Rebecca Erin Smith says music is the thing that keeps our minds from going stale and our society from becoming stagnant. Her passion for composing music makes her not only an interesting composer but also a mentor to the next generation of composers. She is a graduate from the Manhattan School of Music and currently lectures at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, when she isn’t chilling with her cat!
What music gets your heart racing?
Shostakovich String quartet No. 8! Specifically, the arrangement for string orchestra (known as the Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a). There is a wild excitement created in the second movement that feels almost unhinged. Marie’s death from Berg’s Wozzeck with its pummelling bass drum is totally gripping. But Jessye Norman’s rendition of Frühling (from Strauss’s Four Last Songs) takes the cake. I’m a sucker for dense, sweeping orchestral music.
What calms you down?
I’ve always struggled to turn off that analytical part of my brain that’s incited by music, so I turn to non-musical (or more fairly, less musical) things to calm me. White noise, the sound of the rain and temple bowls, and my ride-or-die, the Harry Potter audiobooks read by Stephen Fry. If this fails, there’s always the good old apartment “rage-clean”.
What do you sing along to?
Almost every single morning I find myself singing along to Sweatpants by Childish Gambino (which my WAYO coworkers must love). I have no idea why, but at this point I just go with it. Other serial offender earworms are the prologue to Into the Woods by Sondheim, the first movement of Franck’s Symphony in D minor, and Monti’s Czardas. The things I often seek out include the Judy at Carnegie album (complete with sassy anecdotes), Barbra’s rendition of I’m the Greatest Star from Funny Girl, everything Fleet Foxes, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and any and all jazz standards by Blossom Dearie and Ella Fitzgerald.
When did you first become interested in a career in composition?
When I was in Year Twelve I had the opportunity to write all of the incidental music for our school’s production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The whole process of liaising with the director, scoping the music, brainstorming, drafting, and rehearsing was exhilarating to me. It was a completely different perspective from which to explore music, one that I found infinitely more fulfilling than purely performing, and I’ve not looked back since.
You are the WA mentor for the Summers Night project – how did you come to be
involved in this program?
I’ve worked with Tura before in various capacities as a composer and violist, so I think I was already on their radar to some extent. Cat Hope, a key instigator of this project, knows my work and my passion for teaching and supporting women in music.
What do you hope the audience will experience at The Summers Night concert on
I hope the audience will experience some innovative and inspiring works of art written and performed by passionate, driven creatives who excel in their chosen fields whether they be emerging artists or seasoned professionals. This concert is an opportunity to experience music from the perspective of living composers, real women making commentary on the world around us at this specific moment in time – it’s like an auditory time capsule, and that’s what makes it quite special.
Listen to Murakami’s Well by Rebecca Erin Smith performed by the WA Youth Orchestra
Earlier this year you mentored four composers as part of the Perth Festival Fanfare project and now you are mentoring Olivia Davies as part of Summers Nights. Why is mentoring important to you?
As someone who has devoted much of their life to learning, the most important thing I can do is to ensure this knowledge isn’t just wasted on myself. I want the next generation to know more, to do better than I did, to be more curious and more engaged with the world around them. This is how art helps humanity progress and develop. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the teachers who have given me their time and expertise (and occasionally their blood, sweat, and tears too).
Where did you learn the skills to be a good mentor?
Am I allowed to say trial and error? In truth, I’ve been very fortunate to have learned from some extraordinary teachers – I have tried to internalize their methods, and to think critically: about each student’s specific needs, about what I wish I knew when I was just starting out, and about the world around me as it relates to my craft. At the end of the day, the best mentor is the one who gives you what you need in the simplest form possible – this is what I aspire to.
There continues to be a gender imbalance in the field of classical composition. The Summers Nights project takes inspiration from Anne Summers’ Women’s Manifesto and aims to grow gender diversity by supporting emerging artists who identify as female. Is this kind of affirmative action the only we are going to see change?
No, I think there are many different kinds of affirmative action that will precipitate change! It’s often the little things that happen consistently that bring about the greatest change. Understanding that there is a lack of diversity and bringing this focus into our everyday lives will open a dialogue and keep it alive. Noticing that you’ve been listening to the radio for an hour and only heard one work not written by a man, reading an article and clocking the discrepancies in the use of different pronouns, and then taking the next step by verbalising these observations. We will see change if we amp up our awareness and share that with others, on the smaller scale as well as the larger.
You have already amassed an impressive amount of experience writing for orchestras and large ensembles, including most recently arranging Eskimo Joe’s music to be played with the WA Symphony Orchestra earlier this year. How easy is it to translate pop music into orchestral music?
It definitely helps that I’ve played in orchestras since I was young, and as a result thinking vertically (or thinking in a more orchestral sense) feels very natural. For some songs, there is a real ease to translating it into the orchestral format. This happens when there is a good amount of space, contrast, and colour present in the original; it can almost sound orchestral already in its original form and it’s just a matter of extrapolation. For others, it’s much more difficult. The musical language of rock or other popular music styles can feel quite out of place in a classical context, but it’s a composer’s job to bridge this gap and come up with a satisfying compromise. There are inherent difficulties in translating any work into another
genre (some more than others), but I love to problem solve.
Composer Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
I think music should be created with intent, purpose, consideration, and critical thought. Whatever comes out the other end is what it is. The role of music, as with all art, is to be the lens through which we examine the world around us. It’s the way in which we explore, question, comment, discuss, debate, and ultimately, express. Essentially, it’s the thing that keeps our minds from going stale, and our society from becoming stagnant, and that is of vital importance to a healthy society.
You have a soft spot for the voice – what is the appeal of writing for voice?
Music holds a different importance for everyone – for me it is its communicative ability. The voice is just so innately human, intimate, and boundlessly expressive; it’s created entirely with the body, and though the sound is intangible, there is palpability to it. That is remarkable.
Feast for mezzo soprano and ensemble by Rebecca Erin Smith
What’s the thing you love most about your work?
I love exploring ideas with other people. Making stuff is an entirely different way to communicate outside of regular language. Collaborating with others, whether they be performers, playwrights, film-makers, whomever, can broaden one’s perspective and give rise to things you may never have arrived at on your own. This process of discovery and connection is what I love most; together bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before.
What projects do you have ahead?
I am writing a piece specifically for the Summers Night concert on 2 July. Details TBC. It’s a surprise! I have a few projects in the pipeline for the second half of this year and early next, but unfortunately they are under wraps for now! I can say that I’m currently in the process of recording a collection of works for CD release, so keep an ear out.
What is your favourite place in Perth?
Wherever my cat is, so that would be my apartment.
My partner is a landscape photographer and I love tagging along on trips to out-of-the way coastlines and interesting nature spots. Top hits include Lesmurdie Falls, Bell’s Rapids, and Burns Beach. I love to pilfer the resulting images for inspiration; quite recently, I wrote a four movement work for piano, violin, and accompanying projections The Dying Sun: blood, milk, nectar, salt.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
The few constants in my life aside from music are indoor gardening, reading, cooking, and dressmaking. But I have to admit, I’m a compulsive trier of new things. You can always count on me to be throwing myself into the deep end of something, whether that’s radio broadcasting, pilates, method acting, or cheese making. In all seriousness, composing can be a very isolating pursuit. It’s important to for me personally to be active; finding balance helps keep things in perspective. And anyway, if I don’t get out there and have experiences, what will I have to write about?
Thank you Rebecca Erin Smith for this Celebrity Soft Spot. For more information on Rebecca’s future performances and CD release go to RebeccaErinSmith.com and for details of the July 2 Summers Night concert go here.