Thea Rossen is a percussionist currently in her second year of study at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in Melbourne. In 2014, Thea was awarded the prize for Most Outstanding Performance in a Solo Recital and Best Program in a Recital at ANAM for her presentation of purely theatrical and gesture-based works. A 2014 Speak Percussion Emerging Artist and founding member of the saxophone percussion duo AdLib, Thea has a passion for new music and is particularly interested in collaborations with composers.
Here she spoke to us about life as a percussionist as she prepares for the ANAM Concerto Competition.
As a percussionist there a number of factors to take into account when choosing repertoire. Most importantly is the impact of the music itself, does it speak to me as a performer and will I be able to communicate something to the audience. Other considerations include: score availability, access to the required instruments, and in the case of the ANAM Concerto Competition, orchestral size. Since the final round of the Concerto Competition is a performance with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO), our concertos must all fit its orchestral strength.
While logistics, such as instrument sourcing, may present certain obstacles when choosing repertoire, we are very lucky in Melbourne (and indeed Australia), to have a close knit community of percussionists always willing to assist each other with instrument loans, advice or technical support. The ANAM Operations and Facilities Manager Les, is always a great help when instruments are difficult to source or construct. I am very fortunate to be in the position to say that it is rarely purely a logistical problem that will stop me from choosing a piece.
Nigel Westlake’s concerto When the Clock Strikes Me is a beautiful work with two contrasting movements featuring the xylophone and marimba. It also fits the TSO orchestral size and calls for instruments that are either available at ANAM or through the MSO (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) and OV (Orchestra Victoria): except for the octabans which I will discuss later. It is a perfect fit for this year’s Concerto Competition.
I will often work backwards from the performance date in my diary to decide on a practice plan and make sure that I have at least one performance opportunity with the piece before the competition date.
The MSO and OV often assist us at ANAM with instrument hire when we require something unusual such as almglocken (large tuned cowbells) or tuned Thai gongs, both of which I need for the Westlake concerto. I also require six tuned octabans, which are very rare long thin tom-tom-like drums. With only two known owners of these in Australia, it will be difficult to arrange for their hire, but hopefully not impossible!
Percussionists are constantly called on to source and learn to play unusual instruments, from ball point pens and duct tape to quarter-tone tuned aluminium pipes and spring coils from car engines. I spend a great deal of time at Bunnings, buying supplies to construct stands or instruments for new works. Recently I purchased a length of heavy chain, three large L-shaped wrenches, sandpaper, bags of bottle tops and a cassette tape for use in the premier of Mark Applebaum’s Composition Machine #1 (performed 25 March 2015). I have also created an instrument of wooden slats each of a different length (and hence pitch) to be played in Iain Grandage’s Drowning Dream. Part of the fun (and sometimes frustration) of learning a new percussion work is sourcing, making and collecting all of the required instruments for the piece!
The amount of practice time required to bring a piece up to performance standard is different for each work depending on its level of difficulty, setup required and the amount of time I have available to work on it.
On the day of a performance I will try to clear other commitments where possible and remain calm and focused. I don’t have a special routine but always like to make sure I am there early to double check my setup and run over a few sections in my mind before the performance.
For the ANAM Concerto Competition, I have chosen to perform Nigel Westlake’s concerto When the Clock Strikes Me. First performed by Rebecca Lagos and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Richard Gill in 2007, the piece won best performance of an Australian Work at the APRA art awards that year but has not been performed a great deal since then. The work has two contrasting movements, the first is for xylophone, Peking Opera gongs, junk metal crotales, pitched octabans, amglocken, suspended cymbals, two bass drums, large tam-tam and a spring drum. The second movement evokes a more tranquil mood with marimba, Thai gongs and pitched singing bowls. The sound worlds created by each movement are a beautiful contrast of light and dark, intensity and calm.