Johannes Luebbers was one of the composers commissioned for the Western Australian Composers Project, that took place at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth, in 2013. Here, Artist director of Decibel Cat Hope asks a few questions about Johanne’s commissioned work, ‘The Past is Never Far Behind’.
What was the main inspiration for your piece ‘The past is never far behind’?
The main inspiration for the work came from a feeling of being stuck in my writing. At the time I felt like I had worked for many years on my craft and rather than broadening my scope it felt like the refining and developing of a process had actually backed me into an artistic corner of sorts. I saw this piece as an opportunity to break some habits and to try and subvert my instinct for what I might normally do.
In addition to this I also wanted to try and follow my intuition in a different way, without the restraint of habit. The harmony revolved around dissonant intervals and vertical shapes, in an effort to avoid harmonic approaches I might usually seek. I also tried to disrupt my sense of structure. Often I will create formal structures that flow and have a pretty constant feeling of movement. In this instance I wanted to sabotage that by breaking things up with pauses and having sharp shifts in texture and tone. I tried to treat each section like a little thought-block, avoiding the sense of developmental I might usually strive for.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how successful I was in doing this and the title of the piece captures that feeling that, though you might attempt to change something, your history (in my case my compositional habits and inclinations) are always there shaping you.
In your program notes, you comment that as a composer you often find yourself seeing your history all too vividly in your writing, finding it hard to avoid. Can you elaborate on that?
I find that I am a product not only of the music I have studied and listened to, but of the music I have previously written. Things don’t literally repeat, but with each piece I write I can recognise the trace of my past works; sometimes in actual sounds – melodies and harmonies – and other times just in my process. Sometimes this is a good thing, as it consolidates your style and ‘voice’, but other times it leaves you feeling as if you’re painting by numbers with stale sounds.
I found that when I was writing I could identify certain habits that kept coming back, which I found frustrating. I often write for my own ensemble, which has a consistent instrumentation, which has created another challenge when trying to change my approach, with the similar palette causing me to often lean in a certain direction. The chance work with Decibel was a great opportunity to try and challenge my own assumptions with a new ensemble. In that sense the work was a bit of an exorcism for me – it felt like some parts worked musically and others didn’t, but they needed to be written nonetheless.
How did writing this piece differ from your other formats – you usually arrange and compose for jazz ensembles, right?
Most of the writing I do is for jazz ensembles and the times that I write for more classically oriented groups it’s usually within a commercial context, arranging popular music or things with a contemporary popular or jazz feel. It’s certainly rare that I would get the opportunity to write for an ensemble like Decibel! It was a real challenge. I can normally rely on certain jazz conventions, such as solos, as an easy structural device. Removing these definitely pushes me into a more unfamiliar situation. Decibel also has a unique approach to music making, with skills and conventions that don’t exist in most ensembles. Trying to fit into this, while still creating something of my own, was challenging. In addition to all this, the space in which we performed created further issues to consider, as it was incredibly reverberant and caused things to resonate in ways I really wasn’t expecting. All up this experience was quite different to the compositional situations I usually find myself in!
What are your main compositional interests at the moment?
I’m currently engaged in a PhD at the WA Academy of Performing Arts focussing on creating music collaboratively, so collaboration has been a real interest lately. I’ve been investigating different approaches to collaboration in the kinds of musical environments I usually work. This interest grows out of the same place that motivated my work for Decibel – that is, the interest in continuing to challenge my own process and investigate new ways for me to work. Collaboration provides a fruitful area to explore, as it’s the opposite of my usual composer-centric approach.
Another area of interest, which in part grows out of the collaborative explorations, is the incorporation of free improvised elements into more structured settings. Improvisation and free playing can achieve musical outcomes that are simply not possible through notation and I love employing both to creating interesting palettes that simultaneously create a sense of cohesion while unleashing the personalities in a group.
Depending on the setting orchestration is also a real love and fascination of mine, especially when working with larger palettes, such as orchestras and big bands. I get a real kick out of listening to and exploring the different colours that can be achieved in an ensemble, and the balancing of sonic elements is a real art that I’ve gotten a lot of nerdy pleasure out of.
Who are your main compositional inspirations? Are there any in particular for this work?
Since I first discovered his work back in university Olivier Messiaen has been a major inspiration in much of my work. People often associate Messiaen with his ‘modes of limited transposition’ and harmonic language, but for me his approach to rhythm and structure have really shaped my writing. His approach to rhythm involved breaking it down to a single, small rhythmic unit, which removed the importance and dominance of the time signature on the rhythm and really freed things up. This aspect of his music has liberated my own approach to rhythm immensely. I’ve had many inspirations from the world of jazz over the years too, including oft cited names such as Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider. John Hollenbeck is an ongoing inspiration too, as he often brings free elements into large ensemble settings to great effect. Australian composer Matthew Hindson was also an inspiration for this work, as some of his recent work also took an interesting intervallic approach to harmonic structures.
What are you currently working on?
Much of what I’m currently working on revolves around my PhD research. Through that I’m working with my own ensemble ‘Minesweeper’ to create new work as a group. We’ve done a few performances late last year and are now working on some new material in response to other work by WA artists. I’ve also worked with a trio from that larger ensemble as a separate project, where we collaboratively compose to moving images, performing as a part of a Fringe show earlier this year. I’m also working on a project with dancer Lucinda Coleman and artist Miik Green looking at the idea of resistance in a collaborative work. We’ll be exhibiting that later this year at ECU. On top of that there are a few arranging gigs on the horizon, involving orchestrating rock songs for orchestra, and I’ve got an ongoing collaboration with actor/writer Nick Christo, writing a musical theatre work about Australian opera icon Nellie Melba. Never a dull moment!