Ella Macens and The National Women Composers Development Program: I couldn’t quite comprehend that I would be composing for such esteemed Australian ensembles and musicians

Ella Macens by Darwin Gomez

Ella Macens by Darwin Gomez

I feel as though as a child I was delicately cradled in the palms of sincere music lovers who graciously passed me along until I was really able to take my own stride
— Ella Macens, Composer

It may only be a couple of weeks into the working year, but already Ella Macens has composed a new work for Australia’s leading vocal ensemble The Song Company, written a new choral work for Gondwana treble choir Cantorum, and is in midst of completing yet another choral work, commissioned by State Choir LATVIJA. This driven and talented woman has just returned from an intense two weeks at the Gondwana Composer School where she was mentored by The Song Company artistic director Antony Pitts and Australian composer Paul Stanhope. Composing original works and having them performed by some of Australia’s and Europe's greatest choral and orchestral groups is not something many women have the opportunity of doing. However, Ella is about to head into her second year at a brand new Masters degree created by The University of Sydney called the National Women Composers Development Program. The NWCDP - rolls right off the tongue - aims to bring some change to the under representation of women composers in Australia, and indeed around the world.

The course kicked off last year and four women were selected out of many applicants to take part. The fortunate four - Ella Macens, Clare Johnston, Elizabeth Younan, and, Natalie Nicolas - are being mentored by some of Australia’s top women composers, industry experts, and members of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s composition unit. Over the course of the two year Masters degree these women will have the opportunity to write for and work with the Goldner String Quartet, The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and percussionist Claire Edwardes. So far, the students have already written a piece for all four combinations, and get to do it all again this year.

The participants are mentored by some of Australia’s leading female composers, Maria Grenfell, Moya Henderson, Anne Boyd and Rosalind Page, and at the conclusion of the degree, each ensemble and Clare Edwardes will commission one of these women composers to write a new work. It's an exciting initiative and an incredible opportunity. 

Ella Macens is half way through the course and spoke with Music Love all about what it's like to be part of a small group of women being mentored by some of Australia's greatest composers and musicians.

Ella Macens, Elizabeth Younan, Clare Johnston, and, Natalie Nicolas. Image by Rahkela Nardella for Broadly

Ella Macens, Elizabeth Younan, Clare Johnston, and, Natalie Nicolas. Image by Rahkela Nardella for Broadly

What does music mean to you?

I guess music is like a museum - a place where thousands of the world’s memories live, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Sometimes I enter this museum to learn something new, and at other times to revisit the familiar - the favourites that speak to me in a language that no other ever could. It’s a place where you can get lost for hours. It’s a place where it’s okay to laugh, cry or wonder. Most importantly it’s a place where the entire world can come together. I may not always understand everyone’s language, but I am always willing to listen.

How did you feel when you found out your application was approved for the NWCDP?

Totally ecstatic! I felt excited, honoured, grateful and really quite valued. The NWCDP is the first of it’s kind in Australia's tertiary education system, so to be selected to participate was really quite surreal. I couldn’t quite comprehend that I would be composing for and working so closely with such esteemed Australian ensembles and musicians as The Goldner String Quartet, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and percussionist Claire Edwardes. Having already been a student of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music since 2011, I was also very enthusiastic to return to the Con to broaden my connections and experiences within this fantastic institution, and to deepen my relationships with my teachers and mentors.

The NWCDP is the first of it’s kind in Australia’s tertiary education system, so to be selected to participate was really quite surreal.
— Ella Macens, Women Composer

How are you feeling heading into this year?

I absolutely cannot wait for the collaborative process to begin once again! It’s going to be a big year, both with regards to the program and my personal composition endeavours. Our works for Claire, the The Goldner String QuartetSydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra will be longer in duration, and the focus will be on extending our compositional proficiency to get the absolute most of out this phenomenal opportunity. There are additional projects in the mix this year too, such as writing a new piece for flautist Virginia Taylor and harpist Alice Giles, which will be premiered at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia in Canberra in August this year as part of the Australian Music Series run by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the NWCDP I am working quite closely with a number of ensembles, such as the State Choir LATVIJA, Latvian choir Pernigele, the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus, and Adelaide cellist Jānis Laurs. I’ve just returned home from two weeks at the Gondwana National Choral School, where I, along with six other composers, participated in the Gondwana Composer School. Over the two week period I was mentored by composer Paul Stanhope and artistic director of The Song Company Antony Pitts,  and was given the opportunity to compose a new work for treble choir Cantorum - conducted by Adelaide’s Christie Anderson - and a new work for Anna, Susannah, Richard and Mark of The Song Company. These two weeks were so challenging, so demanding, so rewarding and so, SO much fun, and have really sparked my excitement to return for Masters year number two!

