Red - (Sally’s-shopfront-studio-rough-n-ready-remix)
text and music by Sally Whitwell.

Note to self: I should just put my compositions out into world more often. Put this song out there an hour ago and have had three expressions of interest already.

Here’s the words and the blurb

Red river of life
Red runs in the veins
Red turns the mill that pumps the heart
Red river it flows
Red beneath that skin
Red turns the mill that pumps the heart

And the fire
And the spark
And the fire
And the zipzapzoom.

Red liquid energy
Red runs in the veins
Red pulse is powered through the limbs
Red liquid energy
Red feeding the core
Red pulse is powered through the limbs

And the fire
And the spark
And the fire
And the zipzapzoom.

You know the one.
The one with the x ray vision
Sees straight through your position
Despite all your protestation
They know you

Choral music is one of my favourite genres of music, but it is tricky for us atheists to find choral repertoire that really resonates with us personally. Much of the greatest choral music in history was designed specifically for Christian contexts; Medieval plainchant, JS Bach’s Cantatas, Rachmaninov’s Vespers… It’s little wonder really, the Christian church has constructed the perfect buildings for a particular kind of choral music, beautifully resonant stone chambers with incredibly high vaulted ceilings. The sound bounces around in there until you’re surrounded by this magical echoing that, well, it’s hard to describe. Whilst it’s really wonderful, it’s not personal for me so I often feel a little disconnected from it.

Fortunately the choral and vocal ensemble repertoire is constantly developing and these days those of us who aren’t so driven to sing to the glory of god have opportunities to find places to sing about other things that matter to us. I believe in science and I have quite a few scientist friends who also happen to sing in choirs. The other night, I was awake at ridiculous o’clock with insomnia and fell into one of those Youtube rabbit holes that you do when you’re bored. I am not sure how I came to be watching it, but I found this mesmerisingly hypnotic animation of red blood cells coursing through an artery and felt inspired to write a song about it. The song’s about the blood itself, the life force, but it’s also about scientists as people and how they seem to know so much more about us mere mortals than we could ever know ourselves. I find it kind of intimidating, as well as kind of wonderful. Haha.

And yet another of my students comes over to the dark side… They keep asking me if they can play some Philip Glass. I didn’t encourage them, not at all, promise, but I guess my love of this music has to rub off somehow. Subliminal. Minimal. Mmm yes.

After I go to play this concert with Mr. Glass in Brooklyn in December, I shall make sure to bring home the scores for the Etudes. They’ll be released by then. Can’t wait!

This song is inspired by a walk I took in my local neighbourhood with my mum. It’s about how the slightly grubby city streets are my happy place.

Here’s the words;

HAPPY PLACE

The rhythm of one foot in front of the other
The leaves and the sticks and the chip packets cover
The cracks in the pavement, but nothing could smother
The bright blazing sun
The hum of the traffic, I find it so soothing
Multi-hued streams of vehicles moving
The whole of the city it seems to be grooving
To it’s own beat.

'Cause right on my doorstep is my happy place
Puts a spring in my step and a smile on my face
Can you see in these eyes even the slightest trace
Of concern for your opinion?

Maybe for you it’s the call of the wild
Go on retreat to find your inner child
Can you understand how I might be beguiled
By things so mundane?
So go climb your Everest, I’m happy for you
You have discovered what you need to do
I’ve got my own way to banish my blues
And yes, it’s ok.

'Cause right on my doorstep is my happy place
Puts a spring in my step and a smile on my face
Can you see in these eyes even the slightest trace
Of concern for your opinion?

