Kristina Mascher-Turner: Would you say that there is any characteristic sound or style of horn playing that is quintessentially Australian?
Emma Gregan:That’s a tough one - it’s like how it’s really hard to hear your own accent! I don’t know if Australia has an internationally recognisable sound in the same way as places like Germany or the UK. I would hazard a guess that it’s a consequence of never having any national horn brands that have caught on nationwide like Alexander or Paxman, and of course our very different cultural history from the rest of the Western world. However, if you’ve ever eaten in Australia you’ll know that we are truly a great adopter and adapter of culture; you can get great food of any cuisine here, and we have a wonderful multicultural society to thank for that! I think in the same way, our horn players travel the world having lessons, drawing knowledge from many different schools and finding ways to create great sounds using a huge range of instruments, before bringing these skills back home. The diversity of sound concepts and the adaptability of our musicians to each other is something I truly love about working here!
KMT: What is it like for young players and students in Australia who hope to make a career out of playing?
EG:It’s certainly not easy! As we all know, a music degree doesn’t include any guarantee of work, and many students graduating here at the age of 20 or 21 find this an ominous prospect. There are eight professional orchestras in Australia, and I believe 41 full-time horn positions between them, many filled by long-serving players. Considering the healthy number of conservatory students studying at any time, one can sympathise with those doing the math on their chances of an orchestral job! There are some academy and fellowship positions coveted as ideal ‘next step’ scenarios, but certainly not enough to cater for all graduates, and sadly not even enough for all those who show great promise. Some of the larger cities support a handful of full-time freelancers working as orchestral casuals or show musicians, but not all our state capital cities can. All of these factors combine to create a difficult transition period for many students between graduation and a sustainable playing career.
Our conservatories are not, in the manner of some European schools, exclusively geared towards training students for orchestral tenure, and I personally believe this to be a positive thing given the artistic environment in Australia. Many horn majors aim for and achieve fulfilling careers in teaching or other arts professions, and these people play essential roles in enriching our communities through music. In fact, they are the ones doing the tough groundwork towards creating a citizenry in the future that can campaign for and better appreciate what the arts have to offer to our country, where procuring arts funding is a notoriously Sisyphean task. More and more, emphasis is being placed on teaching university students not just to be great players, but to take the initiative to create their own performance opportunities and be prepared to think laterally about how to create multi-faceted careers. I wonder what effect the transition to this model of education will have in 10-20 years; I feel confident it will be a positive one.
I would encourage our university graduates to follow the path that they trust is right for them, whether it be further study, auditioning, or simply doubling down on focused practice; the only thing I know to be true is that everyone with a performance career has arrived at it in a unique fashion. Failed auditions and slumps in work are an inevitable experience here, but are also opportunities to learn much about ourselves as performers.
KMT: When did you first start composing and arranging? Was there any particular event or inspiration that kicked it off for you?
EG: I have always been interested in creating my own music. When I was 13, I attended a masterclass/interview with Barry Tuckwell, who encouraged the students always to write down any original musical ideas we had because it was a great way to grow as a musician. Well, when Barry Tuckwell tells you to do something, you do it! So I had been writing bits and pieces during high school but nothing really structured at that stage. I grew up listening to American Horn Quartet and London Horn Sound CDs and have always been in love with the horn ensemble sound. When I went to university and actually got to play in one myself it sparked a flurry of writing and arranging for that genre in my spare time. Later, I discovered some simple multi-tracking technology and decided to record some original pieces I’d written to hear what they really sounded like, giving me much more confidence than the MIDI playbacks I’d been working with!
Since then I’ve been writing regularly alongside my performing job and am humbled by the interest I’ve received both locally and internationally for it. While a lot of what I do is just to enjoy the act of creating, I’ve taken on a few commissions including a multi-movement horn quintet for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra horns. I’ve also done some arrangements of some gorgeous Australian carols for the fantastic collaboration CD between the American Horn Quartet and Queensland Symphony horns! The vast majority of my writing is around the horn, but I’m excited to be working on a couple of other brass commissions in 2018. I find it serendipitous to be an artist born into an era where sharing what you create and connecting with people globally who might be interested in your work is so easily achieved via the internet!