The understanding, dedication and enthusiasm I have received from the program’s participating ensembles and mentors has had a significant impact on my personal development, and in view of my career in music composition, their guidance has definitely been one of best things
— Ella Macens, Composer

What has been your favourite part of the program so far?

It’s difficult to give one simple answer to this question, but I think the most significant thing I can comment on is the extent to which this program has positively influenced my approach to composition and living the life of someone in the creative field. What a massive learning curve it has been - from working out how to handle numerous tight deadlines that more often than not overlap, to overcoming creative blocks, to being comfortable in workshop scenarios and knowing how to appropriately communicate your intentions and opinions, to knowing how to best represent yourself to the public, and most importantly, to learning how to support your own mind and body through the process. The understanding, dedication and enthusiasm I have received from the program’s participating ensembles and mentors has had a significant impact on my personal development, and in view of my career in music composition, their guidance has definitely been one of best things about this program so far. I am fortunate to have three fantastic composition colleagues - Clare Johnston, Natalie Nicolas and Elizabeth Younan - and  the most brilliant composition supervisor I could ever ask for - Matthew Hindson. With a crew this motivated, talented and supportive, 2017 is sure to be another crazy and unforgettable year!

Who are your favourite Australian women in music?

Missy Higgins had a profound influence on me in my early teenage years. I’ll never forget the first time I tinkered through The Sound of White song book and realised that the way Missy's hands travelled across the piano keys was similar to the way my hands moved in my own improvisations. This was a real “click” moment for me when I moved away from little improvisations and began consciously creating music. My little “Creative Zen” music device rapidly filled with voice-memo style recordings, and this process hasn’t stopped since. To this day I still consider Missy Higgins a fabulous musician - an intuitive performer and a profound composer who’s love for and support of Australian music is something to admire.

What was life like growing up in Australia for you? 

I could not be more grateful for the life I have had in Australia. My childhood was very colourful and creative, and was always full of music. I was lucky enough to go to a Steiner school in Sydney’s north-west for my primary school years, where music, art and creativity more generally was at the forefront of learning. Being of Latvian background has also significantly impacted my artistic style. The small Baltic nation of Latvia has a rich singing tradition, and as an active member of the Australian Latvian community I have been graced with a wealth of opportunities - performing with and composing and arranging for various ensembles and choirs. My parents have a very eclectic taste in music and as children our family home was always buzzing - from the sounds the Suzuki Method violin CDs on a week night, to dad practicing the classical guitar, to Latvian folk and choral recordings and mum’s accordion playing - and who can forget the Buena Vista Social Club sounding every Sunday morning (without fail!). I feel as though as a child I was delicately cradled in the palms of sincere music lovers who graciously passed me along until I was really able to take my own stride. A musical turning point came in my final few years at Cheltenham Girls High School (the “pink school”) where I was so passionately inspired by my music teacher Simone Katz. She motivated and challenged more than anyone had before - to perform and compose the best that I possibly could, and I couldn’t be more grateful for all that she has done for me. My HSC composition Call of the Sirens was selected for inclusion in the ENCORE programme of that year, and I’ve been truly passionate about composition ever since. 

What is your favourite place in Australia?

Anyone who has been here knows that this is a virtually impossible question to answer! I love the water and the sun, so I would have to say somewhere near the ocean. At the end of last year I was lucky enough to spend a gracious week tucked away in an old wooden cottage in South West Rocks NSW with my beautiful partner Ben. When we arrived, our little home was silent and still - delicate rays of sunshine filtered through the kitchen windows and placed themselves perfectly on an old, upright piano. To me, this was heaven. As the sky faded, the sound of ocean waves rolled through the windows, reminding us of the crystal clear water that was awaiting us just moments away. One of my favourite places on earth? Definitely.

Ella Macens. Images: Darwin Gomez

Favourite café or restaurant in Australia?

I have way too many to list here, but it goes without saying that Cafe Ella on Abercrombie Street in Darlington stole my heart when I moved just a stone throw away in 2012. This little pot of gold will forever be home to a thousand laughs and memories - from the morning coffee dates to the slightly shady midday breakfasts ;) Definitely worth paying this little joint a visit - you won’t be disappointed!

For more information about the NWCDP, head here