Paying it forwardI have never in my life felt in the least bit attracted to visiting Queensland’s Gold Coast. To me, it’s simply a horrible thought. It’s where misogynist footballers go on holidays, where fake tanned bimbos wear gold strappy sandals as evening wear, where unimaginative families take their kids for constructed ‘experiences’ in overpriced theme parks. Yuk.It’s odd then, that I’ve had some seriously lovely and poignant creative moments there in recent times. Back in June, it was the Queensland Choral Conference to which I was invited by the late Harley Mead to present some collaborative composition workshops. At the time, I’d been having a bit of a creative drought, which I think was the result of having to push quite hard for opportunities to get my creativity out there as well as having to work on a couple of commissions for rather demanding, interfering types. These things had blocked me to the point that I wasn’t even doing the creative stuff that I love to do just for myself. That was a bad sign.So anyway, Harley invited me to the conference and I said yes, even though I feared that I just wouldn’t be able to find that spark of inspiration for myself, let alone for a bunch of choir nerds hungry for creativity. It really worried me in the weeks leading up to the event. I was pretty scared, but when I arrived at the hotel and there was Harley with that smile and those open arms, I suddenly found my courage, felt a shift, knew that it was going to be a catalyst for something.Before my workshop, I had admired a green ukulele in one of the stalls at the conference. After the workshop, it magically appeared in my hotel room. I knew it had to be a gift from Harley, which he denied with a playful grin as was his way. I told him my song idea about this child talking to a little raindrop on the windowpane of his home in one of those hideous Gold Coast towers, asking the raindrop to talk to his saltwater friends in the ocean, to ask them not to drag all the sand off the beach so the buildings don’t fall over. Harley liked my idea and sat with me on my hotel room balcony, forcing me to finish it. His commitment to encouraging me meant so much, particularly because he was organising the conference and probably had a lot of other things he was meant to be doing. But he was with me on my balcony, laughing and singing and reigniting the creative flame in my heart. That song I wrote that day Hello Raindrop and the little green ukulele have now become a symbol to me of new beginnings and a reminder of a beautiful soul now lost to the world.Fast forward to last weekend and I’m on the Gold Coast again for another creative opportunity, this time at the invitation of my friend Rob Mills. Yep, that Rob ‘Millsy’ Mills, Australian Idol, f*cked Paris Hilton, star of Wicked and Grease and occasional poster of dodgy imagery on social media. He’s writing a cabaret, the obligatory autobiographical show, so that he gets to say it the way he wants to say it, rather than the way the tabloids and gossip mags say it, or the way that the smartphone wielding public say it. I’m really excited to be a part of it actually. Rob’s a quality human in a whole lotta ways.On our first full day of working, we went through a bunch of songs that he’d chosen to illustrate moments in his life. It’s a fabulous collection of repertoire, lots of range in terms of musical styles and moods, giving him lots of opportunity to show everything he can do, the extroverted entertaining public Millsy and the thoughtful, pensive, inner Rob. The feeling that I was getting, however, was that there needed to be something else. Rob thinks of himself primarily as a performer, an entertainer, not as a creative. When he showed me the closing song he wanted to do, Say what you need to say by John Mayer I finally had to start really pushing back. “It’s got to be in your own words, mate”, I said, “That song isn’t what you need to say, it’s what John Mayer needs to say”. Some old fashioned avoidance followed on his part. Maybe it was all too confronting? I decided to stop pushing too hard.We went for a walk and sat by the beach and talked. Maybe it was the effect of being near the water, but all this great material was pouring out of him without his even thinking about it. It was like the real Rob Mills finally stood up. There was an amount of conversation about our immediate physical surrounds too, how the ocean is simultaneously dangerous and inviting, treacherous and calming, how the water still looks like it’s coming in, even when the tide is actually going out. So there he was, writing a song without knowing that he was doing it. I quietly took mental notes. Next morning on my own, I sat on the balcony of the apartment looking out on the ocean and I put the previous afternoon’s conversation on paper. Suddenly I had this very strong memory of Harley Mead sitting with me on another balcony not far from there, smiling encouragingly at me as I finished my ukulele song about the raindrop. I fetched the ukulele that Rob happened to have brought and I sang Hello Raindrop out to the sea and sky. My voice was wobbly and the tears were kinda welling up. When I finished, I turned around and Rob had been standing listening to me. I’m not sure how long he’d been standing there. I felt super embarrassed and did my usual trick of blurting out of small talk nothingness to hide the tears. I am totally sure he’s perceptive enough to know something was going on. Eek.He smiled goodbye and went down to the beach for a swim, and I stayed in and wrote the 1st verse and chorus of our new song, using the ocean swimming thing as a metaphor. I played it to him upon his return and got him to immediately write the second verse. With this framework to build upon, his words fit so beautifully, so naturally with the music, just like how good it feels to be immersed in salt water, and I just felt so feckin’ happy for him, that he was finally saying what he needed to say, straight from the heart and in the first person. Was that how Harley felt that day with me on that other balcony? Was I kind of Paying it Forward here? Harley gave it to me, I gave it to Rob, and when the show goes on, Rob will give it back to the world and this beautiful line of human connections will be made…
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Sally Whitwell - Red

126 plays

Red - (Sally’s-shopfront-studio-rough-n-ready-remix)
text and music by Sally Whitwell

Red river of life
Red runs in the veins
Red turns the mill that pumps the heart
Red river it flows
Red beneath that skin
Red turns the mill that pumps the heart

And the fire
And the spark
And the fire
And the zipzapzoom.

