Ben describes music as his passion and the centre of everything he does … and this is not hard to believe when you witness his list of amazing achievements. Ben will commence studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music next year, where he hopes to take his musical composition skills to the next level …
Hi Ben. FOCUS last spoke to you way back in 2010, I believe! You’d just won the Australian National Songwriting Competition, and you were only 13 at the time. How has your passion for music and songwriting developed since then?
Music is still my greatest passion and the centre of everything I do, although there’ve been some changes in the direction of my music since 2010. In regards to performance, I’ve been discovering my love for jazz music and playing in small jazz ensembles – a change from my twelve years of classical piano training. I don’t consider myself to be an outstanding jazz player, but I do have a lot of fun with it and I’ve been slowly improving over two years now. My composing has very much changed from writing pop songs to writing works of art music, with a particular focus on vocal pieces for community choirs. In this sense my passion has grown wildly, as I find the musical, intellectual and emotional satisfaction from composing to be far greater than that from writing simple chords and melodies.
Tell us about some of your musical achievements during the past five years …
After winning the ACMF’s National Songwriting Competition, I went on to place in the same category for the next two years. I also won the first Harmony Day Songwriting Competition with a song called Little Things. Other than this, most achievements have not been physical rewards, rather opportunities to learn and showcase my music, as I stopped entering competitions.
You were one of seven people chosen nationally to work with the Australian Gondwana National Choirs over the past three years. Describe this experience …
My first time at Gondwana was the turning point in my compositional style, and is largely the reason why I enjoy writing for choirs. My mentor and teacher was Australian composer Stephen Leek. His compositional techniques influenced me a great deal, as I’d previously been a self-taught composer. The highlight was writing a piece, Haiku, for Gondwana Voices (a treble choir of very talented young girls and boys) and hearing them rehearse it. To compose an entire piece in three days is an intense and stressful task, but the outcome was my greatest sense of accomplishment at the time.
I attended Gondwana three years in a row, the third year (2014) working with Paul Stanhope. I wrote a piece for Gondwana Singers (an SATB choir of teenage boys and girls) called I Shall Not Live In Vain, but rather than hearing a single rehearsal, I attended many rehearsals to work with the conductor and prepare the piece for an in-house performance to Gondwana members. The conductor and choir liked the piece so much, they removed another piece from their repertoire in order to sing mine at their annual public concert in Sydney’s Concourse theatre. I was so grateful. Hearing my own premiere was one of the best experiences of my life so far.
You were awarded a full scholarship to St Columba Anglican School (SCAS) for your last three years of school. How did you go in your HSC last year?
For my HSC I studied Music 2 and Music Extension, of course choosing composition for Extension, and received band-6 marks of 90 and 50/50, respectively. When I moved to St Columba, I quickly found myself immersed in the many musical ensembles available, particularly the vocal groups. The school’s great attitude towards creativity and student leadership led me to conduct my own piece to the Senior Choir, and co-direct two male ensembles. From there, my interest in conducting grew, and the school offered me a job as Creative and Performing Arts Assistant.
What academic studies are next on the agenda for you?
I’ve been accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to study a Bachelor of Music (Composition). I have deferred the degree for a year so I can work this year and make next year more affordable.
How have you been spending this year?
As I mentioned, I’m now the Creative and Performing Arts Assistant at SCAS. This involves conducting and directing the Senior Choir, Junior Choir, and the male ensembles Los Cantantes and Low Rumbles. I also sing with the Hasting Choristers, led by Robyn Ryan, and conduct them from time to time. I’m part of a jazz duo, White Boy Jazz, with guitarist Sam Killick; we’re starting to play gigs at different venues, and we’re available for hire. Otherwise, I’m working at The Glasshouse as a back of house technician, learning about the complex audio and lighting systems, and ushering for the shows. It’s been a great year so far, and it’ll make leaving Port Macquarie so much harder at the end of the year.
What are some of the special pieces of music you’ve composed recently?
Earlier in the year I was contacted by Alpha Gregory, the director of the Woden Valley Youth Choir in Canberra. I received my first commission and composed a piece for them to premiere in September. It’s based on an Aboriginal proverb about how we’re all visitors to this land. There’s also a probable commission by the Hastings Choristers for their Christmas concert this year.
How does the composition process work for you? Do you play any instruments – and how do you “nut out” a new piece of music?
Something very important I’ve learnt over the years is the concept of “less is more”. With composition, you only have to write a few lines, and you have enough material to extend into a three, five, or ten minute piece. I start by finding a text I really like, then I play the piano or sing to myself until I find a melody that fits well. It’s then a matter of writing out a structure for the piece and using the materials you have to fill out that structure. Even two or three notes from the existing melody could be enough to make a new section or an underlying accompaniment.
You’ve just come through the most amazingly creative and rewarding five year period, so where would you like to think you’re headed over the next five years?
Ideally I’d love to go to the Conservatorium, learn how to write more skillful, interesting and enjoyable music, make many connections with people within the industry and be able to live off composing and perhaps conducting or teaching. However, if my future is not so fortunate, I’ll be happy if I can live a comfortable life and allow music to be a major part of it.
Thanks Ben. Interview by Jo Atkins.
This article was from issue 117 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.