ANAM Head of Harp, Jacinta Dennett and Melbourne born composer, Helen Gifford join forces for the final Australian Voices concert for 2016 on Monday 31 October.
Media reviews have declared Jacinta’s performances as “beyond reproach,” and one commentator described her unique gift for creating something tangible from music as “making architecture through sound.” Helen received the Distinguished Services to Australian Music Award this year as part of the APRA/AMC Art Music Awards. We caught up with Jacinta to get a quick insight into these highly respected music makers.
How long have you known Helen Gifford? And how has the relationship evolved.
Last year when I put forward the idea of celebrating the music of Helen Gifford in an Australian Voices I wrote to Helen. Not long afterward she called me and we arranged to meet. I was making a beginning on getting to know her solo harp piece Fable (1966) and I wished to workshop this with her.
It was 41 degrees on the day I brought my harp to her home. Her house has a few stairs at the front which are not harp trolley friendly. Without any discussion 80-year-old Helen promptly lifted my harp up the stairs—an astonishing feat and somewhat belying her petite stature.
This is how our relationship began. Fable was the conduit. Since that time, I have been privileged to get to know her, her compositions, and to hear the many stories associated with Australian music and the artistic milieu of Melbourne. Through this contact she opened me up to my own story.
How would you describe Helen’s compositional style?
Helen hears complex chords quite easily; she hears harmonies to the 15th. If there are upwards of eight simultaneous sounds—she hears them as harmonies. In speaking about Skiagram Helen says she “uses a chromatic language, this saw me as coming from the late-Romantics under the influence of Schoenberg and so on––that is Schoenberg’s early piano pieces, up to Opus No. 11–not as 19th century as Transfigured Night! Bach also serialised music to help freshen it up and that gave a lot of interest. I’m no different–almost a serialist to the 10th semitone—not the full 12. Helen adds that “Bach introduced the semitones not directly related to the chosen key, especially bringing them into chords, resulting in 9ths and so on. This vertical serialism fascinated Chopin when he encountered them in the 1830s, and he took this chromatic harmony further using chords of the 11th. In 1838 Chopin took Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues to Majorca—along with Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant!”
What are your biggest motivators or inspirations as a musician?
I am quite awake to reflection, thinking about thinking, and this brings a certain awareness to my actions. Through this I realise that everything inspires and motivates me. I am particularly into moss, trees and clouds although I don’t go looking to see them. The world impresses upon me the fleeting and transitory nature of this life. In Beuys’ words “death keeps me awake.”
What do you think the ANAM musicians involved will take out of the upcoming Australian Voices concert?
As an anonymous music critic once said, “All standard histories of music are primarily histories of musical composition and hardly histories of musical performance.” Through the Australian Voices series in conjunction with the Melbourne Recital Centre, the ANAM musicians are making a significant contribution to revitalizing cultural history. By exalting our own composers and resuscitating long forgotten compositions from the hoary depths of the AMC warehouse, the Australian National Academy of Music is rejuvenating the story of our country and injecting the vigorous essence of Australia into the history of music.
What projects lie ahead for you in 2017?
Immediately following the Australian Voices performance, I am heading to Brisbane to give a paper as part of my PhD candidature. I am developing an epistemology after the model of a fable, in which discovery is self-initiated rather than delivered. I will be performing in the Melbourne Composers’ League Subterranean Sonorities on November 26. This is a concert of Japanese and Australian music with new compositions written for various combinations of the following instruments; flute, viola, didjeridoo and harp. In early December, I am guest artist with the Geelong Chorale performing Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols and Christopher Willcock/Michael Leunig Southern Star. I am creating a video of Threaded Stars 2 (2006) for solo harp by Australian composer Jennifer Fowler. This will feature the dramatic starscape of the central Australian desert. My youngest brother Adrian is a photographer and his work inspired this project.
 “Music in Australia,” Current Affairs Bulletin Volume 32, No. 8. September 2, 1963, 126.
Jacinta Dennett curates and performs in:
Australian Voices 4: Helen Gifford
Monday 31 October 6pm
Melbourne Recital Centre Salon
GIFFORD Of Old Angkor
GIFFORD 3 pieces from Ring Round the Moon
GIFFORD In Focus
GIFFORD A Plaint for Lost Worlds
GIFFORD Music of the Spheres from Pericles