KMT: Is there a perfect piece for the horn out there, in your opinion?
EG: There are just so many pieces I love, but the one that comes closest to ‘perfection’ for me is probably the Mozart Quintet. Mozart’s writing for the horn is always exquisite, but the quintet has something of the divine in it for me. Oh, but then there’s also the solo in Strauss’ Four Last Songs and pieces like Symphonia Domestica, Scriabin’s Romance...hmmm I better not get carried away!
KMT: Please tell us about your community horn ensemble. What was the impetus to start the group, and what makes it special?
EG: When I moved to Adelaide from Brisbane in 2015 I was struck by the lack of centralised network for the instrument. It was the first time I felt like I had the means to really make a difference in the community, so my partner Alex and I set out with the intention of getting some local players together for a ‘jam session’. Our first iteration struggled to make five attendees! Nevertheless, the Adelaide Horn Jam was founded, and with perseverance and many horn players emerging from the woodwork, we now have twenty enthusiastic members and counting… and they can really play!
Our players are a smorgasbord of amateurs, students, teachers, freelancers and professionals, and I personally believe this diversity to be instrumental to the group’s success. Between the anaesthetist with a passion for researching repertoire, the historical instrument guru from the Band of Police, the school teacher who is a logistical whiz, and recent conservatory graduates with amazing singing voices, everyone seems to find a way to contribute something unique and positive to our sound and community. I feel strongly about taking steps to erase social boundaries between amateurs, students and professionals; perhaps unusually, we rotate around parts and are not an ensemble ranked by ability. Experiencing music-making not as a hierarchy but as a team effort makes all of us wiser and more sensitive musicians, giving everyone a sense of importance and ownership of what we create. Plus, they’re just great people!
Going into its third year, the group is pressing forward eagerly with its mission of presenting high quality full-scale feature concerts of horn ensemble repertoire. We place a strong emphasis on preparing original works and have been extremely proud to present the world premieres of two brilliant new Australian octets written for us: Pavane For Our Celestial Sibling by Stephen Lebsanft, and Octa Wolves by Michael Sydney Jones. You can follow us on Facebook and pop us an email to find out more about the Australian music we’re bringing to life, our latest projects, and to let us know when you’re visiting us down under in wine country!
KMT: Tell us about your artistic partnership with fellow horn player/composer Ricardo Matosinhos.
EG: It was quite an unusual series of events! I had enjoyed playing Ricardo’s studies in university, so I was delighted when he connected with me through social media after he heard some of my music that I had shared in a forum. Some time ago, Ricardo approached me about writing him a solo piece that he could perform as part of his doctoral studies in Portugal, which I understand to be focusing on music for horn written by horn players around the world. Then this year, quite separately from all of this, we discovered that Ricardo and I had placed 1st and 2nd respectively in a horn ensemble composition competition hosted by the Twin Cities Horn Club in Minnesota! So we got to meet in Minneapolis-St Paul for the premieres, where Ricardo revealed that he had been working on a solo piece for me in exchange – quite the honour! So the whole thing transformed into a cool little collaboration. I think we’ve both been quite true to our own writing styles while including some elements we think the other might enjoy. We’ll both be premiering each other’s pieces in 2018, and I hope this will be just the beginning of a great working partnership with Ricardo!
KMT: So many great horn players are coming out of Australia and taking over the world these days. What teachers, performers, or circumstances do you feel contribute to this?
EG: We have many incredibly dedicated and hard-working teachers within all levels of the education system. I’d be remiss not to mention my own teachers Ysolt Clark, Peter Luff, and Malcolm Stewart, all shining examples in the field who invested an enormous amount of time and energy into developing me as a player.
There are so many brilliant players working in Australia who may not necessarily enjoy international recognition but would absolutely be competitive on a global stage. Students here are lucky to have access to direct contact with these musicians. One can have the best horn players in the country listen to them and give them thoughtful, tailored advice if they only take the initiative to ask. While that seems like a simple thing, I know that it’s a luxury not always afforded to students elsewhere.
