Mind Over Manuscript: Natalie Nicolas

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Natalie Nicolas, an emerging composer, performer and music educator. I first came across Natalie’s work during my time interning with the team at Making Waves New Music, a website promoting the work of Australian composers. Natalie’s lush and filmic piece for string quartet, The Rose That Wept, was included in a monthly playlist. If you’d like to keep up with Natalie’s work, you can follow her through her website, Instagram or Facebook page.

How did you first find yourself composing music? When did you first realise performing and composing was something you wanted to pursue more seriously?

I’ve been writing music since I was a young girl, though it was predominantly in a popular style- because that made up the bulk of what I was listening to at the time. I learnt piano from a young age, and loved listening to artists like Alicia Keys, so naturally I started learning her songs on the piano and found I also loved to sing along. This seemed to progress really naturally for me, and my ten years of piano and theory tuition kept me accountable. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I knew I wanted to compose full time. But I always knew that music had an insurmountable hold on my attention, and it was something I would be silly not to follow through with to spend my life’s work on.

Photo credit: Paul Stanhope

What styles of composition are you particularly attracted to? Related question, who are some composers who particularly inspire you?

I’m really attracted to composing music that emotionally evokes, and/or drives the listener- whether rhythmically, emotionally or both. I’ve been particularly inspired by composers like Ludovico Einaudi, Peter Sculthorpe, Johan Johansson, Hans Zimmer, Yann Tiersen, but all for really different reasons. Also, I have to say that my musical background is incredibly diverse, and I’m equally inspired by musicians like Asgeir Trausti, Gang of Youths, Radiohead, and Sigur Ross. Music of almost every genre inspires me, and I love to draw influence from anything I align with. I have a pretty mixed bag of inspirations, and it seems to nary follow a pattern! I actually feel pretty lucky about that.   

What do you think are some of the essential qualities required to be a resilient composer? (Not necessarily to keep churning out pieces, but to keep creating and putting your work out there)

Some of the essential qualities to being a resilient composer I believe, revolve around authenticity, grit, and staying on top of your headspace. Composition is largely an expression of self… if you don’t take care of yourself, that has the propensity to terribly inhibit your creative output. Authenticity and intent are qualities that shine through in your composition, and I believe audiences are really perceptive to these things. Every note, gesture or sentiment in your music needs to be real and purposeful.

Photo credit: Joseph Franklin

Some of the most incredible music I hear addresses the composer’s own voice foremost, and the performing ensemble/performance situation next. Both facets are so important, but make sure not to sacrifice the former for the latter! It’s an easy pitfall to encounter as an emerging composer.

I think as a composer you need to strive to find your voice. This is your ultimate tool in your career, and something that will enable you to be gritty through the inevitable criticism, highs and lows of your compositional career.

Lastly- always work on your craft. You will never stop learning as a musician, and this is such a wonderful aspect of what we do. I love learning from my fellow composers too- we’re all in this together. Stay humble, keep an open mind, try anything that interests you, and stay hungry for knowledge!

I noticed you have written a number of pieces for string instruments, whether for string quartets or chamber orchestras. What are some things that particularly excite you in composing for strings, is there anything unique about the experience when compared to writing for other ensembles?

I write a lot for strings mostly because I find them so incredibly versatile. You can create texture in ways seemingly unbounded, and I find it so exciting to try and emanate rhythmic drive, melody, countermelody, harmony and atmospheric quality that would often require a full orchestra or a sophisticated synthesised setup, with a surprisingly limited number and group of players.

I suppose I could also attribute this passion to some wonderful, early-career tuition I had in writing for string. I’ve always aligned with the timbre of purely stringed ensembles, but back in 2013, I won a place in what was then called the ‘National Composers’ Forum’- a competition run by the Australian String Quartet and mentored by Andrew Ford. Essentially, they gave an emerging composer the opportunity to workshop an existing SQ piece with them over a few days, and then premiered and recorded the work. It was a huge learning curve for me- confronting, humbling, exciting- and at such an impressionable stage of my writing career, really sparked a fire in me for exploring writing for these beautiful instruments. To date, the fire’s still burning! I’m up to my ninth string quartet, and I feel like the more I write for strings, the more I have to learn. It’s a wonderful feeling! 

Any projects in the works that you’d like to share?

I’m currently undergoing a PhD that revolves around music and virtual reality for emotional evocation (namely calm) for children. The idea is to use music and VR written specifically to help sick children feel better in various hospital environments- it utilises compositional concepts I coined in my Masters thesis. I really love the work! I’m also excited to be writing for the SSO’s 50 fanfares project. It’s a fantastic initiative for commissioning Australian composers, and I’m chuffed to be a part of it.

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