A Sonic Sense of Self: Sarah Elise Thompson

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

Photo credit: Billie-Jean Bullard

This piece was written as part of a paid partnership. Unless otherwise stated, all material published on Fever Pitch Magazine is put together through voluntary contributions from the editor (Stella Joseph-Jarecki) or guest contributors.

It has been a long time between drinks here at Fever Pitch Magazine. Four months passed without any new articles or content- not only because of the dire situation the performing arts industry was in, but because I was entirely preoccupied with getting through Melbourne’s fifth and sixth lockdowns in one piece.

I’m keen to embrace a sense of optimism as Australia takes its first tentative steps into a vaccinated economy. Still, I am amazed at anyone who managed to keep their creative fires burning during such a devastating period.

That is why I am very happy to be partnering with emerging composer Sarah Elise Thompson, to take you behind the scenes of her debut album self centre. (Out now on a range of streaming services including Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal).

Album art: Ellen Bird. Listen on Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal

The concept for self centre rose out of the enforced pause of lockdown, as Sarah had a chance to reflect on three years’ worth of music.

“I listened back to all of my pieces and read through my program notes from 2018 to 2020. I realised there was a through-line story, memories from my life that I had captured in my music… watching sunsets, diving underwater, heartaches and anxieties. I realised I could not give these pieces away to someone else. This was me- in the most vulnerable musical output I had ever written.”

Because the album is the product of gradual artistic realisation rather than a condensed stint of songwriting, each track comes with its own story. Read on to find out more!

Creativity doesn’t often happen in a straight line. For many artists, a defined sense of their musical identity is something that comes over time, often with accompanying shades of grey.

This could be said of Sarah’s path as a composer. “Before this year, I couldn’t have told you my focus- I would throw myself at every opportunity and hope one would turn into ‘my sound’. I tried sound installation, performance art, improvisation, graphic scores, multimedia interactive pieces, and orchestration jobs.

During the composition course at the Conservatorium, we studied composers such as Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass, Louis Andriessen, Gerard Grisey, Salvatore Sciarrino and more- and I felt totally overwhelmed! I felt like there was this pressure, as sense of ‘if you sound like these big composers then you too will become a successful composer and make good music’. I’d go home after uni and put on Joni Mitchell’s Blue album or Beach Boys Pet Sounds and try to come back to a familiar place musically, because in the classical music department ‘pop’ was like a dirty word.

In hindsight, my professors were showing me these composers to show us the capabilities of sound combinations we could create, and how to succinctly put them into a musical sentence. I owe a lot to my professors and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from them.

After graduating, I started learning about composers who were able to be their own artist- they would perform in concert halls filled with people who loved their music and wanted to hear them perform live. The shows would look and feel like a pop show at Festival Hall or the Hordern Pavilion, but the set would be completely instrumental. Composers such as Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, Hania Rani, Nils Frahm… These artists gave me the courage to be a composer and embrace my classical training, but also to be the contemporary artist I wanted to be since I was a kid. 

My focus is now on being a recording artist and creating ornate sound worlds based on my stories or events that inspire me; blending classical, indie-pop and minimalist musical stylings, based from writing sessions at my home piano.”

Premiere performance of striking out, during Ensemble Offspring’s Hatched Summer School Academy, 2019.

A music performance degree at a classical institution can be described as simultaneously broad and narrow. Broad, because a performer and composer has over 500 years’ worth of music to study; narrow, because after graduation you aren’t exactly parachuted into a ready-made job. The first few years without student status can be a shock to the system after the comforting structure of university.  

“The best thing that I did to set myself up as a composer was having opportunities to travel and participate in different workshops and residencies,” Sarah attests. “I spent a fair bit of time in Europe and the US straight after graduating – forming new networks that generated exciting collaborations and new commissions. The tracks big blue and sanddollar came from writing sessions during my time abroad.

self centre is a reflection of the core of who I am musically. It captures the feeling of coming back home and being at peace with yourself. It’s meditative and reflective in the way you listen to the album from top to bottom.”

Photo credit: Billie-Jean Bullard

These commissions came from a range of sources: the Women in Music festival in Melbourne, the New Music on the Point festival in Vermont, and US-based pianist Dr. Huizi Zhang to name a few.

“sanddollar was written especially for self centre, during a writing session with percussionist Matthew Stiens in San Francisco in January 2020. The recording you hear was actually made by Matthew in his parents’ house in St Louis, Missouri… in his mother’s closet!

undone came about after I was given the Young Composer Award at the inaugural Women in Music festival in 2019- an award I was surprised and honoured to receive! I was asked to write a piece for two of the members of PLEXUS ensemble- violinist Monica Curro and pianist Stefan Cassomenos, as well as soprano Deborah Cheetham AO.

The libretto of the piece came from a poem of the same nameby Stephanie Millett, a childhood friend of mine. Stephanie and I worked together, and created a piece on accepting when a chapter has closed, and being able to ask for help when you are not ok. It is a very personal piece and I’m grateful to have written it with Stephanie and to have had it performed by such talented musicians.

From left to right: Monica Curro, Stefan Cassomenos, Deborah Cheetham AO. Women in Music Festival, 2019.

striking out was written and recorded while I was a participant of Ensemble Offspring’s Hatched Academy summer school in 2019. The program involved workshops with the ensemble as well as mentoring from Kate Neal and Ken Thomson of the Bang on a Can ensemble. striking out is the only track on the album that was recorded before lockdown: the live recording comes from the piece’s premiere in Sydney.

core began as a piece in my uni portfolio which I had never quite fleshed out. When I returned to the piece, I asked my good friend Will Hansen whether he wanted to play double-bass on the track. After we recorded the demo, I sent it to Avik Chari, the mixing engineer on the album. We both agreed the track was missing something- a treble melody.

I remembered that I was in an email chain with David Elton- principal trumpet of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, previously the principal trumpet of London Symphony. We had been pen pals for a while. I quickly pitched him the track along with the demo- and he loved it!

It took a long time to find a suitable date to record his part. We ended up recording the track in about twenty minutes at Trackdown Studios in Sydney. We had never played together as a group- but it was an amazing experience. We were able to work closely with Rose Mackenzie-Peterson, the sound engineer at the studio. It was a really special session and the last day of recording for the album. 

pink salt originated after Huizi commissioned me to write a solo piano piece for her debut recital at Carnegie Hall in 2018. The version you hear on the album was recorded in Huizi’s home studio in her New York apartment. I love listening back to this recording as you can hear the rustling of the pages- I like to imagine that you are right there with her with the New York skyline out the window.  

big blue was written for the New Music on the Point festival, where I had been given the brief to compose a work for viola, bassoon and piano. It was such an odd combination but I felt motivated to make it work. I wrote the piece during a short window between trips overseas. In my downtime I would go swimming and snorkling at Shelly Beach in my hometown (which is actually where the visualiser for the piece is shot)! I was inspired by the feeling of being in the middle of the ocean.

The artists from the original performance unfortunately could not make it to one studio in the States, so Monica, Stefan and Jye Todorov, a bassoonist who I had met through Australian Youth Orchestra, were able to do a new recording of the piece.”

The landscape which inspired the piece big blue.

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