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The QUILTBAG on The Sound Barrier - Miranda Hill talks Homophonic!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

One of my favourite parts of the year, each year, presenting The Sound Barrier is when Miranda Hill comes into the studio for her annual chat about what she has put together for Melbourne's celebration of LGBTQAI+ composers, Homophonic!, a now-regular component of the Midsumma Festival.

It's one of my favourite things because what Miranda does is so very important, and because she does it so very well.

It's important because it brings the creativity of LGBTQAI+ composers very much into the spotlight, and makes the point, which even in a year like this where we can at last celebrate the equality that has been achieved in Australia's marriage laws, is a vital one to make – vital because it reminds everyone that the presence of LGBTQAI+ people in the world's many communities is a vibrant, lively, eloquent, and constant one. It might not be particularly ground-breaking or shocking to make the point that some composers identify as LGBTQAI+, but when you create a whole show of their work, the enormity and diversity of their contribution is suddenly ablaze with colour and energy and messages and stories.

It's also important because, as part of Midsumma Festival, Melbourne's annual celebration of the LGBTQAI+ community, it introduces new music to many people who might not otherwise have heard it – people who come along out of a curiosity to hear what their LGBTQAI+ comrades and siblings are creating musically, and suddenly discover a whole new world of new sounds, and that gay composition didn't die with Tchaikovsky.

This is where the brilliance of Miranda Hill's programming comes in, and is such a key to the success of Homophonic! Each year, Miranda puts together a program that represents, in sensational balance, the diversity both of the community of composers, and of the world of new music, that the show is all about. There are works that will come quite easy to the ears of someone who hasn't tended to listen much to new music, nestled in amongst pieces that are more challenging or that might be more unfamiliar. There are pieces that stir you, pieces that make you want to cry, or laugh, or go out and do something to make the world a fairer place, or pieces that are just gorgeous to listen to because they are so beautiful. It's clever programming because, whatever your relationship with new music might already be, you will be sure to leave Homophonic! with some new music in your head, new things to follow up and immerse yourself in afterwards.

The pieces that Miranda programs into the show are always in small, digestible chunks, performed by some of Melbourne's most talented musicians and presented throughout by Miranda who engages you with that magical mix of warmth, humour, and a deep, deep respect for both the music and her audience that just makes you want to listen and learn and love.

So, unsurprisingly, it was great to have Miranda back on the show this week to talk about what she has in store for this year's Homophonic!. As Miranda and I chatted throughout the show, I played pieces by most of the composers who will be featured in this year's concert – but none of the actual pieces that Miranda has programmed. To hear those, you will have to book some tickets and go along yourself!

The composers, as always in Miranda's programming, range from the very well known, to some you might not know well at all. But when you hear the quality of their work, you begin to see that the division between the famous and the not famous has nothing to do with how good they are. All of the composers Miranda brings to Homophonic! are worthy of the spotlight she gives them.

But, at the famous end of the spectrum is, of course, Aaron Copland and his Fanfare for the Common Man opened this week's show with a pretty fabulous aplomb. It's nice to hear it in a context other than announcing a sports show.

And then, at the other end of both the show and scale, was the music of the criminally neglected Claude Vivier, whose life was cut literally criminally short when he was murdered in 1983. But in barely ten years of composition, he created works of staggering originality and beauty, with a unique system of harmony constructed from the spectral qualities of pitches, plus some extended vocal techniques that bathe so much of his music in its very characteristic and unearthly aura. We heard his gorgeously clever and original Love Songs, for vocal ensemble.

In the middle of the show was the work of one of Australia's really distinctive and distinguished composers, who has found her own voice in a musical world that at times can seem like it leaves little space for people to be themselves. Moya Henderson, like Claude Vivier, has been a composition student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, but also of Mauricio Kagel, and those influences, shaped and reshaped by her own creativity and conviction, produces music that spans the spectrum of the very lyrical to the very bat-crazy, as both she and Miranda have described her seven-minute opera Stubble, which will be featured this year at Homophonic!

Moya describes her work as being rooted in lyricism, but also woven into often rich and complex polyphonies. And always in her work there is a sense of her connection to humanity, and to human justice. The sides of people that feel, and those that think, become connected in her music, whether it's the lyrical or the bat-crazy. While the latter is coming to Homophonic! this year, I played the former on the show – an intense and gorgeous work for solo clarinet that contemplates a nuclear obliteration of everything, and at the same time revels and dances in the beauty of all that is vulnerable. Glassbury Documents was played in an exquisite performance by Deborah de Graaff.

