Confessions of a Travelling Composer

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When I compose music, I like to sit quietly at home and slowly fill a blank page with the sounds in my head. This year I turned my composing process upside down and travelled to Burapha University in Thailand to co-create music with four musicians who play traditional Thai instruments. This is the story of my trip.

Preparing to Take the Plunge – 2 February 2015, Morning

It’s two days before I fly to Thailand and I’m nervous. The musicians I’ll be working with don’t read western music notation and speak little English. My spoken Thai is limited to a few words like ‘hello’, ‘yes’, and ‘eat rice’. If I am to create a piece with them, I’ll have to venture out of my comfort zone and find other ways to communicate my ideas.
The Nature of Silence By Corrina Bonshek - Image InspirationI’ve decided to base my piece on the meditative experience of silence. I recently heard a talk by meditation teacher Neil Hamil where he described two qualities of silence. The first was a floating, pulsing silence (like waves on an ocean). The second was an immovable, all-encompassing silence (like the experience of viewing scenery from a mountain top). I really liked the way Neil related these ideas of silence to meditation experience and being nature. Both are ways I find peace in my life.

A picture speaks louder than words. I pick the image of a drop of water falling into a pool and rippling outwards to express the idea of a flowing, pulsing silence.

The image prompts music ideas. I decide to represent the drop of water with the bell-like sound of the Ching (Finger cymbal). With the rest of the instruments (including singer) softly emerging from the Ching like ripples across a still pond. I jot down two minutes of music in western notation, and decide to teach it to the musicians by singing. After all, oral transmission is the way music has been taught for centuries. I should say that this is a quite a departure for me. I’ve had no singing training and wouldn’t describe myself as singer. But this trip is to change all of that!

Clearing My Mind – 2 February, Evening

I meet my PhD composition teacher Bruce Crossman for dinner and all of a sudden I feel that my trip has begun. Bruce says, ‘This workshop is about writing inside of the Thai Classical Music tradition, so see what comes. Allow it to transform and enrich your composing. Your music will change as a result.’ My anxiety drops away. I realise that I am on a journey and I don’t need to have all of the answers.

Encountering Tradition in 21st Century Thailand – 5 February

The plane touches down. Bangkok takes me in her arms, whooshs me through customs, and before I know it I am sitting in a minibus with Fern and Mimi, two dance students from Burapha University. Unbeknown to me, Fern is to be my guide and translator over the next 11 days. I discover she loves contemporary dance. Thanks to her, I find out many interesting tidbits about being a performing artist in Thailand. For instance, the audience for Traditional Thai music is mainly foreigners and many Thai’s believe this music is a bit boring and old fashioned. The audience for contemporary dance and art music is limited too. In fact, there are only two contemporary dance companies for all of Thailand. I ask Fern and Mimi how they will forge ahead in their dance career. Overseas, they say.

Over the coming days I discover that the university I am visiting (Burapha University) is extremely innovative. They see Thai traditional performing arts as a living tradition that should be preserved, exposed to new audiences, and invigorated with the new. The Experimental Thai Music Laboratory, that I and four other composers are participating in, is just one example of this.


Communicating the Spirit of My Music – 6 February, Rehearsal 1

Composer Corrina Bonshek in ThailandWe are ready to begin our first rehearsal. I look around at my small group of four, slightly nervous, young musicians, and start to wonder if they will ‘get’ the stillness at the heart of my music.

What’s the easiest way to communicate the idea of mediation? Answer: to meditate of course. Right now, I wish I had that option. I’d like to do a simple spoken meditation exercise but it is too challenging for my translator.

So instead, I show them the water picture and settle for an exercise that will help them embody it. I take a deep breath and mime the drop of water rippling across the pond with my hands. I ask them to put their instruments aside and to copy my hand gestures. We do together this a few times. I can tell some of the players are feeling a bit weird about this. So we move back to instruments and I ask them to play a single note, with the feeling of the rippling circles. They get it. The sound resonates with stillness.

