by Tim Hansen

Contemporary art photographer artist Bill Henson is a wizard with a camera. Internationally renowned for his sometimes controversial exhibitions, the Australian artist is famous for creating textures in his images that are close to those in paintings. In particular, he is recognised for his skilful use of chiaroscuro, a visual art technique defined by bold contrasts between light and shadow.

Although he may not know it, Bill Henson was a significant inspiration to young composer William Gardiner. While studying his undergrad at the Sydney Conservatorium, Gardiner attended the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s collaboration with Henson entitled “Luminous”.

“The concert featured music by contemporary composers such as Alfred Schnittke and Peteris Vasks,” recalls Gardiner, “and was performed with photographs by Bill Henson projected above the orchestra. I found that concert really moving, and I think in that moment I picked up the ambition to write music that would do that for someone else.”

Until that point, Gardiner had been dividing his time between classical violin study and rock music. Like many musicians before him, he came from a musical family: his mother played baroque harpsichord professionally and his father was no slouch on the baroque flute. Immersed in an environment filled with early music, it was probably no surprise that both Gardiner and his brother are now professional musicians. “I think there was a feeling in my family that music is life’s great hobby,” Gardiner muses.

“During high school I started playing the drums and playing in bands with my friends,” he continues, explaining the transition from high school rock-band to tertiary composition study. “I think that mode of music-making first led to me thinking about music in a composer-like way. We would have to learn our favourite songs by ear from recordings, I would try to transcribe things I wanted to play, and we would also write songs of our own. Doing all those things meant we were being immersed in the way the music was assembled or constructed, and I think that transformed the way I thought about music. In the rock music world it is the norm that the performers compose their own music, and I suppose it got me thinking certain things about possibilities for new music with classical instruments.”

Today, Gardiner lives in Brooklyn having completed the coursework for his DMA at Yale. His upbringing and encounter with Henson’s work continues to influence his music; one of the most recent examples was the piece he composed after winning the ACF’s National Competition Contest (alongside Nina C. Young and Alex Temple). The title of the piece: Chiaroscuro, of course.

“I was aiming for an effect similar to that of chiaroscuro painting but in sound,” he explains. “In chiaroscuro painting I think some of the atmosphere of dramatic intensity comes from the fact that when there is very little light and just a single, faint light source, we see a lot of detail, as the light creates shadows as a it falls across the surface. The texture of the surface is illuminated and there’s this heightening of physical presence. I think something similar happens with sound. There’s something incredibly beautiful, I find, about the timbre of instruments when they’re played softly. You get these sounds that could be described as warm, woolly, glowing.”

The result of Gardiner’s experiments is a fragile mobile of different timbres that seems to shimmer in the air, floating over a darkly resonant bed of electronica. Chiaroscuro premiered in September at REDCAT in the Disney Hall in Los Angeles, performed by the wild Up music ensemble. Gardiner is thrilled with the both the opportunity to write for the group, as well as their treatment of his work.

“I was really excited when I found out I would be writing for wild Up,” he enthuses. “They seemed like they would be up for it; they seemed like a group of people who convene for the possibility of making crazy, strange and beautiful things happen. I remember reading the instrumentation list and just smiling, because each ensemble member had outlandish auxiliary instruments listed in addition to the ones they actually trained to play in a conservatory. The experience working with them was amazing, it was all the good things I had imagined and more. They’re a very special group, in my opinion”.

For a review of the concert covering Gardiner’s piece as well as those of Young and Temple’s, follow this link.

Details for ACF’s 2016 National Composition Competition will be announced in November.