Channelling Cassomenos: An interview with Jem Herbert

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Published: 8th October, 2019

One of the most exciting experiences for many musicians is the opportunity to work alongside composers on pieces written specifically for them. This year, Melbourne composer and virtuoso pianist, Stefan Cassomenos, was commissioned to compose a work for the music students of the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (VCASS). Written for choir and orchestra, Terms and Conditions is an intriguing 15-minute exploration of our engagement with the digital world and its disturbing effects.

For his text, Cassomenos drew on two main sources. The first is a selection of contrived motivational phrases and pieces of “life advice” – the sort one comes across on social media greetings. His second textual source is a standard “terms and conditions” text – as seen on websites, apps, banking services, browsing platforms and streaming sites. This second collation of words contrasts the positivity (albeit insincere) of the first, and puts a spotlight on the subscriptions, clauses, provisions and “conditions” we are implicitly adherent to and sometimes unaware of! The words of this work are deliberately contradictory, plastic and even mechanistic. Cassomenos uses the immense forces of the full orchestra, alongside a multi-layered choir with soloists, to show the overwhelming amount of information being forced upon us through the digital world.

Year 12 music student Jem Herbert was chosen to play the demanding keyboard part, one that continues without pause. The work opens with a commanding chordal section accompanied by the strings and moves into mechanical minimalism-inspired arpeggiated figure. An evocation of computerised sounds, ringtones and notifications, the piano is the driving force of the piece – a relentless perpetual motion.

Regarding his personal preparation and performance of Terms and Conditions, Jem said, “It was a challenge! Especially considering the composer’s pianistic prowess. But Stefan was so lovely – he gave many pointers whilst being incredibly effusive and complimentary!”

When asked to comment on what he and other students gained from the epic experience that was their most recent concert, he responded, “It was no simple process – preparing a piece never before performed – but at the same time, the journey was invaluable! Through the many drafts and updated editions put in front of us each week (admittedly, at times, tedious!) we gained insight into the workings of a truly talented composer! I am in awe of his musical vision and modesty – here’s a man who premiered his first composition with the MSO at age 14! What’s more, he played the solo part himself! Stefan is a very thoughtful composer and he made a real effort to write for us! He is not guilty of being pigeonholed into that awfully elite category of “artistic irrelevance,” as he confronts one of the most pressing issues that the youth of today faces. Thank you Stefan for sharing your music, as well as your time; and I speak for many when I say that we were humbled by your compassion and thoughtfulness!”

Jem also outlined the pathway that led him to this rewarding point. “I grew up in North East Victoria where my parents are school teachers. As a 12-year-old year 7 student, I came to VCASS first as a singer. Midway through my time there I transitioned to piano as my primary study. Being a singer has taught me lots. Growing up in choirs, singing great choral music, as well as exposing myself to some of the core Art Song repertoire has given me a holistic view of music – something that undoubtedly informs my piano studies! However, it is neither as a singer nor pianist that I wish to make as a career. I want to continue playing, singing and composing, but I have always wanted to become a conductor. I am eternally grateful for what VCASS has given me in this regard. I have had the privilege of working with the choirs, orchestras and ensembles as a conductor – opportunities so difficult to come by elsewhere.

“It isn’t the first time I have been involved in performing new works. As a member of the Australian Boys’ Choir I was lucky enough to sing lots of new music. In 2016 I sang in Colours Bleed, a work by Dermot Tutty (VCASS’s choral director), with the VCASS chamber choir alongside Plexus, the Melbourne based trio dedicated to performing new music. I have also, myself, had the privilege of writing for the school orchestras and choirs – thanks to my wonderful teachers who inspire and encourage students to compose.”

As a teacher in the academic program of VCASS since its foundation in 1978, students continue to impress me with their talent and maturity. Jem is one of several who continue to make  thoughtful contributions to the Classic Melbourne website. It is a privilege to see their development and how effectively significant local musicians nurture it.