Lyndon Pike talks to the Australian neoclassical composer

I first encountered the music of Australian pianist Sophie Hutchings back in 2010 via her album Becalmed, which served as the soothing soundtrack on my car’s stereo as I drove laps of my suburb late at night to lull my first-born child, a notoriously difficult sleeper, to rest. I told Sophie he’s heard that album more than most. I also connected with Sophie to discuss the healing power of music, her new album A World Outside, her upcoming show at the City Recital Hall and more.

Photo by Scott Hutchings

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new album and the journey that led to its creation?
This album was a unique experience for me. In the past, my music has often emerged from a more subconscious and intuitive process, where I let my emotions guide the composition. This time, however, I had a clear intention. I embarked on a road trip across various landscapes in Australia.

How did these landscapes and environments influence your music and the album?
Australian landscapes have always played a significant role in my creative process. I connect with my music emotionally by immersing myself in the surroundings. I’m an adventurous person, and I find that taking time away from music to explore challenging environments can be incredibly stimulating. The simplicity and raw beauty of these places often strip away distractions and allow me to connect with the essence of my music.

Unlike previous works where my music evolved organically, this time there was a deliberate intention behind it. I felt the need to explore Australia’s rich history and ancient landscapes firsthand. The road trip provided the perfect opportunity for that, given the unique circumstances we all found ourselves in following COVID. It got me reflecting on the significance of our own Australian heritage and how important it is to experience it in person.

Can you describe how your journey into indigenous music and diverse cultural influences shaped your approach to creating music for this album?
Initially, I delved into the study of the land, preparing myself for the journey. My longstanding interest in the musical traditions of the Asian diaspora, Middle Eastern vocals, Indian ragas, and Persian classical music led me to explore indigenous music. Surprisingly, these traditions weren’t all that different from one another. This got me thinking about how I could incorporate elements of these diverse influences into my music, given their origins from such distinct places.

How did this preparation and exploration of various musical traditions impact your creative process during the journey?
Once I set off on the journey, I intentionally put aside thoughts of music. Instead, I focused on observation and emotional absorption. It is like allowing non-thinking thoughts to permeate your being. For me, this experience was about digesting these emotions and translating them into a musical journal. Music becomes a way to convey these experiences, a language I’ve used since childhood. Despite being outgoing and gregarious as a child, music served as my shy and observant side, and I’ve come to realise it’s my primary means of communication.

Can you explain your approach to composing music?
My method is rather unconventional. I’ve always relied on expressing my music directly at the keyboard, without notating it. It’s how I’ve always made music. When I was younger, I had a classical teacher who realised that sight reading wasn’t my strength. She saw that I had an ear for music and encouraged me to explore my creative abilities.

How do you remember your compositions when you don’t notate them?
Muscle memory plays a significant role in this process. As I grew older, my reliance on notating music lessened. For my own compositions, I create basic chord charts, then I fill in the melody and often rely on my intuition. While I use scores when working with other musicians, they disrupt my creative process when creating my own music.

Does this approach lead to improvisation during live performances?
It used to result in more improvisation, but as I gained experience, I became more meticulous in my approach. For this tour, there might still be some room for improvisation, but I’m becoming more particular about how things are done. When performing with strings, I need to synchronise with them, so it’s a balance between intuition and fitting in with the ensemble.

When creating music for visual media, such as documentaries and soundtracks, how does your process differ from your personal compositions?
When composing for visuals, it’s a 50/50 collaboration between the visuals and my emotional engagement. I view it as a partnership, like working with another musician. However, I always ensure that my emotional connection remains pure. It’s a place of non-thinking thoughts where my emotions steer the creative process.

Can you share some of your rituals or habits that help you get into a creative flow?
I have a few rituals that set the stage for my creative process. Firstly, I’m a water enthusiast year-round. A quote I read recently from Leonard Cohen resonated with me. It goes, “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll become seasick every day.” I make it a point to immerse myself in the ocean every morning, regardless of the weather. I find the ocean to be incredibly calming and almost medicinal for the mind. It’s a great way to start the day. Of course, a good cup of coffee is a must for me. I’m a coffee snob and often daydream about my morning coffee the night before. It’s a comforting routine.

How do you manage the balance between the business and creative aspects of making music?
It’s a constant juggling act. You can’t effectively multitask at the same time. You have to allocate time to focus on one and then the other. When business admin tasks are looming in the background, it can distract your creative headspace. You have to be organised and ensure the business side flows smoothly without hindering your creative process. When you have an album out, there’s so much going on in the background that it can push the creative work to the back burner. Listeners often don’t realise how much work and time it consumes when music becomes your job. Managing the two aspects is the biggest challenge for me.

Have you noticed increased interest and engagement with the neoclassical genre from a local perspective?
The neoclassical scene has been gaining traction in Australia, thanks to some influential artists like Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and, more recently, Hania Rani. It’s fascinating to see the interest and enthusiasm grow among audiences here. Australians love this music, but the challenge lies in exposing them to it and educating them about its beauty. Neoclassical music offers a sense of emotional freedom and a deep connection to feelings without the need for words.

How can neoclassical music gain more prominence in Australia, and what barriers need to be overcome?
One challenge is the limited number of venues and platforms dedicated to this genre. In Australia, we have fewer options compared to Europe, which has a well-established neoclassical scene. We need to create more avenues for people to discover this music, beyond large venues and festivals. It’s about diversifying the outlets and informing people about the music. The interest is there; it’s just a matter of making it more accessible and known. It’s not a lack of interest; it’s a lack of visibility and exposure.

Your music has a unique Australian essence to it. How do you think your version of neoclassical music sets you apart from European counterparts?
I’ve always incorporated various elements of Australian nature and landscape into my compositions that set them apart. For instance, during a camping trip, I was surrounded by howling dingoes in the middle of the night, and I grabbed my Zoom recorder to capture the sounds. These recordings became part of the album and introduced a unique Australian element. I’ve also recorded the sounds of birds, especially in tropical regions like Darwin, which adds to the Australian character of my music. The landscape and the ancient, moody quality of the Australian land have had a significant influence on the album’s personality.

Have you had any memorable experiences with your audience, either during live shows or after the shows, that stand out to you?
One story that comes to mind involves a very elderly woman who was an artist in Germany. She used to paint while listening to my music and would send me her paintings. During one of my European tours, she and her husband attended my concert. Tragically, not long after my return to Australia, her husband passed away. She sent me a beautiful poem and asked if she could play my music at his farewell. Stories like this, especially during the past few years and the challenges of COVID, are heartwarming and encouraging. Knowing that my music touches people’s hearts is very moving.

Sophie Hutchings – A World Outside
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Thursday, 7 December