Possibly already familiar to audiences both of The Sound Barrier and of Homophonic!, and also a great blender of the previously unblended, is Naima Fine who has a stunning capacity to bring together different sound-worlds, different timbres, different cultural influences, and make them sound, as Miranda and I discussed on the show, like they have always belonged together after all. On this week's show we heard it in her gorgeous piece for string quartet and marimba, Ban Zhu Gong Zuo, which captures patterns and textures that emerge from building a mud brick house in China.

Andrew Aronowicz has also been both a guest on this show and a composer featured at Homophonic! in the past, as well as this year. He is a young Australian composer who works mostly with acoustic instrumentation, and sometimes also with electronics or voice. His music is especially visual, conjuring images as quickly and as potently as it conjures sounds, but this time I played one of Andrew's pieces that was connected to another sense entirely. The Physiology of Taste was composed for Andrew's partner Benjamin Anderson, whose massive command of the bass trombone was stretched into entirely new places with the extended techniques and lively wit of this piece that was inspired by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's famous book of the same name. In four movements, The Physiology of Taste turns the sensation of eating into sound as the bass trombone navigates its path through the tastes and textures of food, and the process of eating it. Miranda will be performing the world premiere of Glyph, Andrew's new work for solo double bass at this year's Homophonic!

American composer Lou Harrison's music was part of Homophonic! two years ago and it is fantastic to see him on the program again this year, with his famous use of gamelan, sometimes self-constructed out of bits of junk metal. Tonight I played a piece that Miranda had included in Homophonic! at that earlier show: a work he actually composed with John Cage, where each of them worked with minimal information – durations, rhythmic structure – and then each composed two of the work's four layers, independently of the other. The results are magical as these two very different composers who have helped built America's LGBTQAI+ compositional legacy came to a meeting of minds without actually meeting.

Early in the show I played a work, dynamic and energetic, for small ensemble by English composer Tansy Davies. spine is one of those pieces that anyone can love – with its nods to the classical avant-garde, to the experimental edges of rock and funk, and even at times to little bits of the cabaret. Her hypnotic anti-war work for voice, alto flute, percussion, and double bass, Greenhouses, will be on the Homophonic! program this year.

New Zealand composer Jack Body composed Cries from the Border for string quartet and voices shortly before his own death – a work that is based on the writings of Walter Benjamin while fleeing Nazi-occupied France, but in Jack's composition, is more about the border crossing that he was himself about to face as cancer took a final hold on his life in 2015. You can hear that at Homophonic! this year, but it was a work in a much lighter vein that I played on the show this week, his Pain in the Arse for piano trio: a fun piece that is not just about annoying people, but, said Jack, also about the sometimes-tedious job of being a composer.

From those you know about, to those you don't, the creative world – like all the world – is always being shaped and changed by the voices and spirit of its GLBTQAI+ people. This year's Homophonic! marks an especially celebratory time for us in Australia as, at last, the law has allowed us to marry. It feels good to be on the winning side. But a show like Homophonic! is a reminder that alongside the fun and the celebration, there are still struggles to be fought and injustices to be overcome – not only our own, but those of others, too, who face a world that still has so far to go in overcoming its discrimination against others. You will hear the sparks and passions that ignite these battles in pieces like Moya Henderson's Stubble and its confrontation of misogynist models of women's body image, or in Naima Fine's Their voices were over the sky, based on the messages of refugees trapped on Manus Island.

Homophonic! is about the LGBTQAI+ community's contribution to new music – and, as Miranda said on the show, its veins run deep. There is always more to discover, and always more emerging. But Homophonic! is also about the unity and diversity that runs through and connects all of us everywhere, as it always has, and as it always will. It is the power of great music that homogenises the heterogenous, that stitches together the differences that make us interesting. It makes the alternative acronym for LGBTQAI+, which I hadn't heard until Miranda told me it last night – QuILTBAG – so apt: that gloriously colourful thing that can contain anything you wish to put into it.

Remember you can check out the playlist and listen back to the show right here on the show's website. My huge thanks to Miranda Hill for taking time out of her ridiculously busy schedule to come in to talk about the 7th instalment of Homophonic!

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