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In the Club with: Aristea Mellos

For our seventh episode, we are thrilled to welcome composer and pianist Aristea Mellos!

Tell us about a recent musical experience that you particularly enjoyed.

I recently tuned into a concert of art songs by Australian female composers that took place in NYC. The performers, pianist Jeremey Chan and soprano Amber Evans streamed the event using 360 degree immersive video technology. Unfortunately, being in Sydney, I joined the stream from my (2D) laptop, but If I had been in the US, I could have joined using a virtual reality headset which would have been sent to me ahead of the broadcast. I thought this was a really creative way of trying to share the feeling of live performance in an age when, sadly, we can’t be with one another to make or share music. 

Who are some composers or ensembles you’ve been enjoying listening to lately?

I’ve mostly been listening to works that either I or my husband (classical guitarist, Josinaldo Costa) have been practicing. During the lockdown, I found it hard to focus on composing, so I directed my attention towards learning some late Mozart piano sonatas, in particular, the D Major Sonata (K576). 

Whilst I was embarking on a quest of technical self-improvement at the keyboard, my husband was using the lockdown to record two different albums: an album of 19th century guitar works by Sor, Mertz, Guliani, and Schubert; and an album of solo J.S. Bach, featuring the Lute Suite in E minor (BWV 996) and the 6th Cello Suite (BWV 1012). 

I’ve also enjoyed having more time to tune into the lunchtime radio concerts that are broadcast daily in Australia on our primary classical music station, ABC Classic. This week, for example, there was a wonderful recording of Mahler 3 being broadcast from a pre-pandemic live concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. There’s nothing quite like crying over a roast you’re preparing because the music moves you to tears with its beauty. 

Are there any trends in the Australian music scene that you’re particularly excited about?

I don’t know that there are any stylistic or aesthetic trends that come to mind immediately, but one thing I’ve noticed, particularly amongst younger performers and composers, is an interest in establishing entrepreneurial projects. 

For example, several of my colleagues have founded boutique-style concert series that provide them with a platform to explore music that otherwise wouldn’t be programmed: from experimental works with video, to works for found sounds or non-Western musical instruments. 

Further, many performers who operate in a more traditional classical environment are also establishing new orchestras and ensembles, which in turn provides opportunities for younger musicians to participate in Australia’s musical life. I think these kinds of ventures are important in maintaining cultural vibrancy and in combating a monopoly of large and sometimes stale institutions. 

What are some similarities or differences you perceive between the contemporary music scenes in Australia and the US?

There are many differences between the new music scenes in Australia and the US. Australia is a much smaller country population-wise (we have a population of just under 25 million), and that means that there are a smaller number of performers and ensembles who specialise in performing new music. Whilst that may sound limiting, it also means that there’s more fluidity and less segregation between genres. For example, colleagues of mine who perform in symphony orchestras and make their living by presenting works from the Western canon are also active in premiering and recording works by contemporary Australian composers, many of which are highly experimental. 

As for similarities, I think that much like the US, there’s a growing awareness of the need to showcase diverse voices in the new music community. When I think back on how the scene has evolved over the last decade, I’d say that there’s been an exponential rise in support of programs and opportunities for Indigenous artists. It’s mind boggling that it’s taken so long for these initiatives to achieve mainstream support, but it’s wonderful to see it occurring at long last.

Do you define your work in any specific way in terms of genre or style? Are there any particular influences that have inspired your recent work?

I’d describe myself as an analogue composer or as a living antique. I primarily work at the piano with paper and pencil, and I enjoy writing chamber instrumental and vocal works, in particular lied (or art song). I unashamedly love a beautiful melodic line, and I’m often guilty of indulging in rich harmonies.

I find inspiration from piano repertoire that I’m practicing, learning, or teaching, and in poetry - particularly the Greek modernist poets of the early to mid-20th Century. For example, last year, I wrote a song cycle using an English translation of four poems by Constantine Cavafy. At the time of the work’s composition, I was playing several Schubert Impromptus, and I can see little signs of Schubert’s language in my approach to melody, texture and use of repetition. 

The song cycle, ‘Songs of Resignation’ was recorded by soprano Helen Zhibing Huang and pianist Ada Arumeh Kim Lowery in late 2019, and we released the entire album ‘Songs for a Day’ in early 2020 on the Xenofone label.

With all the roles you play - composer, pianist, project leader, label runner, and more - do you have any advice for other musicians who are looking to balance multifaceted careers?

My only advice is that there isn’t a single correct or perfect path to take as a musician. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life can be totally unpredictable, and that even the most certain of paths or goals can be affected by unforeseen events. If we want our art form to survive into the future, we all need to be flexible and a little less judgemental about what constitutes success in our field. 

To survive as a freelance musician, I juggle multiple roles. Some of these provide income, and others provide intellectual or creative satisfaction. If we turn to the past, we find countless examples of composers with multifaceted careers. For example, J.S. Bach, alongside his musical duties as Kapellmeister of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, had to teach Latin to teenage boys, was rostered for RA hall duty in the wee hours of the morning, and also ran an instrumental hire company (from his home). I suspect that Bach probably slept very little, but I don’t think anyone could argue that his other roles or entrepreneurial ventures reduced his musicianship. 

The notion that composers only compose, and that a performer only belongs in an orchestra or concert hall is a construct of the 20th Century, and one that could probably do with a bit of updating as we push on into the 21st. 

Outside of music, what are some other types of art and media that you particularly enjoy?

I love film and theatre, and I’ve really missed going to the cinema and seeing live actors on stage this year. Whilst I’m grateful that this pandemic has coincided with the age of digital streaming, there’s a social aspect to both these arts that goes missing when you’re on a sofa in your pajamas watching a movie from a laptop. More than anything, I think I miss the exchange of ideas that a night at the movies or theatre followed by a dinner or drink with friends facilitates.

Thank you for joining us, Aristea!

Dr. Aristea Mellos is an Australian composer and pianist. A winner of ABC Classic’s 2014 Gallipoli Song Competition, Aristea is a recipient of grants from the Presser Foundation, the Earle Brown Foundation, the Australia Council for the Arts, and the American Australian Association.

A represented artist of the Australian Music Centre, her music is regularly broadcast by ABC Classic and has been recorded by Tall Poppies, NPR, Fine Music, and the Xenofone label. Recent commissions include works for The Song Company, the virtuoso pianists Bernadette Harvey and Stephanie McCallum, and the Music in the American Wild Ensemble.

Aristea holds a Doctorate (DMA) and Master's (MM) in Composition and Piano from the Eastman School of Music where she was the Paul Sacher Fellow. In 2010, she graduated with Honours Class I from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (University of Sydney).

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Photo by Leticia Almedia

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