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Antonia Barnett-McIntosh returns to NZ with suffrage-themed performances

Antonia Barnett-McIntosh: plans to “curate lots of concerts, talks, film nights – and dinners and parties” during her Lilburn House residency. Photo/Joanne Hobern

The Kiwi composer marks her homecoming with the debut of Vox Fem and Essential Experimental.

When contemporary music ensemble Stroma presents its suffrage-themed Vox Fem concert in Wellington this month and Essential Experimental a month later, both programmes will include world premieres from New Zealand composer Antonia Barnett-McIntosh.

She recently returned to New Zealand after a 12-year absence to be composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music. She’s living for a year in the Lilburn Residence in Thorndon. When the Listener visits, she’s baking. “Baking and composing – it’s all one,” she says. She wants the house of the late composer Douglas Lilburn to be a “social and welcoming place”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“I’m not the kind of person who says, ‘This is my residency and my house and I’m going to write my music here’. I want it to be an open house; I plan to curate lots of concerts, talks, film nights – and dinners and parties.”

Working with others and crossing discipline boundaries fuel Barnett-McIntosh’s creativity. It’s something that led her to be part of London-based Hubbub, where, for two years, she was composer-in-residence to a team of scientists, humanists, artists, public health experts, broadcasters and others exploring the dynamics of rest.

Collaborating with a graphic artist, she created earpiece, inviting the audience to be part of the performance by manipulating their ears according to projected visual instructions as the soundtrack poured at full volume from speakers.

Her spell overseas started as a working holiday after graduating in composition from Victoria University. After a break from music, she embarked on a masters at London’s Guildhall under experimental composer Paul Newland.

When her UK visa ran out, Barnett-McIntosh moved to artist-friendly Berlin for five years, working with European artists, curating more concerts and developing her creative practice using text and theatre. “I am a composer, out of that tradition, but a lot of different things have come into my practice through collaboration. It’s fine to keep it under the umbrella of music, or theatre, or visual art – I don’t need the boxes, I just keep making.”

Boxes no, but bags come in handy. She often uses chance procedures, as employed by avant-garde composer John Cage in the 1950s, in her composing. “I was once running late for a rehearsal and had a text I’d been given to work with. I chopped up all the words and put them in a bag and ran for a train, and at the rehearsal the performers and I took turns removing a word from the bag, improvising it and writing it down.”

Barnett-McIntosh now often composes using her bag process, with separate bags for different musical elements. Where does a composer’s discrimination come in? “When I put things into the bag – after that the process takes over. And crucially I have a ‘yes/no’ bag for when it doesn’t work, or I have to question something.”

The Vox Fem piece for Stroma uses chance elements and text. It grew from a collaboration entitled Accent with English artist Emma Bennett, with the pair exploring their English and Kiwi inflections – “a duet, conversation and mutual impersonation”. The primacy of the soloist is one of the ideas behind the piece, which will be performed by Stroma’s female musicians, with the composer as vocalist. “I play with that idea,” says Barnett-McIntosh,“using game techniques like triggering and mimicry so my voice is not more important than the instruments.”

Barnett-McIntosh agrees that hers is indeed a “vox fem”, a woman’s voice. She was the only woman student in her post-graduate class of 13 at Guildhall, and recently she’s been combing the 2019 NZSO programme for women composers – she’s outraged to find just one out of 46, “and she’s not even a New Zealander”, and not one woman conductor.

“Art should represent society. I have a rule that I don’t participate in projects that aren’t gender balanced. But the suffrage projects coming up are all women, which is good, because my rule is about awareness, starting the conversation.

“It’s not great anywhere, but in New Zealand, there’s even less awareness than in Europe. Quotas are difficult but a nice starting point. Programmers should actively curate for balance – that’s what I’ll be doing here at the residence. But now,” she says, “let’s have cake.”

Stroma New Music Ensemble Vox Fem, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington, October 25; Essential Experimental, Pyramid Club, Wellington, November 29.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.