Interview: Melody Eötvös

Melody Eötvös is a leading Australian composer based in Melbourne. MCO is performing Eötvös’ string orchestra work Meraki in its first orchestral concerts for 2023, Woven Threads, from 3–12 March.



MCO: When did you start composing and what or who were your early influences?

Eötvös: I was fortunate to grow up in a very musical family. My Dad was a jazz musician and my mother played piano. I started piano lessons at the age of 5, mostly because my sister played and, as the younger sibling, I wanted to do whatever she was doing!

We were encouraged to perform in eisteddfods and concerts however, being an introvert I found performing rather terrifying – so I made the very natural move to composition.

I wrote my first piece for piano and cello when I was 8. But it was at age 14, I learned to process and express my feelings through music. I wrote a piece about a boy I admired from afar, wistfully linking notes with the letters of the alphabet in his name.

My parents, being more traditionally trained, complained that my early compositions had no cadences but, once I got to University I was exposed to new music which gave me more confidence in my writing. So, although my roots were in more tonal music, it was at University that I learned to nurture my voice in contemporary music.

MCO: What are your current compositional challenges and what are the habits of successful composers?

Eötvös: Time is, without doubt, the greatest challenge! Initially, I needed to be disciplined to fit my work in around study – after my undergraduate degree, I completed two master’s degrees and my doctorate. However now I need to fit work in around caring for two small children. I need to take advantage of it whenever I can find time to write – and I am grateful to have a supportive husband to enable this.

To be successful as a composer I think you need an unfailing belief in yourself. Not unlike writers, composers submit work to competitions and, like writers, we need to be resilient in the face of rejection.

MCO: What do you usually start with when composing and how did this composition for Woven Threads come about?

Eötvös: In the past, I was mindful of the structure of a piece as a whole. But now, when I start, I find it more interesting not to look ahead. I’m more inclined to let the work itself evolve. So I often start at the piano and then put pen to paper.

One of my most played pieces “The Saqqara Bird”, was written in 2015. I don’t often have the opportunity to revise my own work, but I finished this composition and had the luxury of two weeks to review it. I realized that the middle section was too short. This triggered an awareness of balance – the need to be more mindful of passages in terms of climax or transition or conclusion. And I learned that these can’t be pre-planned.

Meraki” is the title of the composition being performed for the Woven Threads orchestral concert. Meraki is a Greek word meaning to put something of yourself into what you are doing for pure enjoyment. This piece felt good to write. Possibly the fact that I was pregnant with my second child at the time – and my emotions were enhanced – influenced this piece. I wrote it purely for pleasure rather than for the audience and critics in the back of my mind.

MCO: The relationship between music and other forms of art (painting, video and cinema) has become increasingly talked about. Does music relate to senses other than hearing alone?

Eötvös: What a great question! Yes, I believe so. There is no doubt that audio is powerful when combined with the visual, particularly with the advent of technology.

Naturally, listing to other music and score reading influences my work. But also architecture – especially the buildings in Brisbane where I first studied at the tertiary level – the change of seasons and travel, have all been personal influences. I have been inspired by old masters and new video when composing. When I was studying in the mid-west in the USA, my chamber piece “Wild October Jones” was based on a painting by the American artist Bennett. The painting was of a wagon and horses racing to cross a train track with an oncoming train and a girl falling off the back of the wagon. The sense of urgency and danger in the painting informed the core progression of the composition.

I love to travel and I often associate a sense of smell with whichever city I’m visiting. For me, USA has its own ‘buttered popcorn and cinnamon’ scent. And of course people enjoy listening to music while using their other senses, such as while eating or even cooking. So I do see music relating to the visual sense, and the sense smell and taste. It’s a sensory partnership!