Croissants & Whiskey announces its first concert
Croissants & Whiskey, a new quartet based in Melbourne combining instruments from the Baroque period with new works by Australian composers, announced their first concert on July 23. Featuring violinist Miranda Hill, recorder player Ryan Williams, harpsichordist Joy Lee and baroque violist Katie Yap, the first concert features new works written especially for the quartet by Elizabeth Younan, Louisa Trewartha and Williams. Younan’s piece, The Fertile Crescent was recorded by the band as part of the ABC Composer Commissioning Fund last year, with a recording released later this month.
Yap, recently named finalist of the Freedman Classical Music Fellowship, met limelight discuss the ‘prog-baroque’ ensemble.
How was the ensemble born, have you and the other musicians ever worked together?
Croissants & Whiskey was a dream project that our G violinist, Miranda Hill, started in 2021, during those long winter lockdowns in Melbourne where everyone was free, and yet no one could gather to play music. She asked Ryan Williams (recorders), Joy Lee (harpsichord) and me (viola baroque) to join her to form a kind of prog-baroque quartet. We’ve all played together in various combinations, but never in this quartet formation. We were drawn to the musical curiosity we found in others and the search for a way to use these ancient instruments that we love, in a way that was truly authentic to ourselves, our time and our place. .
The combination of period instruments and new works is fascinating. Do you think that the instruments bring a particular quality to these pieces, including the new piece by Elizabeth Younan?
Vintage instruments are truly at the heart of our sound, and they inform everything we do! They have a really spoken textural quality, which gives them an organic feel that you just don’t get with modern instruments. They’re full of imperfections and quirks, which makes them very human – they can be finicky, but it’s such a joy to play and work with them. Lizzy’s piece, which she wrote for us, is a set of three dances and they use our instruments in a deeply emotional way – the outer movements are full of rhythm and drive, and push the instruments to their limits . The inner movement, named after its dance form, Khaleegy, is graceful and delicate, traditionally danced by women with circular and loose gestures of the hair. Lizzy’s version is dark and mysterious, using the autumnal palette of bass, alto and violone recorders, culminating in a beautiful unison gesture of the entire ensemble.
With that, can you describe the development process for the new parts? Do you work closely with composers to help them understand the intricacies of the instruments they write for? Is there a difference between, say, writing for a modern viola and your baroque viola?
The process of developing pieces written for us has been really fascinating – each composer has their own way of working with musicians and creating pieces in the studio. Lizzy and Louisa [Trewartha] both had one-on-one Zoom sessions with each of us as their tracks were written during the pandemic (thanks COVID!) to learn more about the idiosyncrasies of our instruments and how we like to play them. Once the first drafts were done, we sent the composer rehearsal recordings, so he could polish things up by hearing how it happened with real humans playing (as opposed to a computer MIDI file).
There is a relatively subtle difference in the writing of the baroque viola compared to a modern viola, compared to some of the other instruments in the ensemble. The baroque viola likes to roam the lower and middle registers of the instrument, as the instrument was not designed for flashy pyrotechnics, even more so than its modern counterpart. The richness of the gut strings allows very beautiful double stops (where two strings are played at the same time) and earthy and raspy melodies or harmonies. A more obvious contrast is with the harpsichord: unlike the piano, it cannot vary its volume by force of touch. A harpsichordist must create the impression change in volume by varying the texture of the music, the length of the notes, rolled chords, etc. It offers extremely fine control over note length, leading to expressive articulation and there is wonderful color difference between notes in different registers; a pattern played just an octave higher or lower can mean something completely different.
Can you tell us about the other pieces you create?
Our recorder player Ryan, wrote to us on Tanjil Bren Suite, which I can assure you is an absolute banger. He says: “Tanjil Bren Road, Baw Baw and Whiskey in Valhalla are the three tunes that make up the Tanjil Bren Suite, which audibly documents my time exploring Wurundjeri and Gunaikurnai country in eastern Victoria. The winding roads through the beautiful bush inspired the melodies of the faster tunes, while the slower middle movement evokes the strength and majesty of Mount Baw Baw surrounded by clouds. The music style is influenced by North American musicians, including Hawktail and Edgar Meyer. They create music based on fiddle tunes and the bluegrass tradition, and through compositional techniques often derived from Western classical traditions, they create new acoustic music. I think their music has very similar characteristics that underlie a lot of instrumental Baroque music, and so I was inspired to emulate their tradition with Baroque instrumentation. The tunes are orchestrated to regularly leave room for each instrument to be heard clearly, with the aim of giving a sense of balance to the ensemble. I’m really looking forward to exploring new music by co-composing songs as a quartet.
Do you have any future plans for the ensemble?
Yes! Thanks to the generous support of the Continuo Commissioning Circle, we are truly delighted to be working with Kym Dillon on the development of a new work for the quartet, which will premiere in 2023. We will also work together to create our own music through collaborative composition, as part of a Creative Victoria residency next year. We will explore the meeting point of our ancient European instruments with the different improvisational backgrounds from which we all come, as well as our own cultural heritages through the study of traditional Chinese music.
And finally, the name?
Croissants & Whiskey is the improbable pairing that combines the crispness of a good pastry with the unctuous aftertaste of a well-aged spirit. In musical terms, he combines the beauty and earthiness of Baroque instruments with new ideas, cultural diversity and timbral explorations.
It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday. Miranda had brought croissants for morning tea, Joy has a good collection of whisky…it was unavoidable. These joyful post-rehearsal libations have become a strong tradition and have come to represent our commitment to celebrating what each instrument and musician can bring to the table, and the beautiful combination of our diverse backgrounds and musical backgrounds.
Croissants & Whiskey will make their concert debut on July 23 at Fitzroy Town Hall, more information can be found at croissantsandwhiskey.com