GETTING TO KNOW: SANDRA FRANCE

Sandra France, represented artist with the Australian Music Centre, is a Canberra based composer who has written works for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Opera, Synergy and many of Australia’s finest classical musicians. Her CD, Fluctuating States of Calm, was recorded in 2004 by Tall Poppies (TP177), and is a collection of her early classical compositions.

In 2008, France was the recipient of an ACT Creative Fellowship Award, which lead to the creation of her opera From a Black Sky (Directed by Caroline Stacey, Libretto by Helen Nourse). For this work, France won a Canberra Critics Circle Award for Composition and was a finalist for the ARIA’s 2014 Art Music – Vocal Work of the Year Award.

France’s most recent work, Flight Memory, is a collaboration between herself and renowned Australian playwright, Alana Valentine. A uniquely innovative work, Flight Memory is a Jazz Song Suite that fuses genres, styles and structural forms. It will receive its world premiere performance season at the Street Theatre, Canberra, in November 2019.

The Street talked with Sandy about composing and her new work for Flight Memory opening November 14th.

PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC?

My life revolves around music. I feel most alive and uninhibited when I am playing music and creating music. Composing is like a puzzle to me, and I love the challenge of solving the puzzle of every new piece I write. Playing music is like breathing to me, and a more natural medium of communication than any other. Listening to music is a direct line into my heart. I have the great privilege of earning my living in music; composing, playing and teaching music. It is a privilege to be able to inhabit the world of music, and I will forever be in my parents’ debt for fostering my passion as a young child.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A COMPOSER?

There was never a moment when I thought I’d like to “become” a Composer. I have always written music. I began composing the day I got home from my first piano lesson, at age 9. I was intrigued at how and why composers put notes together. As a young child, I listened intensely to classical music and enjoyed learning to play the masterpieces on piano. Throughout my school years I composed music, often instead of practising for my AMEB exams, creating piano pieces that emulated the style of the composers I was studying. After high school I studied piano performance at WAAPA and discovered a whole new world of classical chamber music and orchestral music. When I first heard modern classical music and jazz, my world exploded. I was thrilled by the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic freedoms and totally excited by the sonic possibilities that lay ahead of me.

YOU ACCEPTED THE COMMISSION FROM THE STREET TO COMPOSE FLIGHT MEMORY. WHAT WERE THE GUIDING PRINCIPLES?

Essentially, we were to create a work that celebrated Science and its contribution to Australia’s Defence.

YOU ARE WORKING WITH PLAYWRIGHT ALANA VALENTINE TO CREATE FLIGHT MEMORY . WHAT HAS BEEN THE COMPOSER-LIBRETTIST PROCESS?

We met at the beginning of the work to decide on the topic. Living in different cities has meant we have had the space to work independently on sections of the work. We have scheduled several creative intensive sessions along the way, where the two of us shared our ideas as well as came up with completely new ones. At times my musical ideas informed Alana’s words, and at other times Alana’s words directed the flavour of music I composed.

WHY A SONG SUITE? WHY THREE VOICES?

We wanted to create a new song cycle in a jazz genre with a suite of songs. We imagined that the vocal parts would be very demanding and almost instrumental in approach to singing.  Three voices allows us to tap into the collective experience of many of the issues we touch on.

HOW DOES YOUR MUSIC ALLOW US TO EXPERIENCE SCIENTIST DAVID WARREN, THE INVENTOR OF THE BLACK BOX?

Throughout Flight Memory, I have tried to create music that carries the listener on a journey through the breadth of emotions that David Warren endured in his lifetime. During his pursuit to create the Black Box, his creative genius was ridiculed and overlooked, which would have frustrated him and hurt him on many levels. However, he did not submit to this treatment by his peers and superiors, but rather, was driven by a determination to create a machine that would help improve a major flaw in aviation safety.  His pain, isolation, struggle and strength of character are represented sonically throughout the work in different ways. Frequently, dissonance is juxtaposed with melody.  The darker shades of Warren’s psyche, self-doubt, negativity, guilt and sorrow, can be heard in the clashes in tonality that punctuate the predominantly lyrical work. Counterpoint references a fast-working brilliant mind.  The inclusion of musical improvisation is freedom; having the courage to explore and the skills and intelligence to turn ideas into actions. The broad palette of musical textures in the work highlights that there are many different solutions to a single problem.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS TO DATE WITH DIRECTOR CAROLINE STACEY?

Caroline organised our original meetings with Australia’s Department of Defence Science and Technology to find the source material for the work. She then later scheduled two collaborative creative sessions with Alana and myself at which a large section of the work was written.

Caroline directed our week-long creative development workshop late last year. During that time she scrutinised the music and the dramatic thread of the work, guiding us as to the sequence of songs and whether the message was clear. This culminated in a showing to an invited audience of the whole work, from whom we sought and responded to feedback. We had a subsequent meeting this year, which was to discuss the overall flow of the work, highlight areas where new words or music needed to be written, and finalise the overall structure of the work.

TELL US MORE ABOUT INSTRUMENT CHOICE FOR THE ENSEMBLE?

I have written for a standard Jazz combo of six players, including a 4-piece rhythm section (bass, drums, piano and guitar) and two front-line instruments.(Saxophone and trumpet).  There is some doubling throughout from most of the players, many of whom will utilise music technology in some capacity to enhance the standard ensemble. 

