Celeste Oram, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

It’s hard to single out an origin story, but I was fortunate to attend a high school with a tremendously strong music & performing arts programme, and dedicated teachers: especially Ronnie Karadjov, who modelled how joyful and stimulating life could be when it was filled with a deep contemplation of music. After high school years brimming with choirs, orchestras, musical theatre, writing music for plays, grrl punk bands and chamber groups, a life beyond high school without music-making just seemed inconceivable.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Arriving in San Diego in 2014 to start a PhD at UCSD probably happened at just the right time for me, but working amongst the unparalleled creative minds there has been motivating and formative in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

It can be dispiriting to encounter in some musicians or musical circles a scarcity of attention to listening.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

In the case of this BCMG commission, it’s challenging not knowing the audience. I do think of my music as communicative, which means working with the grain of the musical contexts and lineages that a community builds. It’s a privilege to be invited into a musical community in this way, but it comes with a responsibility to learn about one’s hosts, and those whom one seeks to engage.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Two challenges in a row, so now let’s choose pleasure: learning from them, their experiences and perspectives.

Of which works are you most proud?

Earlier this summer I was amongst a team of cherished friends and colleagues, creating and performing ‘Tautitotito’, a live radio variety show exploring alternative genealogies of Aotearoa New Zealand music. It affirmed for me, and I think others in the team, what kind of work feels important to make, and how important work gets made.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I like to keep an ace up my sleeve.

How do you work?

Though a conceptually methodical system of making decisions by asking the right questions, in order to whittle my ideas down to a kind of essential touchstone that then makes answering those questions easy.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Those who explode the practice of composing.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A few times a younger musician has come up to me to tell me that they had been somewhat in the doldrums creatively, but that their experience of a piece of mine had opened a door for them onto new possibilities, and motivated them to keep it up. Success, I think, means making room in that way: creating art that is generative, that begets more art.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

If you sense that the people to whom you habitually present your art don’t get it or don’t value it, then don’t change your art: change your audience.

What is your most treasured possession?

My competent immune system. Health is to be treasured.

Celeste Oram’s Pierrot Laborieux [work & The Work] (2018) will be performed by BCMG on 30 August at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK

Celeste Oram (b. 1990) is a composer from Aotearoa New Zealand, based in Southern California. No, she is not far from home; the Pacific is a highway that connects, not divides.

Celeste’s works investigate new media and strategies for musical performance and notation: video, audio, and text scores prompt performers into scenarios which confront sonic and social histories, utopias, and quotidia. Encompassing instrumental writing, song & speech, electronics, visual media, theatre, and improvisation, Celeste’s work has been recognised by the 2017 CANZ Trust Fund Award, a nomination for the 2014 SOUNZ Contemporary Award, and the 2016 Kranichstein Composition Prize from the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, whose jury described her work as ‘strangely entertaining… engaging with history in a striking manner’ and ‘utterly relevant’.


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