Composer Walter Robins has written several classical and contemporary ballet scores over the course of his career. He talked to Nina Levy about his meditative approach to composition, and the fascination with Russian culture that has led to his latest project, The Amber Necklaces.
Tell us about your music training.
I enrolled in the Australian Army School of Music as an apprentice musician at age 15. It was there that I learned the rudiments of music theory and there that I started my journey as a player of all brass instruments.
Recognising my desire to write music the then band master of the RMC Band in Duntroon, Bob Rignold, undertook to coach me in counterpoint and harmony.
When did you start composing?
In March 1979 I had a life-threatening experience, which was spiritually overcome only by meditation and prayer. A unexpected by-product of this was that during meditations, in my mind I could hear orchestral music – unbidden, new and exciting. I recognised this process of prayer and meditation as a means of composing new works for orchestral performance.
Initially I prayed and listened regularly, but soon found I was being inundated with new music even when I was not asking for it and then having no idea where it “fitted” or belonged. With experience limited to writing for brass I quickly realised I would need to undertake formal studies in full orchestral orchestration to identify and write all that I could “hear”, and to that end Helen Lancaster, a professor in the Queensland Conservatorium became my personal tutor.
This was followed by three years of score reading with the Queensland Youth Orchestra under the auspices of maestro John Curro AM MBE. For three years every Saturday morning that they rehearsed I sat in the various sections of the orchestra and studied the conductor’s score, observing the nature of each instrument and how it was employed.
The mediation technique of composition is still with me today (seewww.walterrobinsmusic.com in the label “Blog”). However, the writing for these projects is so time consuming that I need guarantee of performance to consider them.
What drew you to composing music for ballet?
As an artist and amateur actor, I naturally was attracted by all things theatrical. The music in particular of Tchaikovsky, Delibes, Khachaturian, Prokofiev amongst many wonderful and famous ballet composers excited me tremendously. Their works, particularly ballet, painting clear emotional, imagery, were an inspiration.
How does the process of composing music for ballet differ to composing other kinds of music?
All music eventually evokes imagery of one sort or another. However, for me, when I compose I first paint the pictures from the images I create in my imagination. Ballet is full of lines, movement, strength, animation, grace and beauty that when employed completes the manifestation of my imagery for ballet.
What do you enjoy about composing ballet music and working with dancers?
The collaboration is the ultimate. Witnessing the images coming to life, the creativity of a choreographer combining with the director ensuring the story seamlessly flows all making the music successfully depict each divertissement – a real joy.
Prior to The Amber Necklaces, what music have you composed for ballet?
Rondo De Nuit for solo dancer (minimalist set, 10 minutes contemporary)
Wonga Wonga and the White Waratah (a narrated aboriginal legend, contemporary*)
The Soldier’s Journey (four scenes with minimalist sets, cast two boys and one girl, contemporary)
The Annex (a minimalist set, based on The Diary of Anne Frank, cast of eight, contemporary*)
The Magical Necklace (The Chinese version of The Amber Necklaces set in Beijing 13th Century - classical*)
*For excerpts see www.walterrobinsmusic.com
Tell me about your new work, The Amber Necklaces. What is the storyline?
On a hike to a cedar forest, friends Katia and Eduard chase an exquisite Princess butterfly and find themselves in a clearing, and magical events begin to unfold. A "Wise Spirit of the Forest" mysteriously appears and places an amber necklace around Katia’s neck.
Watching, Eduard believes Katia is a captive of mysterious forces and runs to Olga, the Mayoress, for help. Instead Olga orders her troops to capture Katia to have the Necklace for herself.
Eduard remonstrates angrily at Olga who turns to her Sorcerers to deal with him. A great fight follows with the sorcerers beating Eduard unconscious.
Earlier the forest animals in a pageant display all emerge to welcome Katia. Later the goodness and power of the animals and the pine trees become invisible warriors to successfully do battle with Olga’s troops.
The Sorcerers finally succeed in stealing the necklace from Katia; however, possession is Olga’s undoing for it is a disaster for a wearer with an evil mind. Choking, Olga tears off the Necklace and throws it at Eduard.
Eduard quickly runs back to Katia to replace the Necklace. She magically regains her strength. And the life energy of the cedars and fruit trees return.
You have a long-standing interest in Russian culture – where did it begin?
My interest in Russian culture, particularly the music of a long list of great composers, began at an early age. A highlight for me was in 1972 when I had the privilege of spending many hours with Galina Von Meck during her Australian visit, including a tour I arranged with the Australian Ballet who were rehearsing at the Sydney Opera House.
Galina was the daughter of Nicolai Von Meck who as chairman of the board of Moscow Kazan railway oversaw the building of the Moscow metro. Galina, at that time we met, was the nearest living relative of Tchaikovsky, in fact his grandniece. She was also the granddaughter of Nadezhda Von Meck Tchaikovsky’s patron, and shared with me many family experiences involving Tchaikovsky.
My Russian culture love affair was further crystallized by a visit in 1984 to Moscow and St. Petersburg (at that time called Leningrad).
What drew you to turn the Amber Necklaces narrative into a ballet?
By word of mouth I had heard the beautiful Russian story (Ringing Cedars of Russia) and of its subject - Anastasia’s experiences demonstrating our universal connection to each other and in all things. I created the scenario for the work over a number of years and before I had read any of the books by Vladimir Megre. In fact, the very earliest drafts of a scenario and musical sketches for a ballet idea were made at the beginning of my career.
However, I did not become fully aware of the history of how amber is formed and its links with the ringing cedars until during my visits to relatives in Lithuania and the Baltic, and in 2006 saw that mystical amber was the magical catalyst in the Amber Necklaces story.
In 2013 I developed the scenario for the work. It turned out to be a bit spooky because there were decisions made about the Amber Necklaces story as if I had prior knowledge of the Siberian folklore and Megre’s published information. Not so surprising really as over the decades I have meditated before “receiving” music with profound results. And a lot came to me without consciously asking, including many segments subsequently finding their home in this work.
Though set in the same geographical region and being aware of the historical knowledge of the mystical qualities of the ringing cedars that are both central to the story, I must say that the work does not try to emulate the profound and extensive Russian narrative.
The work, as an allegory, has its own characters, time and place. While being entirely a fictional story there is a mix of historical facts and basic spiritual values in the work that in the development of its final content were inspired by the spirit of the ringing cedars and especially its mystical amber and are a tribute to all they represent. I hope the work will add to the growing numbers finding enlightenment in the awareness of that message.
The universal principles of the story follow the traditional theatrical sequence of goodness and innocence threatened, but with mystical intervention saving the day.
What are your plans for this project?
Ideally, I would like the ballet to find a choreographer who catches “the spark” of the spirit of the work and can take it to find a home in a ballet company which has the resources to see it produced.
Also, having found an exceptional animation artist here in Australia and having secured the interest of one of the top animation companies in India using “mocap” technology, I would like to see an animated movie created for worldwide distribution. This process still requires the services of a choreographer, dance company and a director.
For more information about Walter Robins head to http://walterrobinsmusic.com/
Pictured top is a still from The Amber Necklaces, choreographed by Bill Pengelly (ADPI, Brisbane), featuring dancers Maughan Jemesen and Michael Braun. Below is an excerpt from the ballet.