Synergy Percussion Artistic Director Timothy Constable. Photo: Andrew Quilty
Writer Gordon Williams talked to Synergy Percussion Artistic Director, percussionist, composer, electronica producer and singer Timothy Constable about the themes in the Cinemusica program, including the premiere of his new work for strings and percussion.
GW: You talk about ‘withholding an element’ in relation to film music - can you elaborate in the case of a film piece on this program?
TC: Less for the Herrmann but I think Newman represents our post-Minimalist world as well as anybody. There is still that old-guard of big action films that are full of heavily, densely scored, where there seems to be some implicit understanding that the music is going to be mixed so far back from all the sound-effects that you can rail away down in the background. But in the case of Newman and some of my favourite contemporary film scores, the musical elements are not mixed back. In fact, they can be quite forward relative to the dialogue and ‘foley’ (sound effects). But the music itself is essentialised and stripped back and doesn’t, on the one hand, draw too much attention but, on the other, tells a lot of story with deliberately fewer elements.
I’m just watching that scene - the cut’s called ‘American Beauty’ - where the teenage ‘siren’ Angela tells Lester that it’s her first time and, though he’s pursued her slavishly through much of the film, he suddenly realises he can’t permit himself to have sex with her - and the music there - a simple organum-like style on the piano - underscores this incredibly emotionally-complex scene. It’s not doing anything much itself, but everybody associates that music with that film. You’ve got this very strange alchemy.
And how much of that is science? I don’t profess to know what the skills are that go into decisions like that, but there is, as you say, something very effective when one of the elements is reduced. You know: ‘less is more’. That’s all that I was getting at. Not Minimalism, per se; just that notion of restraint. And if you were Herrmann, restricting yourself to strings would do a couple of things. It would establish your palette so you can get straight to work, and it would help tie the whole thing together. When you hear that ‘organum’ piano part that you’re mentioning in American Beauty it’s obviously not the first time that that’s occurred. It kind of runs in one form or another through the film and by that scene it’s imbued with quite a strong emotional content and that is partly a temporal thing: what’s gone before.
You said this program elicited something divergent from your usual style? What is your usual style?
What I was getting at was that I was actually trying to consciously link the works. Partly consciously and partly involuntarily I was trying to draw some connective threads between disparate styles, particularly the Bartók and the Newman which are the other works which involve both groups (the ACO and Synergy Percussion) playing together.
Bartók went back to baroque forms in his later work. Why do you think you’re more comfortable with a form such as chamber symphony?
It’s one of those things. Even though there’s going to be a physical structure in place where the three percussionists are out front I’m just more comfortable sharing the material right throughout the band and featuring different instrumental groups at different times. All I’m saying is that it’s not like a percussion concerto with string orchestra backing.
And there is, of course, the premiere of your new piece…
Being the last piece of the puzzle in quite a kaleidoscopic program inclined me to draw connections between the other works. It also influenced my instrumental choices for the percussion - I would never write for xylophone, but when you need one in the Bartók immediately afterwards… Using percussion instruments which occur elsewhere in the program - vibraphone, xylophone, timpani, bass drum etc. - placed a useful limit on the composing process (since the possibilities are otherwise so endless) and helped me get started. There are of course a few small exceptions - Sixxen bars, steel tools, music box and the like - and each carry a significance and specificity to the Synergy sound-world.
The opening chords, borrowed from a hip hop piece I was writing in late 2015, felt like the ritornello for a percussion concerto grosso (triple concerto), but then as I continued spinning the piece out, it just became a chamber symphony - a form I’m much more at ease with. The ‘business out front, party out back’ diptych structure is one I’ve been into recently, and was further delineated in this case by my writing the first part (The Lost Chords / Joshua’s Diabolical Staircase) at the end of 2015, and the second (Blues for Bobby) in January 16. Where the first part testifies to a knotted, thoughtful, end-of-year angst, the second is cast in broad and optimistic brushstrokes, natural in a Sydney January.
I didn’t give any thought to the film-music angle. I’ve had a lot of people comment that my music is ‘cinematic’, so I figured that would just take care of itself. I am drawn to music that deliberately withholds an element, so that the listener, or the imagery of the film, can complete the picture. In the best ‘minimal', ‘instrumental’ electronic dance music for example, there is plenty of space for you to sing your own song as you groove; or a cadence with no 3rd - again, it’s your choice how much optimism you want the piece to carry to its conclusion.
THOMAS NEWMAN American Beauty (selections)
HERRMANN Psycho: A Suite for Strings
TIMOTHY CONSTABLE New work for strings and percussion (World Premiere)
BARTÓK Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta