t realise until after I’d written it that the shape of the piece actually traces out the shape of the Orpheus myth as well – losing Eurydice and taking the journey to the underworld to try and bring her back to life, and ultimately failing in that.
Elliott Gyger at 50, performed by the Melbourne Conservatorium’s New Music Ensemble and conducted by Elliot Gyger, is at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 21 May. More information.
Banner image: Associate Professor Elliott Gyger conducting at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Image by Sav Schulman, 2017.