STARK : The concerto

There is icing sugar all over my face. I’ve finally finished my violin concerto. And I survived. And I think I deserve this pretty massive jammy donut I’m currently consuming.

I haven’t had a chance to clean my house yet, or catch up on emails or invoices. But I’m really enjoying being able to go outside and enjoy that November grass clippings smell without feeling guilty about not working every second of the day.

Here’s an excerpt from the programme notes to give a bit of context:

Stark: The Violin Concerto takes it’s inspiration from the iconic queer NZ dancer, Freda Stark, made famous in the 1930’s as being a prosecution witness in the trials of Eric Mareo, after her lover, Thelma Mareo was allegedly murdered with a glass of poisoned milk. Later, in WWII, Freda became a famed exotic dancer in the Civic Theatre’s Wintergarden cabaret nightclub, where she performed in gold body paint, earning her the title ‘Fever of the Fleet.’

It’s been 10 weeks since I properly begun composing the score. Lots of that time was spent researching and planning and generating and throwing out ideas. A lot of that time was spent panicking that nothing I was writing was good enough, ‘contemporary’ enough, ‘original’ enough etc and then the rest of the time was spent panicking I didn’t have enough time left to write it. I hired over 6 copyists to help me get my ideas into score and edited.

For the last ten years I’ve mainly operated as a collaborative composer- in that, my music has been written to accompany other things. I’ve gotten used to the fact the structures are mainly dictated by visual means, and I can concentrate on texture, emotion and rhythm/melody rather than overall structure. I love this about soundtrack writing. It’s a supportive art, and for me it consists of just the things that I enjoy about composing. It’s easy to answer whether the music is correct/serving the picture/achieving it’s purpose. In the few times I’ve been asked to delve back into concert music I’ve felt a lot of pressure to conform to the rigorous standards of that artform – and have had to fight off feelings of inadequacy of not being a ‘serious’ composer anymore. Sometimes these outweigh any joy in the compositional task – which should be a fun process. So at a point in writing the concerto I had to come to the realisation that I was not interested in writing to prove myself in that world; by being Comp-in-res I’d already done that to an extent; – I was writing because I was passionate about the story I was composing around, the sounds of the orchestra and the violin playing of my soloist. Also I was passionate about the overall live concert experience and the visual impact of the piece also.

To help me write the concerto, and help me get some of the struggles out of my head, I began to write a diary blog in the first few weeks of writing. This entry is taken from day one, after I’d been researching the trials of Eric Mareo (The husband and alleged murderer of Freda’s lover Thelma.)

“I wrote some notes today. I improvised over a flicked pizzicato chord. The harmony was open, as is what happens with a loop, and the improv meandered, although I experimented with some shifting harmonies beneath it.

I am enjoying the gentle swoop of melody lines in the indian style of violin playing. The trills that only use one finger, and slow down and speed up to great effect. It mimics what the indian voice does in bollywood music. 

I’ve got a clearer idea of what movements 2 and 3 will be. I’ve tentatively called them ‘White and gold’, both of which are quite linked to moments in freda’s life. The White -the slow movement, the milk that allegedly poisoned her lover, the veil of grief – the fuzziness through which we experience life with the passing of a loved one, like obscured vision, made blurry through tears or blinding lights.

Then gold – the magic of the civic, the buzz of the nightlife, the sting of the lead-filled paint, the danger of the dance, the riskiness of the routine, and the fever of the fleet. I feel like composing a rumbling fleet of galloping elephants through the middle of this movement.

I’m not sure what to think about Freda now after reading ‘The Trials of Eric Mareo.’ They were obviously written as the authors had doubts as to whether he was really guilty. I also feel like with him being a composer I’m not sure the character of writing and performing music is really the sort of person who would be capable of such evil intent. I have to sympathize a little with him, especially given his description of ‘an eternal optimist’. After being sentenced to death, he wrote a letter from Jail thanking his lawyer saying he ‘felt for him’ when his sentence was read out in court. What bastard has such empathy?

