One piece of music has been heard at the Sydney Opera House more than any other. It is played sometimes dozens of times a day and more than 1000 times a year. The entire composition consists of two alternating notes, A and F sharp, in a plodding loop on a fake xylophone.
Admittedly, even a connoisseur of minimalism would be stretching to call this music. It’s the Opera House’s bell cue – a generic tick-tock announcing that a show is about to commence. It’s the very definition of unceremonious. As far as musical statements go, it’s closer to a default ringtone than Zadok the Priest.
It isn’t, of course, performed live. Front-of-house staff activate the digital chime at ten minutes and five minutes before show time. With one minute to go, a doubly fast bell signals twice the urgency and fills latecomers with shame and terror. No one at the Opera House – including a theatre manager who has worked in the building for more than three decades – seems to have any idea of the origins of the bell or recall a time before it was part of every pre-show ritual. In all likelihood it’s been nagging audiences since the ’70s.
That unparalleled performance season may be about to come to an end, however. Soon, patrons might be able to look forward to an aural amuse-bouche rather than this pseudo-marimba death knell.
In May, the Sydney Opera House, in partnership with the Australian Youth Orchestra and the not-for-profit youth creativity organisation Artology, launched its inaugural Fanfare competition. Musically inclined young people aged 12 to 21 were invited to compose brief but attention-seizing pieces of music to replace the regular bell. The initiative was inspired by a program at London’s Royal Opera House, where fanfares composed by young people have been greeting guests since 2010.
I meet with Nicholas Vines, a composer and music teacher, at the Opera House. Climbing the steps to the foyer of the Concert Hall, we’re just in time to catch the five-minute bell, which on this occasion acts as a prelude to Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. “It’s very recognisable, and it functions well because it’s recognisable,” Vines says of the bell. “But it’s not terribly exciting or particularly sophisticated.”
Vines was one of four judges who assessed the 123 entries and chose eight winners. He workshopped and realised the arrangements with the young composers, supervised the recording process with the Australian Youth Orchestra at Moore Park’s Trackdown Studios, and primed the fanfares for their late-September “pilot season” debut ahead of an official launch in February.
“It was less about finding young people who already have sophisticated technical accomplishments and abilities and more about finding promise,” Vines explains. “That’s particularly relevant for the younger applicants – to find someone with strong ideas who’d get the most out of this learning experience, take that gift and do something with it.”
The winning fanfares, now playing before select performances at the Opera House, display an impressive range of textures and temperaments. Nineteen-year-old Josh Belperio’s Fanfare for the Less Common Mansounds like the soaring theme of an adventure movie, certain to make any cross-foyer dash feel heroic, whereas the competition’s youngest winner, 13-year-old Paris Francis, opted for seismic rumbles of timpani. It’s also impossible to resist the glockenspiel-decorated opulence and theatrical piano trilling of Arrival of the Queen of Mars by Yilan Yu – the competition’s second-youngest winner, also aged 13.
The most radical fanfare to make the selection is by John Rotar, 19, co-principal trombone with the University of Queensland Symphony Orchestra. His frenzied half-minute features quivering strings and sensational splashes of brass likely to disrupt the most animated interval chitchat.
“Though their fanfares were only 30 seconds long and situational, they were still telling a musical story,” Vines says. “What’s more, these stories were instructional, saying to audiences, ‘Listen here!’, ‘Keep paying attention!’ and ‘Act now!’
“All of them, I would say, were in … conservative is the wrong word … a communicative vein. That’s part of the function. They can’t be so out there that people go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ and then stand there for ten minutes listening to the strange sounds.”
At first, Vines responded positively to an entry that suggested the avant-garde exercises of the mid-20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. “Certainly no one else had considered incorporating aleatoricism, or chance processes, in their fanfare,” Vines says. “[But] it has to have the impact expected.”
With plans to hold the competition regularly, Vines and his fellow judges hope it may evolve to include precisely these kinds of audacious musical experiments. The cavernous acoustics leave something to be desired – “It’s a bit billowy. It wasn’t built for performance” – but an annual Opera House fanfare competition could become a beloved program of new music in its own right.
“In this era where markets almost completely dictate taste, there are lots of types of expression – past, present and potential – which cannot find a forum,” Vines says. “I personally would like the sounds heard in the Opera House foyers to reflect a genuine plurality of musical styles and traditions – experimental endeavours, musics of other cultures without Western packaging, jazz, nooks and crannies of the canon …”
In the meantime, one of the exciting new contributions to listen out for is Marcus Milton’s fanfare. The 15-year-old cunningly incorporates what sounds like an echo of that familiar bell cue: a repeating motif of two alternating marimba notes. Except, in his version, the rest of the orchestra – strings, woodwinds, brass, timpani, crash cymbals – erupts into life and mercilessly engulfs the helpless marimbist, who will never sound quite the same again.