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Frequently Asked Questions

Some commonly asked questions...

1. What is the favourite composition from your own music?

My favourite work of my own is probably “The Moon is Silently Singing”. This piece (I think) works really well and always makes a good impression in performances. I've never been tempted to revise it or change it. Other choral pieces I like of mine are "Whisper You All the Way Home" (a set of three lullabies), "Dance Song to the Creator" (a lively work for three choirs with piano duet and percussion accompaniment), "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day" (for SSA and guitar - this was originally written as part of a cycle of pieces using Shakespeare's texts), and "Whisper to me" (for choir and string orchestra - another lullaby text). I'm also very fond of my orchestral piece "Elysian Fields" which has been recorded by the NZ Symphony Orchestra.

2. What other type of music do you like listening to - who specifically?

I find these days I get very little time to listen to music for pleasure. It depends on my mood at the time. I enjoy Bach and other Baroque music, the symphonies of Sibelius, music by Vaughan Williams, various choral pieces and so on depending on how I feel. Also the composers mentioned below. I'm not a great fan of jazz, and don't listen to a lot of rock music these days. What music do I NOT like - that's an easy one: rap and most hip-hop!

3. What is your favourite piece by another composer?

My favourite work by another composer tends to change from time to time. I very much like the music of JS Bach, especially the orchestral music. My other favourite composers come from the 20th century: Charles Ives (American composer of early in the century), Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams have all influenced my style (the group of composers known as 'minimalists'). More recently I have become very interested in the music of Michael Torke, Robert Moran, Michael Daugherty and Aaron Jay Kernis (American composers). I like the music of Scottish composer James MacMillan - often quite challenging and dissonant music, but very intense and dramatic. Recently I've been discovering the music of Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Finnish composer who is also a highly regarded conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and also some of the 'mid-career' British composers such as Jonathan Dove.

4. Why do you write mainly choral music?

Because I enjoy doing it. I like setting words to music. I enjoy singing in choirs and currently sing with Auckland Choral. I was a foundation member of the National Youth Choir. I used to conduct choirs at school (Epsom Girls Grammar School) and have been a tutor for the NZ Secondary Students Choir. Recently (2008-2012) I conducted St Mary's Schola at St Mary's College in Auckland. I've been invited to Japan twice and to Hawaii to be an adjudicator at choir competitions, in 2009 travelled to Argentina to adjudicate at a choir contest, and in 2012 and 2013 was an adjudicator at the eisteddfod in Llangollen (Wales).

There are lots of choirs around, and choirs seem to be more interested in performing contemporary music than instrumental groups. I enjoy writing for amateur performers. Most communities have a choir so there's lots of scope for selling music too! I also enjoy working with and conducting community choirs - so usually a Hamilton piece appears on the programme of music I'm conducting. Most of the pieces I've had performed overseas are choir works, and the only music that I've had published and recorded overseas is choir music.

5. Do you prefer choral music to writing instrumental music?

Given a choice I would prefer to write for choirs - I enjoy setting words to music.

6. Why are so many of your choral pieces sacred music?

Actually it's not a significantly larger proportion of my choral music that's sacred. Music with a text can be divided into two broad types: sacred and secular (non-sacred). I enjoy writing both types. Sacred pieces are often useful to choirs if they want to sing in a church service, and a number of my sacred pieces have been written for church choirs or for school choirs with a significant involvement with church services (such as many of the private schools). Usually it's just a matter of what text I find that I particularly like. I enjoy looking for interesting texts to do with Christmas, although many choirs in New Zealand have stopped singing by the Christmas holiday break.

7. What is your own musical background?

I began learning the piano when I was six years old. I went through all the grade examinations for piano and theory for Trinity College. I started working on the ATCL diploma when I came to Auckland to university, but I soon realised I didn't have the time to do enough practice for it. So I switched over to a purely theoretical diploma: the AMusTCL diploma. In 1985 I made a submission for the top Trinity College diploma: FTCL and was granted that (in composition of course!). I never thought I had the talent, or the desire, to be a solo piano performer.

