A conversation with ARIA Award winning Sally Whitwell

Do your music theory homework, even if you’re not a classical musician. If you really understand how music fits together, you will never be out of work.
— Sally Whitwell: Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Teacher
Image via Sally Whitwell's Twitter account

Image via Sally Whitwell's Twitter account

Where to start. Sally Whitwell's list of skills and achievements are diverse, impressive, above and beyond. Pianist -  both as a soloist and accompanist - arranger, teacher, conductor and composer. Sally has two ARIA awards under her belt, the first of which was for her debut album in 2011, Mad Rush: Solo Piano Music of Philip Glass - an interpretation of the works of the world-renowned composer. An ambitious endeavour, and one that paid dividends including one of the aforementioned ARIA awards, as well as subsequent performances with Philip Glass himself in Perth, Los Angeles and New York.

Sally's second album The Good, The Bad and The Awkward, was a collection of songs from cinema and was nominated for an ARIA in 2012, reaching number 3 on the ARIA Classical Music Charts. Her second ARIA win came in 2013 for her third album, All Imperfect Things: The Piano Music of Michael Nyman. This album also took out the award for Engineer of the Year, given to Virginia Reed, the only woman to win that award in ARIAs' history. 

While Sally is a tremendously talented award-winning arranger, she has also recorded an album of her original works entitled I Was Flying. Additionally, Sally is an enthusiastic accompanist and composer for many choirs. She has toured Hong Kong, China and Inner Mongolia with the Sydney Children's Choir and has also provided accompaniment for other choral groups such as Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus, and The Woden Valley Youth Choir. Born and raised in Canberra, Sally now resides in Sydney working in a variety of musical contexts and is getting ready to launch a Women Composer Development Program for her chamber choir Coro Innominata (Latin for the Choir With No Name). Sally is most excited about the program which aims to give opportunities to established and emerging women composers to collaborate with choristers to create original compositions (look out for more about this program featuring on Music Love in the coming months). 

Her sound is self described as "Pre-Raphaelite pop", and characterised by others as post-minimalist and neo-romantic, according to arts writer Liza Power in a profile published in Fairfax last year.

Sally is well known and highly-regarded in the classical musical community and beyond, and generously gave her time to speak to Music Love about her career to date, her thoughts on this year's controversial Best Classical Album ARIA Award win (the 2016 Fine Arts and Artisan Awards were announced a few weeks ago), her deep love for choirs, advice for kids who are learning an instrument, and encouragement for people who may be apprehensive of classical music.  (And, because there was simply too much ground to cover in this interview with the delightful Sally Whitwell, she will be joining editor Julie Kerr in a conversation for Music Love's brand new podcast series in a couple of weeks!) 

Music is me. It fills every moment of my day. Sometimes I even dream it. I carry a manuscript book at all times, so when I have an idea for a new composition, I can put it down straight away.
— Sally Whitwell: Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Teacher
Sally accepts her ARIA in 2011. Image via Limelight Magazine

Sally accepts her ARIA in 2011. Image via Limelight Magazine

What does music mean to you?

Music is me. It fills every moment of my day. Sometimes I even dream it. I carry a manuscript book at all times, so when I have an idea for a new composition, I can put it down straight away.

How many hours did you play each week when you were a child?

Every spare moment. The piano was the biggest and best toy in the house.

What type of piano did you learn on, and practise on?

A Yamaha upright. I still practise on it and love it.

What is the best piano you have played?

Far and away the best piano I have ever played is one manufactured in Australia by Stuart and Sons. There's no other piano so colourful or flexible. Oddly, I feel that the sound has a wonderful kind of optimism about it. I recorded my first album on a Stuart, it's perfect for playing Philip Glass.

What has been something you have learned about arranging music?

That it's the best stepping stone to composition. It teaches you your craft. One day I'll have lessons in orchestration, till then I'm just composing and learning about it as I go along. Recently, Acacia Quartet premiered my new composition Face to the Sun. You sure learn a lot working up close and personal with such excellent musicians.

