“I was fascinated by the way music can transport the listener to another place.”
To celebrate our upcoming concert with her, we sat down with the brilliant Pōneke-based composer, Sarah Ballard, to discuss all things music, bhakti yoga, and world premieres…
What originally inspired you to become a composer?
For me becoming a composer was a very natural process. As a child, I loved music and would make up tunes. I think what inspired me to become a composer was my exposure to a wide variety of music from my parents, piano teachers and music teachers in high school. I was fascinated by the way music can transport the listener to another place. In my teens I would spend a lot of time studying singer-songwriters, composing piano ballads and began to compose instrumental music. In high school I was introduced to the wonderful works of Gareth Farr and John Psathas and this sparked the light that one could actually be a composer in this day and age. Opportunities presented themselves from there and I wound up in the University of Auckland music department.
We are so excited to be presenting with you the world premiere of your new composition, Brahma-samhitā, at the end of September. Can you tell us a little bit about the journey of composing this piece?
I am so excited to be able to work with the New Zealand String Quartet. They are all wonderful people! This piece, Brahma-samhitā, lead on from a piece I wrote for the NZTrio called Prema Lahari in 2020. Tara Jahn-Werner, chairperson of the Nicholas Tarling Charitable Trust, approached me at that concert and suggested the potential of supporting a concept for a new piece. I had been reading the beautiful Brahma-samhitā text and thought I just have to set this for voice and string quartet. I selected some of the most poetic and beautiful verses to set to music. The Nicholas Tarling Charitable Trust very kindly supported the composition of this piece.
The way I compose is very fluid. I sit down, hear the notes in my mind and write it down bit by bit as it comes. I meditated on the mood of the text and tried to express that through the materials that came. In this way the composition of the piece was a meditation on the descriptions of the transcendental personality ‘Govinda’.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I try to rise early to meditate, it’s the sweetest part of the day! Then I cook, do some study and off to work. After work you can often find me helping out at the Bhakti Lounge (The Heart of Yoga), cooking, serving or hanging out with the guests. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to fit some dancing in somewhere too.
Tell us about a career highlight.
Singing with the NZ Trio in Prema Lahari. The first performance was with a recorded vocal track, but for the second performance we had a more intimate setting at the Nathan Homestead in Auckland and I sang live with the trio. The audience really connected with that and appreciated the composer being a part of the performance. The piece was inspired by my experiences in India in 2020 and the audience had really felt that coming through.
Is it usual for a composer to perform alongside their own works? And what is it about performing your works that you enjoy?
I can think of composer friends who have done so – Alex Taylor, Salina Fisher and Celeste Oram, to name but a few. I have been studying Vedic literature for the last five years and so I feel a deep connection to the texts that I set, which in recent years have been from ‘cream’ of the Vedas. I enjoy the opportunity to be able to share these texts personally with the audience, and the emotions that they can provoke in the reader.
What are some of the challenges of composing?
Effectively communicating with the performers to create something that is fulfilling for them to perform. Personally I have gone through the battle of that it’s not actually about me, but it’s about them. How can I give to them as a composer? And how can I give to the audience? This approach leads to a diversity of output as a composer as the interests and intentions of each performer or group of performers I work with can vary considerably. Also, knowing how and when to end a piece! This is always a conundrum, but I hope as I continue to compose this becomes more intuitive. I find the parameters of a composition are hard to pin down from the outset, as what I write seems to have a life of its own!
You’re a bhakti yoga practitioner. What drew you to it? And do you think it influences your compositions at all?
I was drawn to the comprehensive knowledge that the bhakti tradition offers. And also the people! Down-to-earth, friendly and genuine! The word ‘yoga’ is a sanskrit term which means to link or connect. The bhakti texts give scientific knowledge of how we can connect with the supreme self, ourselves and others on a deeper level. It certainly influences my compositions in that there are practically unlimited subject matters to draw inspiration from in the bhakti texts. Bhakti yoga has positively changed my outlook on life and how I relate to others, so that has also influenced my approach to composition – that it be a means of cooperating and connecting with people.
Where else do you take inspiration from for your compositions?
The performers are always an inspiration for me, their unique personalities, abilities and talents. Also, texts such as Bhagavad Gita and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. These are histories full of the lives of great personalities and I find there is a lot I can learn from them and share of their experiences. It is all about the perfection of life, so I am interested in how to create that sense of the perfection of life through sound. And for me this really means creating something that will be able to touch the hearts of others. A lofty ambition, but it’s a good project to keep me going!
What is your instrument of choice? When did you first pick it up and what drew you to it?
When I was eight, my mother took me to a music school and asked, “Which instrument would you like to play?” I felt this was the moment of my life – I desperately wanted to learn to play the violin. “Violin!” I replied enthusiastically. “No, you can’t learn that,” she said firmly, “it’s too screechy”. You could hardly blame her, but I was devastated and found myself in a modern keyboard class, which I struggled with. Perhaps I should have been more rebellious! It has seemed to work out for the better though, those piano skills have been very useful for composition! I do love the piano, there is nothing like it.
What’s next? Where do you see your work taking you over the next few years?
I see my work being very variegated over the next few years. I have been opening up to this idea of working to the performers’/director’s desires and aims and have gradually been becoming more dedicated to that way of working. That is exciting for me because it means challenging myself to composing in a range of styles and contexts. I have a small project that is currently under wraps and after that I see my music being more community-focused. At the Bhakti Lounge we have a dynamic collective of artists and musicians. I hope to be more engaged there musically and to collaborate with the diverse talent that is present there, creating music in that unique space and to a broad audience – yoga for the ears and the heart!
To find out more about Sarah, and to listen to some of her work, check out her website or Facebook page! Or, come along to our concert with Chamber Music Hutt Valley on Wednesday 28th September to experience her compositions for yourself.
Chamber Music Hutt Valley
28 Sept, 7:30 pm
St Marks Church, 58 Woburn Road, Woburn, Lower Hutt 5010, New Zealand
Sarah Ballard Brahma-samhitā for soprano and string quartet (world premiere performance)
Britten String Quartet no 2 in C major, op 36
Beethoven String Quartet in F major, op 59/1 Rasumovsky