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The when of composing

Rachel Campbell talks with Michael Smetanin

Michael Smetanin, Used with permission,<BR /> Sydney Conservatorium of Music Michael Smetanin, Used with permission,
Sydney Conservatorium of Music
photo Steve Keogh

One of Australia’s leading composers, Michael Smetanin, has held since 2002 the Chair of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, an institution employing a high percentage of artist-educators. Although he had taught part-time since 1988, this is his first full-time teaching role: for most of his career he received commissions and awards so frequently that he was able to devote most of his time to composing. He thus has first hand knowledge of the life of both freelance artist and full-time academic.

Have there been positive results for your composing from teaching?

Sometimes you see the different ways students approach compositional problems. Not that I then do the same myself, but it’s good to see that different angle, it keeps you a little bit sharper. I suppose as you get older you can maybe get a little bit more confident in your own technique, and that might make you feel a little lazy. You can see that happening with a lot of composers, as they get older the music is not as interesting anymore.

No danger of getting in a rut?

Hopefully. I enjoy teaching. I like teaching composition, it’s quite good fun really. It keeps me perhaps more energetic, not as complacent, and it’s fun to be with younger people. And more than anything else it keeps you feeling happy with yourself: it’s not so much that it’s making a direct benefit musically or technically, it’s more psychologically, it keeps you on the ball a little bit more.

Compared with when you were composing full-time, are there advantages to teaching?

For so many years it was a struggle financially. Sometimes it was great, but I had some really tough financial times. So this job is a privilege and a luxury really. Sometimes you get stressed out about the difficulties of the institution and having to deal with a new set of problems, like the lack of funding for tertiary institutions. That takes its place.

I don’t write 3 chamber pieces a year anymore, which is a good thing. In some ways it’s good not to have that necessity to be churning stuff out, because I think you might find artists who, once they’re under the gun and making more so-called art than they really should be, the quality is going to suffer. In a way making a little bit less these days is a good thing because the quality is going to remain high, if not improve. I don’t feel as if I’m slackening off.

Full-time teaching hasn’t impacted negatively on your productivity?

Largely no. I think that if I was to suddenly decide that I want to write 3 chamber pieces a year I’m sure I could. But from time to time I feel that some of the red tape can be a little bit of a nuisance. I think that more of the clerical work is being pushed onto academics.

In the past might it have been easier to produce creative work while holding a position like yours?

Yes, I think that the pressure on how much work an academic actually does has increased little by little for decades. In the early stages of a piece I really like to have consecutive days of peace and not be bothered by niggly bureaucratic stuff.

In semester breaks?

Generally. It’s best to start a piece in a break. I work better if I have a good number of days together, consecutively. It’s not so bad when I’m getting towards the end of a piece, I can pick it up coming home at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. But I don’t like working at night. When I am further into a piece I can work on a bit longer because I already know it. Most composers will probably tell you that they write the last few minutes of their piece much quicker than they wrote the first few minutes. So it depends on which stage I’m at with a project as to how fast I’m working and how easily I can walk into the studio and pick up on it.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 8

© Rachel Campbell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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