Q&A February 2016
The Q&A this month features renowned composer and pianist, Mark Isaacs. Hailed as “a splendid musical mind” by the Los Angeles Times, Mark Isaacs has achieved widespread recognition as a pianist and composer working in both classical music and jazz. He joins Melissa Doecke for ‘The Enchanted Flute‘, on Saturday the 5th of March (6:30pm) at the Theme & Variations Showroom – 451 Willoughby Rd, Willoughby.
From where do you draw your inspiration with your compositions?
The biggest inspiration for me to compose is a request for a finished work for a performance or recording. I write for no other reason than that people will play my music to an audience. Without that, I would certainly play around with compositional ideas – and may even jot a few down – but I would not come up with a completely finished work. No work is ever really finished, so the only reason to apparently “complete” a work is so it can be performed for an audience. A score that just sits on a desk is like writing a letter to no-one in particular and not posting it.
What made you get into composition in the first place?
When I was 13, my wonderful high school music teacher Christopher Leechman saw me looking bored in a class that was covering information that was elementary to me, and told me to compose something. I wrote a Sarabande sitting at my desk. He played it at the end of the class, and his face lit up and he said it was really good. I too was pleased and surprised by how it sounded. From that moment I decided to be a composer (my desire to play the piano in public, and to conduct, came a bit later). Music touches my soul, and I feel a great and loving connection with the composers who do that to me. To have the opportunity, the potential, to turn that equation around the other way is a great joy. I compose because I love music, and I love people (especially people who love music!).
Who was your most influential composition teacher/mentor and why?
I mentioned my high school music teacher Christopher Leechman. Also in high school I had private lessons with Heather Silcock in piano, theory, musicianship, counterpoint and orchestration. These were fantastic formative influences. Later I studied with many internationally-renowned pianists and composers like Isadore Goodman, David Burge and Peter Sculthorpe, and to this day I feel I am mentored by luminous elder musicians who show an interest in me and share their knowledge, whether it’s the great Vladimir Ashkenazy or legendary Australian conductor Patrick Thomas. But probably the most influential period was the two years I studied piano in my early twenties with the late, great Australian pianist and pedagogue Igor Hmelnitsky. He was a remarkable musician, but also a very generous and energetic man, and he showed a great interest in me, doubling the time of all my lessons and inviting me to stay at his home. This was priceless. I wish I had asked him more questions still!
What features do you try to capture in your compositions? What are the most important elements?
For me, poetic lyricism is very important, but I like to balance that with playful rhythms and a sense of verve and joy. I love rich chromatic harmonies and syncopated rhythms, sometimes both together! A sense of melody is of absolute prime importance to me. And a feeling for the essential nature of the instruments I write for, culminating in the mysterious art of writing for an orchestra!
What would be one of the most rewarding (and least rewarding) aspects about being a composer?
The most rewarding aspects are to hear great musicians breathe life into the notes you have written and to touch an audience, it is really thrilling. Also particularly rewarding is when young people play your music, even in high school; that feels really special. Conducting one’s own music with an orchestra is a unique thrill. Least rewarding are the inevitable periods of “writer’s block” that come and go from time to time, when nothing one writes seems good enough. Eventually they pass, you have a breakthrough, come up with something, and you realise those bleak periods were just part of the journey. In fact the breakthrough after a couple of weeks of writer’s block can be particularly spectacular! It still feels awful the next time of course. Every time it happens I feel I have lost it for good. So far, not.
What can people expect from your recital on Saturday 5th March?
Flautist Melissa Doecke and I are very much looking forward to presenting our program of French and Australian music for flute and piano. The Australian compositions are by myself and Ross Edwards. My compositions were especially commissioned by Melissa, and consist of my Sonatine and also a transcription for alto flute and piano of The River, which is one of the movements of my solo piano suite Children’s Songs, which Ashkenazy liked very much and wrote some lovely things about. Ross’s pieces are characteristically seductive, and the French works by Poulenc (his very popular flute sonata) and Dutilleux are utterly charming. All the music is touchingly lyrical as well as being engaging and exciting. Melissa and I are a very happy team and love playing with each other, and for audiences. Melissa’s sound and dexterity are spectacular and for me, I love to work with the expressive colours and sounds I can get with my touch from a beautiful piano, which I know I will be provided with at Theme & Variations!
The music is from your debut album collaboration with Melissa Doecke, entitled Ulpirra Sonatines – can you explain the title?
Melissa chose the title, and she explains it best: “Ulpirra is an Aboriginal word from peoples in the Sydney region of Australia meaning pipe or flute, aptly befitting the Sydney-based Australian composers Mark Isaacs and Ross Edwards who are featured on this album. The French title Sonatine invokes shorter, lighter forms of music as the title suggests, acknowledging the French half of the program, much of which provided inspiration for Mark Isaacs’ Sonatine”
What other projects do you have lined up this year?
The concert at Theme & Variations is part of a tour with Melissa involving 11 concerts plus masterclasses in Victoria, NSW and Queensland over more than two weeks. I am also working to get a number of other projects up and running: A recording of classical piano repertoire in Europe, a jazz recording in New York and I also hope to make a start on composing my Symphony No. 2.
What advice would you give to young upcoming composers?
Write what you love to write, not what others seem to say you should be writing. Be yourself and let your own wisdom filter the advice others will give you, but be very open to learning from them and from the great masterpieces of the canon. Stick resolutely and stubbornly to your path through thick and thin. It’s the journey, not the destination!