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5 min read

Interview with Lisa Illean:
The small, essential stuff of the universe

Composer Lisa Illean discusses her compositional process with the Finding Our Voice team.
portrait of musician Lisa Illean on light background looking to the right of camera

Lisa Illean

Image: Cathy Pyle

Written by
Rosie Pentreath
Published on
13th April 2023

Composer Lisa Illean is a masterclass in poise, precision, and pitch-perfect presentation – in her life as much as in her music.

“I am interested in the small, essential stuff of the universe. Of moments of unexpected kindness and tenderness; of coincidences, of perceptual minutiae – a shift in focus or hue – and of melodies only perceived in part”, she tells Finding Our Voice.

It’s ephemeral, achingly beautiful sonic experiences Illean gives us. For the latest work she’s produced, arcing, stilling, bending, gathering, she had the exquisite incidental moments capturing fleeting reflections in glass shop windows seen in the films of Soviet Russian director Sergei Eisenstein front of mind.

“The scenes are equally mundane, intimate and mesmeric”, the composer muses. “The music of arcing, stilling, bending, gathering is composed entirely out of different sonic impressions of the first few bars of the piece's final movement, converging for a moment in ever-evolving combinations.” 

The work, which was commissioned by UKARIA and Finding Our Voice, is “all about sound in flux, and layers of sound heard only in part”, according to Illean.

“It is also about the details – about a multitude of small changes in articulation and tone colour”, she explains. “Working with musicians on this kind of music is challenging but fantastic, because it shifts the emphasis away from the page – it simply doesn't work without remarkable listening and communication.”

She adds: “I’m interested in discrete forms of virtuosity. At a glance, each part often looks simple enough to execute.”

Executing this piece is anything but simple. According to the composer, the virtuosity in this work is found in the interaction of five sub-groups within the ensemble, and getting this together requires “an acute awareness of balance, timing and tuning as each group's musical fragments surface and recede”.

Illean’s descriptions of how the musicians will work together when executing her composition reminds me of how she conducts herself when working with us at Finding Our Voice. Always poised, with perfectly pitched responses to interviews and requests, and balanced and nuanced communication when we reach out with questions around anything from her artistic process to coordinating more operational aspects of this project.

black and white image of musician Lisa Illean smiling at her desk while working on a composition

Lisa Illean was born in Sydney, in 1983. She was drawn to music early and started piano lessons at the age of eight. She describes her choice of instrument as “pragmatic”, given the family happened to pick up a piano around this time. 

She had begged her parents for lessons on any musical instrument before the fated piano landed in her life.

A while ago she posted about her first interaction with her great-grandmother’s own instrument. “One of the first instruments I ever held was my great-grandmother’s mandolin, which made its way from Germany, via an orphanage in South Kensington, to Terrigal – a couple of hours north of Sydney – four generations ago”, she wrote in an Instagram post. “To hours spent exploring it I can trace my interest in the quotidian, in tuning, and unexpected resonances. I was lucky to get my hands on something which made interesting, seemingly ancient sounds, so readily.”

But for a more structured program of lessons, it was to be the piano. And, as further fate intervened, it was Illean’s piano teacher who was instrumental in igniting in her a love of composition. It was her piano teacher who gave her a manuscript book early on and taught her how to write things down.

“From the moment I started learning piano I would make things up, and around the age of eight or nine I began writing them down or recording them to cassette on a dictaphone”, Illean tells us.

“Somewhere I still have the music that followed in the next years: short pieces, orchestrations of Scriabin and Mozart, fugues, music inspired by Bill Evans or Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya…”

The idea of composition as a career had solidified itself her mind by her late teens, and then “it took around a decade to settle” into that direction, Illean says.

She moved to Melbourne and studied Practical Composition at the Victorian College of the Arts, a faculty of the University of Melbourne located on the Southbank, in the city’s river-dominated centre.

Illean travelled overseas in 2012 – she was also awarded the Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship worth $20,000 in 2015 – and she headed to the Royal College of Music in London for her masters’ studies. She stayed on for a doctorate, and, now a rare Australian composer represented by illustrious music publisher Faber, she has presented her music around the globe, including at Festival Présences in Paris, Time: Spans in New York, the BBC Proms in London and Taiwan International Festival of Arts.

Still based in the UK, Illean teaches at the University of Cambridge and was Composer-in-Residence at the Royal Academy of Music in 2021 and 2022. She has collaborated with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and Britten Sinfonia, and many other prestigious ensembles, orchestras, and organisations.

In 2016, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere performance of Illean’s Land’s End, which The Sydney Morning Herald described as “a piece of exquisitely quiet shadows shaded with micro tunings, the work winds down almost to nothing before a moment of quiet refreshment leads to an ending of wispy rising lines that vanish in the ether”.

pensive image of Lisa Illean in a rehearsal space as she contemplates

Finding Our Voice founder and artistic director, Genevieve Lacey, has described Illean’s music as having a “filigree beauty”.

For Illean herself, this is achieved by striving for “a dance between two layers: music of understated lyricism combined with unusual, complementary sonorities. These two elements can rotate like celestial bodies in unfolding patterns of convergence, evoking fleeting moments of time within immeasurable contours.”

“We’re extremely excited to be premiering Lisa Illean’s latest composition”, Lacey enthuses. “Lisa’s a composer with an outstanding career in the northern hemisphere, and we’re honoured to be hosting her for this important celebration of her work.”

Illean’s arcing, stilling, bending, gathering is one of eight new works of art conceived under the Finding Our Voice commissioning project – which has also captured world premieres by William Barton (Connection), Linda May Han Oh (Ephemeral Echoes), Mark Atkins & Erkki Veltheim (Nightfalls), Matthias Schack-Arnott (Tethering), Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey & Jenny Hector (DarkQuiet), and Nigel Westlake, Lior and Lou Bennett (Ngapa William Cooper).

“Finding Our Voice has been a great affirmation of something I’d always hoped and believed. and have been able to test and prove through the project's realisation”, Genevieve Lacey reflects. “There’s no question that it’s been challenging, taking this grand idea to fruition through pandemic times, and their aftermath. Nonetheless, it’s very clear that audiences are hungry for Australian work, for new sounds and voices, and for celebrating what is unique to this remarkable continent and its creative community.”

So, for Lacey, what’s the best thing about composition and musical collaboration in Australia in 2023?

“It’s as many-voiced, complex and sophisticated as contemporary Australia, encompassing millennia-old, living cultural practices from First Nations Australians, through to the extraordinary richness of interweaving traditions from more recent pulses of migration”, she smiles.

And she’s particularly excited about the performers billed for the world premiere of Lisa Illean’s arcing, stilling, bending, gathering. “This is a stellar gathering of Australian music makers”, Lacey says. “It will be performed by two remarkable leaders of their generation, Aura Go (piano) and Emma McGrath (violin), alongside brilliant young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music.”

arcing, stilling, bending, gathering premiered on Friday 21 April, 7.30pm, at Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the New Music Days festival.

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Rosie Pentreath
Associate Producer, Finding Our Voice

Additional Artist Information and Resources

In the not-too-distant-future, Finding Our Voice will be able to be experienced digitally, and we will create and share experiences, skills and resources online with diverse audiences and communities. Performance footage, interviews, commentary, insights into creative processes will sit alongside educational resources and activities stimulating participation — deepening musical engagement and equipping people to express their own creativity.

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