A few moments with Peggy Polias

Riot’s 2020 starts with a rush with two concerts featuring world premieres from last year’s Call for Scores commissionees. Come and hear them, and us, at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham on 31 January and 1 February. Alongside scenes from GOLD, the new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler, we will be playing brand new pieces by the Brazilian-American composer Igor Santos and the Australian Peggy Polias. Details of both concerts can be found here and here.

Peggy and Igor were kind enough to share some thoughts with us about their music. You can read our interview with Igor in another post, but here is what Peggy had to say.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Peggy, we’re so happy to be bringing your music to the UK. Perhaps we should begin with a little biography. Could you say a little about your background as a composer? How did you start, who have been your teachers, and what are your inspirations?

Peggy Polias: I started learning piano at the age of six, and by about ten I began improvising and sketching my own little musical ideas and pieces on manuscript. Later in high school, as a quite panicky performer, I threw myself into the creative side – visual arts as well as composing in a self-taught capacity. My first exposure to twentieth-century innovations in classical music, especially serialism, rocked my world and I became obsessed with figuring out, once a composer had a twelve-note row, what could they actually do with it? At the same time, I was listening to a lot of 1990s alternative rock – international acts like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and The Tea Party as well as Australian bands like Regurgitator, Spiderbait, and The Fauves – but I compartmentalized this as quite a separate world; it is only recently that I have started to play with this wider spectrum of influence in my own score-based music.  

I made my way into composition studies at university, mainly under the mentorship of Professor Anne Boyd here in Sydney during Bachelors and Masters degrees in music. I’ve also learnt from Dr John Peterson, and currently am completing a Doctorate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney under the supervision of Professor Liza Lim.

At university I first joined a student gamelan and continued with Langen Suka Sydney Gamelan for many years afterwards, learning aspects of Javanese Gamelan in the Yogyakarta style, which profoundly changed my understanding of the ways music can work. Along the way, I’ve also found inspiration for new works in themes like handicrafts, matryoshka dolls, fractals, and feminism. As a music engraver I’ve been quite engaged with a lot of brand new local, Australian score-based compositions across a variety of personal styles, and this has also been an important ‘apprenticeship’.  

TR-J: You were the inaugural winner of the Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellowship in 2015. What did Sculthorpe mean to you? And what were you able to do with this award?

PP: As a young composer who was learning from Peter Sculthorpe’s own students, Peter was quite a monolithic figure to me. He’d worked out what he wanted to say musically with great clarity and spent an entire career doing so. By 2005 I was fortunate to be offered a job as his Music Assistant, following in the footsteps of many much-respected colleagues. For the next nine years I drove to Peter’s house every Thursday to spend the day entering new music, preparing instrumental parts, maintaining the archive, or occasionally going on unexpected errands such as clothes shopping!

Peter was a dear friend, like a musical grandfather, and I miss him very much. As such, I worked lovingly and seriously on my application for the Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellowship, and it was a huge honour to be selected as the inaugural recipient of this award from Create NSW and The Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

The generous award meant I was able to undertake a program of activities throughout 2016: the composition of a new work, Hive, especially for The Nano Symphony – Catherine Thompson (clarinet), Neil Thompson (viola) and Lee Akinsanya (piano), with some voice and electronics. The Fellowship gave us the resources to workshop and collaborate extensively, and eventually record the album-suite on the Kammerklang label. The collaboration with Kammerklang also included the recording of an older work, the Picnic at Hanging Rock Suite (2009) for piano, with a number of pianists taking one or several movements each. I was also able to complete a number of professional development activities – courses in writing, podcasting, and industry – and to support the growth of a listening/composer playlist project, Making Waves New Music that I co-curate with a Melbourne-based colleague Lisa Cheney. We were able to draw on an nationwide team in the production of a 29-episode podcast, Making Conversation, in which we interviewed Australian composers about their work, life, and outlook.

TR-J: When we were listening to all our Call for Scores commissions, I really enjoyed your Hive album. That piece absorbed all sorts of ideas connected with bees, from honey to social structures to colony collapse. What was your initial inspiration for the theme, and how did the project evolve out of that?

PP: Thanks. I think it was actually the increasing media reports around that time on colony collapse disorder that was quite worrying and haunting and got me learning a bit about bees. Every little fact I started to learn about honeybees and their social interactions was quite fascinating and evocative, thematically and musically.

When I started having conversations with Catherine, Neil, and Lee in 2016 we got talking about the dark, ‘Guinness-like’ honey from the Greek island of Ikaria, which is said to be a hotspot for human longevity. Catherine happens to be my first cousin, and since we have both ended up in music I had always wanted to write something for her and Neil. This led to some reflections on family and lineage, Greek heritage and memories from childhood of our Yiayia [Grandma], who had passed away many years ago, and the lineage of the clarinet, viola, and piano trio, going back to Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, K498.

We were sharing links about bees and honey in a Facebook Messenger thread and also a collaborative Pinterest board. These were incredible collaborative tools that I highly recommend, as they meant we were all in the same conceptual headspace from very early on in the life of the music, which grew out of many of these acts of sharing and conversations. These very much informed the workshop sessions we had and the final composition.

Given the many bushfires currently decimating the east coast of Australia, I need to stress that despite scientists discovering the parasite that causes colony collapse disorder, the conversation around bees right now is completely, tragically different (warning: this article contains distressing accounts of animal deaths and suffering).

TR-J: The piece you have written for us is called Mati, and it also seems to draw together several thematically related ideas – this time around the idea of the ‘Evil Eye’. Could you say a little bit more about those ideas, and how you have drawn them together in your piece?