YOU ARE MUSIC DIRECTING FROM THE PIANO – WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE WORK?

Directing from the piano is a first for me. Typically, a composer writes for another musician or ensemble of musicians, and relinquishes the performance aspect of realising the written score to that of the performer. But because I am playing in Flight Memory, I can respond intuitively to the work as the other players bring their own ideas into the picture. It is a much more natural way of making music, and feels like pure art, fusing creation with performance. 

FLIGHT MEMORY RESONATES WITH ISSUES OF CREATIVE AND INVENTIVE PEOPLE NOT BEING SUPPORTED IN AUSTRALIA. WHAT RESONANCE HAS THERE BEEN FOR YOU AS A SUCCESSFUL WOMAN IN THE ARTS?

The issue of creative and inventive people not being supported in Australia resonates with me on a very deep and personal level. To be a successful woman in the Arts means I have kept going; despite an overall lack of support or celebration of my creative skills. I have not succumbed to the negative forces of jealousy, resentment, materialism, sexism and ageism. In reality, it has never been an option for me to stop, because being creative is core to who I am. But to be “successful” means you have to put yourself out there, which means facing the possibility of failure.  Over the years, I have had the good fortune of meeting and working closely with the late Richard Gill and the dynamic Caroline Stacey.  Both enlightened ambassadors for the Arts, they see the importance in fostering our country’s creative people; they lead companies, orchestras and organisations, commission new works, program bravely and encourage the next generation of artists.  Still, it is strange for me to hear myself being referred to as a “successful” woman in the Arts.  Perhaps this is because many of my colleagues do not even know that I am a Composer. And in this sense, Flight Memory is a familiar story for me, as I sometimes compose in my breaks at work, always in the evenings, on weekends and during holidays. This pursuit and drive have been the butt of ridicule and mockery from time to time, but I have just kept going.

WHAT DOES THIS WORK ILLUMINATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA?

Flight Memory explores the pain and struggle of being a creative, sensitive and clever person in a hard and uncreative world.  It touches on our lingering cultural cringe, which over the years has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in royalties, as well as the many great Australians who choose to live overseas in more stimulating environments.

As a nation, in some ways our attitude towards creativity, invention and the Arts has progressed since Warren’s time.  We have theatre companies, symphony orchestras, galleries, science departments, dance companies and conservatoriums. But, as we have climbed the global ladder in wealth, so have pressures increased on our people and our organisations to be financially stable.  Often this means safe programming, which looks backwards for familiar works, instead of at the here and now for new innovative works.

Similarly, individual career choices are motivated by the capacity to make money. We don’t pay scientists, inventors, musicians, dancers or writers very much, so there is not that allure to pursue those careers. This drive for security influences young people in their degree choices at university, entry into which is determined by their school grades.

Coupled with subtle discouragement from our schools to partake in these elective subjects, it is no wonder we are struggling to remain a creative nation. In many Australian High Schools, the Arts are referred to as “electives”, implying that a young human being can be fully and completely whole “without” the Arts, should they elect to be so. Sadly, this misleading nomenclature has led to growing numbers of Australians who have experienced little or no education in the Arts.

These artistically un-informed, yet often highly educated people, go on to wreak havoc on our society through their ignorance of the Arts. They have limited skills to analyse, interpret and respond to the Arts, and therefore think they can justify closing down Music Departments, Art Schools and Drama Departments in schools and universities, an assault we have endured in the past decade all across this country.

It saddens me that, generally speaking, we value success, money, speed and simplicity.  Being averse to uncertainty, questioning, reflection, sensitivity and softness, kindness and consideration, and being humble; seeing these qualities as weaknesses, many Australians are challenged by free thinkers who respond emotionally and honestly to their surroundings. Because they are hard to confine, label and put in a box, it is easy to undermine the importance of the innovative engineer, the progressive composer, the brilliant writer, the nutty inventor or the exquisite painter. 

Flight Memory is a glimpse into David Warren’s world; a look at an Australia that punched above its weight with creativity in the early part of last century. It looks at how, despite this, we just couldn’t celebrate this man’s gifts. How people are less likely to encourage someone who questions, explores, tries out new ideas, looks at the world differently and uniquely and who thinks for himself or herself than someone who toes the line without query.  It celebrates David Warren’s undying focus and determination to invent this machine, not for acceptance or recognition, but because he knew inside that he could.  This is the Australian spirit that we claim to celebrate; being independent, creative and fearless. We just seem to forget it too often, and the small-minded, off-kilter blur that illuminates Australian society perpetuates.

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN MUSIC?

My ears are always alert to new sounds and ideas. I listen to most genres and draw inspiration from any music that surprises me or moves me.  I have my mainstay music that I regularly come back to, which includes Pat Metheny, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Shostakovich and Prince.  I love modern contemporary classical music and new Jazz. Speedball is a new jazz group, originally from WA, which is made up of absolutely brilliant players. From time to time I’ll hear a Popular group that grabs me, like Alabama Shakes (U.S). And I do enjoy listening to the new young bands around Canberra, that are fearless in their music writing, like Pleased to Jive You and my daughter’s band, Sputnik Sweetheart.

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?

Reading: Murakami’s Norwegian Wood

Watching: I rarely watch TV series, although I did enjoy Big Little Lies.