"Nonsense is just a rearrangement of sense." Composer Holly Harrison follows Alice in Wonderland down rabbit holes, and her audiences are all the richer for it.

"Nonsense is just a rearrangement of sense." Composer Holly Harrison follows Alice in Wonderland down rabbit holes, and her audiences are all the richer for it.

Words: Julie Kerr

Holly Harrison is obsessed with Alice in Wonderland.

"I did an honours' thesis I suppose, or an ex-thesis portfolio, in composition. I had read the Alice books much, much earlier, but I re-read them when I was 20 and I was just really struck by the way which it could also really appeal to an adult sort of sense of humour," the young composer from Western Sydney tells Music Love one afternoon over the telephone.

"Nonsense is just a rearrangement of sense and you can make your own rules from within nonsense. I hope that's not too academic an answer. I guess to kind of expand on what that might mean musically...  is that I've really wanted to experiment with playing with a lot of different stylistic juxtapositions. The things that were really fast and really slow, or really loud and then really soft - those sorts of stylistic bridges and bringing in ideas that were very much from the pop music world, rock, punk rock, metal, jazz, hip-hop - all that sort of stuff. And then working out what actually happens when you pair that with structures that are more what we might think of as classical in structure, as in, it's evolving over time or it's progressive in its structure rather than, I guess, repeated elements like you would get in pop music I suppose."

The thoughtfulness, the layers and the ponderings make for great conversation, and great music. Complex, fun, light, shade. One such work that exemplifies this is Lobster Tails and Turtle Soup featured on Eighth Blackbird’s (USA) Australian tour as part of Musica Viva’s 2017 International Concert Season. The tour included performances by the four-time Grammy award-winning group at Perth International Arts Festival and Adelaide Festival. 

The clarinet player in the American group Eight Blackbird commented that it was quite difficult to play Harrison's piece. 

"Ah yeah...., I'd forgotten about that," she laughs. "I remember when he said that.... My music is quite tricky."

The trickiness speaks to an attention to detail and a commitment to intricacy.

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"It's hard for me to get away from. I feel like I want to say something like, 'If you go further down the rabbit hole,' but I'm not going to say that," she laughs. "It's this idea that when I'm dealing with stylistic juxtapositions and things like that, there needs to be high contrast between sections that amplifies the detail."

Harrison says this is partly due to her interest in borrowing from other genres in her pieces.

"Musically what that might mean is, say it's a jazzy passage or something like that, and let's just take the clarinet for example - because I guess we're talking about the clarinettist here as well - is I would write in quite a lot of detail in terms of glissers or full laughs or almost improvisatory detail that a jazz player would just do very naturally in that you would never see in jazz score because that's something that they innately do. And then finding out a way to notate that in a classical music context even though the music doesn't end up sounding classical, so I guess that's one of the sort of bridges that I'm still trying to, work out... and to get that sort of detail into".

Harrison is a multi-award winning composer whose pieces have been performed all over the world. In fact the aforementioned Lobster Tails and Turtle Soup saw her become the inaugural winner of the 2017 Sue W Chamber Music Composition Prize, awarded to an Australian female composer. She also plays drum kit and percussion in the improvised rock duo Tabua-Harrison with Joey Tabua (electric guitar) whose debut record is expected for release in 2018.

It’s this idea that when I’m dealing with stylistic juxtapositions and things like that, there needs to be high contrast between sections that amplifies the detail.
— Holly Harrison, composer

"It's an improvised album that we recorded at the beginning of last year in January.... Our goal is jamming.... When I say 'jamming,' I don't mean in the lowest certain term. I mean in terms of really building your relationship with somebody that you jam with often and you play with and improvise with a lot. And then working out how they're going to respond to you.

"And then recording that and seeing what comes out of that... For the most part - even though I would describe it as semi-improvised - that would only be because we rehearse in a way that makes it. I guess academically speaking you couldn't say it was only purely improvised, but I guess for the purpose of this it is. This album is purely improvised. I'm waffling."

She isn't waffling. Harrison has an MO that is constantly working things out and weaving in and out of ideas, exploring this rabbit hole and that. Just as Alice does.

When asked if her duo project is accessible or commercial or not, Harrison answers, "You know what, sometimes it is and sometimes it just isn't.... I think the thing about Joey and I is, you just never know what you're going to get."

It is with this 'never know what you are going to get' approach to creating music that the conversation turns to Harrison's latest task at hand - a commission to write a piece for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (MICMC). Held in July, the MICMC is open to string quartets and piano trios of all nationalities whose members are under the age of 35. The MICMC takes place every four years, and this year the competition is being hosted by Musica Viva.

Harrison has written a piece for the competition called Balderdash. 

"Because it's a competition piece, that really affected the way that I went about writing for it. And I thought from the get-go, competition pieces need to be difficult so the jury can sort out who's the better group," she explains. "I was thinking about it from the perspective of okay, I've got a variety piece that (A) shows how well a group can play together, but also (B) how well each of those members of the group can work as a soloist, so I knew I wanted to give each of those players a moment to shine."

And so she came up with a Battle of the Bands concept.

"The idea of a string quartet competition or a piano trio competition [led to the idea that] we've all played in those battle of the bands sort of things during high school or even late at night. And I thought maybe some string players sort of missed out on that, on that kind of concept. And I thought what might that be like?"

"Drawing from my experiences and playing with Joey - I don't play guitar myself, but I've seen him play the guitar - I thought, 'Maybe if I treated each of the players in the quartet as though they almost were [playing] an electric guitar or turning that on its head, what would it sound like all the four members worked together to sound like one electric guitar?' It then inspired coming up with how I might create guitar effects using only violins, viola, and cello."

Expanding on the idea of a battle of the bands concept, Harrison has made feedback that one might hear at a rock concert in a pub the centrepiece of Balderdash.

"You go somewhere and there's some terrible feedback sound and it creates a physical response, doesn't it? I know that it makes my ear drums shake and it's horrible. And I thought what would it be like if there was like a grab of sound or like a seeping of sound that happened in that moment? But in this case it's across fifteen minutes, so it was that kind of idea as well and that gave it a structural narrative, I suppose."

Performers and audiences attending this year's MICMC are in for a treat as they experience of Harrison's wanderings down rabbit holes, and they have a storybook character named Alice to thank for that.

"When you're writing something and you don't have the idea initially, you've sort of got to wade through all this stuff first and work out, or for me anyway, I need to work out what the musical ideas are and then the concepts come to me."

The MICMC is held 1-8 July, 2018. Tickets and more here

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