Sarah Ballard is building shapes out of sound.
"I want to be creating unfamiliar combinations of sounds," she says, "Sounds that are not immediately distinguishable."
The Waikato woman will have the opportunity and the means to make good use of her creative and innovative impulses as the National Youth Orchestra's composer in residence for 2014.
Ballard, who is now based in Auckland, recently completed her studies in composition and has already gained experience as a composer, having several ensembles perform her works.
As the focus of her residency, she is tasked with composing a work for the youth orchestra, an offshoot of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
"This is such a special opportunity. I'm looking forward to working with an orchestra of such accomplished young musicians to bring the music on the page to life. And it's so free, conceptually. I can shape the work however I choose to."
The commissioned work will be performed in Wellington and Auckland in July, along with Richard Strauss works Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Ballard will spend the week leading up to the concerts with the orchestra as it rehearses: "Getting that time to ensure everything is as it should be, getting time to talk to individual players about the parts I've written . . . having it all that much closer to how I intended it. This commission puts me in a unique position to have the time to make connections with performers too - that's really important to me.
"Already I know that the various percussion instruments I'll write for will define the character of each movement of the commission."
She also has a passion for creating a sensory experience for listeners.
"I want to pique the curiosity of the listeners - I want to transport them to another place, perhaps even evoking sights and smells. Music should be immersive, something more than just listening. More visceral, somehow.
"I'm inspired by colour and I'd like to think of myself as an empathetic person. That comes across, I think, in my approach to writing music and in the experience I want listeners to have. Great art is always about being able to provoke a response, and can lead to those epiphanal, seminal experiences we have in life - these experiences shape us as individuals."
Ballard was a finalist in the recent NZSO Todd Corporation Young Composers Awards - a competition she won last year with a work titled Bitter Hill, about the Waikato landscape where she grew up. "[My 2013 piece] wasn't quite right structurally, but I was testing out sounds. I also learned about the extra-musical techniques that I wrote in - even though many techniques have standardised notations, the interpretation varies between performers.
"So I'm looking forward to building relationships and discussing techniques with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra musicians throughout the composing process."
Bitter Hill had greater resonance - at least personally.
"When you look into the river, you can almost hear the steamer boats that used to make their trade there. The farming community across the bridge is Pukekawa, which means ‘hill of bitter memories'. The land and atmosphere, accompanied by the senses, is very much a part of my being. Mercer, where I grew up, was a great place to explore my imagination."
Ballard has a passion for composing but also a realism about the challenging path to becoming a fulltime composer.
"I'm working this year. My ideal plan is to gradually wind back the number of hours I do, and do some composing as well through funding, grants, and commissions - and maybe some workshops or festivals overseas. I really want to pursue this, it's what I want to do. But I'm realistic about a future as a composer. I'm just taking it one step at a time."
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