**On the spot**
Matthew Hindson is emerging as one of Australiaâ€™s foremost young composers. He studied composition at the University of Sydney and at the University of Melbourne with luminaries including Peter Sculthorpe. One of the busiest composers in Australia, he has recently joined the prestigious list of Faber Music Composers. Often displaying influences of popular music styles within a classical music context, musical elements such as driving repeated rhythms and loud dynamic levels are typically found in his works. Indeed, directness and immediacy are common features in much of his music. His piece “Home” from the choral work Heartland was recently published in the Faber New Choral Works series. Described as â€œâ€¦a serious musical thinkerâ€ by the Sydney Morning Herald it seemed appropriate to ask him some searching questions.
What first made you want to compose and what were the first steps you took on your route to becoming a fully-fledged composer?
Apparently when I was about 6, my violin teacher said to my father, “Matthew doesn’t really have it here (pointing to my fingers) but he has it up here (pointing to my head), so maybe he’ll end up a composer or something one day”. So she had a good sense for these things!
My first piece was written when I was between 10 and 12 years old. After that I wrote a few smaller pieces, and was always interested in writing bits of music. When I left high school, I actually started work as a computer programmer, but was also accepted into the University of Sydney Music Department majoring in composition! I decided to give composing a go, thinking that if I didn’t like it, I could do computers again. However, I’m still working as a composer today!
How did you feel the first time you heard one of your pieces performed?
I remember being proud and somewhat amazed. I was 12 or so the very first time someone else performed one of my works. It was a piece for the junior string orchestra in which I was playing at the time. The problem was, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a full score, so just wrote straight to the parts â€“ and there were some bars rest missing in the cello part. So the importance of checking one’s parts was learnt very early in life!
Which individuals have inspired you most on your musical journey?
Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards, Olivier Messiaen, John Adams and Brenton Broadstock. I have always made the effort to study with people whose integrity and passion for music-making has been obvious. They have been very influential. Peter’s role is largely that of a mentor. By looking at him, you see a composer who has been passionate and uncompromising about Australia and music. He has also provided an important role model to me in terms of how professional composers work. Many of my peers have also provided inspiration.
Does the continent of Australia have any direct effect on your work? Are you consciously striving for an Australian sound?
I think that as I am Australian, having pretty much spent my entire life here, it will have had some effect on the music that I write, in the same way that Australian culture is different to many other places in the world. So I don’t strive to create an “Australian sound”, but think that it is probably there anyway. Perhaps it’s better for overseas people to make judgements on what sounds “Australian” or not!
Does a precise commission limit creativity? Are there times when you are just not inspired?
Usually I find that a very precise commission can help to focus the compositional process. Sometimes the hardest pieces to write are those very rare commissions when someone says “do whatever you want”. There are often times when I am not inspired, but that just usually means that I’m not working hard enough, or that I need to have a good look around me and look at life in general â€“ after all we live in a very rich and diverse world.
Do you see yourself as on a mission to break down musical barriers?
I think that it’s tremendously important as a composer to be open to whatever influences, be they musical or otherwise, come your way. To be closed-minded is counterproductive, at least it is to me. Hence some of my music is influenced by, for example, popular music genres such as techno. It’s not so much trying to break down barriers but rather saying, â€œhere’s some music (e.g. techno) with some very interesting characteristicsâ€ â€“ there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to utilise some of that interest in a piece of classical music.
What are the challenges and rewards of writing for voices?
Writing for voices is certainly different to writing for instruments. Obviously the text angle is fantastic, as is the flexibility of what voices can do.
Having a text gives you another way to ‘get into’ writing the piece. It can lead you in a certain direction both in the initial planning stages of a composition or when you’re in the middle of writing it. Text can give you something else to hang your musical ideas on, or even inspire them in the first place. Such inspirations are always welcome!
There’s also something very fundamental about people singing together, and this aspect appeals as well. It’s like something that everyone can do, from small vocal ensembles with amazing technique (such as the Song Company here in Australia) to amateur choral societies to gigantic crowds of people singing at the football!
How do you choose a text/texts to set? What are you looking for?
I’ve found it difficult to find appropriate texts, and from speaking to many other composers, they seem to find the same thing. One important aspect is that the text should have some sort of internal rhythm that is sympathetic to the sorts of rhythmic ideas that you can use in music. I tend to use shorter texts as, most of the time, you don’t really need much text to write a choral piece â€“ and let’s face it, in many cases you can’t understand what’s being sung.
Can you tell us a bit about your working process – given a text, how do you go about setting it to music?
Generally I’ll have an idea of the broad musical mood that I would like to create. Then I will select a text that’s appropriate to it. The next point is usually selecting certain words or phrases from the text and creating a motive or rhythmic figure from that â€“ then the compositional process is on its way. I also like to think about the structure of the text, and contemplate any possibilities of correspondence between the text and music in that regard.
Does writing for a specific group of voices affect the compositional process?
As with any piece, the exact forces for whom you’re writing can have a considerable effect upon the end product, especially in terms of the number of performers and their general technical ability. In the case of Heartland, I knew that I was writing for a massed choir of over 200 voices of varying ability levels, and this elicited a certain soundworld that I was interested in exploring. I listen to other repertoire, through performances that the relevant singers have made. This helps me to get a feel for what their strengths are, and hear what they find most fulfilling to sing. The group’s musical director will often give an idea about what sort of piece they’re looking for. Then I will pretty much go through the process of writing most of the piece, or maybe all of it, before giving it to the choir again. If there are any questions I will ask, but in most cases I like to get the vast bulk of the research into what will be going on in the composition before actually starting. Personally, I would find it distracting to go back and forth to the choir all the time â€“ but that’s just me, and of course other composers work differently.
I can’t pretend to say that every piece that I write comes out perfectly the first time! Some techniques such as voicing may work better in some ways as opposed to others. If there is a way to make a piece better, then I’m all for pursuing it, and often the singers themselves can give valuable pointers in this direction.
What are your long-term musical ambitions?
I would like to continue on the journey that composition has taken me on so far, to become the best composer that I can possibly be. I am interested in writing for ballets and maybe film, the dance aspect has already started to happen, and also write works such as concertos for a variety of instruments. I’ve been tremendously fortunate in having so many superb performers play my works, and I hope that that continues to be possible in the future. I also have a strong interest in the amateur music scene, and hope to continue to work more in this area. There is a large market available for works that can be performed by amateur musicians.
Are you optimistic about the future of classical music and if so, why?
Here in Australia there has been a slow but inexorable shift in terms of people really coming to like, appreciate, and expect contemporary Australian music in their music-making and music-appreciation experiences. I’ve experienced concerts in regional areas with performers playing a wide variety of musical styles, and pretty much always, it is the contemporary Australian works that seem to strike a chord. So I am optimistic, in the sense that there are so many good composers now writing in a wide variety of styles. Such breadth leaves classical music very well placed into the future. There’s really something for everyone.