I hold Master of Music and Bachelor of Arts degrees from Auckland University. My main area of study in Music was in composition and I also took related papers in orchestration, analysis, contemporary music, electronic music and so on.

8. Can composers make a living just composing music?

It's really really hard to make a good living as a composer. You need to have a lot of music being regularly performed. From performances you get paid "royalties" - money for the right to use your music. However this is never a lot of money! Another way of making money from composing is through "commissions". This means people asking you to write something, and signing a contract with you to pay you a fee when it's finished. New Zealand's arts council Creative New Zealand often helps pay for commissions. You can find Creative NZ at: www.creativenz.govt.nz

Most composers tend to have another job - either full-time or part-time. I taught at Epsom Girls Grammar School from 1981 to 2001,although I had two years on leave in 1999 and 2000. During 1999 I was with the Auckland Philharmonia as their Composer-in-Residence. That meant I was paid to be able to concentrate on writing music for a year. In return I wrote them a major orchestral piece ("Leukos") and also some smaller pieces for their lunchtime chamber music concert series.

A third way of making money from music is to have music published (which means that people will buy it and perform it). I've had works published by several overseas publishers. There's not really a music publishing industry in New Zealand.

9. Where do the ideas for your compositions come from?

If I'm writing music which involves voices (choir music or solo songs) then the text gives me strong ideas. The music I write has to reflect the mood and style of the words, and also the words give me rhythmic ideas. When you set words, the natural accent of the music must match the natural accent of the words.

Purely instrumental music will sometimes come from a visual or literary idea, or from a musical idea. Musical ideas might be a short rhythm, or a melodic fragment, or a series of chords (harmonies). Sometimes I might be trying to write using a particular compositional technique.

10. How important in your music is the musical style known as "minimalism"?

As mentioned above, I enjoy the music of composers who would be classified as "minimalists". I like the repetitive rhythmic energy of the style, and the fact tat the music is never afraid to be quite strongly tonal when it needs to be. Much of my instrumental music written from the mid-1980s onwards is heavily influenced by minimalism. It is usually quite rhythmic, often reasonably fast moving, and basically tonal (in a key). That doesn't mean the music is never discordant - sometimes the music can be quite dissonant and angular. I've never been completely drawn to styles such as serial music, which I find quite limiting.

With choral music it is harder to use a minimalist style because one has to be aware of the text and maintaining the meaning of the words. Repetition of text can sometimes make the words meaningless or simply nonsense, so choral minimalism has to be handled a little more carefully. Even an early work such as "The Moon is Silently Singing" (written in 1985) shows some elements of minimalism in the small number of chords used, and the repetition of harmonies - often passed back and forth from one choir to the other. Minimalism is often characterized by slowly changing harmonies and this is certainly a feature of much of this particular choral piece.

11. Your piece "Didn't it rain" is widely performed and studied. What is its background?

"Didn't it rain" was written for a small vocal group of 5 singers. Organised by noted choral conductor John Rosser, they performed under the name Quintessence, and gave occasional concerts for several years in the early 1980s. The piece was written for them. It was not formally commissioned, but just written for a group of friends who enjoyed singing together. I wanted to write a piece that was enjoyable to sing, and immediately accessible for an audience. It uses several musical ideas that featured in my choral music at that time (1982): lively rhythms with irregular time signatures (5/8, 7/8 etc), simple chords moving in parallel movement, strongly tonal music but with occasional 'side-steps' onto unexpected chords, and a preference for 5-part (SSATB) choral textures. The text is a traditional American one, re-telling the biblical story of Noah and the flood. The text is:

Now didn't it rain, chillun,
God's gonna 'stroy this world with water,
Now didn't it rain, my Lord,
Now didn't it rain, rain, rain.

Well, it rained forty days and it rained forty nights,
There wasn't no land nowhere in sight,
God sent a raven to carry the news,
He histe his wings and away he flew.

