Composer Focus: Louise Webster

25 February 2015 / Composer Focus

Louise Webster came to composition later in life but has received an impressive number of awards in the past decade, including first place in the Douglas Lilburn Trust Composition Prize in 2005 and in 2008, the Douglas Mews Choral Composition Prize in 2011, and the Llewelyn Jones Prize in Music for Piano in 2011.

Louise works as a child psychiatrist and paediatrician at Starship Children’s Hospital and the School of Medicine in Auckland, and somehow found the time to study composition part-time with Eve de Castro Robinson, John Elmsly, and Leonie Holmes at the University of Auckland. In 2012 she completed her Master of Music with first class honours and that same year received the 2012 CANZ Trust Fund Award. She was co-convenor of the CANZ Nelson Composer Workshops in 2013 and 2014 and is currently working towards a doctorate in Music.

Louise’s compositions draw creative ideas from a variety of sources, including the sounds and images of the New Zealand landscape, poetry and words, and the issues she confronts in her day-to-day clinical work. She says: “I enjoy the creative challenge of writing for specific instrumental combinations, performers, and audiences. Music is essentially about communication; as a composer I try to hold the performer and the audience in mind as integral to the creative process”.

Louise was one of four composers invited to write a ‘cry’ for the Grand Finale concert at the 2015 Adam Chamber Music Festival featuring the Song Company from Australia, the Ying Quartet from the USA and the New Zealand String Quartet. The inspiration for a ‘Cries’ concert came from discussions between NZSQ and Roland Peelman, director of the Song Company, about the tradition, established by composers such as Orlando Gibbons and Clément Janequin, of incorporating the cries of street vendors into ‘refined’ music for voices and instrumental ensembles. Jack Body, Eve de Castro Robinson, Chris Watson and Louise were each commissioned to write a short piece for six voices and one or two string quartets to bring this tradition into the 21st century. 

Louise’s piece, Cries of Kathmandu, draws on the sound world she encountered when working for four months in Nepal as a young woman. She says: “I chose Kathmandu because the remembered images and sounds, street sounds, and songs were so intense, and because that was a very special experience in my life. Kathmandu is a city of immense contrasts; beautiful temples and mountains alongside poverty and squalor, children singing and playing on the steps of Pashupatinath where the bodies of the dead are cremated by the river, tourists transported by the beauty while grumbling about the beggars, and climbers who are driven to climb the mountains knowing that they may not return. The many Gods of the valley are familiar presences in people’s lives, woven through their everyday activities, and it is that duality of life and death, sacred and profane, that I wished to convey in the ‘Cries’.”

Louise drew the text from a number of sources including several phrases from Han Suyin’s novel set in Kathmandu The Mountain is Young, words of Buddhist chants, tourist blogs, street songs, and her own diaries of events. The musical material includes the sounds of Tibetan prayer-wheels of different sizes, all rotating at different pitch and tempi. These prayer wheels are present in the Buddhist temples and road-side shrines, and are turned by those walking past as part of their daily devotion. Layered over the prayer wheels are melodies from childrens’ street songs, discordant marching bands, holy men chanting and bells. “Often the songs and sounds overlap, as if heard in real-time in Kathmandu, where, as you turn a corner, new sounds emerge as the old ones fade”.

Louise says she was delighted with the performance given by the Song Company and NZSQ:  “They captured exactly the sound world and the simplicity of the sounds that I wanted. It was a very moving experience for me to hear my work alongside those of Jack, Eve, and Chris. The six works, spanning four centuries, felt that they belonged together.”

The next work of hers to be premiered in 2015 will be Where moons circle and burn for soprano and orchestra, to be performed by the Auckland Philharmonia as part of the APO 2013-2015 composer collaboration project ‘Letters in Wartime’.

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