In our Composer Spaces series, we ask composers to share a bit about their working environment and to give us a brief insight into their process. This week we present composer Celeste Oram.
What does a typical composing day look like for you? Please describe your routine. Is it strict or more free-form?
The only two composing days that might look alike are two subsequent days working on the same stage of the same project! In the last few months, “composing” for me has involved mixing sound for a short film, fine-grain audio editing of recordings, retroactively “typing up” a score in Sibelius for a piece that didn’t have a score in the first place, listening to music to get oriented for a new project, reading heaps, catching up on friends’ new work… not to mention (let’s be honest) the slog of applications, grantwriting, proposals, etc. But over the years I’ve come to recognise the importance of keeping up a few regular habits: a steady diet of listening, journalling, reading, and actually playing music myself somehow. If composing is an exercise in responsiveness, then “staying in shape” means actively staying attuned and attentive to the world, you know?
Please describe the space where you compose your music. What makes this space special and why have you chosen it?
I’m in a transitional moment in my life right now – a few weeks ago I moved out of the beautiful house in San Diego where I lived for 5 years with dear musician friends & flatmates. There, I was fortunate to have a tiny, cozy study. West-facing window from which I could keep a close eye on all the cul-de-sac drama (mostly dog-related). But the feeling of “being overheard” can make me uncomfortable… so sometimes I would book out a classroom on campus at the weekend when it’s quiet, pack a lunch and a thermos of tea, and spend a whole day hunkered down composing. When the occasion calls, that kind of solitude can be fun. But more recently, my “composition studio” has been a suitcase!
What equipment (including software) do you have in your space?
Love it or hate it, my laptop… I don’t consider myself an electronic composer, but electronic tools are pretty essential for what I do – basic software like Sibelius, Pure Data, Logic, or Premiere Pro for video. Other than that, I will say I am a bit fussy about notebooks. I always have one on the go, and it matters me to keep it tidy and legible, to at least dupe me into believing that my thoughts & ideas are in order…
Please describe your typical composing process. Does it change with each piece?
Yes, it very much changes with each piece, and I consciously try to adapt my process. But a recent common thread has been an emphasis on working directly with sound. Basically, trying to get out of my own head as much as possible, and really listen to what I’m composing. So, I’ll make mock-up recordings with my voice or flute. For ‘a loose affiliation of alleluias’, I had the whole thing mocked up on GarageBand before I really scored it. And my friend & colleague Matt Kline had helped me identify some double bass material to use in the piece, so I had recordings of him to play with in the mix. There’s this kind of 30-voice motet section in the middle of the piece, which began life as 30 multitracked Celestes, sometimes pitch-shifted up or down an octave (or two!). It sounded totally goofy, but it got the job done and made the whole process quite fun and… musical.
What are you currently working on in your space?
I’m diving headlong into writing a flute quintet for some folks who might be familiar to NZers – the energetic Abigail Sperling, in particular. Given that I was a flutist “in a past life”, I’m excited to be reconnecting with this instrument which shaped my musicianship.
Here are a few recent “pandemic projects” that I’m grateful came together – it was a joy to work with these brilliant & far-flung collaborators (none of whom I’d met in person!).