Red liquid energy
Red runs in the veins
Red pulse is powered through the limbs
Red liquid energy
Red feeding the core
Red pulse is powered through the limbs

And the fire
And the spark
And the fire
And the zipzapzoom.

You know the one.
The one with the x ray vision
Sees straight through your position
Despite all your protestation
They know you


Choral music is one of my favourite genres of music, but it is tricky for us atheists to find choral repertoire that really resonates with us personally.  Much of the greatest choral music in history was designed specifically for Christian contexts; Medieval plainchant, JS Bach’s Cantatas, Rachmaninov’s Vespers… It’s little wonder really, the Christian church has constructed the perfect buildings for a particular kind of choral music, beautifully resonant stone chambers with incredibly high vaulted ceilings. The sound bounces around in there until you’re surrounded by this magical echoing that, well, it’s hard to describe. Whilst it’s really wonderful, it’s not personal for me so I often feel a little disconnected from it.

Fortunately the choral and vocal ensemble repertoire is constantly developing and these days those of us who aren’t so driven to sing to the glory of god have opportunities to find places to sing about other things that matter to us. I believe in science and I have quite a few scientist friends who also happen to sing in choirs. The other night, I was awake at ridiculous o’clock with insomnia and fell into one of those Youtube rabbit holes that you do when you’re bored. I am not sure how I came to be watching it, but I found this mesmerisingly hypnotic animation of red blood cells coursing through an artery and felt inspired to write a song about it. The song’s about the blood itself, the life force, but it’s also about scientists as people and how they seem to know so much more about us mere mortals than we could ever know ourselves. I find it kind of intimidating, as well as kind of wonderful. Haha.

! !
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“People compose for many reasons: to become immortal; because the pianoforte happens to be open; because they want to become a millionaire; because of the praise of friends; because they have looked into a pair of beautiful eyes; for no reason whatsoever.”

Robert Schumann (via leadingtone)

So many reasons. For myself, I have another reason… the energy of young people in my life.

In my day job at Sydney Children’s Choir, we have a whole lot of different choirs named after composers that have written music for kids over the years. This term is the first term of the Whitwell Choir, named after yours truly, and they make their performance debut tomorrow singing a song that I co-wrote with their peers in the Stanhope, Atherton and Twist Choirs last term. (Those choirs are named after Paul Stanhope, Michael Atherton and Joseph Twist respectively).

Today in our final rehearsal, the kids were so so great. Their sound was energetic and muscular, their diction clear, their storytelling compelling… and they’re all only 8-9 years old!

Truly. It’s made me wonder… what if adults always performed with this kind of energy? Imagine how amazing it would be!

