Tell us about what it was like working with such personal material – How did you approach it creatively, did you meet the family of the solider whose letter you selected?
When I heard about the project I was interested in the letters as dialogues rather than one sided monologues. I was also particularly interested in the perspective and world of mothers waiting in New Zealand for word from their sons - this was no doubt influenced by my own personal life-stage as the mother of young people working and living in Europe while I remain in NZ.
I went to the Auckland museum and also searched other on-line catalogues, and found that although the letters from soldiers were kept and treasured by families, and passed on to the museum, the letters from mothers (and family) had been lost. Despite this, however, the voices of mothers could still be heard mirrored in their sons letters; pervading themes of yearning, frustration at the long delays in letters getting through, what is not said or glossed over in the letters, the unvoiced knowledge that by the time the letters were received, the writer could be injured or dead, and the awkward attempts by young men to reassure their mothers and allay anxiety. I chose the letters of Martin G Brown to his mother and family in 1917 – 1919 (and some exerpts from his diary) because he created such clear word pictures of events, and because of his lovely but clumsy attempts to reassure his mother. He was also a survivor of the war, which I wanted - I didn't want the work to be pervaded with our knowledge that he had died. In the absence of any letters from mothers, I used the lines of a wonderful poem ‘Your letter forwarded to Takaka’ written half a century later by New Zealand poet Peggy Dunstan to her son in Europe. This poem captures I think the complex emotions of a mother, writing from afar, and the contrast between what is written and her internal thoughts and anguish. I did not have contact with Martin Brown's family, but did contact the Dunstan family for permission to use Peggy's poem. That was a story in itself - the original publisher of the anthology containing her poem had long gone, the editor had no idea what had happened to Peggy, and none of the literary organizations had any contacts. I realized that Peggy had died because of online obituaries that mentioned her children in Auckland, so eventually had to resort to cold-calling all the 'Dunstans' in the Auckland phone directory (fortunately not a common name) and finally contacted one of her sons. The Dunstan family were very supportive of the project for which I am grateful.
In actually writing the work, I started with the words, and used my reading of the text to create the sound worlds I associated with those words. These were two somewhat different worlds, the world of the young man and that of his mother. Then I wrote the vocal lines and orchestrated from those.
What was the process like working with APO and Ken? What kind of opportunities did having workshop sessions afford yourself and your music?
Working with the APO was enormously helpful - to get to hear what you have written and be able to make changes is amazing. Usually I only get to hear my music at a final performance which is too late for changes. This meant that i could work through ideas, try different approaches, try different orchestrations of an idea. Some of my ideas seemed good to me but just didn't work in practice so were abandoned. Some things, particularly the orchestration of vocal passages needed careful attention to balance with the voice and orchestral texture, and having the workshops meant that I could do that. Feedback from the players was very helpful - mostly about practical issues of instrumental capacity and layout of the printed parts. Ken and Hamish gave very valuable feedback on orchestration and tempi - the working practicalities of the score. And it was helpful to get feedback from the other composers and also from the University of Auckland staff who I am studying with - Leonie Holmes and Eve DeCastro Robinson.
Now that the project is over, how do you feel about this kind of process of working? Did it help the work? Are there clear advantages over the more traditional forms of developing a piece of music?
I think that the workshop process gives you input and information that cannot be obtained in any other way. I can't imagine writing this particular work without being able to workshop it, particularly as it was the first time I had written for voice and orchestra. In some ways this is even more important since the advent of tools like Sibelius, which give such a false impression of what the work will sound like, and no idea of texture and balance. There were some things I'd do differently maybe - perhaps have the workshops a bit closer together time-wise so that you didn't lose the thread of what you were thinking between the workshops. A longer run up to the first workshop to give composers time to develop a first draft. I also felt that the rehearsal time for the final performance was very tight. However those are just ideas. It's very important that this continue - it's a unique opportunity for any composer.
Is your work is very specific to this time and place of the ANZAC centenary? In what kind of context could you see the work performed in the future?
Most works for voice and orchestra have lyrics that are derived from a specific time or event, so I don't see that as a problem in itself. The works carry, one hopes, a bigger message that make them meaningful in a broader context. After all, the ANZAC centenary is not a 'celebration' but more an opportunity to reflect on the horrific nature of war and conflict, and that is a universal issue. Ross Harris has written many works based on words written in wartime. I'd hope that my work could be performed in any orchestral concert series, and not be limited to specific commemorative events.