Well, it rained forty days and forty nights without stopping,
Noah was glad when the rain stopped a-dropping.
God sent Noah a rainbow sign,
Says, 'No more water, but fire next time.'

They knocked at the window and they knocked at the door,
They cried, 'O Noah, please take me on board.'
Noah cried, 'You're full of sin,
The Lord's got the key and you can't get in.'
             (traditional American)

12. In 2012, Auckland Choral commissioned "The Necessary Rain". This work, for soprano solo, choir and orchestra, sets a text from Bill Sewell's cycle of poems "Erebus". These relate to the crash of the Air New Zealand sight-seeing flight in Antarctica in 1979. David Hamilton was asked some questions about the process of writing this piece, and his answers are reproduced here....

How do you deal with that first blank page in front of you? Do you come to the piece with ideas already buzzing around? Do you start with the larger architecture, or with smaller motifs? Do you write at the piano or at a manuscript paper covered desk?

Writing anything with text means that text selection is the first step. Sometimes that takes time, and sometimes there is a text waiting around that has been in line to be set. With “The Necessary Rain” I knew I wanted to return to Bill Sewell’s texts, and it was a matter of deciding which one. The text therefore gives a shape to the work. These days I generally start at the piano but soon move to the computer which has a music keyboard attached anyway. I see composition a little like a sculpture – manipulating sounds and moving things around until one is satisfied. Sometimes working instinctively, sometimes in a more structured way.

How does it feel to watch a piece coming together at rehearsal, especially when part of the choir?

Sometimes frustrating, sometimes exciting. One has an idea of the final sound in one’s head, and it can be a little nerve-wracking when that doesn’t happen immediately. As a composer you have to be patient while the choir learns the notes, and starts to feel confident with the score. It’s also interesting to hear the reactions that choir members give you – usually positive! Maybe they are too polite to make negative comments to me!

“The Necessary Rain” is based on texts relating to the Erebus crash in 1979. Did the crash have any personal meaning for you?

I was at university at the time of the crash, and, like most New Zealanders, I can remember the evening when word came through that the plane must have come down as it had run out of fuel. The parents of a school friend were on the plane, but other than that I was not directly touched by the event. It was just one of those defining moments in the life of the country.

What were the main challenges in writing this work? Did the initial vision/inspiration change much during the writing of it?

The main challenge with a choral work, once you’ve selected a text, is trying to do justice to the words. I knew I wanted to set another of Bill Sewell’s poems from the “Erebus” cycle, and that the soprano would take the largest role in presenting the text. The addition of the “Lux aeterna” text came some way in the composition process, and means that the choir sings almost nothing of Sewell’s text. They feature more like a Greek chorus, commenting on the text. While I do some very general initial planning, things tend to evolve as work progresses, and final shape of the piece is a little different to what I had originally expected.

Do you have any particular expectations or concerns about the performance of this work?

The choir has some difficult entries where they have to pitch their music quite quickly out of a complex texture. Also, as far as the orchestra goes, I’m a little concerned about the Celesta which has a large role in the piece – I hope I’ve got the balance of sound right! I do know that Ursula Langmayr will do a wonderful job with the solo part, and she has already indicated she likes the piece.

You’ve written a number of works for Auckland Choral over the years. What are the main challenges in writing for them?

Being a singing member I know what will work well for the choir. For instance I know it’s not advisable to divide the tenors (always low in numbers) and that the altos can be relied on to produce a lovely sound (so they get some nice bits to do!). I am also concerned to write a work the choir will enjoy performing and which they will feel some ownership of. As a choral singer I think I have a good idea of how to use the voice effectively.

Are you still intending to complete the opera for which you said “The Necessary Rain” and “Breaking the Quiet” were the beginning steps?

I would like to complete an opera, but it is a major undertaking, especially if there is no guarantee of a performance! At the moment I could see myself working on it as time allows around other projects, but should a complete work be formally commissioned then I would love to have the luxury of time to work more consistently on the score. “The Necessary Rain” is probably most of the final act of the proposed opera – a kind of epilogue.