Melody Eötvös on storytelling through sonata form

Cut Common Magazine
November 2, 2017

The Australian composer takes us into her new music.



For many, the piano sonata carries a historical tag, rendering it a daunting prospect for the modern composer. But, for composer Melody Eötvös, the sonata is what it is, and will always be used by composers as a means to an end – as a sort of container.

“Time will change it according to the needs of the composer,” she states. “But this is what makes music history so rich and interesting to confront.” 

The Australian composer is about to have her first piano sonata performed by pianist Bernadette Harvey, who commissioned the work as part of The Sonata Project: a collaboration between Harvey and Australian composers, mostly women, to inject vitality into a faltering art form – the solo piano recital.


The Sonata Project seems an exciting initiative for Australian composers. How did you become involved, and what makes this collaboration an important one to be a part of?

For me, this collaboration has been completely unique and has allowed me to work within my own timeframe, as well as get Bernadette’s expert counsel on piano technique and experience with the sonata form. Having someone of Bernadette’s calibre performing my music is also an incredible opportunity, as it has allowed me to really push my compositional ideas for the piano to their furthest reaches; something that you can’t normally do in a commission where perhaps you need to take rehearsal time, a successful live performance recording, and occasionally the audience into consideration.

Besides being a singularly stunning pianist, Bernadette also cares immensely about the quality and substance of the music she plays, which is understandable given how much time and effort she invests on bringing this music to life. Bernadette’s experience and familiarity with large-scale works has given her a unique and amazing perspective on new music.

I believe it was Jon Davis (CEO, Australian Music Centre) who recommended me to Bernadette for this project. I think at the time I had been involved in several other workshops around Australia, so my work was on the spectrum of emerging composers, hence why Davis thought of me.

The piano sonata has such a strong and well-established history. Is it daunting to approach this type of composition? 

Very much along the ‘daunting’ lines! I felt a similar kind of trepidation when I wrote my first string quartet. With my piano sonata, I had to work hard to stick to a structural/thematic consistency, which I would normally let unfold intuitively. I’m a very intuitive composer so I ordinarily let the music have its way. But with this project, I had to impose a lot of control and much more focused manipulation than usual.

Having said that, the first few months of composing and conceptualising were complicated. Eventually, once I had worked out the structure and knew how many thematic ideas I was working with, it became a lot easier to write. Interestingly, after completing this piece I’ve started using a lot more thematic manipulation in my music. So this collaboration has certainly left its mark on me.

Your composition is inspired by The King in Yellow, a book of short psychological horror stories by Robert W. Chambers. What is it about literature that inspires you to compose music?

I have always found inspiration in books. I remember being a 14-year-old and wanting to be a film composer because I knew what kind of music I would like to hear while I was reading my sci-fi and fantasy novels. Throughout my undergraduate degree, that interest blossomed into a more diverse attraction to literature, philosophy, and whatever I could get my hands on really. I think I’m most attracted to giving the material I read a different shape and interpretation, and its own sound. This is why I was probably so involved with Chambers’ The King in Yellow book for three years. I got a little lost in that particular world and was enjoying the sounds I gave it, perhaps too much! 

The first movement of your sonata explores a narrative that has many other-worldly and reality-questioning themes. What is your approach to musically representing narrative in your compositions, particularly if it involves quite complex themes and plots?

It’s simple enough to parallel one conceptual theme with an artistic expression, be it a colour, a sound, or a musical theme. Getting those themes to all co-operate is another battle entirely. Fortunately, narrative as a structural function in literature is quite simple and, in fact, is most often outlined in a similar fashion to the tension/resolution motivation behind a sonata:

A diagram of narrative structure…

A diagram of narrative structure…

… and similarities can be found in sonata form.

… and similarities can be found in sonata form.

Once you’ve decided on your characters or the components of the story that you want to articulate in the music, given them their identifying musical traits or signals, and found a way to let them communicate compositionally, all that’s left is to direct them though the twists and turns of the narrative. Through the introduction (exposition), into the conflict (development), and out into the resolution again (recapitulation).

Will the piece parallel the story to a letter? No, it won’t. I think it’s more in the interest of the audience that it isn’t explicitly stated, note for note, what is happening in the narrative of the music. At the end of the day, programmatic music is a rendering of a narrative, therefore an interpretation. I’ve exerted my subjective will on the original Chambers story, portraying my own idea and experience of it and the sound world I’ve come to attach with it. This is one of the reasons I love being a composer.

What can listeners expect in the second movement of your sonata, Verité Cachée (Hidden Truth)?

Listeners can expect a much more open, fantasia-like treatment of the thematic ideas and signage used in the first movement. It’s also a lot lighter in character and more transparent. It’s based on a poem often associated with the story:

Mais je croy que je
Suis descendu on puiz
Tenebreux onquel disoit
Heraclytus estre Verité cachée

(But I believe that I
went down into the well
of shadows where it was said
by Heraclitus that truth was hidden) 

As someone who has studied in Australia, England, and the United States. What advice would you give to current undergraduate composition students who might be considering studying internationally? 

If you intend to study somewhere in the USA, make sure you know what you want out of the program and where you want to be in around five years’ time. Also be aware that in the USA, there is a stigma over where you go to school in relation to where you want to potentially get a teaching job – if that is your goal for pursuing a graduate degree. For example, several schools on the East Coast are considered Ivy League, and many positions that you interview for will take this into consideration favourably.

Bottom line, though, I would really ask yourself why you want to go overseas and what you hope to get out of the program. If you intend to take your Masters in the States, you’ll also probably take your Doctorate there as well. At the end of the day, though, if you’re like me and you want to learn as much as possible, meet as many people as possible, write as much music as possible, and experience the world as much as possible, then studying overseas is a wonderful way to satiate that.


Melody Eötvös’ Piano Sonata No. 1 will feature in The Sonata Project: Bernadette Harvey at 7pm, November 11 at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Tickets are available online.

Images supplied. 
Source: Cut Common Magazine