1 Dec 2023

Auckland composer on capital assignment

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 1 December 2023
Composer Eve de Castro-Robinson

Eve de Castro-Robinson Photo: Supplied

Eve de Castro-Robinson arrives in the Auckland studio for her interview with Bryan Crump with less than 30 seconds to spare.

It wasn't the usual stuck-in-traffic scenario. She was briefly trapped in the lift. Not that she sounds the slightest bit flustered as she chats with the host of RNZ Concert's Three to Seven programme.

She's talking about her new job, Orchestra Wellington's 2024 Composer-in-Residence. So why she hasn't moved? Is she still looking for a place to live?

Turns out de Castro-Robinson can do the work from Auckland. As long as she provides her employer with a few pieces to play in their 2024 programme, she won't have to experience Wellington's weather for a prolonged period.

Winter in Petone, Wellington.

Flying into Wellington on a good day. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

She already has a title for one of the works she's writing: 'Hour of Lead'. It's on the same bill as Orchestra Wellington's performance of Benjamin Britten's epic 'War Requiem' next December.

The inspiration for de Castro-Robinson's piece is an Emily Dickinson poem, and she recites a few lines:

Emily Dickinson, poet

Emily Dickinson, poet Photo: Amherst College Library

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived, ..."

Crump asks if in the case of de Castro Robinson's work, the leaden hour refers to the rain of bullets that hailed down on the World War One soldiers eulogised in Britten's Requiem, with it settings of the words of the war poet Wilfred Owen.

Nothing so literal, she replies. She doesn't intend to set Dickinson's text to music, it's merely a starting point for her own musical imagination.

And what a fertile imagination she has.

In a time when many composers are pulling back from dissonance, de Castro-Robinson is pumping up the volume.

Crump cites the example of 'Stumbling Trains' for solo cello and sound system. In the composer's own words, it sounds like the performer is trying to saw the instrument in half.

There's more than a bit of Jimmy Hendrix in this particular number, and rock music has always been an influence in de Castro-Robinson's career.

"I grew up really, particularly as a teenager, going to rock gigs and classical gigs with equal enthusiasm, so I'd be in the Town Hall with Roxy Music, or Lou Reed, and then I'd be back the next week with Yehudi Menuhin ... and I enjoyed it just as much."

Yet despite this intense relationship with music and a vivid imagination, de Castro-Robinson didn't initially think composing was for her "because it was just so lofty".

Then she met some New Zealand composers and realised they were ordinary people. She dropped notions of graphic design and started buying music manuscript paper.

Crump asked her what music she was listening to now.

If it's not a new work in a live performance (or a live broadcast on RNZ Concert) she prefers RNZ National, or maybe even silence.

"Because I think I prefer to be sonically vigilant to what's going on around me."

As for her liking for a bit of dissonance (when many composers are well and truly back in the tonal realm) that depends on what you do with it, she says.

"If you have dissonance, in a kind of continuous roar, a listener is going to be turned off."

The trick, she says, is to resolve the dissonance (if you listen through to the end of Ashley Brown sawing his 'cello in half in 'Stumbling Trains' you'll notice it finishes on a solid C and G) or to use different orchestral colours to mix it up.

"I think what happened with Schoenberg and Stockhausen, the music was dissonant harmonically, and the sounds were challenging, and everything else was challenging, so it kind of put audiences off. Which is a shame, because really, the opposite – which is [that] ultra-friendly tonal music is pretty dull."

Eve de Castro-Robinson gives the 2018 Lilburn Lecture

Eve de Castro-Robinson gives the 2018 Lilburn Lecture Photo: 2018 National Library-Imaging Services, Department of Internal Affairs

Has de Castro-Robinson ever had to deal with a time when her inner ear, her composing imagination has fallen silent?

Yes, she did go through a period when she felt she'd proved herself, didn't feel like writing and got a bit grumpy.

She got through it because someone asked her to write a new piece and she said 'yes'.

"People assume composers have to be, they're born to it, but I'm not like that. I don't have to be composing, in fact I slightly avoid it because it's hard."

Which sounds like she'll put of completing 'Hour of Lead' for Orchestra Wellington until the last possible moment?

"Shhhh! Don't tell them that on the radio!"