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Composing Music: A Life of Laughter and Inspiration

Composing Music
By Martin Frenette
Cover Photo Credit: Hong Thai Nguyen

Music is food for the soul – Arthur Schopenhauer

Music is a moral law that gives wings to the mind – Plato

Music is what gives us memories – Stevie Wonder

Music is the greatest communication in the world – Lou Rawls

“Music is this awesome, abstract place where your mind ends up!” declares Australian composer Lihla in a burst of contagious laughter.  One can easily forget that she is talking about an object when describing her relationship with her cello, a rather large instrument that entirely hid the tiny daughter of Malaysian ancestry when she picked it over violin at age 6! “I’d already been playing piano for three years because taking piano or violin lessons at three years old is just what Chinese kids do, but my relation to the cello is a much deeper one. It is my voice and I’m frankly far more comfortable using its strings than my vocals! It is a very expressive instrument and has such a huge range! It can be so high, go very deep, scream, and allow you to hit those great notes while being a little sexy and very feminine. No other instrument makes me feel this way nor allows me to compose straight from such deep places like this one does.”

The artist quickly draws a fine line between songwriting, which exists on its own, and composing, that relies on collaborations, whether it’s with a movie director, a physical performer or a creative team. A difference that became clear when the Melbourne Conservatory of Classical Music and Victoria College of the Arts’ alumna went on composing for dance companies and circus productions around the world. Musicians and their voices are not the main focus in these creative contexts where songs are forming a soundtrack that has different “what makes it good” criteria from your regular studio album.

“A soundtrack must create and contribute to the perfect vibe without taking over. It creates a balance. Coming up with the right tempo for the right atmosphere can take a scene to a whole other place, something that would never happen without music and sound.”

The 38 years old laughs again when asked about a composer’s typical schedule: half of the time is spent composing and the other half is about playing and performing those compositions! Pushed onto a path that revolves around the latter once by her college cello teacher, she could easily have winded up a soloist in Philharmonic and symphonic orchestras hadn’t it been for an inspired group of people whose improvisation skills ignited something new in her.

“In this music form, unlike regimented classical music, there suddenly was lots of room for interpretation. Even though I’ve had heated arguments on that topic, I had to admit that I did not like being told what to do, nor wanted to play music the way people expected me to. I kind of fell out of love with classical music. I really rediscovered my musician self through improvisation and electronics!”

Composing MusicPhoto Credit: Reinhard Künstler

As for the difference between stage musician and composer, the Melbourne-born artist laughs before stating how notable and appreciated the absence of her ego feels when composing. Being in a creator’s position rather than a performer’s allows the composer to be sound instead of a person, to explore a marvelously rich spectrum of frequency, space, and time…

Time. Time and time again. This term keeps coming back: how much creation time does the composer get? In what time period is the show set? How long shall the piece last? Are those few hours where my daughter is at daycare enough time to complete those drafts and is it the right time to send them?

“It is all a matter of time! That’s what composing is and my relation to it is very different, whether I’m writing for myself or for others: I don’t care how long the track is when it’s for me! There is no ‘hurry there!’ or ‘maybe stretch this one out…’ Dance pieces and circus acts have an average length of four to six minutes, accents to hit, momentums to build, skills to highlight. Those time restrictions and guide-rules never come up when it’s just my cello and I. Writing is time-consuming and requires discipline, a skill that every composer must have. But composing also just comes when it comes, when the time is right. You cannot force it. I just have to go when it hits me!”

What is the scene about? What types of movements are explored? What ambiance is the show going for? Will the music be live or in playback, acoustic or electronic?

Just a few of the many questions that come into play before the musical creative process has even begun! “And, again, given the importance of time, I cannot get on board too early! A director or any other client who is very clear about what they want can tremendously help a composer deliver tracks early. People who don’t trust their instinct or have too many options in a creative context will often lead to wastes of precious time. I also need some form of a concept, a feeling to get in good improv mode as some of my best comes out of improvisational work, if not by accident!”

Composing MusicPhoto Credit: Reinhard Künstler

18 years in the music industry, eight of which as a composer, still won’t give you the secret of a good song, of what makes an earworm! “If I knew, I would write commercial music and make a fortune! As for my own pieces, I know that I’m on the right track when the music stays on my mind since I usually have no recollection of what I’ve done after a composing session! That is partly why vocals can be tricky or misleading for a musician as we’ll always be drawn to voice as humans, hence vocals can easily take over and make you forget about the music.”

On the other hand, what 18 years in the music industry WILL give you is profound appreciation, admiration and tremendous respect for technicians.“These amazing people, usually the quietest, work tirelessly to make everything sound amazing! They mix, master and give that final touch to your work. I have so much respect for what they do and they really aren’t getting enough credit!” says the vibrant cellist when reminiscing those she collaborated with on “Yan Li Ping” in China, “Deloris” in Leipzig or her current project “Vaccio” with aerialist Oscar Mauricio.

“All very different creations where my main source of inspiration remained the same: The artists’ presence, the way that each related to the music, and connected with the musicians on stage. No big tricks will move nor inspire me as much as an artist’s presence and musicality. There is nothing harder than writing for someone who has a complete lack of musicality.”

And on that note, Lihla retreats to what she calls her “secret bubbles.” A little studio filled with light on her building’s sixth floor where she finds the peace and quietness, vital to every composer, to write Ambedo, released in 2018.

Composing Music

 

Also by Martin Frenette:

12 Going on 38: Reprising A Role by Elena Lev

Father And Performer: Two Sides of One Character

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