Another factor to consider is that Australia is so geographically isolated compared to the rest of the Western-music-consuming world. To leave Australia to pursue horn playing through study or work abroad is a life-changing commitment, not to mention the huge associated financial and emotional costs. While this wasn’t a path I chose for myself, for those that do take the plunge I think the enormity of that decision pushes them to work extremely hard. Everyone I know who has moved abroad to play the horn has their eyes on the prize in a serious way!
KMT: Your partner is also a horn player. What are some the joys and challenges of being in a same-instrument relationship, especially because you two work together in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as well?
EG: We certainly spend a lot of time together! Alex and I are the two Tutti horn players in our orchestra; we went to the same university, studied alongside the same peers, won our jobs through the same audition on the same day, and went through our trial periods together too. There’s really no getting rid of each other now! In all seriousness, it is a rare joy to share such a huge part of your career journey with someone you care about.
Are there challenges? I must admit Shostakovich symphonies aren’t my personal idea of light listening around the house on my days off, but Alex probably doesn’t care much for me teaching beginners at home in the early hours of the morning (only one of us is a morning person…)! We played Shostakovich 5 recently, and I felt very sorry for our neighbours who experienced alternating sessions of excerpt practise… thank goodness for the double-glazed windows! And when one of us feels we’ve had a bad concert it can rub off on the other because we know exactly how it feels. But we’re both determined to respond to those experiences by working hard and throwing ourselves at the challenge again, a shared trait I’m grateful for!
I think everyone around us would agree that we’re very different players with different musical approaches and interests. We’re really lucky that our section always treats us as equals and individuals. (I think our 3rd horn player deserves a special mention for willingly appointing us in the full knowledge that he’d be sitting between us every day – a brave man!) I love that Alex and I can have great conversations about music and enjoy each other’s playing, and I definitely think I learn twice as much along the way for having him around. Ultimately, having a job doing what you love with someone you love is probably the best deal you can hope for in life, so I’d say the pros definitely outweigh the cons!
KMT: What, besides horn, occupies your time and makes you happy?
EG: I enjoy being outdoors and spending lots of time with my friends. Combining both of those with good food and wine is a certain way to keep me happy! I try to keep a general level of fitness and love a nice bike-ride to the seaside or jog by the river with my neighbour, but am not obsessive about it. I do love swimming at the beach in the summer and would probably spend every day there if it wasn’t for those annoying chores like sleeping and practising scales!
KMT: In a nutshell, what’s the best thing about being a horn player in Australia?
EG: It would have to be the combination of lifestyle and community. Australia is a wonderful country of beautiful beaches, incredible food, and fantastic orchestras! I think all over the world horn players are fun, quirky, social personalities, but in Australia you get this extra thing where they’re also super laid-back and always up for a good time and a laugh, as Australians tend to be. To anyone planning to visit our country, I have no doubt there’ll be Aussie horn players ready to welcome you with quartets, beers, and a good old fashioned barbecue, so don’t hesitate to look for us!
Recordings of most compositions can be found at: https://soundcloud.com/emma-gregan
An upcoming YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcINbrySP0Ch7ALI3uUZy3g
If you’re on Facebook, follow the Adelaide Horn Jam at: https://www.facebook.com/adelaidehornjam/
Emma plays full-time Tutti Horn with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in South Australia, and is a 2014 graduate of the Queensland Conservatorium. has appeared with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Camerata of St. John’s, and Opera Australia’s production of South Pacific as well as various pops ensembles around the Australia. In recent years she has played for Disney’s The Lion King in Brisbane, and performed in collaboration with the Welsh Theatre Company for the Tongyeong International Music Festival in South Korea.
Alongside her orchestral playing, Emma is building her profile as a composer and arranger, and has had pieces performed across Australia and the USA in recent years. She also maintains a small private teaching studio, and tutors occasionally for youth music institutions. She is enthusiastic about building and contributing to education and community programs, and manages a local horn ensemble, the Adelaide Horn Jam.