It was wonderful to sit down with celebrated Australian composer, Emma Jayakumar this month to discuss compositional life, the trials and tribulations for the past 2 years, and of course, her stunning new song cycle, Four Lost Songs, commissioned by DSO, premiering this August at Darwin Festival.
Emma, thank you for taking the time talk to us in the lead up to Four Lost Songs this August. Could you begin by telling me about your musical journey? How did you get to where you are today as a composer and singer?
For as long as I can remember, I have always composed music. For a woman of my generation however, the choice to be a composer to me was one that seemed audacious. I didn’t grow up with a personal computer or recording device beyond a tiny cassette deck, the technical gadgets available to us these days were still a bit far off! I was at the tail end of the 80s as a little kid, and by the time I got to university in the late 90s, my impression of composition as a career was still very much involving serious intimidating older men toiling away with pen and paper in darkened studios creating symphonic music.
I could sing well from a young age and came from a very musical family. Singing was so immediate, and I loved the social aspect of being in a choir or cast and bouncing creative ideas around the stage, the costumes, the spectacle, singing with an orchestra (what a rush!).
I started a performance degree at WAAPA in the late 90s and was encouraged to also pursue composition by my harmony lecturer who felt my composition assignments showed promise, but I was too eager to become the next Joan Sutherland and quickly abandoned the composition coursework to pursue performance full time.
I was very serious about my singing career and reached some impressive goals. I won some very high-profile singing competitions, won a place in the Royal Academy of Music Opera Course, and performed further throughout England and Europe. It’s a stressful life though, and I ultimately realised that what I wanted in my personal life and what a successful career as a touring singer demands, weren’t compatible.
Composition came back into my life when I was at a particularly low ebb on return to Australia from London, having failed to secure any work from Australian auditions. I started to write and record songs for voice and piano into the minidisk recorder I used to use to record my singing lessons, in between small pockets of work. I gathered up the courage to play them to my colleague, who immediately took me to buy a computer! He said, stop messing around and invest in some serious equipment Emma! So I did, and I started writing properly.
At first, I wrote small comic operatic pieces for a little Perth based ensemble to perform for children’s school touring, and I gradually progressed from there as I gathered confidence. I completed a practice-led composition PhD at WAAPA in 2018 and have never really looked back from there. I still sing, but it’s very much on my terms now, and I have to say listening to something I have composed get played by wonderful musicians is for me the ultimate feeling of creative joy. I absolutely do not regret one second I spent studying classical voice, it took me around the world, taught me resilience and discipline, and informs every aspect of my composition—I believe— for the better.
What have the past few years been like, working through COVID and any unique opportunities that have presented themselves. What are valuable lessons you have learnt in the past few years?
My compositional life wasn’t overly affected by COVID, although so many of my performing mates lost so much work it was heart-breaking. It’s always difficult—and it remains very difficult—to get larger projects funded, so I have tended to stick to smaller scale chamber works that I know will have a better chance of a performance life.
I’ve had really tough times as a performer and artist before, periods of real anxiety and frustration, and am used to how tenuous a career in the arts is, particularly in Australia. I learnt early on that you just can’t predict what organisations or funding bodies are going to choose or follow, so you really just have to follow your own creative instincts and put forth the best and most authentically individual ideas in the hopes that you may have an opportunity fall your way.
In my case, the 2020 ABC Fresh Start Fund commission was a great example of this. I found a beautiful old-fashioned poem I loved (Henry Kendall’s Bell Birds) that suggested excellent musical shapes to my mind and pitched it as a piece to ABC Classic, featuring the Darlington Quartet, a quartet of musicians that I admire greatly.
I won the commission and wrote it with great joy, and the Darlington Quartet recorded it 6 months later. It has resonated with a broad audience and certainly increased my profile as a composer. Jon Tooby played the cello beautifully in this piece, and was introduced to me as a composer, which has eventually led to this wonderful commission for orchestra and voice.
Around the same time I got the string quartet, I started talks with WA Opera to write their 2022 family audience commission. This has been in the making for some time and will be premiered in Perth in October this year.
Tell me a bit about how Four Lost Songs came to be. Where did the idea come from? What has been your process and inspiration to compose this song cycle? Were there any ‘A-ha’ moments or challenges?
In early 2021 I suggested working with a string trio to director Frances Barbe who had asked me to write some songs for soprano Emma Matthews in the creative development phase of her play, The Big Sea. Semra Lee, Sally Boud and Jon Tooby recorded three pieces with Emma for the play, and I think this got Jon’s mind working about commissioning a song cycle for DSO!
