Student Questions

FAQ of Stephen Leek and his music (for students)

Why do you like composing using indigenous themes? I don’t intentionally set out to use indigenous themes, but rather, I draw from my experiences as a composer who lives and works in Australia. I have worked and joined with indigenous Australians on numerous occasions, so I guess some of that is evident in my work. I think that much of the “indigenousness” of my music comes from the rhythms and dry colours of the Australian landscape which is so much a part of all of us, whites and indigenous. I think there is an inherent quality in being Australian that has been captured so well in traditional musics, and is something that I feel in my own relationship to this time and place. It is a very difficult thing to try and quantify, but I have never intentionally tried to imitate aspects of indigenous music. I have on occasions though, tried to find ways of bringing peoples together in music, and this can be most effectively seen in Island Songs that are based on popular songs from northern Australia.

Why do you use harmonic singing in this work? (Once on a Mountain) Since I was very young, I have been involved in choral work both in performance and in experimentation. As a teenager I was a member of Judith Clingan’s Canberra Childrens Choir which was a choir that used to sing (commission and write) a lot of new music… and we used to do a lot of improvisation and experimentation just as a matter of course. I never intentionally tried to write using harmonic singing, and in fact, I didn’t know that that was the name for it until Sarah Hopkins used it in a very simple way, several years after “Once on A Mountain”. I was just interested in the way that the voice is able to create harmonics and dramatically change vocal colour through very simple technical means. I had been using the techniques of harmonic singing for a long time before the term and style became “fashionable” in the choral world. I think this style of singing and vocal and choral colour offers vast new dimensions to choral composers. Dimensions that seem to burst out of the constraints of traditional choral music, and often outside the limitations of text and “the sing-a-long” style of most choral singing. It offers choral singers a level of sophistication and detail that has not existed in choral singing before. And… it intrigues me as a choral composer, as I am really interested in colour and context.

What method did you use to compose this work? In all my compositions I trust my intuition, and just write. The sounds that emerge in a piece take on their own life and form. The pieces most often just write themselves and the richness of the music unfolds from within itself. I also sing and experiment with everything as I am writing it.

What harmonic ideas did you have in this work? In Great Southern Spirits, like all my works, there is usually not a set harmonic parameter before I start. The harmonic ideas seem to grow out of linear movement and tension between one or more voices. I am sure you can find some significant of the harmonic structure in the work, but I am not aware or interested in that before during or after the compositional/creative process. I trust my intuition that it will make sense….and it usually does. I think this often accounts for some very strange harmonic things that occur, but things that actually work within the context of the setting and the piece.

Is there anything that I may not know about the work that is of interest? This work, like all my works, was written fairly quickly, and in a strange order of movements. The first movement I wrote was the last, Uluru, followed sometime later by mvts 1 and 2, and the last being no# 3. I remember specifically sketching out the complete movement 2 in about an hour between classes when I was in Composer in Residence at the Brisbane Grammar School. All of the movements are written fairly quickly and spontaneously. I like to try and capture that sort of fresh and spontaneous energy. As I said before, it is important at that time to trust my intuition and just go with the flow of the piece that is writing itself. I think the text of the Uluru movement is particularly strong, and thus I think the music is also. This text was written for me by a friend and writer here in Brisbane, Michael Doneman. We had worked together on several occasions with indigenous people on issues such as ownership, respect and other sensitive issues to do with indigenous people and the landscape…and I think this movement really captures the conflicts that we explored together. I like the way that the two ideas collide head on and in the end, the rawness of the Australian landscape and Dreamtime ideals overcome all the trivialities and superficiality of the other idea.

Is there anything about Australian choir music that you would like to share? I think we are in a very exciting, yet precarious time in Australian choral music. Over the last decade I have seen the emergence of a really active and innovative choral music scene emerge. This new energy has directly resulted for the work that several of us have done at the grass roots level in creating a choral repertoire for choirs of all ages and levels to sing and in supporting young composers to find writing for choirs a worthwhile and artistically satisfying thing to do. The work that comes from this area is exciting and innovative and augurs well for the future of Australian Music. However, established institutions that purport to represent Australian choral music in the political and educational arenas have and continue to offer much resistance to this movement. The infrastructures that are in place are still run by the “old guard” and tend to obstruct this development where they can or at best, ignore it. At the same time as there is a growing repertoire of Australian choral music for choirs to sing, we have now seen an even more aggressive flooding of the Australian choral market with international music. This is a result of the realisation that there is actually a real market for choral music in Australia. The development of the quality of Australian choirs is slowly on the increase also….about time… but similarly this is hampered by many conductors with little or no talent or skill setting up shop and becoming “experts”. This sort of flooding of the market only confuses the local community even more as there is no real perceived benchmarks of quality particularly in youth choral music.

