SEVEN STORIES – hear from the composers

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SEVEN STORIES, our genre-defying, collaborative work combining music, storytelling and film premieres on June 3rd, 2017 at City Recital Hall.

SEVEN STORIES is a re-imagining of the seven archetypal stories that encompass the human experience.

Caitlin Yeo – The Quest
Jodi Phillis – Overcoming the Darkness
Amanda Brown – Rags to Riches
Sally Whitwell – Fatal Flaw
Bree van Reyk – Comedy of Errors
Kyls Burtland – Journey
Jane Sheldon – Transformation

Read on for insights from the composers into their creative processes and their Seven Stories journey.


The obvious starting point when presented with the task of writing to the brief of a ‘Comedy of Errors’ was to undertake a google search for ‘what makes a good comedy?’. From this I garnered a shortlist of comedic devices – repetition, overstatement, interruption, imitation, slapstick, unlikely combinations – and set about writing a series of one-liners based on these concepts. What results is a work in three parts featuring an overstated repetition of an interrupted cadence, a slapstick chorus of musical imitations, and perhaps the most unlikely combination of all – a Miniature Double Concerto for Woodblocks, Soprano/Woodblock Understudy and Small Ensemble.


When I begin to compose a piece, I choose one thought upon which to base everything that comes after it. Faced with the challenge of writing about tragedy, one word came to mind: inexorable. Before the flaws are discovered there is a fragile joy, but once those horrible truths are exposed everything that follows is an unstoppable fall. So the story begins in happiness. But soon someone becomes a little too confident, a little too cocky, and the world turns in upon them – beginning with a screaming clarinet and continuing with a wailing blues-inspired song-without-words cast adrift and fading into nothing – the fatal flaw.


The text assigned to me is about metamorphosis. A woman is driven to plunge herself into the ocean, where she slowly transforms into a marine creature, with scales and fins and a new facility for moving through the water. Unfortunately the first instances that came to my mind of transformation by women in mythological tales were all stories in which the women had a very bad time. I thought of Philomel, whose transformation into a nightingale comes after being raped by Tereus and having her tongue cut out. Or Daphne, whose only way to escape the unwanted attention of Apollo was to take the form of a laurel tree.

So for this task I focussed not on the narrative function of this woman’s transformation but on trying to imagine what it might be like to feel your body changing form and moving in an entirely new way. Plain, old, earth-bound human experience offers a variety of paths to metamorphosis: puberty, pregnancy, aging, accidents that transform the body’s agility, and gender reassignment. But the metamorphosis here is of a more mythological kind: changing into the form of a different creature entirely. Humans pour tremendous time and energy into approximating this kind of transformation. Base jumpers risk their lives experimenting with ever more intricately designed wingsuits in an effort to simulate the flight of birds. Free divers train their bodies to mimic the deep dives of dolphins and whales. Devotees of both practices routinely describe their attempted transformations as ecstatic experiences.

In my piece I have tried to achieve a sense of ecstatic suspension, of being inside the experience of undergoing metamorphosis in water. The piece is harmonically very static and the players are mostly tasked with playing single pitches which have different colour characteristics. I’ve asked the players to caress each pitch and explore the internal life of each tone colour in the hope of suggesting the ocean’s midwater: an expansive, seemingly uniform space quivering with quiet activity and possibility.






‘I can’t remember ever feeling this awake. Something in me has crossed over and I can’t go back.’ From ‘Thelma and Louise’, Directed by Riddley Scott, 1991

Prompted by an unexpected ‘call to adventure’, our protagonists leave their mundane everyday world to enter the strange, exotic and even dreamlike realms of the ‘road’. They soon encounter challenges to their understanding of themselves and the world; temptations that rock their social and moral foundations; and experiences that trigger moments of revelation and insight. With an inner journey surely as fierce and transformative as the external one, our Road Trippers may return home, but they will never again be as they once were.

The Road Trip narrative is found universally throughout literature, art, myth and philosophy. It encompasses the spiritual – Sidharta’s journey to enlightenment and Homer’s Odyssey; the comedic – Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Little Miss Sunshine, and the intriguingly metaphoric – Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. Each iteration is steeped in the symbolism of change, of death and rebirth, of obliteration of the self, of transformation and redemption. Each describes key steps towards human enlightenment; namely the unlocking of self-knowledge, and truism that ‘the journey is always more important than the destination’.

As a traveler and composer, I’ve always found the Road Trip narrative deeply seductive. I often feel burdened by the straight jacket of my own identity, by the expectations of those around me and by society itself. Mistakes, shame and habit seem slowly to stick to my hull, hardening me in an inflexible personality that I can’t wriggle my way out of. But the minute I clamber on a plane, this magically evaporates. Soon I am free-falling into the best version of myself; friendlier, more open, quicker to access joy. The most miraculous gift of travel is in the remembering that fate is not sealed; that we can change and grow at any time.

Any metaphoric rebirth found en route in the Road Trip is born out by science. New synaptic connections are forged with each new experience. Travel literally rebuilds the brain and nervous system. What a tonic travel is!