Jon suggested the Strauss cycle to me as a kind of composition brief in terms of the style of the piece emotionally, harmonically and in terms of duration. Of course, as a composer and especially as a singer I am intimately acquainted with this gorgeous cycle of songs. I cheekily suggested the title the Four Lost Songs, and it stuck straight away, but I haven’t slavishly tried to emulate Strauss’s original, there’s no point in trying to do that in my mind! There are certainly some nods to Strauss harmonically, and in terms of the vocal writing, which is such a showcase for the talents of Rachelle Durkin’s lyric coloratura voice type. I was lucky in that I had Rita Horanyi identify and curate a list of first nations poems, from which I was able to choose those which spoke to me musically. I started with Maureen O’Keefe’s haunting Mother’s Lost Song, with its many allusions to song and sounds of the desert. After that, I chose pieces that complemented this original choice, ones that suggested contrasting tempi and emotion so that the cycle was a journey of different emotional and sonic landscapes.
Speaking to the poets over the phone and online were transformational moments for me. Having the opportunity to ask each of them what state of mind they were in emotionally when they wrote each poem really affected how I approached each piece. It was wonderful to have this personal connection and helped me to honour their words more authentically as well.
The challenge in adapting poems always come down to duration. It takes at least 5 times as long to sing anything than it does to recite it. Making cuts and edits to the poems is hard, because it’s not my work, it’s such a process of trust, and in this respect the poets have been fantastically understanding! You’re essentially creating something brand new from a textual beginning as a composer, and these are the moments I live for as a collaborator, it’s been a delightful challenge!
On challenges, could you talk briefly to what it is has been like composing for an orchestra and soprano using information and inspiration from poets who are all dramatically separated geographically?
Yes, it certainly is a process of faith in many respects. Jon has been very helpful, and I welcome feedback. I trust him to advise me in these respects as rehearsals progress. I have been driven close to madness by the MIDI playback of my notation program, which can only ever approximate the full sound of an orchestra. I remember during my string quartet I had one movement where I had all of these glissandi in each part emulating the coo-ing of birds in the forest, and in the notation program it sounded like feral meowing cats and I was terrified it would sound awful, but in reality, it was one of the most effective passages I have ever written for strings! I will be so grateful to hear the actual orchestra for Four Lost Songs, I will probably cry—with joy of course!
As far as the singer goes, I know Rachelle’s voice very well, she is singing in my opera in October, and I have known her for some time – in fact Jon asked me who I wanted to work with, and I didn’t hesitate to nominate Rachelle! It has been quite easy to hear her voice front and centre in my mind, she’s wonderfully capable and very emotive. We have been texting back and forth on small things as she has been learning the score, we have a good working relationship like that. It’s a joy to work with intelligent singers like Rachelle. As for working with poets, it was really more an issue of being able to connect on an emotional level with each poet, which I was really lucky to do through the NT Writers’ Centre contacts. Once I had that sense of connection, I could proceed with a lot more confidence. It’s always a bit nerve wracking sharing things with people for the first time though, but feedback so far has been very positive!
Now something just for fun. Tell us about a hobby, or something you have been doing in your quiet time that has bought you rest and reprieve from our busy and chaotic world.
I love upcycling old furniture! I did lots of this in down times when I wasn’t doing much singing work, or just to get out of my own head and do something really useful with my hands and focus on a physical task. I love the tangible nature of painting, building and repairing things. I am a bit of a roadside picker, much to my husband’s dismay! But even he has to admit, I’ve found some great stuff in the past!
I also like to just straight up belt out a good pop or rock song in the car, alone or with my kids. That always blows out the cobwebs!
What is the best advice you have been given in your career/life, and what is something you would like to share with aspiring young composers/sings/musicians?
Best advice I ever got: Do less, and do it better.
My advice to young singers/musicians: Don’t take every single piece of advice or criticism ever levelled at you to heart. Find your people, trust your own instincts. Often people have their own agenda, and you need to do what is best for you and no one else.
For composers: Keep writing, then write some more, then keep writing. Just keep writing!
Something I wish someone had told me: Consciously cultivate a sense of joy in other people’s accomplishments, as much as your own. Support your colleagues (even when it may be difficult) encourage others, be happy for their success. This will return to you in wonderful ways and generally make you nicer to be around.
Finally, what does the future look like for you. What are you looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to hearing the results of lots of writing in the last year. It’s a solitary exercise, writing. The payoff is massive though, I have three premieres this year, and I’m going to be front and centre at each show! I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Four Lost Songs as it’s my first orchestral song cycle, and I so enjoyed writing it.
I have a few irons in the fire for future projects. I would like to turn later in the year to writing the libretto and score for a new contemporary chamber opera and returning to writing for the string quartet as well. A big meaty festival project or full-scale opera with orchestra for a major national or international company, is also something I would love to sink my teeth into!
Four Lost Songs premieres this August at Darwin Festival. This stunning performing will feature Emma’s incredible new composition, performed by Darwin Symphony Orchestra and soprano Rachelle Durkin. This exciting and diverse program continues with a performance of Stravinsky’s truly remarkable, Petrushka Ballet Suite.
Emma has also kindly shared 10 pieces of music that have inspired her musical journey. That playlist can be found via the DSO Spotify account here.