Some questions from Kelly (Queensland)

Was music your first love? When did you realise your musical potential, and decide that that was what you wanted to spend the rest of your life doing? I have been continually very heavily involved in music since I began high school, and I guess you would call it a love/hate relationship… but you know I love it all. And in a way I did not choose to be involved as a composer it chose me when it showed me I could create music that conveyed my thoughts and feelings to others quite easily and without the usual angst that you associate with the compositional act. I guess it was in the last years of high-school when I was very involved in music and theatre that I discovered that I could write easily, quickly and effectively and people told me that they liked what I did…, and my first real compositions came as a result of being involved in theatre productions that required music.

Were you influenced as a young child musically? I was not directly influenced musically as a young child …yes I learned piano for 6 months when I was 8 and like most people hated the teacher and gave up. When I was in high school I had a wonderfully inspiring music teacher who was able to motivate and draw the best out of all the students. At the same time I was involved in a choir run by a very active and well-known composer and also involved in youth orchestras and theatre stuff… All of which contributed to the way I am today. I guess.

Does your song writing as an art form in itself imitate your life? If so, in what ways? Not really. The sentiments of some of the music tend to reflect personal associations I have with other people, persons or the group for whom it is written at that time. Some of the places that I write about I have never visited, for example the moon… but I can dream and imagine… can’t I?

Are there composers or musicians who you find you tend to gravitate towards and be influenced by? Not really

How are you as a composer different to other composers of today? I think most composers these days just do their own thing and thus, are all quite different. I certainly write quite different sorts of music in a completely different style to my composition teacher and long-time mentor Larry Sitsky…. and I think that that is a good thing.

What has been the hardest obstacle that you have faced and have had to overcome in your musical career? How did you overcome the obstacle? Surviving in this world that does not value art or innovation in the arts is not easy. I think the pure act of making enough money writing the sorts of music that I want to write, and still be able to enjoy life is perhaps the greatest obstacle I have had to face. I think I have survived by becoming as flexible in my writing and in my ideas as possible as I could whilst still maintaining some degree of artistic integrity, and in becoming as skilled as I am able in writing and working with different groups and sorts of musicians and members of the community. I think also by keep the highest possible standards in my sights and by not bowing to public mediocrity I have been able to cement a sense of worth and purpose in my work. In the early days the hardest thing for me was paying the rent… writing music for me is the easy part.

How much of an influence do musical technologies have on your writing? None

What methods do you use to compose your pieces? Are they all composed differently or do you have a set way to go about writing music? I write fairly quickly and don’t usually think about the pieces while I am writing them… they tend to write themselves… but there is usually quite a gestation period before I am ready to sit down and commit my thoughts to paper. What is your favourite work that you have composed and why? It always has to be the one I am writing at the moment… otherwise I would not write it.

Do you have any advice for future composers or songwriters? Get as much experience as you can in all the art forms, music, dance, theatre, visual arts and then practise, practise, practise, but don’t ever stop listening critically to your output so that you can learn from things that don’t work so well. Forget fame and fortune and just enjoy what you are doing and be faithful to you.

What are your plans for the future? Where are you going from here? My future plans are always bound up with commissions and the activities of my group The Australian Voices that I conduct. In terms of composition I only really have time these days to undertake commissions and I always have a list of those to complete.

Where to from here?….

… I always take one thing at a time. If I knew what I wanted to be doing in 5 years time now I would probably be doing it.

Where do your student composers usually end up? What career paths do they follow?
Most of my former composition students find a career in music-making or arts activity in some way or other. Some are able to find enough work writing music on a free-lance basis for film, television and in other media related areas like commercials and promotions material, some work as composers and teach in other tertiary institutions, some become music teachers and also general teachers in primary and secondary schools, some have found their own niche in dance music, choral music, theatre music, community music, whilst some students have gone on to work in areas such as Arts Administration and promotions, orchestral musicians, conductors and theatre directors. The skills, disciplines and creativity of a composer mind are extremely valuable in a whole range of arts and business applications. Past students include Elliott Gyger, Antony Walker, Katy Noonan, Melodie Eotvos, Kate Miller-Heike, Lee Crockford, Jaret Choolun, Ian Whitney, Dan Walker, David Irving, Julian Day and many, many more.

This section is always under construction, but if you have questions you would like answered that don’t appear in this section, please email me.