Like me, all Road Trippers are driven by key human needs: for variety, adventure, growth and expansion, freedom from constraint, and longing for ecstatic encounters with nature. For this reason, during historic moments of revolution, the genre has flourished. The exploratory 60s was, for instance, a natural fit for this genre, and witnessed a bloom of Road Trip novels and films, including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Easy Rider.

Australian culture, too, has had a strong affinity with the Road Trip, due perhaps to it’s pioneering history and forbidding landscapes. Ranging from The Overlanders of 1946, in which Chips Rafferty drove his herd of cattle cross-country to escape an expected Japanese invasion; to the dystopian classic Mad Max; to the incongruous clash of grunting red-centre barflies with the be-sequinned Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; to Kiss or Kill, a road mystery which exclusively used the lonely sounds of telephone wires as its score – Australian Road Trip movies abound.

There has been a conspicuous global absence of female road movie protagonists, though Tracks and Rabbit-Proof Fence are two Australian exceptions. Thelma and Louise suggests that, while women may enjoy adventure and revelation on the road, death must be their penalty for any transgressions against society they make. Compare this with Hunter S. Thompson, who in Fear and Loathing, is embraced as a rebel and hero for similar crimes.

In her excellent article, The lack of female road narratives and why it matters, Vanessa Vselka calls for new Road Trip narratives to ‘spell out a potential beyond death’ for female characters, where women can be both a protagonist ‘interested in destiny not destination’, and where they can ‘imagine a thousand futures’ for themselves.

I’m with her. But then, I’m a traveler.

Kyls Burtland



Rags to riches stories abound in our culture, from fictional to real life examples. We embrace these stories because they give us hope – that if we work hard enough, with a bit of luck and a lot of chutzpah – we can succeed. The flip side of this is the idea that these stories serve a more insidious purpose – to keep the voluminous working classes in their place, striving so hard for a dream that they are too exhausted to question the hierarchy.

When I began to think about writing music inspired by the rags to riches trope I looked at various examples and found that (to generalise) they fall into two categories, male and female.

Male stories include Scarface, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Raging Bull and There Will Be Blood. These are all stories of “haunted megalomaniacs presiding over the shards of their own lives” (Nigel Andrews). With the accumulation of wealth and success comes huge personnel cost, loneliness and tragedy.

Female stories include Cinderella, Coal Miners Daughter, Beauty and the Beast, A Star Is Born, Joy and the almost too good to be true real life story of J K. Rowling. Genuinely downtrodden heroines living humbly in serf-like conditions reap the rewards of deserved riches through the result of their own hard work and tenacity. They get to live happily ever after (for the most part.)

None of these stories are clear-cut or simple. There are setbacks, failures and fallout. Are they salutary tales of moral fortitude aligned with religion? Or warnings against greed and excess with parallels to Greek mythologies and the hubristic reversal of happiness?

Taken broadly, these stories are metaphors for civilisations and empires – they rise and fall in their turn, weighed down by the baroque excesses of wealth and greed, blinkered by their own sense of greatness.

The rags to riches parable is an analogy for life itself – we come into this world with nothing, we strive to live productive, worthy lives – and in the end we depart alone, with nothing.

It is this cyclical approach that I have taken with my trilogy of pieces.

Amanda Brown



I started writing the music for my theme before we had Hilary Bell on board as our writer. That’s how excited I was to be doing this! I couldn’t wait. Initially I wrote the piece from an internal perspective. The music was expressing the mood swings that come with depression and anxiety, the darkness within and the slow crawl back to mental stability, with many inner deaths and rebirths along the way….but if I look more closely I must admit, it was a way to express the grief I was going through while nursing my mother through pancreatic cancer until she died. This was all happening at the same time as we were conceiving Seven Stories.

All that aside, once Hilary and the composers started discussing what we wanted for the show, my whole perspective changed. A more fairy tale like, mythical world was emerging in Hilary’s wonderful lyrics and in the world we were collectively trying to achieve, so I discarded my original piece and started again, this time with the darkness being an outside force and taking the form of a beldam or witch.

I decided to loosely base my new composition on the Neil Gaiman story of Coraline, which was a favourite movie to watch with my daughters when they were younger. I grew up watching Disney movies, so I have always been familiar with the way these witches prey on the vulnerable. It is a very scary story no matter how you look at it. I see this story as a metaphor for the underlying emptiness and self-loathing inside some individuals, which can only be assuaged by destroying the soul of another. Everyone has times in their lives when their ego is fragile and their behaviour is not as admirable as it could be, so I see it as a matter of degrees. In this case though, the beldam is like a black hole, a black widow spider, the darkness itself.

Coraline, an innocent but smart young girl is lured into the beldam’s seemingly perfect world, with the promise of delicious goodies, smiles and music. This new world is so unlike her own home with her stressed out, workaholic parents who she lives with every day. The beldam disguises herself as a perfect, happy version of her mother and calls herself the “other mother” but it is all a wicked trap to steal Coraline’s soul.

Coraline being very clever and brave, eventually discovers the chink in the beldam’s armour and is able to save her own soul and the souls of the other children that the witch has trapped. She awakens from this nightmare as a transformed being. She is able to breathe again. She is the victor.

But here’s the thing….when I really think about it, I secretly know that underneath, my piece is still about overcoming the darkness of losing my beloved mother. How could it not be?