Interview by Megan Steller
A phone call with a fabulous Australian creative is always a gift, but sitting in my parents’ home for the first time in a long time and chatting to composer Alice Chance who had also recently returned home, held particularly meaningful resonances. We spoke about her new work, Heirloom, commissioned by Rubiks Collective, and the powerful women in her life that inspired the ‘mother-daughter motet’.
'Do you feel, coming home, like you’ve been put in an emotional washing machine?’ Alice Chance asked me, as we compared notes on the feeling of having being away from Australia for a period and returning. 'It’s wonderful and intense and at the end of it, you’re completely wrung out.' Chance has been based in Paris for the past few years, completing a master's degree in composition with the French composer Régis Campo at l'École Normale de Musique de Paris–Alfred Cortot and l'Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin. She splits her time now between France and the Eora Nation (Sydney): 'I love it here at home,' she told me, 'it’s where my community and colleagues are. There’s nothing like working with collaborators in person.'
The emotional parallels between the act of leaving and coming home, and the new work she has completed for Naarm-based (Melbourne) ensemble Rubiks Collective, are clear – the work is a tribute to family and the fragile ties between women over different generations in the same family.
'My mother was the woman I spent the most time with as a young child,' Chance told me, 'and I remember that quite early in my life – earlier than my mother would have wanted – I ended up in full-time daycare with an amazing woman who I knew as Aunty Messie. She looked after me, and her own children, and all the other kids every day, which made me independent, but Mum told me when I was older that she really missed me during that period.'
The main lyrics of Chance’s work Heirloom focus on this idea of losing grip on the women that we love: 'You are slipping away from me,' Chance’s lyrics go, underscoring the devastating fact that often neither party – not mother nor daughter – want it to happen, and yet it does. 'It’s inevitable,' Chance said, 'whether because of time, health, work, or other relationships. It can happen in unexpected ways, or it can follow more stereotypical patterns. For example, there’s that stereotype of the monstruous teenage daughter who doesn’t get on with her mum. Neither character is necessarily in the wrong, neither wants to be wrenched apart from the other. And yet, it can still happen.'
Chance was very alert to stereotypes growing up and took every measure to avoid them. 'I decided not to hit puberty,' she told me, 'I thought I’d turn into a monster.' Her mother was a best friend figure growing up, acting as a kind of Lorelei Gilmore to Chance’s Rory: 'I wanted to prove myself to be worthy of my supportive, non-strict parenting.'
In popular culture, there is a clear message: as soon as you move from girl to teenager, you become a horror, to yourself and to the world. The teenage girl is one of the 'most ridiculed stereotypes in society, and I was terrified of it. I imagined myself screaming and slamming doors: a slipping away of myself,' said Chance, the first of several ‘slippings away’ that she is preoccupied by in Heirloom, your body and your whole self is wanting to change; you want to develop a private inner life, but not slip away in more ways than you have to. Thankfully, Mum and I have remained very close. And I don’t think I ever slammed a door (when anyone was home!).
The ’teenage girl monster’ stereotype has a lot to answer for, and television and film remind us of that constantly – with every new year comes a slew of new content featuring the mean girl trope. 'I have a lot of empathy for teenage girls,' Chance said, on the unfairness of the way the archetype has developed, 'on the one hand you are faced with a terrifying hierarchy at school, and on the other, you’re still trying to fit in with and impress your family. Coupled with the fact your body is changing, your brain is changing, and you’re trying to figure out who you are. I think to make all of that work, you sometimes feel like you need to make sacrifices, and often your family becomes the one on the chopping block.'
Chance has enormous empathy for all the girls – the bullied and the bullies – because of all the ways that relationships with family can be complicated during that period of life. It was an emotional time, I imagined, to put this piece together with all of those complicated, overwhelming feelings about family swimming around, and Chance had to actively turn off her emotional brain to work through the technicalities of the music. 'Composer brain had to kick in,' she said, 'so I could get the work done.'
But going back to the piece to complete edits, or make small adjustments brought it all back 'hearing the women’s voices (when listening to the work you will hear recordings of multi-generations of women) telling their own stories kicked me in the chest all over again. You can detect the fragility. These women are calling out, and not always reaching each other.' There are moments in the piece of the resolution, of fantasy. Of the women’s voices connecting where one hopes they would. I see that part of the piece as a call for hope and compassion, as well as a reprieve from some of the darker realities many women face.
When I asked Chance where she found inspiration, she paused and then turned to literature. 'I find it in books, 'beach reads' and best sellers; I love Liane Moriarty. The stories she tells feel wrenched out of real life, but with enough space for a pleasant, glittering sheen that lifts you out of what you know and what you’re going through. Those denouements that she offers are what I’m aiming for in my composition.' We both agree on this, the feeling that Moriarty’s books, which are often based around complicated family dynamics, give us when we finish. Chance laughs: 'You open the book and just hallucinate until it’s over.'
Chasing ‘smaller’ themes around the domestic or family is something she’s interested in when she writes, noting that there isn’t enough music that deals with this important part of life considering its prevalence. Chance notes a couple of Australian composers who sometimes deal with these topics in their compositions, namely Katy Abbott and Samantha Wolf, and the fact that players and audiences can relax a bit when they’re not faced with major classical ideas of tragedy and romance. 'They kind of ask 'Oh, is this allowed?' Chance said, 'Artists in this era have a real historical weight on their shoulders because of the pluralism of styles. We are told that everything has been done before, but that we should still aim to be reinventing. In dealing with topics that aren’t ground-breaking, topics that are relatable, it can be a relief to you as an artist, and to your audience.'
And a relief it is, to hear these women’s stories come to life in works like Heirloom. Chance tells me about her grandmothers – a former writer and business owner on her Mum’s side, and a soldier’s wife on her Dad’s – and the fact of the slipping away she has felt from them and from her family as a result of being away from them geographically most of the time. The piece, she tells me, can be interpreted however the audience would like, but if they’re to take away anything, 'I’d love people to remember that the slipping away between mothers and daughters can sometimes happen despite the wishes of both parties and to come away with feelings of peace and compassion; I want to soothe feelings of unease about relationships. Maybe neither of you wanted this to happen,' and maybe recognising the slipping away can bring you back together, even if just for a moment.
Interview by Megan Steller
You can see Rubiks Collective bring Alice Chance's commission to life in the Primrose Potter Salon on Friday 25 August 7pm.