Regarding his pairing with Pike, mortuary mushroom was, says Harvey, thematically “a confluence of various things coming together: the murder of George Floyd and the continuing toxicity of male aggression in the world”. “The subtitle is ‘anti-opera’ and it’s really directed against this kind of white privilege that results in the oppression of minorities. It’s ongoing, of course, and it’s reaching a fever pitch in Western Europe. the East as we speak.
The festival is not all prog metal piano and satanic and anti-operatic voices. At another end of the canvas, ANAM sophomore Harry Swainston will perform a sonata for viola and cello by Victorian Opera artistic director and conductor Richard Mills, with the title significantly less violent of Che Scorre (What flows). It is “a kind of antidote to these very dark times in which we find ourselves”, says the composer, “a positive gesture in a rather negative universe. I guess it comes from the notion of flow, especially the flow of water, but also the way life flows and the way nature flows,” Mills says of of the room, which swirls in uneven, overlapping surges to an ultimately quiet resolution. “It’s about the idea of change, of transformation through movement. It is even the movement of the bow on the strings.
Given lockdown-era travel restrictions, Mills and Swainston were among the minority of aides who had the luxury of meeting face-to-face. The 22-year-old violist knew the 72-year-old composer’s work from afar, having performed his 1982 Trumpet Concerto at the Queensland Conservatorium. “I was like, ‘Wow, imagine one day if I meet that person, how awesome would that be’. Then the next year, ANAM said, ‘He’s your songwriter’, which was amazing.
“At first I went to his house so he could get an idea of who I was as a player. He had some ideas about the line-up before I arrived and we worked on it from there. A few weeks later I got an email with the score I kind of looked at it and [thought] omigosh, so many notes,” he laughs.
“The reason this project is special,” says Mills, “is that we’re working with these wonderful, inspiring young people to create something together. Harry wanted to do it on the cello with his partner [Nadia Barrow], so it was something a little different from the normal viola and piano sonata. It’s two linear instruments, the cello and the violin, [which fed into] this idea of fluidity: two simultaneous linear gestures, rather than the more harmonic approach you get if you have the piano.
“Richard basically said ‘Do whatever you want with it. That’s the music, it’s up to you now. Go ahead,” Swainston says. “So it was quite a different process compared to other [students] I talked.
The divide between classical musicians and improvisers may be a cliché, but it’s deliberately blighted by ANAM violinist Donica Tran and jazz composer Andrea Keller. They communicated by Zoom to work through other mebut neither knows exactly what it will be like that day.
“These are just ideas,” Keller says of the roughly 15 solo violin fragments that make up the piece. “Because I come from a background of jazz improvisation, even as a composer, it was [necessary] so that I can remember those things that are important to me.
“I was very lucky that Donica expressed when we first met that she liked groove and rhythmic elements, and was really open to improvisation. So the piece I created is essentially a series of fragmented ideas and Donica improvises the structure of the piece each time she performs it.
“The classical tradition can sometimes be quite rigid,” says Tran, also a sophomore at ANAM. “You have all the notes written for you, there is a very clear structure, there are forms that are studied and it can sometimes be, of course, very formulaic. There are rules on how to play.
“With this piece…there’s more agency and autonomy over what you can do with the music…which is definitely something I’ve never done before. And something that really opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking and playing music. It’s not something I’ve done a lot, working with living composers,” Tran adds with a laugh, “especially with people who are quite different from the classical canon.
Bailey says part of the purpose of the Set Festival was to highlight the importance of what ANAM students do. “The ambition was to feel a big idea that we could offer our students to tell them: ‘What you do is important, what you do makes sense. Come with us on this journey’. The caliber of the compositions was so high, he adds, that ANAM plans to continue the project for future cohorts.
“What’s really amazing is that we’re going to have about 55 of the 67 components [at the festival], which is probably the biggest collection of composers together in one place and they are all very eager to meet and hear their tunes; hear the pieces of their colleagues.
“I just want to make sure we get a class photo with everyone together.”
The ANAM Set Festival takes place May 13-15 at the Abbotsford Convent. set.anam.com.au