All Things Great and Small : Andrew Anderson talks Miniatures

All Things Great and Small : Andrew Anderson talks Miniatures

Andrew Anderson was born in 1971 in Melbourne, Australia, where he studied composition with R.A. Ford whilst also pursuing private tuition in violin and piano. He has been the recipient of two Masterworks prizes (ERMmedia, USA) for composition, resulting in recordings of his works by the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Anderson has written several choral works for the Christian liturgy, this writing being informed by engagements with parish choirs in both the USA and the UK, as well as private tuition in singing with Nigel Wickens (Cambridge, UK). He also has an interest in encouraging community engagement in music performance, being the founder of the University of Melbourne Artists Register.

Andrew is also an optometrist and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. In October this year, David Rowden and Maria Raspopova are premiering his latest commission Miniatures for Piano & Clarinet at City Recital Hall as part of the "A Taste of Omega" series.  Samuel Cottell caught up with Andrew ahead of the performance to talk about his life a composer, and how he approaches writing a new work for musicians. 

How did the commission for Omega Ensemble come about?

I contacted David Rowden in 2015 to see if the ensemble might be interested in commissioning a work, and discussion ensued over e-mail and in person when Omega was in Melbourne. The process of developing a commission proposal often takes time, as various factors such as funding and annual concert schedules need to be considered.

You have a diverse output of works, including choral, orchestral and chamber music. As a composer, would you say it is easier to write to a set of parameters, such as specific instrumentation, or does this make itharder?

Having a set of parameters suggests ways a piece might proceed, and so can help avoid the dreaded “blank page syndrome”. It can also add to the creative challenge. For example, you may have an idea for a particular section of the work, which would be easy to achieve if you had the luxury of just a few extra players, or if the instrumentation were just a little bit different, or the piece were slightly longer, etc. How might the same or similar effect be achieved within the constraints you have, however? Finding solutions to these problems can be very rewarding.

What has been the most rewarding/exciting aspect about composing Miniatures for Omega Ensemble?

It is always exciting to know that you are writing a piece for performers of the highest calibre, and it is rewarding to discover the extra interpretive dimensions they bring when performing your work. I was excited by David’s wish to have “something short and snappy, quite fun!” as I’m not sure that “fun” had ever been an explicit parameter in my previous commissions!

How do you start the composing process once you have been given a commission?

From memory, I think for this particular commission I started from the position of what the work wouldn’t be. My immediate thought was that a single movement work may not be the best fit, as anything more than a few minutes would likely require a level of musical development that might detract from the focus on “fun”.

You describe Miniatures as a “celebration of the small: from small creatures, things to brief time spans, and shortened forms.” Why did you decide on writing a series of miniatures and what were some of the inspirations behind this work?

The idea of a collection of short musical sketches seemed to best fit for the commission parameters of both “short” and “fun”, and would also offer the possibility of exploring a range of styles. A lighthearted, multi-movement work made me think of Saint-Saën’s “Carnival of the Animals” as a broad model, and also opened the door for parodying this work (in the movement “Ugly Ducklings”). Some of the programmatic aspects of the work were applied late in the writing (“Toy Trains”), whereas others were there from quite early on (“A Butterfly at Sunset”). The idea that each movement should be linked by having something to do with smallness gradually emerged as ideas for various movements developed.

I’ve been listening to your Piano Trio, “The Heart,” and I can hear a deeply personal musical language that I think a lot of listeners can relate to. What do you want audiences to take from your music?

Ideally I would like people to take away a sense of enjoyment. This doesn’t necessarily mean a work was joyful, but rather that a sympathetic listener enjoyed a clear emotional response to it – whether joyful, exciting, dramatic or unsettling. There are moments in various composers’ works that I find particularly stirring, and so I would like to think that occasionally I create such moments for my listeners, too.

In relation to your music, how would you describe your musical style and what is your “philosophy” as a composer?

I’m not sure I have a particular philosophy, except to write music that is as well crafted and engaging as I can. In terms of style, I tend to favour absolute (non-representational) music, in contrast to program music that has a literary or pictorial association. “Miniatures” has been an enjoyable departure into a somewhat more programmatic style, however!

I understand you have a career that is quite separate from composing as well. Could you tell us a little bit about this and how you first came to composing and what it means to you?

I am an academic at The University of Melbourne, involved in teaching and research in the Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences. Scientific research is often a highly creative endeavour, involving the inventive application of methods, analyses, and interpretations in order to solve a particular problem. In this way it is not dissimilar to the problem-solving aspect of writing a piece of music to fit the needs of a particular commission.

Growing up, I was fortunate to attend a school that had an excellent music program staffed by passionate teachers, as well as having parents who valued the idea of a musical education. I cannot remember when I became interested in composition, but it was clearly very early – I was already writing music whilst I was in primary school, and had the idea in my head that I wanted to be a composer. Actually, I think I believed I was a composer, which – although true at some level - does betray a certain level of youthful arrogance. I recall writing an orchestral score for submission to a music competition around this time – unsurprisingly to me now (although, maybe not then), I did not win.

You founded the University of Melbourne Artists Register. Could you tell us a bit about this and why you decided to establish it?

Whilst I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK, I was introduced to Peter Tregear, who was then the Director of Music at Fitzwilliam College. Cambridge attracts some incredibly bright people, many of whom are talented amateur musicians and who have extensive opportunities to engage in musical activities given the residential nature of the college system. Both Peter and I returned to Melbourne at around the same time. It struck me that although The University of Melbourne likely also had many talented amateur musicians, they were unlikely to find each other given the largely non-residential nature of the University and, therefore, the limited opportunity for people to learn of their colleagues’ out-of-hours interests. In collaboration with Peter, the idea for the Artists Register was born: it provides a place where you can register your musical interests, and find like-minded others so that musical collaborations might occur.

If you could write any piece, for any ensemble/orchestra/person in the world what type of piece would it be and which ensemble/orchestra/person would you choose?

Well, I suppose I may as well dream ambitiously. I would choose to write a full-length opera for a prominent opera house: say, The Metropolitan Opera in New York. I’m happy to speak with anyone interested in sponsoring such an endeavour …

Andrew's acclaimed Piano Trio in E Minor "The Heart" has been performed and recorded by the Streeton Trio. Hear some of Andrew's music ahead of the concert on 18 October here: 

Catch Andrew's brand new work Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano alongside other chamber music greats in an intimate lunch time concert. Escape the busy city and the office rush and experience the finest chamber music in your lunch break. 

By Samuel Cottell

Explore Andrew's music via his website at