Composer Tim Dargaville.

Speaking in Tongues – the music of Tim Dargaville

Acclaimed Australian composer and recipient of the 2014 Albert Maggs Award Tim Dargaville will be featured in a portrait concert Speaking in Tongues at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 28 April. The programme includes the world premiere of the Maggs Award composition “Between Breath and Word”, and also a major new solo piano cycle “Kolam”, amongst other works from the past decade of his longstanding career.

Interview by Sarah Hall.

How did the event Speaking in Tongues come to be? 

This concert was initially conceived as a result of the 2014 Albert H. Maggs award. This significant award provides resources for the commissioning and performance of a new work, and has done so for many Australian composers over the past 50 years. So for me the planning of the performance event influenced the writing of the new work, and the writing of the work influenced the nature of the program for the concert.

In a sense, this award created the opportunity to bring separate strands of my creative life into a celebration, to frame the new commission as part of a retrospective programme, and also invite significant collaborators to perform in the event. It’s been an exciting 18 months, connecting these aspects of the award together.

Can you tell us about the work that will feature in the concert, including Kolam?

Some of the music in this concert brings together my long term interest and research in the south Indian vocal percussion tradition of Konnakol and the mandala ritual art practice Kolam with my traditional Western classical training.

The Kolam project, which I’ve been working on for more than ten years now, is inspired by the beautiful ritual of daily mandala-making that occurs in Southern Indian Tamil villages, and explores rendering this in a sonic form.

Ten years ago, my partner Rosalie Hastwell and I were Asialink artists in residence, working with Adishakti Theatre in Pondicherry in Southern India. As part of a daily routine we’d see these beautiful rice flower mandala designs on front doorsteps every morning. Our then 12-year-old daughter Ruby was fascinated by these patterns and learned how to make kolam from two Tamil village women who worked for the company.

Ruby’s engagement in this activity also got me interested! As I result, I developed the idea of making kolams in sound by tapping into the Carnatic rhythmic practice of Konnakol that I’d been learning at the Karnataka College of Percussion in Bangalore previously. Since that time I’ve created a body of work for different groups, including for percussion, a saxophone quartet, and orchestra. They’ve all been called Kolam as they are interconnected through using similar musical patterns, and the project is expanding in scale – a bit like the mandala getting bigger and bigger as it draws geometrically outward.

One of the world-premiere works in the Speaking in Tongues program is the 25-minute solo piano cycle Kolam for renowned Sydney pianist Bernadette Harvey. It is comprised of five movements, and is the largest one I’ve done. Bernadette and I have been working on this particular composition together for the past three years. It was a Kolam work that won me the 2014 Albert Maggs Prize initially, so there’s also a nice connection there.

Could you tell us a bit about the world premiere of Albert Maggs Commission work Between Breath and Word?

This new work references some of the other works on the programme in subtle ways, and in that sense is designed to be a summation to the whole concert. I hope the audience experiences a sense of connection to the earlier music on the programme, and also a fresh and surprising reframing, which includes a diverse array of individual sound colours, mixed in surprising and unexpected ways.

I like the idea that a piece of music can take someone’s breath away. In some respects, to me, music is about what we can’t say in words. The title Between Breath and Word reflects that space in which music can make us speechless. That’s the kind of music I strive to make.

Which other musicians who will perform with you for Speaking in Tongues

Pianist Bernadette Harvey and harpist Marshall McGuire are well known nationally and internationally for being dazzling performers of contemporary Australian music. Both these musicians have regularly commissioned works from many Australian composers including myself, so its wonderful to me that they are both involved in this event.

Also, excitingly, a number of work on the programme will be performed by musicians from the New Music studio at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, conducted by composer Elliott Gyger.

Why the name Speaking in Tongues?

To me composing is actually about making sense of the world that you’re in and the experiences that you have. The experiences I’ve had in South India have been very powerful and in some respects life-changing, and the education that I’ve had in the western classical music world has been equally influential. I’m interested in making music for people that draws on the authenticity of life experience, and is true to who I am. I think that a creative practice in general, and the Speaking in Tongues concept in particular, is about reconciling these very different experiences.

Speaking in Tongues is at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 28 April. Visit the VCA & MCM What’s On page for more information.