‘The Trials’ document paints Freda in a carefully suspicious light – not really presenting any evidence from her point of view, except what she said in court and prior to court to police. It stresses that her accounts differ before and during the trial, to align more closely with the crown’s case. It seems through her grief, she may have changed her details through anger, wanting someone to blame fully for her death. I wonder why, after asking Mareo to call a doctor over several days, and him failing to do so, did she not call one herself? Being the feminist/gutsy/lover-come-busom friend why didn’t she take responsibility then?  And what of her life after the trials, of coming out as a lesbian (although denying it for legal and social reasons in court) – what attitude did she have to the way she conducted herself during the trials afterwards, when the grief of loosing thelma had softened? Did she regret renouncing her as a lover (even for legal strategy purposes?) Did she feel regret at Mareo’s sentence? Surely even if she hated him for being married to Thelma, surely they got along OK if they were always hanging out? Apparently she also slept with him at once stage, before he married Thelma. Why would she even admit this and was it part of her strategy?

My interests keep coming to the years following the Mareo trial. How did her behaviour then suggest what she really believed happened?

I’ve ordered the book again from the library so I can re-read her biography. Even if ‘the trials’ document changed my perspective on Freda, and planted some doubt as to her moral compass, it’s certainly been interesting to read about the social perspectives on ‘theatricals’ at the time. Behaviour considered normal to artists at the time (perhaps the physicality and ease of relations between actors and dancers) seemed socially abnormal and scandalous to non-‘theatricals’. Parts of most creative lives – drinking, socialising, theatre, discussing at length music, art and the far end of conventional relationship setups, were not considered ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ to most NZders back then, who had been pretty conservative and practical types during the war. Perhaps the War had something to do with it (or everything to do with it)- and a sort of ‘you only live once’ attitude had begun to permeate society, beginning of course with it’s most perceptive and absorbent cultural observers, the artists.”

Now at this point in the blog I just get pretty frank with myself. It helps to be brutal with myself, and then step back and try to give the advice I’d give a friend.

My biggest fears at this point:

The actual technical process of writing the work

Making it hard enough for Amalia when I’ve never really been concerned with showiness for the point of itself

Infusing the work with a ‘NZ’ feel and not sounding too Indian

Having too many ideas and not exploring them all fully.

My biggest set backs at this point:

Not knowing where or how to begin. Being too judgemental of everything at this stage. Worrying about everything being amazing!

My best piece of advice to myself at this point:

Generate, generate generate. Don’t worry about it being amazing. Refinement and structure can happen later. Just focus on the inspiration, the musical ideas and the clarity of vision for important moments in the piece. Try to answer the question of weather the movements are meditations on emotions/scenes or imagery, or whether they follow a certain storyline.”

So that was day ONE of blogging.

Now two weeks later here’s day NINE my blog:

“Negativity and down heartedness and general loathing of all material has set in. As soon as i’ve written something i’m mucking with it and deleting with it. I sat at the piano for near on two hours freezing and only wrote a few little ideas.. nothing longer than 4 bars.

I took a long shower and had a think about things. I’d much rather ‘arrange’ the concerto around a structure I create at the piano, a sort of skeleton in that I can be creative with.

On further research, the lucky lovelies were performing in 1943, the same year ‘it don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing’ came out.. SWING was huge..  Also they performed after midnight so maybe the civic clock/town hall clock tower chimes will begin the last movement?  Can I directly quote some swing songs? Maybe the violin starts off not swinging but counteracting it and then eventually it starts to dance and swing?

Research needs to be done in proper jazz notations.. and some ideas about chord structure.

I have about 30 working days left. This is terrifying.”

35 days later. I handed in three movements. BLACK, WHITE and GOLD. I think this has been the greatest struggle of any of my concert works – and hopefully will be the most rewarding to listen to also.


1 Comment

  1. We listened to your music last night at the OW concert and we were very impressed with it. Thanks for sharing your creativity with all of us. Your music was the highlight of our night.

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