You have written about being a freelancer and having, for want of a better word, a “portfolio” of work – recording, accompanying, teaching, etc. How flexible do musicians need to be in order to secure work?

As far as your work ethic is concerned, flexibility, openness and versatility is key. You've got to be willing to jump in at the deep end, try new things, experiment. Most important thing though is to know your craft. Do your music theory homework, even if you're not a classical musician. If you really understand how music fits together, you will never be out of work.

What would you tell kids who want to drop out of learning the piano?

I mostly believe that your instrument chooses you, rather than you choosing it. If it doesn't vibrate with you, why torture yourself? On the other hand, it does give you a sense of the vertical in music, how the notes pile up and why they pile up better in some ways than others. And that's a useful thing for any musician to know.

Let’s talk about choirs.

I am a choir nerd. I love composing for them, conducting them, accompanying them. The power of the human voice blah blah blah. Just this year I was appointed as Music Director for a wonderful chamber choir Coro Innominata (Latin for "the choir with no name"). They are music teachers, scientists, lawyers, they work in the banking sector or radio or heritage/environment… a diverse range of humans. And they are very good musicians, better musicians than they think they are. It's my job to encourage and challenge them in equal measure. I really believe that music should be for everyone. 

I also work regularly for Gondwana Choirs because I just love the instrument of children singing en masse. It's a genuinely unique sound and there's so much wonderfully compelling repertoire for treble choirs these days. 

Who are your favourite Australian women in music? (Whether working behind the scenes in management, musicians, artists, or whoever).

So many that I couldn't possibly single any out. Seriously, we'd be here for a whole year talking about them! A few favourites with whom I've had a working relationship; Virginia Read, tonmeister sound engineer with ABC Classics who won an ARIA for Best Engineer for my third album All Imperfect Things

With Stuart and Sons piano maker Wayne Stuart and Gerard Willems at the Stuart and Sons Factory in Newcastle via www.sillywhatwell.weebly.com

With Stuart and Sons piano maker Wayne Stuart and Gerard Willems at the Stuart and Sons Factory in Newcastle via www.sillywhatwell.weebly.com

Any thoughts on this year’s ARIA winner for best classical album? Not for conflict’s sake, but some analysis on pop music crossover projects.

Flight Facilities are great. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is great. But that album isn't classical music. It really wasn't even 'crossover'. The MSO were just the world's biggest backing band. It should not have been eligible for Best Classical. A real crossover piece would be something like Nigel Westlake's work Compassion, an original composition conceived with an orchestra and a pop voice in mind

What genres of music are you drawn to?

I listen to a pretty big range of recordings. Lots of contemporary classical music performed by Eighth Blackbird, Roomful of Teeth, Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Nyman Band, and quite a bit of alt pop of various sorts, Bjork, Agnes Obel, Tuneyards, Dirty Projectors, Yann Tiersen. Also on high rotation on my devices are The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Corea, Motown. I've been known to play all of the above styles at some point in my career for money. It's good to be flexible. Life's more fun that way.

What would you tell people who are too scared to listen to classical music?

If etiquette snobs put you off attending live concerts, well, you won't find them at one of my concerts! If you think you somehow won't understand the music, well, rest assured there is no prerequisite level of study you need to complete. You just have to really focus in on it. I recommend starting with approachable contemporary classical and working your way backwards. For the uninitiated I recommend Meredith Monk, Caroline Shaw, Elena Kats Chernin, Mica Levi and Kerry Andrew. They all kind of cross over into other territory too. Perhaps we should actually call them post genre.

What date is coming up that you cannot wait for?

I've a concert in Newcastle with some wonderful young musicians, The Hunter Singers. The Australian choral music community is excellent with commissioning new works and Hunter Singers are leaders in that regard. They commissioned a new work from me,  to celebrate Shakespeare 400. It's called Swifter than the moon's sphere and is a setting of a speech by Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Naughty fairies. So good! 

 

To follow all of Sally's musical adventures, visit www.sillywhatwell.weebly.com  and look out for Music Love's podcast conversation coming soon