PP: In relation to the ‘Mati’ there is this unsettling feeling that I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say . . .! I guess that secretive or taboo aspect is what has made it so compelling for me as a musical inspiration. From my Greek heritage I’m familiar with some of the customs from that part of the world (the blue decorative pendants worn or hung in cars/houses), but across many different locations and whatever the format of the amulet there are usually two aspects: the ‘insincere gaze’ that can cause great harm, and the protective element.

Actually this theme grew out of an idea from my opera Commute (2019) that I had to cut. The opera explores the theme of street harassment via some creatures and motifs from Ancient Greek myth. I had originally wanted to use a Mati as a protective amulet against a Cyclops, symbolic of the ‘Male Gaze’, but it ended up being an additional layer that complicated the narrative.

So the standalone piece Mati came to be a reflection on different types of gaze as two-way acts, not just a one-way flow of power as might have been constructed culturally. While I was composing it I was always thinking of both sides of this construct and making each section quite ambiguous in this respect. For example, when I ask the instrumentalists to speak, they only have two words to choose from: ‘I’ or ‘Eye.’ While these might be indistinguishable audibly, their meaning is polarized in the context of this piece and only the speaker knows which choice they’ve made. When I was contemplating the visual/architectural inspiration for the piece, I started musing on Venn and Euler diagrams, and stumbled upon this seven-set beauty, which proved very fruitful in the ‘colouring-in’ phase of my composing process!

I imagined it as a kind of iris/pupil eye motif, and conceived of the music in seven sections, moving inwards from the outer layers, close to the white sclera of the eye, in to a black, central, contracting and expanding pupil.

TR-J: Among your influences, you mention handicrafts. I find this really interesting. How does this feed into your music? And are there elements of this in Mati, perhaps, with its references to folk concepts? Or is this better represented in other pieces of yours?

At earlier points in my life when time itself has been a luxury, I have been known to dabble in crochet, tapestry, and sewing. Contrary to their dismissal perhaps by high-brow art as traditionally feminine, domestic, non-serious pursuits, there is a numeracy and rhythm required for the fibre arts that is inherently meditative and musical. I have explored this in works such as Stitch (2007) for piano, translating various tapestry stitches into growing minimalist piano passages, or Braids (2017) for viola, cello, and double bass, exploring the personal aspects of hairstyle and the intimacy and physicality of sitting together to ‘do’ someone’s hair.

Yes, I’d agree that there’s something similar in Mati, in sincerely approaching a superstitious, folk tradition that may have been dismissed by higher-brow artforms as non-serious. The sound world of this composition occasionally hints at something like math-rock, even approaching aspects of glam rock. Early on in the work I drew connections with textile amulets such as the dream-catcher or the God’s eye, but I haven’t explored these further in this particular work.

TR-J: Finally, you recently co-authored a ‘call to action’ – with our friend Liza Lim, as well as the director and producer Sally Blackwood, and composer and percussionist Bree van Reyk – calling for cultural leadership to combat ‘the structural nature of sexism and other exclusionary forces’ in opera. Could you say a little more about that, please? In particular, what prompted you all to act on this occasion, and what do you think needs to be done specifically in the field of new music? And in what ways are the action points you raise reflected in your own practice?

PP: This grew out of our experiences at the New Opera Workshop (NOW) held in Brisbane, April 2019. At this event many of the biases within the historic operatic artform overlapped with industry ones to create an overwhelming sense of frustration from many in attendance, especially women, that the conversation taking place was reinforcing structural barriers rather than innovating the discipline. This criticism is not directed at any one party but more broadly at the artform and industry. Personal observations by myself and other colleagues in attendance were corroborated in quiet conversations: biases based on gender/identity in how particular individuals were introduced to the wider audience, offered microphone time in open conversations, or even invited to present. There were distressing discrepancies in how the topic of rape was handled in different presentations, from providing warnings to the audience and opportunity to leave in advance of sensitive content, to a surprise showing of a scene completely lacking agency and voice on the part of a female victim.

The discussions following the conference noted that many of our criticisms were inevitably intersectional and, as such, in new music (and I would add, more broadly in any industry or social industry) artistic directors, organizations, and others in positions of influence should be asking themselves: ‘Who gets to speak and why?’ (after Chris Kraus) or ‘Who is absent, who is missing from this group or meeting?’ I would also invite people in positions of influence committed to structural change to reflect: ‘Am I doing my fair share of the labour of change?’ It has been incredibly encouraging to see this conversation taken up by organizations such as the Australia Council for the Arts, performing rights body APRA/AMCOS, and the Australian Music Centre.

In terms of how I enact the call to action in my own practice, I am continually resistant to the notion of the ‘hero’s journey’ or universal story: to narrative/operatic/filmic/musical tropes as familiar and inevitable. These unquestioned structures encompass a great majority of what the call-to-action seeks to dismantle. I try to locate my practice outside of this vocabulary and construct new pathways for protagonists (or indeed for musical motifs), and I guess I’ve hinted at some of this in answering some of the earlier questions here.

Commute (2019), which will be staged in early April 2020, reflects on personal and cultural accounts of street harassment not by re-enacting any such scenario but by using characters from Ancient Greek myth (the Hekatoncheiris/Hundred-Handed Giant; the Cyclops; a main feminine protagonist called Odyssea) to traverse an interior journey to a possible goal of the #metoo movement. For me this goal is to be able to move through public spaces in a state of relief and belonging, with the knot in the solar plexus finally untied, with protective behaviours no longer a reflex, with perpetrators of street harassment no longer ready or comfortable to risk these behaviours. The libretto is fragmentary and moves between English, Modern Greek, and Ancient Greek, and the staging is flexible and un-prescriptive, giving space to collaborative, team interpretations. When performers, especially singers, request changes, it’s important to me to hear and accommodate these as part of a respectful collaboration. Finally, the call to action is not a one-time gesture, but an ongoing set of guiding principles, a work-in-progress.