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Young composer Salina Fisher goes from featuring in The Private Lives of Gifted Children to a New Zealand tour

The capital’s wild weather inspires award-winning young composer Salina Fisher.

Salina Fisher.
Salina Fisher.

Standing for an hour in torrential rain in the Wellington Botanic Garden, Salina Fisher, one of this country’s youngest and most widely lauded composers, attracted some odd looks, but the experience, she says, was “pure inspiration”.

“So many different trees and plants, and with the rain falling off the leaves, I could hear all these different sounds.”

As 2015 composer-in-residence for the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, Fisher was planning her orchestral piece Rainphase, now scheduled for an NZSO performance with music director Edo de Waart in August 2017.

Read more: Salina Fisher wins the 2016 SOUNZ Contemporary Award

“Since moving to Wellington, I’ve been fascinated by the landscape and the rain, which are so different from Christ­church. My tiny flat on The Terrace had an incredible view; you could see the rain developing over the harbour. And there’s the look of the streets at night after rain, the lights glowing. I’m totally inspired by Wellington.”

Fisher has been attracting attention since she was eight. At four, she took an interest in her family’s piano and began lessons, adding violin a year later and joining a Saturday morning orchestra at the Christchurch School of Music (CSM). Her piano lessons included creative work, and her violin teacher, recognising Fisher’s precocious talent, entered the seven-year-old in examinations usually approached in the teenage years – grade 7 performance and the required grade 5 theory.

Using those theory skills, Fisher composed her Suite No1, four movements for violin or piano. “They had ‘little girl’ names like The Magic Fairy and Cat and Mouse. Then one morning at CSM, my mum and I saw a poster about the Tower Young Composers Competition for 8- to 18-year-olds.”

Performing her winning composition Komorebi at the 2014 New Zealand School of Music Composers Competition.
Performing her winning composition Komorebi at the 2014 New Zealand School of Music Composers Competition.

Turning eight just in time to enter her Suite, Fisher was the youngest of six composers to have their music performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble at the 2002 New Zealand Festival. “It was an incredible opportunity. We were flown to Wellington [to Victoria University] and helped to orchestrate our pieces using Sibelius [music-writing] software – it was the first time I’d used it. Mine were arranged for solo piano and violin with the ensemble.”

Within months of writing these “tiny pieces”, she was performing them on the stage of the Wellington Town Hall with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble.

“That was insane – and life-changing. At that point, I could see where music could lead.”

Her pieces were later re-orchestrated for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and soon afterwards, a 10-year-old Fisher appeared in a television documentary called The Private Lives of Gifted Children.

There’s nothing of the pampered prodigy about this young musician. Fisher describes her pathway as “absolutely lucky” and the events that have singled her out as one of the most talented of her generation as “incredible”. She says her move to Wellington to study composition at Victoria was “the best decision I’ve ever made”.

At 22, Fisher has already amassed a number of accolades: overall winner of the NZSO/Todd Young Composer Award in 2013 and 2014 and Orchestra’s Choice Award in 2014; winner of the NZ School of Music Composers Competition in 2014; and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s Rising Star in 2015.

A violinist in the NZSO National Youth Orchestra since 2010, she led as concertmaster for two years. Most recently, Rainphase has seen her named as one of the youngest-ever finalists for the prestigious SOUNZ Contemporary Award in the 2016 Apra Silver Scroll Awards.

A single intense experience, like that rain-soaked day in Wellington Botanic Garden, often provides Fisher’s creative impetus. Blushing Skies for orchestra was inspired by “an incredible sunset, warm colours, silver and gold clouds changing shape”.

Her Japanese heritage, she says, is also a major influence on her work. Komorebi for violin and vibraphone is based on the Japanese word, which means “sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees”.

This month, the NZ String Quartet will tour her latest commission, Tōrino. “Reading about Maori instruments, I came across the putorino, the only purely Maori instrument, I think; others have Polynesian roots. It’s tied to Hineraukatauri, the goddess of music, who’s embodied in the case moth; the putorino is the moth’s cocoon. It can be played like a trumpet or flute.”

Seeking putorino recordings, Fisher came across Palmerston North taonga puoro exponent Rob Thorne on YouTube and, “completely mesmerised”, transcribed his putorino playing. Skype conversations followed and finally Thorne went to Wellington to meet her.

“He brought the most beautiful instruments and we improvised together. The energy of working with someone else is inspiring, and the flexibility in the pitch and timbre of the putorino really works with violin.”

Is her gender relevant to her music? “In composition, there’s so much risk-taking; it takes a lot of guts to express yourself and have it judged in public. I think there’s a different level of confidence between men and women.”

At 14, Fisher attended the International Congress on Women in Music in ­Beijing, where two of her piano works were played. “I was with over a hundred female composers. I haven’t had any close female role models – my long-term composition mentors have been Patrick Shepherd, John Psathas and Michael Norris – but that Beijing experience really cemented for me that I can do this.”

Chamber Music New Zealand QuintEssence tour, New Zealand String Quartet and James Dunham, September 17 to October 1, Wellington, Nelson, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Dunedin, Napier and Auckland.

Read more: Salina Fisher wins the 2016 SOUNZ Contemporary Award

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