The Sydney Opera House trumpets new composition talent with their Fanfare Competition.

Limelight Magazine by Josh Belperio on March 9, 2015

The Fanfare Competition is a new initiative by the Sydney-based youth arts organisation Artology, in conjunction with the Sydney Opera House and the Australian Youth Orchestra. It was modelled on the 2009 Royal Opera House Fanfare competition in London, and brought to Australia by Artology Managing Director, Anna Cerneaz.

In its first year of running, 2014, the competition received over 120 submissions from young composers aged 12-21, from all over Australia. I was fortunate enough to be one of the 8 inaugural finalists. The company plans to run a competition every year, making the fanfares into a feature of the iconic building: ‘when they [audiences] find out how the fanfares came about they’re actually going to come I imagine, just to listen to the fanfares’ – Louise Herron, CEO of the Sydney Opera House, 2014.

The competition required us to submit a short-score of our ideas; and upon being selected, we were flown to Sydney to develop and orchestrate those ideas under the mentorship of composer Dr Nicholas Vines.

At the workshop, I met some extremely talented colleagues, many of whom have become good friends. What struck me most is that we all wrote such different fanfares. There was a neo-Stravinskian piece, a highly dissonant modernist piece; as well as a fanfare about a rebellion rising, and an uplifting fanfare that called for world unification.  That in itself was enriching and inspiring – to see all of these creative approaches to writing a piece that functionally achieves the same purpose.

Vines challenged us to think of music in terms of function and journey. He asked us to think – what is the particular message that our piece will convey? If it is going to tell us to ‘sit down’, will we hear that immediately, or will the piece progress towards that message, revealing it at the end?

Everyone’s ideas changed a lot throughout the process, including my own.  I was greatly inspired on that first trip – not only by meeting all of these amazing colleagues and teachers – but also by visiting the Sydney Opera House itself. Coming from Adelaide, I had only seen the Opera House once before, so walking into the halls in which our fanfares would be played was a very special experience.  I was struck by the iconic shape of the building – its architectural beauty, its boldness, and the way in which it appears to rise out of the water, like the billowing sails of a great ship.  I remember thinking ‘that’s a piece of music!’

So I re-titled my piece Rising Sails. I wanted to play with the idea of rising and falling in music, and what that can represent emotionally. I started off with this magical String arpeggio that seemed to capture an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. Out of it I wrote this Horn theme that seemed to rise up, like the white sails emerging from the bay.  That built until the whole orchestra came in with a climactic chord progression over a rising bassline.  I wanted it to feel like the Opera House, in its entirety, is coming into view.  But I also really tried to capture the elation and sense of magic of the whole fanfare competition experience.

After having a month to orchestrate and finalise our piece, we came together for a second time to see our fanfares brought to life by the Australian Youth Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Carter.  For me, this was the most exciting part of the journey. I remember walking into the recording studio for the first time, and seeing the orchestra, the microphones, and the crew.  There were a huge number of brilliant young musicians and industry professionals gathered together to make our music.  As young composers below the age of 21, this was such a rare, humbling and valuable experience.

When I heard the orchestra play our music for the first time, it was simply electrifying.  After having listened to the fanfares for months only digitally, through virtual instruments, I was blown away by the sound of all of these live instruments playing together. I realised that it is a sound that is unable to be replicated via software – which is why it was so valuable for us to have had this experience – and it certainly inspired me to compose more for orchestra.

After seeing the quality of work of my composer colleagues, and the energy and dedication of the Australian Youth Orchestra, I remember thinking that if this is the future of new music in Australia, then it is going to be a bright one indeed.

In September, we heard the final recordings of the fanfares for the first time, at a listening party at the Opera House. The event served as a test run, to make sure that the systems were working and that the fanfares achieved their purpose (i.e. the audiences went into the theatre!).

Our fanfares are now officially used throughout the building, being heard by an estimated 1.4 million theatre-goers throughout 2015.

It really was an honour to be a part of this program, in its pilot year.  I am enormously grateful to Anna Cerneaz, Nicholas Vines, and everyone at Artology, the Sydney Opera House and the Australian Youth Orchestra for making this happen.