Nathaniel Otley is a finalist for the 2023 SOUNZ Contemporary Award | Te Tohu Auaha for his work, Mycelium. We caught up with Nathaniel to find out more about the piece.
Can you tell us about the title and the inspiration behind your piece?
The beginnings of this piece grew out of my interest in incorporating ecological ideas and processes into my compositional practice. In this particular instance I was drawn to how fungal threads known as hyphae form interconnected webs known as mycelia that undertake a number of vital ecological processes that support wider ecosystems. These networks vary scope and scale but it is underground where they really excel, growing into at times staggeringly large interconnected fungal networks. For me there seemed to be ample opportunity to explore some of these ideas of interconnection in a musical context and as such I decided to look at how one could cultivate a musical work that functioned using similar mycelial properties. Mycelium is the result of this process, a work that seeks to create knots and webs of interconnection within a musical context, with disparate material, temporalities and instrumental combinations being used to create sonic ecosystems that unfold over time.
Could you take us through the process you went through while composing this piece, and were there any specific challenges that arose?
The composition of Mycelium happened between February and August 2022. Having this gestation period was really valuable as it meant I could take time to slowly find the musical character of the piece and develop it over time. In terms of a more granular process a lot of it was done by composing individual melodic lines and then weaving those together or elaborating on them through other instruments in the ensemble. The opening couple of minutes of the work show this quite nicely, with the bass flute and cello parts in dialogue playing very similar but still individual lines that utilise and explore specific aspects of each instruments resonance and character (eg. the Cello C string tuned down to Bb). I liked the way that composing these lines of melody obfuscated any idea of a ‘main melody’ at any given point and in fact I saw these lines as being like threads of a rope or string, bound around a centre (or melody) that doesn’t actually exist but that is implied and created through the interaction and binding of these other threads.
In terms of challenges, composing a piece for a more unconventional ensemble such as this is always going to throw up various things that need careful consideration. One of the main ones for this particular work was how to manage balance within the ensemble, with two amplified instruments (keyboard and electric guitar) having to be balanced against an array of acoustic instruments that themselves project very differently, with some projecting very well (trumpet) and others having a much softer natural sonic profile (double bass, bass flute). How one manages all these sonic identities presents so many interesting challenges and you sort of have to take calculated risks in the hope that they pay off while composing. It was very fortunate that this particular piece was composed for the 2022 Academy Voix Nouvelles at Royaumont in France which meant there was ample rehearsal time to iron out any issues as well as plenty of opportunity to receive feedback as the piece was written which was great as there were a number of things the players contributed that really helped shape the piece. The various challenges thrown up by the identities of differing instruments also helped organise the piece structurally with different instruments taking turns to drive the work’s direction and character at different times, bass flute at the start, percussion and electric guitar in the rhythmic section etc.
Mycelium received an incredible performance by Marie Ythier and members of the Ictus Ensemble at the 2022 Royaumont ‘Voix Nouvelles’ Academy in France. How was it to have Mycelium realised by these performers?
It was such a fantastic experience to be able to work with Marie Ythier and Ictus. As a composer being able to write for a specific group of musicians is always a real treat as you can work through ideas with them and incorporate aspects of their individual musicality into your work so to have the chance to do that with this piece was really special. Having the time to rehearse and make changes at the abbey was also really valuable as it meant that the work could be tweaked and adjusted to best suit the players and the space it was going to be performed in. What was particularly meaningful though was the way the performers took the work and injected real life and energy into it which as a composer is always what you hope for.
Do you have any plans for more international composing projects?
I am very lucky to have a couple more international projects on the horizon which is very exciting. I have two works that will be premiered by Australia’s ELISION ensemble in the near future: a flute and bass flute duo and a work for percussion, harp, and double bass that I’m currently finishing off that has been both challenging and exciting to write. I also am very fortunate to have a follow up commission from Royaumont for their new ensemble in residence Ensemble Semblance for another event at the abbey which I’m looking forward to getting to work on fairly soon.
What does it mean to you being a finalist for the SOUNZ Contemporary Award this year?
It is incredibly meaningful to have been selected as a SOUNZ finalist. It has been a lovely surprise and I’m very grateful. The SOUNZ contemporary award has such a rich history that features so many incredible composers I respect greatly so to be a finalist at all is really fantastic. It’s also been such a treat to get to know Victoria and Joshua’s pieces better and a wonderful reminder (if just a small sample) of all the fantastic and diverse artistic work being done by composers from Aotearoa.