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Five minutes with composer Sally Greenaway

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Physical distancing has come at a steep price for both artists and audiences.

With audiences self-isolating, live music venues closed and festivals cancelled, musicians like Canberra composer Sally Greenaway are beginning to feel like an “essential service”. It is the arts that help us to get through tough times.

Sally is a multi-award winning composer, who started composing at age 14 (her first poetic piece performed by choirs around the world). She is now sought after as a musical director, jazz and classical pianist, teacher and composer/arranger.

COVID-19 is but one challenge facing Sally while the arts sector is shut down.

“A career in the arts is definitely a tricky path and opportunities for composers like me to work with professional ensembles and orchestras are very rare and usually extremely competitive,” she says.

“Especially in Australia because there aren’t many paid, professional opportunities particularly compared to lots of other countries. It’s not like I can rock up to an orchestra’s rehearsal with a new piece and ask them to play it—composers have to be invited, and that almost never happens.”

Like many artists in these tough times, Sally has learned to be resilient by diversifying her composition practice so that she can work in many different areas.

“It’s a rollercoaster,” she said. “…Working as a freelance composer isn’t like a normal job that you apply for—you have to produce good quality work, submit endless grant applications and ‘score submissions’—and get rejections 99% of the time—and hope and pray that your name might stick in the mind of someone who may one day be in a position of leadership in the industry to sway the commissioning of new work your way. It’s rather inequitable, emotionally taxing, and financially tricky.”

The pandemic is yet another example of the “boom-and-bust” nature of commissioned work. Sally said she’s either balancing too many commissions at the same time or dealing with a lull in work that can last for almost a year.

For now, though, Sally is completing a new piano work in response to the recent bushfires. She works from her music studio set amongst a leafy suburban garden. Her passion for music spills over into her home, where she houses a collection of historic pianos including an early grand piano from 1840s England, a clavichord, and a 9-foot harpsichord from Oxford. Her home studio and hometown are close to her heart.

“Canberra is blessed to have a disproportionately large number of community music groups for our relatively small population,” she says.

“We have a lot of wind bands, big bands, a couple of orchestras and countless choirs. Some of these community groups punch well above their weight in…commissioning and collaborating with local composers.”

Canberra’s only shortfall is that is not taken more seriously at a national level. It should, as the nation’s capital, take a leading role in the contribution to Australia’s music-making.

“We have national monuments and institutions and yet we do not bestow our musical arts with the same honour [at the highest national level],” she says.

“We do not have a prestigious public concert hall or opera house or even a nationally fully-funded professional orchestra. This means that often our professional local musicians are often overlooked in favour of those in the larger cities of Melbourne and Sydney. And often professional musicians have to make a choice about moving overseas or interstate to create viable careers. This is astounding to me.”

The temptation of overseas exposure and collaboration is strong for Sally, who has seriously considered moving overseas “but then I would miss Canberra so much and that’s what’s stopped me from taking the plunge…so far”.

Her inspiration at the moment is through exploring perspectives such as perceived beauty versus flaws. She wants her music to connect with the audience and to help them navigate the human condition. Sometimes it can take her up to a year to write a complex work such as an orchestral work.

“Some pieces like to be composed and flow easily and I can get an overview for the piece quite quickly,” she said.

“Other pieces are more painful to draw out and take a long time to ‘birth’, and even after writing more than 100 works, I’m still not sure why it is that some pieces are easier to compose than others.”

Sally is one of hundreds of female composers working in Australia today, however, not many are known. And it’s not just women composers who are under-represented.

“All living composers around the world face the problem of not being dead yet,” she explains. “Concerts are saturated with a (usually limited) selection of deceased, male, mostly-European composers’ music from the mid-1700s-to-early-1900s.

“There are several complex barriers ingrained within the industry that have developed a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘dead composer’ programming and consumption—ranging from the lack of any professional regulation; the self-directed nature of the composer which is often isolated and chronically boom-bust working hours on projects; through to the very fixed processes for the consumption and delivery of music for audiences.”

Things are improving, however, with several local community music ensembles programming, commissioning and collaborating with local composers.

Also, ABC Classic has begun programming more music composed by living and deceased Australian composers and to play a greater number of women composers.

Sally has come a long way since her first formal piano lessons at the age of eight.

Her professional music career was always on the cards, even making up stories on the piano at age three “playing piano dramatically from my imagination”. Since then, this Canberra local has played jazz piano at the London Chopin Festival on Steinway’s unique ‘Ferrari’ grand piano, and at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair on Liberace’s rhinestone grand piano. But we hope she stays in Canberra and continues to provide us with the soundtrack to her life.

Sally plans to release new recordings and videos of recent works, hopefully, to be picked up by ABC Classic.

Armchair philanthropy will help her to achieve this at armchairphilanthropy.com/featured/sally-greenaway-2.

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