Judith Clingan: Each Piece is different

Australian composer, conductor, performer and music educator Judith Ann Clingan (b. 1945) has been the Director of Wayfarers Australia (formerly Waldorf Wayfarers) Australia Wide Choir since 1997. The musician founded the Summer Music Schools for Children in 1969, now known as the Young Music Society. In 1983 she founded Gaudeamus Music and Performing Arts (now Music For Canberra) in 1983.In 1997 she founded the choir Wayfarers Australia and the Canberra vocal group The Variables. Judith Clingan has been the recipient of many awards, including a Membership of the Order of Australia , Australian Councel Composer Fellowship, Canaberra Times Artist of the Year, etc. The composer is currently the director of Wayfarers Australia and Imagine Music Theatre. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė is in a conversation with J. Clingan about her creative process.


What are your thoughts about the structuring of the creative process?

Usually I initially have an idea for a piece – perhaps a poem I want to set, or a thought or image I want to express musically. The next step is to think about the musical shape of the piece – will it be in a certain major or minor key, or in one of the seven ancient modes, or use a tone-row, or what? Rhythmically – what will its rhythmic shape be? Unchanging, in a given time signature, or loose, almost improvisatory, or changing time signature frequently? Then the forces being written for – often I already know who the performers will be, which simplifies this. If not, if I have carte blanche, then it is interesting to contemplate all of the possible sonorities which could enhance my thoughts. I love the human voice, and so will very frequently write for one or more voices. I also love small unconventional instrumental ensembles coming together with voices. Once all of those issues have been decided, then I begin to put down notes… Post composition: Most often I write for a given performer/s, for a given occasion, and so automatically there will be at least one concert, and a recording of some sort. Publication is not common – scores should be sent to the Australian Music Centre, but I often fail to do so.

What are your thoughts about this quote: “Works of art have been compared to icebergs: what is visible is but a small part of the whole. An artwork might seem to exist in splendid isolation, but that impression is misleading. Cultural products inevitably arise from a context, a submerged landscape that is often not easily accessible”?

Yes. True. Probably if someone wanted to really understand my compositions, they would have to spend quite a bit of time researching me, the influences I have had on my life, what I have loved in all of the art forms, what I have loved in the external world, what my usual mental preoccupations have been, what have been my anxieties, my griefs…The peak of the iceberg is the finished composition; the main part of the iceberg, the invisible part, is all of the influences and experiences which underpin what I have written.

Are you familiar with J. Campbell’s concept of “hero’s journey”? Could you draw a parallel between creative process and such structuring of a story?

Sometimes it is like that, but not always. For instance – my set of seven songs called “Modal Magic” started with the aim of writing seven songs, one in each of the seven modes, with each song based on one of the seven degrees of the scale, ascending from C, to B’. So then I wrote seven poems. Each poem used as frequently as possible the syllable of the relevant sol fa for the degree of the scale. (do = Don’t Be a Dodo; re = Rainbow; mi = Mister MacDonald; fa = Faerie; so = Song of a Seed; la = Laughter; ti = Tintinnabulation.) And the seven time signatures moved form one in a bar through to 7 in a bar. And so, once all of those parameters were set, with the poems written, all I had to do was write the pieces. No problems presented themselves. There were no mental battles. Everything fell into place like a successful jig-saw puzzle. But at other times, yes, I have had to overcome various difficulties – knowing in my aural imagination what the sound should be, but failing to find its shape exactly. There are a few spots in a few compositions where I know I failed…

Do you have certain patterns, structures when it comes to your creative process?

Each piece is different – perhaps it would be possible to say that I have certain patterns or structures when writing for a particular situation or group. But it is important to resist falling into musical clichés.

What is the most fun and the most boring part in the compositional process?

The most fun is the initial planning. The most boring part is filling all the details, writing in dynamics etc.

Define inspiration – does it exist?

That depends on what you mean by inspiration. A great deal of the compositional process is just normal hard work. Occasionally I have dreamed a piece, and then woken up and written it. But that doesn’t happen every time!

How do you transform the abstract idea into material – sketch, notes?

I usually make pencil scribbles on manuscript paper – overall shape, sections, pitch and rhythmic choices, instrumentation etc. In the olden days, before I could use the Sibelius music program, I would then write, still in pencil, a first draft of the first section, and then play it on the piano to check I had written what i had intended to write. Nowadays, once I have made my pencil scribbles, I usually go to Sibelius and type what is in my head.

When do you decide that the preparation period is over and now you will start to actually compose?

That differs from piece to piece. For instance – with a large opera or piece of music theatre, there can be months of thinking about the story, doing research if the story is based on historical facts eg my opera Marco, which is based on the life of Marco Polo. With a shorter piece, sometimes the pre-compositional process might take no more than one or two hours.

Do you critique your own work?

I know which of my pieces are really successful, beyond merely being OK. I also know that some of my pieces are merely OK. Sometimes the time constraints, eg if it is a commission within a set time frame, mean that you have to let a piece go out into the world before you feel really settled in your mind about every bit of it.

Thank you for the conversation!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s