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  • James Blackford

New Australian Music for Brass; Featured composer of the week! Emma Greenhill

Hear a little more about Emma and her piece 'Insomnis'.

What’s your background in composition?

I’ve been composing ever since I started learning to read music at the age of 6! Not very well though I must say. I love playing, but there has always been something more alluring about creating your own music for me. I went to the Conservatorium High School for violin, but switched over to composition as soon as they’d let me, so it was a no brainer continuing my education at the university to do a bachelor degree. I love contemporary classical music, but I also write music for indie films, local artists, and am passionate about broadening our educational music scene.

Was there an inspiration for the piece? If so, what was it?

Honestly, writing the piece Insomnis ended up being about writing the piece Insomnis! After taking an extended break from contemporary classical composition since graduating in 2017, 2020 was the year I started writing in this genre again. It started with a few things on my own, then developed into writing a few educational commissions. When I was asked to write a piece for this brass project, it felt like spooky timing as I was about to move to the blue mountains, reduce the gigs and teaching I was doing and give composition a real go!

I started the commission in January of 2021. Sitting down at the piano in my new house felt abstract and unnatural. Being such a critic of my own work, I kept doubting everything I’d put on the page. “That’s crap”, “That’s so predictable”, “That sounds like something you’ve already written”, “Why can’t you write when you are surrounded by so much beauty?”. I didn’t trust myself as the composer. It had been so long writing something like this in a professional setting. Everyday I would sit down at the piano, write something down, then delete it all! I felt like I was going a little crazy, night after night not being able to sleep as I started doubting whether reducing teaching and gigs was the right idea for my career. I did this for a couple of weeks until I finally, I didn’t delete something, then came back to the piano and finished it off the next day. Since then, it hasn’t been a smooth road, but I have found my confidence again as a composer and therefore know how to manage writers block when it inevitably happens – like it does to all creatives.

I could have given the easy answer and said this piece is about insomniac tendencies, but I think it’s important to be transparent about the struggles creatives have in the creative process. All the audience sees is a polished and edited final product, which can sometimes make creating your own work feel inaccessible and out of reach. Ultimately, the only thing stopping you from creating what you envision, is yourself.

What did you like about writing for brass?

I really love jazz, so writing for brass felt like an opportunity to use big band rhythms and

horn lines as a motif idea. I’ve done this before with strings and clarinets, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact as brass. I also really enjoyed the process of learning about the instruments, I haven’t done as much brass writing as for strings and winds.

What’s different about this project for you?

This project was different to anything else I’ve done as it was literally born out of the

pandemic! James and Matthew were so proactive during the lockdown, working around huge obstacles and finding new ways to make their music be heard. Technology has been amazing for enabling creatives to share and create their work even when no one can leave the house. Ultimately, this project for me embodies the strength of everyone involved to continue working, continue creating and continue making music no matter what.

Trumpet or euphonium?

I’d have to say I like them both for different reasons. I love that Euphonium is capable of so

much expression and sits perfectly in more introspective sections. But, I also love the attack

of the trumpet, and the powerful sound it achieves. They aren’t really comparable!

Other projects to check out?

Since doing this commission I have some other really exciting projects coming up! The first is the Australian National Academy of Music set, where I get to work with the solo violinist Grace Wu in writing a new solo composition for her to premiere later this year. This commissioning project involves 67 Australian composers, so will be a massive contribution to our Australian musical landscape!

The other project is the MadeBy composition-to-choreography competition, in which my

piece Regrowth was selected. Choreographers will be invited to submit a video of an original

dance work in response to Regrowth and then later I will work with the selected dancer to

come up with a new work.

Find out where to listen to 'Insomnis' and the rest of the album here.

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