Discovering An Australian Composer In New York

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 8 February 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Composer Michael Grebla

Composer Michael Grebla

On a chilly Saturday night in January, an eclectic mix of Australians, new music lovers, and curious neighbourhood locals gathered in a church in Manhattan’s West Village for an Australia Day Concert. It was host to an array of new works by some of Australia’s best and brightest composers

One of these composers, Michael Grebla, happened to be present that evening.

I was fortunate enough to meet Michael for the first time just a few months ago at a New York concert given by the critically acclaimed Zodiac Trio – true champions of new and innovative chamber music. Michael was selected to attend the trio’s annual festival in the South of France in 2018, where he won the prize for Most Outstanding New Work.

A native of Perth and a graduate of the University of Western Australia, Michael first came to the United States to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory; last year completing a Master of Music with Honours. I had heard great things about him from the Zodiac Trio members themselves and was very keen to hear some of his compositions, to which he graciously sent me links. I was immediately taken with his lush, almost cinematic orchestrations, and asked that he let me know when one of his pieces would next be performed in New York; which brings us back to that church in the West Village. When he invited me to write about the experience of listening to his music, I welcomed the challenge.

Nestled in between pieces by fellow Australian composers Jodie O’Regan, Chrstopher Healey, Jakob Bragg, Josephine Jin, Isabella Gerometta, and Peter Martin was Michael’s new work Sympathy. Written for voice and cello, the piece is a setting of the poem of the same name by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a freed slave from Kentucky who became one of the first influential black poets in the United States. Like nearly every other American who studied poetry in high school, I was very familiar with this poem, but had never heard it set to music. I settled in for what was I felt to be a rare treat.

Michael immediately sets the mood with the cello’s chilling opening line, giving way to Brisbane soprano Amber Evans’ voice – low, almost chant-like, singing the famous words: “I know how the caged bird feels, alas!”. I was immediately hit by the powerful pang of sorrow encapsulated in these words. The piece continued to build beautifully into the middle section, climaxing on the line: “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars; and they pulse again with a keener sting. I know why he beats his wing!”. The juxtaposition of the soaring vocal line with the cello’s churning triplets perfectly reflected the poet’s beautifully crafted words of longing.

I found Michael’s work to be a particularly refreshing take on a piece of classic American poetry; perhaps because it was composed by someone who wasn’t as familiar with its history, coming at it with fresh eyes and ears. There have been many instances when a piece of art deemed as a national treasure was created by someone with diverse heritage. El Greco (The Greek) became one of the greatest artists of the Spanish Renaissance. Many of the most popular Christmas songs of the 20th Century were written by Jewish composers. Even Australia’s own national anthem was Scot Of course, the evil of slavery taints the history of both the United States and Australia. When listening to the lines in Michael’s work, “When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass”, one could just as easily imagine the sugar can plantations of Queensland as the cotton fields of Kentucky. This is what makes Michael’s Sympathy not only a prime example of the many fine works that young Australians are contributing to America’s new music scene, but also a testament to the universal strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Like many others in his generation, Michael is one of many young Australians making his mark on new American music and contributing greatly to this important art form. I can only hope that he will continue to lend his musicality to classic pieces of American poetry in the future and help Australia Fair advance to greater success in the halls of American music.