Interview with Australian Composer – Martin Lass

Seasoned composer Martin Lass was awarded a jury prize in the 2021 ‘Composing the Future’ competition with his solo piano composition ‘Journey to Sydney – Snapshots from an Uncommon Childhood’’. This poignant work had its debut performance in Melbourne by pianist Ian Munro in September. Let’s hear more from Martin on the inspiration behind his new work:

Composing the Future 

Tell us about yourself. How did you discover the ‘Composing the Future’ Competition?

I currently live on the Gold Coast. Born in America, my family emigrated to Australia when I was 11 and we have lived here ever since, barring 10 years spent in New York. After Conservatorium training (NSW Conservatorium), I spent years playing violin with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After winning a major television talent show, I branched out as a solo performer into the classical crossover genre—one of the first to do so. I travelled Australia and the world with this for many years. On my return to Australia, I was still performing a little, but went more into teaching and examining for the AMEB as a way of giving back everything that I’ve been given. My main activities these days are teaching, composing and spending time with my wife and five cats, three adult children and two grandchildren.

You have a long history as a composer, how did you find this passion?

My first realisation of the joy of composing came around the age of 12 when, at the Conservatorium High School, we were given the task of writing our own piece of music. My first instrument for composition was piano, even though violin was my first instrument for performing. That I could compose and how rewarding it was, was beyond a revelation for me. I became unstoppable!

In hindsight, I realised that composition gave me a psychological and creative outlet for so much that was bottled up inside me due to a difficult childhood and home situation. Not that my parents were not good parents; they certainly were. It was just that their attitude towards raising children was, shall we say, archaic and, we would now deem it, cruel. I survived it and the benefit of it – there are benefits to every difficult situation – was that it sparked my creative fire. For this, whenever I think of my parents who are now both passed away, it brings me to tears of gratitude.

Do you compose for other instruments?

I have composed for all manner of solo instruments and ensembles right up to symphony orchestra and popular ensembles like rock bands. My main focus is strings and piano given that I play piano, violin, viola, and cello. That said, the palette of colours offered by a symphony orchestra is beyond everything in me to resist! I’m currently working on a second series of my major orchestral work, ‘Stories of Ray Bradbury.’ The first series has been performed by the SSO and the BBC Symphony.

You have many original recordings, some of which have been considered for film and television. How does it feel to perform your own work?

I love performing my own music. It makes sense because I know exactly how I feel it should sound. It’s one of my dilemmas to hand the performance of my works to other performers, because I have to accept that they will interpret it differently. However, that’s the nature of art! And after hearing others perform my works, it is often a revelation i.e. I didn’t know that it could sound like that! And it’s usually wonderful!

What was the inspiration behind ‘Journey to Sydney – Snapshots from an Uncommon Childhood?’

‘Journey to Sydney – Snapshots from an Uncommon Childhood’ consists of certain memories – snapshots – of emigrating from America to Australia when I was 11 and my inner journey after arriving. After the initial exhilaration and promise of new adventure (I – Ocean Crossing (Fanfare)), we landed in a strange country, so very different in so many ways from where we had come from (II – Strange Land (Nocturne)). For a young boy, the differences were far more acute than for an adult with more worldly experience.

After this, even though I made new friends at new schools and gradually became acclimatised to the cultural differences, I still had moments of feeling lost, like an alien in an alien land (III – In Limbo (Prelude)). In my second year in Sydney, I was accepted into the Conservatorium of Music High School—another new adventure but also fraught with feelings of inadequacy in the wake of so many high-level, talented students. The daily trip to the Conservatorium High School was by train from Normanhurst to Circular Quay. I gradually came to love this daily trip, as it gave me a sense of freedom, direction, and power, as well as space to think, be, and figure out who I was. As such, I fell in love, in a way, with the trains and their reassuring movement and exhilaration (IV – The Trains (Toccata).

Eleven years after arriving in Sydney, my father passed away from the terrible effects of multiple sclerosis. It was a very dark time for our family. We did not understand how, after our amazing adventure to a new life, such a tragedy could happen. The fifth movement of ‘Journey to Sydney,’ ‘Elegy,’ is dedicated to my father who, of all the people in my life, supported me the most in my music, God rest his soul. After many years in Sydney, with Australia having truly adopted us and feeling like it was home now, I felt now that our adventure had brought us to a new day, full of promise, opportunities, and joy (VI – New Day (Rondo)).

Where were you when you saw it first performed live?

I was at the concert and wouldn’t have missed it for the world! I came down to Melbourne for this and it gave me a chance to catch up with son who lives there with his partner. I enjoyed Ian Munro’s interpretation, as well as the rest of his well-crafted programme, which included one of his own works, too!

What legacy would you like to leave behind with the creation of your works?

Interesting question! When I first started writing in my teens at the Conservatorium, it was during a period of local music history where tonality was being sneered at in favour of atonal, electronic, and other experimental music. In my compositions, as one Conservatorium lecturer put it with a sardonic grin, I was an ‘incurable romantic’! That did not stop me initially, but, as I got into my late teens, I was feeling the pressure of this and tried to adapt my compositions to this more atonal trend. It’s something I regret in hindsight, but the forces in me and those that came through me—in my belief, true composition does not fully come from the composer, but there are higher forces involved—eventually helped me to shake off the idea that I had to please anybody and their opinions.

I vividly recall a conversation with my teacher and friend, Ross Edwards, when he himself was going through a similar transition. He was writing atonal music at the time, but was agonising over how to decide which note comes next! How does one determine this without tonality? It could only be a cold calculation otherwise. It was around this time that he had his breakthrough. The result is history: his own personal, highly tonal, but highly original music captivates us to this day! He was an inspiration for me.

The legacy I would like to leave behind to both composers and music-lovers in general is that music must speak not only to the mind with all its cleverness, but to the heart and spirit, too, which is expressed through the body. Atonality cannot do this, in my opinion. Certain harmonies are written into our very construction, and, for this reason, it is these harmonies—based on the harmonic series, number/frequency relationships, and higher mathematics—that resonant with our bodies and souls. I believe that music that speaks to mind, body, heart, and spirit comes from a higher source—it comes through us, but only if we are able to listen well inside and cast aside our conditioning, the latter of which includes others’ expectations of us, as well as all the narrow cultural mores we inherit from our upbringing.

In summary, my musical legacy is to leave behind music that sings from and to our souls.