Meet WASO’s Education Artist-In-Residence, Paul Rissmann

Composer, presenter and, music educator Paul Rissmann does a lot of things. As well as being WASO’s Education Artist-In-Residence, he’s worked around the world on everything from symphonic tours and enlightening documentaries, to successful musical book adaptations and live operatic analyses. Simply put, he’s someone that writes music, talks about music and inspires others to engage with music - no matter their age.

Paul’s creative mastery will be on full display at the end of May when he returns to WASO with two very different but equally exciting orchestral experiences. In Izzy Gizmo the Young Inventor, Paul’s original music brings to life Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations, and the characters and mechanical marvels of Pip Jones’ best-selling children’s book, perfect for the little music lovers out there. Later in the month, in a challenging and exciting display of WA talent, Paul directs WASO and UWA’s side-by-side creative exploration of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Led by WASO’s Associate Conductor, Jen Winley, the concert will include the unveiling of a brand-new interpretation of the work alongside the original work.

Ahead of the concerts, we spoke with Paul about his passion for music, his artistic inspirations, and what audiences can expect in the upcoming shows.

Paul Rissmann. Photo: Emma Miranda

You’ll be presenting Izzy Gizmo the Young Inventor with WASO in May. What’s the process of orchestrating a children’s book like?

I start off by reading the book again and again, and every time I have an idea I stick a post-it note on the page that inspired it. I try to note down everything I could possibly do with the story – whether that be a make a song, write an instrumental solo, or create a whole orchestral episode.

The main challenge isn’t really what to do with the book but rather, finding the right book in the first place. There are so many beautiful, expertly written and exquisitely illustrated picture books for young people, yet not all of them will translate into a satisfying concert experience. I have a very specific list of things I need to find in a book, to ensure we end up with a concert experience that is varied, engaging and can keep a young person gripped for 25-minutes.

What can audiences expect at Izzy Gizmo the Young Inventor?

Wonderful playing from the musicians of WASO and a lot of audience participation. If you and your family have always fancied singing accompanied by musicians from your state orchestra, then this is your chance.

Paul Rissmann at the Leon and the Place Between. Photo: Daniel James Grant

You’re also directing Romeo and Juliet, alongside conductor Jen Winley. Tell us what it’s been like working on a side-by-side creative development with WASO and UWA.

This should really go in the section where you asked about my favourite projects, because I’ve adored working on creative projects with WASO and UWA over the years. I am especially proud of the Petrushka Project we did in 2021.

The creative process involves reducing a massive, complex score to just a handful of key elements. Then, through a series of workshops, use those elements as seeds from which we can grow new material. The participants embark on a creative journey which challenges them to work in a completely different way. This project certainly isn’t like a normal day at Uni or at WASO, and that requires massive amounts of trust. Especially since everything we make has to be memorised and performed unconducted. It’s a bit like the most intense chamber music project imaginable – except that the group have to compose their own music too.

The icing on the cake with these projects is that I get to work with the very brilliant Jen Winley. Jen runs a parallel project where a side-by-side orchestra of UWA and WASO musicians prepare to play our source work. And then, magically our new music gets interwoven with the original score. Somehow, all of that happens in the space of single week.

You’re clearly very passionate about music. Where did your love of music and composing start?

Without a doubt, when I was baby! I was a terrible sleeper and my poor Mum had to sing me to sleep every night. I think from the earliest age I was made aware that we have this incredible capacity to make beautiful sounds.

Sadly, I was starved of music in my primary school so it wasn’t until I started high school that everything fell into place. By an incredible stroke of luck, I ended up going to the most musical state school in Scotland. We were treated to the most brilliant education by three inspirational music teachers. When I get asked about what needs to happen to fix music in schools, I always reply “Just give young people what I experienced growing up in the West of Scotland”. I owe my school teachers everything.

Leon and the Place Between. Photo: Daniel James Grant

You’ve had such a varied career. What are some of your favourite projects to date?

Gosh, that is a tough one. I’m an all or nothing kind of person, so I fully commit to whatever project I’m involved in and try to make it the best one yet. That is, until the next one starts.

Over the years there have been some milestone that still make me smile today, such as:

  • Performing the UK’s first ever series of full-scale orchestral concerts for the under 5s. Nobody had presented little people with the full symphony orchestra before and certainly not with a tailor-made concert experience and so no one had a clue what would happen. It was a terrifying but magical experience.
  • Working with adults in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction to make a new piece to perform with the London Symphony Orchestra.
  • Hearing an audience of thousands of school children come to life and sing one of my songs.
  • Getting 10,000 people to clap Stravinsky’s motor rhythms from The Rite of Spring in Trafalgar Square.

You’ve worked with orchestras all over the world. What is it about WASO that keeps you coming back?

I feel honoured to be WASO’s Education Artist-In-Residence and I love coming to Perth. I always stay in Scarborough Beach and the drive to PCH is one of my favourite journeys (it beats travelling by tube in London any day). There is an openness and can-do attitude at WASO which is unique, and that motivates me to perform at my best ­– even with jetlag.

Over the years, there have been some fabulous performances of my music with the orchestra, but more than anything, I love WASO’s willingness to try new things. What musician is brave enough to commit to playing a concert when they don’t know what they will be playing? Oh, and they’ll have to compose all the music too. Well, the musicians of WASO are. They are fearless and it’s a privilege to work with them. And it’s not just me that feels that. I’ve just been working with Otto Tausk in Vancouver, and we spent many a night talking about our love for WASO.

Tickets for Izzy Gizmo the Young Inventor and Romeo & Juliet are available now.

UWA is the Tertiary Education Partner of WASO.