A pianist’s lament…
I love intimate performance spaces. As an audient, I love being close to the performers, to be up close and personal, to really see the effort of playing and to hear lots of the detail. As a performer, I love being able to see the faces of the people to whom I play. I like to see them smiling and relaxed and happy to be moved by some music. I don’t even mind if they’re enjoying a quiet beverage at the same time, though I do mind if they chat with their friends whilst I’m playing.There was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about how great the intimate venue live music scene is these days in Sydney. The City of Sydney council has helped the scene a lot by making it much cheaper to get a liquor licence, so all these new groovy small bars have opened up, run by people who love live music. There’s a great deal happening, and it’s all a very happy story.However there’s one group of musicians very much left on the edge. Pianists. Not one of the venues mentioned in the article have a piano. I don’t know if I’m the only one who’s upset about this, but given that there are a number of bigger pop stars who play the piano very well (Ben Folds, Tori Amos, Rufus Wainright, Regina Spektor) and even ones who play mainstream stuff that doesn’t interest me (Missy Higgins, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys… even Taylor feckin’ Swift!) you might think that it’d be a more popular instrument to have around again. But apparently not.The expectation from venues seems to be that you’ll bring your own ‘piano’ i.e. keyboard. Newsflash, dear venue owners; a keyboard is not a piano.  They are two different instruments. I prefer to play the piano, with occasional forays into keyboard when I am required to make sounds that cannot be made on a piano, actual electronic sounds, not something imitating a piano. The solidity of a real piano contrasted with the flexibility of it,. The dynamic range not only in terms of volume but more importantly in terms of colour. A good pianist uses the weight of their entire body to create a resonant sound. Some flimsy little keyboard stand is never going to cut it, even under the weight of someone as small as yours truly.  The natural resonance of hammer on string setting sail in that enormous steel framed wooden ship… Lemme tell ya, there’s nothing that can imitate that!The only venues outside of concert halls and opera houses that seem to genuinely value the piano as a worthy contributor to the music world are cabaret and jazz bars. Jazz world and classical world are reasonably comfortable bedfellows in this, with the quality of the instrument being utmost in our minds. Cabaret venues are less good with that but more often tend to have one because they like it as a piece of furniture. There’s at least one cabaret bar here in Sydney that insisted on the cheapest white piano they could find to match the light up disco floor on their stage. It’s a terrible instrument. Terrible, but kinda pretty. Ah well, at least they have one.One really special Sydney venue got left out of the article and I’d like to give them a bit of a shout out.  Foundry616 are pretty new kids on the block, but have a fantastic piano and book musicians who really, y’know, play it. Ok, disclosure time, I’m biased cos I’m gonna play a gig there in the not too distant future. But my colleagues and I chose the venue on the strength of the instrument available. If any of those other venues would like to book this multi ARIA Award winner, they can get an instrument for me first. Not just for me, but for all the fine piano playing musicians of the world. Truly, it will open more of the scene up to a whole lot more excellent music making. Truly.
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Winter Love by Sally Whitwell. Live performance by Acacia Quartet and Sally Whitwell, April 2014, Sydney Australia. Image by Glennda Blyth.

I’m really proud of this little tune I wrote… willing winter to stay a little longer by posting it. Haha.

This evening, I shall be attending my first rehearsal with VOX from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Let’s be honest…. I’m beyond nervous about it, because the project is so close to my heart. These young choristers have agreed to record several of my compositions which will form part of my fourth studio album with ABC Classics/Universal due for commercial release in mid 2015.

I just love the sound of young voices, that unique vitality and energy and emotional connection to the music. A youth choir is a very particular instrument and considerably different from a choir of more mature voices. In fact, the youth choir sound is most often the sound that I have in my head as I compose. When I started thinking about which choir to invite to be on my album, VOX was the first group that came to mind. They possess all the aforementioned qualities, plus they are local Sydney peeps and I was determined I make this album all local talent (yes!). I approached Sydney Philharmonia’s Choirs Artistic Director Brett Weymark and VOX’s conductor Elizabeth Scott to see if they were interested. It was nerve wracking to ask them, but to my great surprise and delight, they agreed! So here we are.

I do have another agenda with this recording… VOX are an extremely busy choir with lots of projects on the go simultaneously, but they don’t have a big public profile yet. Yet. They are now starting to make bigger waves in the music world here in Sydney, but I think they should be more famous. It is my hope that this recording will bring their excellent work to more people in the world i.e. I think a top quality studio recording is important for them to have right now, something that will showcase their artistry, and get them a decent amount of publicity backing from a major recording label.

Watch this video of them singing Eric Whitacre and I promise you will totally understand why I want to work with them. Stunning!

