Ben Hoadley talks composing, new music and engaging audiences

Ben Hoadley talks composing, new music and engaging audiences

The last time we saw Ben Hoadley he was standing on the stage of City Recital Hall performing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in Bb.

In February he returns to Australia with the Omega Ensemble, not as a bassoonist but this time as a composer. Ben’s career is a dual performer/composer one even though it can sometimes be a balancing act he loves both of them in equal measure. His new work, a clarinet quintet called Broken Songs will receive its world premiere in the Utzon Room at Sydney Opera House as part of Omega Ensemble's first concert in the Master Series, Haydn and Mozart)

“It’s a four movement piece and I wrote it with David [Rowden] in mind because it was commissioned by him. I think that by now I can say that know David's playing pretty well after working with him so much in the Omega Ensemble! 

What always strikes me about David's playing is his beautiful flexible and fluid sound, and very impressive technique.  I have to admit, it’s a little intimidating having your piece premiered along three masterpieces of the repertoire, the Mozart clarinet quintet, and Haydn and Debussy quartets,” says Ben. Nevertheless he is very much excited to have this new work premiered. Ben describes the work as “four fleeting memories” and that it can be viewed as a companion piece to Mozart’s clarinet quintet- also being performed at this event. Ben calls the work Broken Songs.

Ben says: “It’s a bit of a darker piece on two fronts (the lower notes of the basset clarinet can be quite spooky) and it’s somewhat sombre and brooding. For me, and many 2016 wasn’t an overly good year so there is some of that sentiment reflected in the work. I also feel that it will go well with the other pieces in the program.”

This was Ben’s first time composing for string quartet and basset clarinet. Ben told me that when writing for string quartet, one is following in huge footsteps. String quartets have been written by most of the great composers since Haydn, many of whom have penned their most profound and intimate phrases for this genre. It is a genre Ben thought he would only attempt to tackle after a lot more experience, but he feels more ready now. “Overall, I’ve had a lot of happy discoveries in composing this clarinet quintet,” Ben says.

 Compositional Style

Ben has always composed. As a young music student he would write out little pieces for his own enjoyment, but when the time came to choose either performance or composition at Sydney Conservatorium of Music he opted for the bassoon. He describes his musical style as ‘traditional’. Not that his music sounds like Mozart. In fact, it sounds fresh and as new as ever and audiences are continuing to love his works. “Overall I would call my style ‘tonal, but with the odd twist.' I think that it’s like this because composition was always something that I did for myself and I didn’t have the pressure of having to write specific pieces, and in particular styles to satisfy the requirements a university degree. So, at the end of the day I only had to satisfy my own creative desires. This might not have chllenged me overall. Now that I’m getting more and more commissions, I find that people enjoy playing my music as they find it accessible, and I write from a performer's point of view, perhaps subconsciously. On the other hand, I do love intellectual music , or pieces with extend techniques and explorative tonalities,” Ben says. 

Get a taste of Ben’s music by listening to his work for Symphony Orchestra and Organ, Huia. 

Just as chamber music is a conversation amongst friends, hearing a brand new work for the first time is similar to making a new friend. It might just take a few conversations for the friendship to form. Sometimes audiences aren’t keen for new music and are often not enthused to attend concerts. However, Ben has some practical advice for aiding this ‘issue’. “After you hear a piece of music for the time you then decide if you want to keep listening to it. In a lot of ways it’s like watching a film: you notice so many more things each time you watch it.” 

Many composers write works for chamber music and it is the most intimate of musical settings. “I love chamber music; it’s my favourite genre. As I’ve played so much of it, this definitely informs my composing. I’m also writing an orchestral piece at the moment (which is a concerto) and when writing for full orchestra you can have too much choice. In chamber music you are working within a framework and I quite like guidelines for my composing,” Ben outlines.

Ben believes that the key to success is having the audience hear the work more than once. “I think a second hearing is valuable. You need to write a piece knowing that people will be hearing it once and that they are making an impression of that piece based on that. They don’t have to love it straight away, but the main goal is to have a memory of the [new] piece they have just heard. The main aim is that they can remember the piece, even if they didn’t like it. With a second hearing you start to understand it more, on a deeper engagement,” he explains.

Ben enjoys the time he spends on stage, performing in a variety of settings including solo, chamber and orchestral music. However, he finds being in the audience when his new pieces are being performed to be quite a nerve-wracking experience. “After the concert you often hear people talking about your work in the foyer as they often don’t know who you are. As a performer I’ve often played works that I don’t necessarily enjoy, but they are still good pieces. When you play you are on the stage, people see you on stage and then they recognise you afterwards and tell you that you performed well or have a lovely tone, but with composition they don’t seem to know what to say, as though they are worried about staying that wrong thing. People seem worried to say things like “your idea was interesting or something,” Ben says.

There are also some odd moments as a composer, particularly getting up on stage and bowing with the musicians after a performance of your new work. “One time, while on tour in Orange with Omega, there wasn't a printed program for some reason and my piece was on before I was playing bassoon so the audience hadn't ‘met’ me yet. They did my piece and I went on the stage to do the composer bow. It just looked like some random person from the audience walking onto the stage and someone could have called out ‘security, security’ to escort me off (Ben laughs). As a composer I found bowing after a piece quite odd ; you haven’t really done anything [during the performance] and then you are suddenly bowing with the musicians. But, at least the audience can identify the composer,” Ben explains.

Further to hearing the piece twice, recordings are also an invaluable tool, particularly for audience wanting to hear and experience the music again: “Having the recordings available is so useful for both the composer and for the audience who can go and listen to your music again after the concert.  That’s one great thing about Omega Ensemble - they record everything and it’s available. For a composer that is just invaluable,” Ben says. In fact, you can hear some of Ben’s works on Omega Ensemble On Demand. as well as via Ben’s Soundcloud.

For a composer to hear their works performed live with professional musician is a wonderful thing that offers great insight and learning to their craft, particularly on a regular basis:  “Omega Ensemble have been great and I don’t think I would have been doing some much composing, par in Australia, without Omega Ensemble, who have helped me get my pieces performed on a regular basis. It’s the opportunity to get pieces played in Sydney and this had lead to other commissions.”

Ben Hoadley’s Broken Songs for Clarinet Quintet receives it’s world premiere alongside works by Mozart, Haydn and Debussy on February 19 in Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room.

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Samuel Cottell

Samuel Cottell is a multi-verstalie musician (pianist, arranger and composer), writer, music journalist (Leader Writer -Cut Common Mag, Fine Music Magazine, Music and Literature, Jazz Australia and Australian Jazz.org), and biographer. Samuel is also an music educator and currently tutors music theory and analysis in the Arts Music Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Samuel is currently undertaking his PhD (Musicology) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he is researching the life and music of Tommy Tycho. Samuel has also been published in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and has interviewed world-acclaimed musicians Renee Flemming, Steven Isserlis, Maxim Vengerov, Stuart Skelton and local musicians Daniel Rojas,  Simon Tedeschi and Katie Noonan. As well as these activities Samuel is in demand as a program note writer (Nexas Saxophone Quartet) and gives pre-concert talks for The Grevillea Ensemble and appeared on Radio National's "RareCollections" talking about Tommy Tycho's recording career and contribution to music.