The process behind 'Study in Morbid Fragments' by Heather Shannon (The Jezabels)

By Heather Shannon

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The process behind 'Study in Morbid Fragments' by Heather Shannon (The Jezabels)

I am interested in composing for orchestra within the context of exploring the effects of synthesised sound on acoustic and orchestral writing. I love to experiment with musical ideas written electronically and work to adapt them for acoustic instruments. By programming a melody into a synthesiser, one can blur the lines between melody and harmony, creating unusual register leaps and detuned tones. The breakdown of tonality inherent in many synthesisers leaves room for an element of unpredictability when developing musical ideas. 

When writing with an electronic instrument, I find that a traditional harmonic approach to voice leading is sometimes less interesting than embracing the randomness that the synthesiser spurts out. For example, synthesisers are often programmed to emphasise unusual overtones or harmonics, which can result in interesting parallel movement of harmony. Often heard in pop and rock music, this harmonic movement is generally thought of as ‘bad’ voice leading in a traditional classical context. Translating these ideas into an orchestral setting allows me to explore different instrument textures and interval combinations that I wouldn’t otherwise consider. I love the process of working to find the best way to represent an idea that at first may sound foreign to me on an acoustic instrument. 

Although working with electronic instruments is my point of departure, I am yet to find my own way of connecting the two sound worlds. I have been listening to several composers that work with electro acoustic sounds such as Missy Mazzoli, Mica Levi, Mario Diaz de Leon, Anna Clyne, Éliane Radigue, Bjork and Polina Nataykinskaya (see listening guide below). I love the way each of these composers weave electronic sounds into an orchestral tone pallet. The pieces that don’t include electronic elements still seem to be sonically influenced by experiences as recording musicians in a studio setting. To me, this is a unique world of classical music, one steeped in classical tradition but also looking elsewhere for new textures and cross genre influences. This music inspires me to continue learning and writing.

I have spent the last 11 years of my life writing, recording and touring with The Jezabels. Being in the band has taught me how to write original music. Although I started off writing in a collaborative setting with Nik, Sam and Hayley, I have slowly come back to my roots as a classically trained pianist. Being in the band freed me up as a performer and allowed me to enjoy connecting with an audience. It has taught me the importance of subtext in music and that as a song writer, you must consider what exactly you are striving to communicate and why. All of this adds depth and context to your writing. Although not all music is written with these intentions, I have realised that these added layers of meaning are something that I look for in music and something that I aspire to achieve in my own writing. 

Late last year I was commissioned by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra to write a piece for their upcoming WAVE Festival. Writing for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra was at first very daunting. It is overwhelming and exciting to work with such an accomplished and internationally renowned orchestra. I was lucky enough to partake in the Composer Development Program with The Metropolitan Orchestra and conductor Sarah-Grace Williams the year before, which gave me the opportunity to workshop my orchestral piece Sequence and Variation, and allowed me to fine-tune my writing and formatting skills. I am still learning about my writing processes and feel as though I am finding a voice of my own.

Study in Morbid Fragments
Lately I’ve been thinking about the disconnect between what is presented as truth to us by people in power and the underlying motives that cause information to be warped and obscured. To find meaning in information we increasingly have to deconstruct what is presented to us - to whittle or sculpt falsehood into something that we can apply to reality. This process is obviously highly subjective and language can be easily exploited. My practise reflects these thoughts as I manipulate notes on a page to find a sound which is meaningful to me. Because my musical ideas are often appropriated from an electronic setting to an acoustic setting, they’re taken out of context and adapted to a new tonal world.

To highlight the slightly unnatural or dissonant feel of this adaptation I have contrasted these moments with more traditional sounding harmonic sections. I like the idea of interweaving dissonant and consonant elements. The results of my musical explorations is Study in Morbid Fragments, a piece for chamber orchestra.

#Listening Guide

Missy Mazzoli - Overture

Mario Diaz de Leon - Blades of Light

Polina Nataykinskaya - Winter Bells

Éliane Radigue - Islas resonantes

Anna Clyne - Prince of Clouds

Mica Levi - Lonely Void and Love from Under the Skin soundtrack

Bjork - The Gate