So I wrote a song with a bunch of eight year olds. My favourite modus operandi when it comes to composition… Collaboration!
Here are our words
Stuck!words by Sally Whitwell(with lots of help from Sydney Children’s Choir Saturday School choristers 2014)I’m so frustratedMy nerves are gratedI wish mum had waitedTill the traffic dissipatedNo longer satedBy the breakfast that I atedI am so ready to get out of this car!Mum’s getting madThis could be badOur being late for school Ain’t what’s making her sadIt’s the P-plater lad(That Jeep’s gotta be his dad’s)I am so ready to get out of this car!"What’s with the guy in the Jeep?! Get real!"    ”I don’t think he can hear you mum, the windows are sealed.”"Look! The light’s gone green, why are we sitting still?"    ”This isn’t helping mum, your screaming so shrill.”Dreaming of freedom the wind in my hairVast blue smog-free skyIn my imagination there I flyTall trees, green grass, I’ve no cares or worries thereStretching to infinity So far from this reality.
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Today was the world premiere of my choral/theatre work This Paradise Now with the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus (LEC). It’s been a risky kind of project in more ways than one, and for more parties than one.The risks that LEC took were pretty big. They trusted me, a composer with no official training in composition, to create a brand new work. They took all the financial risk, paying the musicians, paying the composers, booking the venue, printing the programs and flyers, on a program that is a bit of a tough sell i.e. a new (contemporary classical) music program. Michelle Leonard, the choir’s Artistic Director was very honest with me about her choristers too, their fears and misgivings about the program. Some were afraid of performing something they didn’t already know (“What if I don’t like it?” they said) or something they thought people might think was silly (e.g. there was a very hilarious song about getting locked in the toilet for five hours). Michelle lost a number of choristers for this program, who intend to return for the next program they have planned, John Rutter’s Gloria which is a piece popular with rather more conservative choral audiences and will no doubt be a strong seller.And the risks I took myself, well, there were a few. I made a political declaration through this artwork. It is something in which I believe very strongly, fighting against the disgustingly cavalier attitude of our current government to the World Heritage listing of vast tracts of Tasmanian old growth forests. As well as composing the music, I wrote all the texts myself. Although I’ve written a couple of isolated songs with my own words, this was the first time I’d written a multi-movement work of this size with all my own text. And last but definitely not least, I stepped well out of my comfort zone by performing one of the movements in the concert: not as you might expect as a pianist, but as a vocal soloist performing the movement I wrote as a hiphop parody. Hilarious but terrifying.Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we risk looking silly, being embarrassed, losing money, alienating others by expressing our opinions? For me personally, I want to actually say something through my chosen medium, classical music. Risk-taking and classical-music are not two things often articulated in the same sentence, which seems odd considering some of the revolutionary works we so often place on a pedestal (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for instance, or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique).What I want to do is to make sure that those who hear my music also hear my stories, my message. And if that is tougher path than just selling a concert of pretty tunes, well, so be it. Big thanks to Michelle Leonard and Leichhardt Espresso Chorus for taking a risk with me. It means a great deal to me. More than you can know….
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Creatives care
The attempts by our current government to de-list so much of the currently World Heritage Listed Tasmanian forests is beyond awful. How they think they can blithely ignore the advisory bodies to UNESCO is beyond my comprehension. Even Terry Edwards, the head honcho of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, has been quoted as saying “We don’t support any or all exceptions to the world heritage area”. Clearly, nobody wants this.And so I wrote some songs. That’s the skill I have to offer the world, a political statement of support in the form of an artwork. How is this helping? For me, art provokes thought and discussion, it both entertains and enlightens, it allows us a space to react emotionally to things we feel strongly about and perhaps then make the decision to act upon those feelings by exercising our democratic right to disagree publicly with the powers that be. Some people write subversive and witty signs and post photos on the internet of themselves marching the streets with them. I write songs instead.It’s not only the political message I wish to communicate by composing these songs. It’s to show that the classical music world cares too. We are human beings who live in the real world and have strong opinions about things and given that we’re in the arts, you’d think that we’d be all over it, taking our opinions to audiences everywhere. Some are, many are not. The classical music world is always talking about how to increase our ‘relevance’ to the modern world, particularly with younger audiences. I dislike the use of the word ‘relevant’ in this context. I prefer ‘meaningful’ and ‘immediate’. Those classical musicians who spend at least a portion of their musical life making the effort to tell contemporary stories through the medium are the ones who are making a real difference. Other classical performers will of course have a harder time of it. Beethoven symphonies and Rossini operas are wonderful but are often too far away from the lives of your average Joe to be meaningful to very many people. The universal themes presented in classical music, those of conflict and resolution in whatever guise they take, abstract or narrative, operas or symphonies, chamber music or recitals; these things are in fact very now. We just need to learn to communicate it with people. Therein lies the challenge.For myself, it’s a little contemporary eco-allegorical choral work that I’m contributing to both causes. It was commissioned by an amateur community choir the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus directed by Michelle Leonard one of the most adventurous classical music professionals I know, so it’s breaking down the barriers again between ordinary folks and classical music folks. And it’s an issue about which we all care very deeply. I’m pretty frickin’ proud of that.
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