Last year Salina Fisher became the youngest ever composer to win the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, at the 2016 APRA Silver Scroll ceremony. Any thoughts that her win may have been a quirk of luck were removed in September this year when she won the same prestigious award for the second year running. Louisa Nicklin talked with the remarkable 24-year-old who is currently further extending her music studies at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Born in 1993 of NZ and Japanese heritage, Salina Fisher is the composer/violinist behind the intriguing textures of Rainphase and Torino – respectively winners of the 2016 and 2017 SOUNZ Contemporary Award. She is the youngest person to win this highly regarded award. With her music performed in many parts of the globe and multiple commissions, Salina is quickly becoming a high profile (yet humble), name in the contemporary classical world.
“I’m at such an early stage in my career and to get the recognition is something that I can’t get my head around. The SOUNZ Contemporary Award is an award that I have so much respect for.”
After studying composition and violin performance at the NZ School of Music in Wellington, completing a Postgraduate Diploma (Distinction) in 2014 she has shifted to New York to study for a Masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
Unsurprisingly given such unprecedented success, Salina was introduced to contemporary classical music at an early age.
“I don’t really remember a life without being creative with sound… I started piano when I was four, with a wonderful teacher who encouraged me to think creatively about music. By 8 or 9 she was introducing contemporary music and NZ music to my repertoire.
“I remember being really excited by the musical possibilities, and by the fact that there are living composers in New Zealand! I would love for more children to be exposed to this kind of creative musical encouragement from that really early age. It felt totally natural for me as a creative little piano student to come up with my own music!”
Salina has since performed on traditional Japanese instruments koto, taiko, and shamisen, and in recent years began exploring taonga pūoro, the traditional Māori instruments. Tōrino, which was commissioned in 2016 by Chamber Music NZ for performance by the NZ String Quartet, is inspired by the pūtōrino playing of taonga pūoro musician Rob Thorne.
The unknown landscape of contemporary classical music can at times be challenging. Salina acknowledges that people she surrounds herself are also immersed in this world. Asked how to approach this musical landscape as a rookie, she ponders.
“I guess it’s about not having certain expectations of what music needs to do for you… allowing yourself to be completely open-minded about what sound can do or mean for you.”
“I’d say my favourite composer is Takemitsu. There is a real subtlety and fragility and this kind of indirectness that I’m really attracted to… I tend not to be drawn to really extroverted dramatic styles that sort of tell you how to feel but that give you a space on which you can bring yourself into. I connect with music that gives the listener space.”
Contemplating the appeal of classical composition, Salina notes that one thing which sets it apart from most songwriting is how the works are often played by someone other than the writer, a partnership most often facilitated by notation.
“There is this amazing connection when another human being is internalising your work and performing it.
That is kind of an amazing process.
“The beauty of the notation system is that you’re able to create pieces that can be played by other ensembles. Just last week I was in Vancouver and had a piece played by an ensemble living in Vancouver Island. I literally took a seaplane out to an island in Canada and I go into this rehearsal room and they’ve got my score and are playing exactly what I thought of in my flat in Wellington. It’s not a system without issues but it’s certainly an amazing tool that is unique to this art form.”
Surprisingly for someone so evidently able, Salina answers with a vehement ‘yes’ when asked if she finds it difficult to write music.
“I find the whole process extremely challenging every single time, and there have been times when I’m waiting for inspiration to hit. It’s honestly the hardest thing I have ever done, each new piece.
“It’s really important to me that I’m not just writing music that I feel comfortable writing, but to push myself every time. So it is really, really hard. But it’s absolutely always worth it in the end when I feel that I’ve completely grown as a person, or as a composer at least. That’s why I keep coming back to it. Because I know that I will grow in ways that are only possible through this thing that I do.”
Like many musicians, Fisher draws on an array of creative projects, paid work and scholarships to sustain her life as a composer and performer. She is realistic about the financial realities of her chosen art.
“I’ve just been super lucky… there’s absolutely no way I would be doing any of this without all of that support.”
Whilst in NZ, Fisher worked at SOUNZ, performed on a casual basis within the NZSO, played on The Hobbit soundtrack and also on Grayson Gilmour’s 2017 album ‘Otherness’.
She is stretching her boundaries even further while studying in New York as she is currently learning koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, and how to read Japanese koto notation. She’s also taking an electronic music paper, something she hasn’t explored much before.
Next year holds more exciting commissions to be written, including a piece for the NZSO that the orchestra will premiere towards the end of April 2018. A few days later the USA premiere will be performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, alongside the creative output of her Masters study.