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A First Glimpse into Holly Harrison’s New String Quartet

A First Glimpse into Holly Harrison’s New String Quartet

Holly Harrison is one of two Australian composers commissioned specially for the 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. Stephanie Eslake, editor of Cut Common, interviewed the composer about her new work: a string quartet set to be performed by 8 competing ensembles in July.

Stephanie Eslake: You've been commissioned by Musica Viva to produce a work for MICMC. Tell us about how this came about.

Holly Harrison: I was asked at the end of 2016 and said yes! In addition to Musica Viva, Balderdash is generously supported by the Silo Collective – a group commissioning initiative. Previously, I’d been commissioned to write a piece for Eighth Blackbird for Musica Viva’s 2017 International Concert Season, so it’s been terrific to work with them again.

SE: As a composer, what opportunities do you feel MICMC presents to you?

HH: It’s enormously exciting to write a piece for eight quartets from around the globe. The commission gives me the opportunity to have my music be instantly accessible to these amazing musicians, and potentially other quartets. From a creative point of view, composing for the competition has pushed me to experiment with my string writing, as well as workshopping the piece with the wonderful Flinders Quartet.

SE: As a young composer, how does a commission of this scope affect the development of your music portfolio and career?

HH: I’m not sure yet - ask me in a few years’ time… One thing I can say is that the commission has encouraged me to write my first string quartet. Before receiving the commission, I always imagined it would be quite a daunting process. I can report that I enjoyed it immensely. On a more serious note, I hope that the work will have a life past MICMC and be on the radar of other string quartets in the future.

SE: What are some of the underlying themes that you have included in your work? (Or does it speak more to aesthetics or technique as a theme?)

HH: Balderdash begins and ends with amplifier feedback: a sound that quickly makes us bring our fingers to our ears! The piece imagines an alternate world in which music is heard between the feedback – a sort of sub/hyper-sonic sound world which takes place in mere seconds.

With this in mind, the string quartet explores musical ideas inspired by electric guitar, including distortion, white noise, whammy bars, power-chords, dive-bombs, wah-wah, phaser effects, slap bass, and of course, speaker feedback. Balderdash makes high use of punk rock rhythms, dissonance, and percussive-based jams, which morph in and out of bluegrass, grunge, prog-rock, metal, and disco.

Given the piece was commissioned for a competition, I felt it might be fun to experiment with a battle-of-the-bands theme within the string quartet itself. Throughout Balderdash, players go rogue (especially the cello!), engage in one-upmanship, jam, duel, challenge, compete, interrupt, surrender, work together in teams, and cooperate as one. The piece is intended to be theatrical and encourages the quartet to perform with abandon.

SE: Why do you feel it's important for audiences to support new Australian music?

HH: It makes sense to me that we support new music written by living Australian composers as it reflects the world in which we live, unique to time and place. Not supporting new Australian music is a bit like only playing your grandparent’s record collection. Sure, it might be great music, but there’s a disconnect with time and place – it doesn’t belong to us. New Australian music represents the voices of now – the voices of performers, composers, and audiences alike. Given the collaborative nature of music, we all have an opportunity to be part of it and to ‘own’ it, even by simply attending a premiere of a new work. Not only that, but it’s good stuff too!

SE: What are you most looking forward to in MICMC this year?

HH: Naturally, I’m very much looking forward to hearing how each of the quartets will interpret my piece, as well as Paul Stanhope’s piano trio!

Hear the premiere of Holly Harrison’s string quartet Balderdash at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, 1-8 July 2018. This article first appeared on

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