We fall into a groove – breathe in, Ching (bell) sounds, then long rippling drone. I sing a melody, then the singer joins me. We repeat until she has it memorised. We add the next line and then the next. All the while doing the rippling hand gestures, which help hold meditative space and keep us in time as an ensemble. I am conducting the ensemble without realising it.

I discover that our two singing voices – Thai singer and myself – blend beautifully. I’m delighted but slightly afraid of what this means. The performer in me says, I can’t sing on stage. The composer in me says, ‘Too bad! You can’t chicken out. The sound is too good!’.

Expanding Our Comfort Zones (Again) – 8-12 February, Rehearsals 3 to 5

We’ve just begun to settle into a groove, when a few timely words about unpredictability from Dr Koji Nakano (artistic director of this residency) and Festival guest composer Professor Chinary Ung shake things up again!

I agree that something is missing. But I’m not sure yet what I should add. The answer comes after a lunchtime conversation with Professor Christine Muyco and Professor Titus Levi about birdsong. I’ve used birdcalls in my music for the last five years. There’s a aleatoric, random quality, when different birds sing together, their motives overlapping. I suddenly realise – birds are the missing element – and the Saw Dueng (Thai fiddle) can play them. I think back to a festival workshop where I heard an Erhu player (Chinese violin), from the National Taiwan University of Arts, demonstrating bird sounds. Surely the Saw Dueng (Thai fiddle) can do this too!

The following rehearsal, I bring along video recording of local birds. Until now, I haven’t really challenged the Saw Dueng player – she’s been playing it safe with long drones. I encourage her to step out of her comfort zone by imitating some birds! It takes us a while to find the right sound. She plays some exploratory sounds. I try too! Everyone laughs and eventually we settle on some short rhythmic gestures moving up and down the neck of the fiddle. I draw a graph showing when she should play them, illustrating the longer and longer durations over time. We rehearse several times and she grows in confidence!

Last Minute Inspiration – 11 February, Rehearsal 6

It’s the morning before the last rehearsal and I’m racking my brain in search of a good ending! I’ve taken a wrong direction with the closing minutes of the piece and I want to fix it before it is too late. The main problem is the drum. I added it to evoke the immovable, all encompassing quality of silence. Wrong move – it is destroying the meditative feeling! But if I take the drum out, I only have flute left. Is it interesting enough on its own?

I wake early and decide to go for a walk. I see Professor Chinary Ung in the foyer and ask him if he’d like to join me. We talk about music and structure. He remarks that sometimes it’s a matter of taking things rather than putting them in. For example, he says, looking at rock garden opposite, I would remove that rock so that the line is less cluttered.

I realise that I need to trust my inner voice, remove the drum part and let the Khlui take the spotlight. It will be perfect on it’s own. I take a deep breath, jot down some ideas for the closing solo to take to the rehearsal. Korn, the Khlui player, agrees to the change with a determined look on his face. Thai Classical Music is primarily an ensemble affair so he too is expanding his comfort zone. We spend a good deal of the final rehearsal working through his part. It’s last minute but I’m confident he will do an amazing job. And, he does.

Corrina Bonshek was a guest of Burapha University Faculty of Music and Performing Arts from 11 February to 18 February 2015, where she sang for the first time in public while participating in the 8th Experimental Thai Music Laboratory at Burapha Music and Performing Arts International Festival 2015.

Her piece ‘The Nature of Silence’ was co-created with musicians Jantra Noennok (voice), Korn Tarkang (Khlui/Flute), Parichaya Charoensri (Saw Dueng/Fiddle), and Sahawoot Kawrungrueng (Ching/Finger Cymbal). Thararat Paiboontanasombat was the translator for this residency.

One thought on “Confessions of a Travelling Composer

  1. Kerrie

    The stillness at the end was quite magical – yours and the other girl’s were both still and of a different character. And the birdsong element was just right. Random acts of relativity 🙂

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