During the Australian Youth Orchestra’s upcoming performance at Melbourne Town Hall, the orchestra will premiere a new work commissioned by AYO: The Meaning of Trees by Andrew Ford. Andrew kindly took a moment to shed some light on the creation of the piece and the urgent emotions behind it.

How did the AYO commission for The Meaning of Trees come about?

I don’t remember the exact order of events. I know I took the basic idea – title and all – to Colin Cornish [CEO of Australian Youth Orchestra] who immediately liked it. That was as long ago as 2016, I think. Then there were emails, phone calls and at some point a drink, while we thrashed out the details of the commission. I don’t want to give too much away about the music before the first performance – in particular, I don’t want to give away the ending – but I will say that some of the more outré features of the piece were Colin’s ideas, or at least were encouraged by Colin.

A man with a short grey and white beard, wearing a navy button-up shirt, smiles at the camera.
Andrew Ford. Credit Jim Rolon

What was the inspiration behind the piece?

In a nutshell, climate change. Specifically the way our politicians have done so little to ameliorate its effects. Their responses have been a mixture of corruption (that’s to say vested interest), bloody-mindedness and cowardice, haven’t they? As W.B. Yeats wrote, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ But then that’s now true of our political landscape globally.

I’m ashamed of my generation’s inertia, and I’m also aware that my shame will be of no interest to the next generations as the planet fries. As you can see, I feel angry and powerless. I suppose I could chuck tomato soup at famous paintings – and I understand the frustration of those who do – but I thought it might be better to compose a piece that articulated my anger and, more importantly, provided a platform for the young players of the AYO to vent some of theirs.

How did you approach writing the piece? Did knowing you were writing for Australian Youth Orchestra influence your process at all?

Well, see above, as far as the second half of the question goes. I was working on the piece in late 2019 and early 2020 when those shocking bushfires were burning much of south-eastern Australia. I live in the New South Wales Southern Highlands and the fires came quite close – we evacuated twice – but ultimately left us alone. Still it was a shock, and the fact that the fires and this piece coincided made me realise that writing orchestral music is no use in an emergency. I wanted the piece to be performed there and then as a protest; it suddenly felt urgent.

What I did, in fact, was to put the piece to one side at the end of January 2020 and write a piece for the Brodsky Quartet and William Barton, called Eden Ablaze. It borrows some of the material from The Meaning of Trees. The chamber piece had the advantage of being small scale, so it could be performed more or less immediately, like musical reportage: a string quartet from the front line! The Brodskys put it straight into their schedule for a premiere in the UK a few weeks later (a concert they’d already fixed with Will) and I booked my flight. Then the pandemic came and everything was cancelled. The same happened to the premiere of The Meaning of Trees, which was scheduled for the middle of 2021. So much for musical reportage!

Could you tell us about your previous experiences working with AYO?

They’re amazing players and they always seem to be lovely people. I’ve done four National Music Camps over the years tutoring the Words About Music program, but also each time working with one of the orchestras or ensembles on my music. It’s always been a pleasure. I imagine those camps form lifelong memories for the players, but they do for the tutors too.