Annette Kellerman and brass brass brass

In April 2017 I went to an extraordinary exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. The exhibition featured images, clothes, footage and much more about the iconic but now somewhat forgotten 20th Century superstar Annette Kellerman. Since April 2017 I have been researching Annette, discovering the complexity and groundbreaking nature of her career. One that included phenomenal feats of athletic endurance as she swam the Thames, a coastal tour of England’s south coast, the Danube, the Seine and the Yarra. She became a vaudeville highlight and west end cabaret singer (in her alter ego of English Johnny). As a film star of the silent era she was the first woman to appear naked in a film. As a designer, she liberated women’s swimming wear and as an author published protofeminist pamphlets to fairytales. This was a person who’s life and story cried out to me to take a musical and theatrical form.

From the start I didn’t see Annette’s story as an opera, rather starting with the idea of a set of songs, in her cabaret person perhaps, each one focusing on a different extraordinary event in her life. These songs would be punctuated with dance/ballet. Her life was one of often voiceless story-telling, either in silent films, or underwater ballets on the vaudeville circuit and I feel like a voiceless form of storytelling (ballet) will draw together these aspects of her life.

Joining me on this journey has been a number of collaborators, though most importantly in the development of what these songs might be and how the piece might be constructed as a theatrical, staged song cycle, has been the prolific and incredible writer Hilary Bell. Who currently has about a millons shows on, I would highly recommend getting along to her play Splinter.

With so many projects that have a premiere date scheduled in the near or distant future, I can’t yet reveal all the exciting premiere information. But, the work is being developed as I write and Annette’s story will soon have a new 21st Centurary manifestation, which like the Powerhouse Museum exhibtion I saw that first kicked off this idea, will hopefully bring a whole new generation of fans to the fabulous Annette Kellerman.

On a very different track is a brass quintet that I have just started. It is a work that will premiere in the first half of next year and will be the primary work of chamber music that I will have composed in 2019. As such it marks a deep investigation into where I currently am as an artist. I feel that chamber music especially focuses the compositional mind to ask fundamental questions about the use of harmony, melody, rhythm and form. In this work there are practical considerations when writing for brass that dictate the limits for lengths of movements, which has been a good fixed practicality and has subsequently determined a form of 3 movements of approximately 4mins each in length. The particular resonance of brass instruments has lead me to harmonic and intervalic choices and melody is arising through the different pairings of instruments in the quintet and the expressive implications of steps versus leaps for brass instruments.

I’m loving getting started with this work and it will occupy me for a good while yet. It is nice to feel deep within a very specific musical world and to also enjoy the focus of the self questioning which comes from writing chamber music. At this stage in the process it is just me, the paper and pencil (oh and a rubber of course, the most important composer’s tool), the performers will come into the picture later and their input is incredibly valuable, but right now all choices rest with me and that brings a different type of focus than in more collaborative works.

Luke Styles