50 composers to 'renew Australian repertoire' in major new commissioning project

Naaman Zhou
50 composers to 'renew Australian repertoire' in major new commissioning project. Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s multimillion-dollar fund will inject genre-spanning music by diverse creators into a landscape crowded by international work

The composer Brenda Gifford says she had to double check the figures when she heard the news.

The accomplished saxophonist and composer, a Yuin woman from Wreck Bay on the New South Wales south coast, had just been commissioned to create a new original composition – along with 45 of her peers, with four more to come.

On Friday, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra announced a new, multimillion-dollar commissioning project called 50 Fanfares. From Gifford and established names such as Paul Stanhope, to 27-year old Georgia Scott’s first major work, 50 new Australian works will be created by 50 local composers over the next three years.

“When I first heard it I had to double-check it was actually 50 Australian composers as opposed to 15,” Gifford told Guardian Australia. Historically, new Australian compositions have been overlooked in a classical music landscape crowded with older international work.

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“I think it is really great because one, [the project] by itself is huge. And two, I think they have chosen a really diverse group of people. It should be really interesting.”

The orchestra’s CEO, Emma Dunch, said they were aiming to “renew the contemporary Australian repertoire” with a sweep of 50 commissions that are “deliberately structured” to span genres, styles and settings – from Opera House debuts to community orchestras to school halls. The project is being funded “entirely through philanthropic support”, she said.

Gifford says she’s “still working out the specifics” of her composition, but she is “looking at bringing in a First Nations musical response”. “I’m using brass, using the lower register – trombones, that type of thing – trying to incorporate the idea of didgeridoo and or clap-sticks or the combination of both, in the piece.”

Georgia Scott, a young composer from Sydney, says original Australian composition has historically been overlooked in favour of work from overseas.

She cites Paul Stanhope, Liza Lim and Elena Kats-Chernin among her influences – and all three have also been commissioned by 50 Fanfares.

“It is an absolute dream for me and something that I would never in the wildest dreams expect I would have the opportunity to do,” she says. “I can’t quite believe it.

“It is more difficult for Australian composers to get commissioned [but] I think it is getting better every year, there is more and more work coming onto the scene … For so long we have been hearing the same kind of music from other countries, often dead white male composers.

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“This whole project will inject the music of people from diverse backgrounds into the repertoire, and into the concert hall – I’m hoping that is the way we can bring new audience members into the concert halls too.”

The fanfares will debut in a staggered rollout over the next three years. The curtain-raiser will be the Indigenous composer Christopher Sainsbury, in August 2020, with a reimagining of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Gifford paid tribute to Sainsbury, who she worked with as part of his Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers project.

“They have got me, Dr Sainsbury who started the Ngarra-Burria program, and James Henry – three Indigenous composers. I think that is really nice having that in the mix. I am really interested to see what people come up with … We are all very excited about it.”