Work-shopping a piece at The Composer's Kitchen, from left-to-right: violinist Alissa Cheung; mentor composer Christopher Fox; mentor composer Christopher Butterfield; composer Georgia Rodgers; composer Kyle Brenders; composer Egidija Medeksaite
Beyond what I do here at Soundstreams, I attempt to have a life as a practicing composer (and performer, but that’s a story for another blog post). I am constantly searching to find a balance between my own artistic practice, and that which I’m working to put on stage at Soundstreams. Some might say that my work as a creative musician is my second job, because I do it after I get home from Soundstreams. But I sometimes feel that Soundstreams is my second job, there to support my habit as a musician! All kidding aside, I recently participated in an emerging composer workshop—a departure from being the workshop designer, which is part of what I do at Soundstreams.
I created a new work for string quartet as part of the Quatuor Bozzini's Composer's Kitchen. The Composer's Kitchen is an annual musical “laboratory” conceived as an artistic “playground,” where composers workshop their new composition with direct support from the Quartet, as well as two composer mentors. The Composer’s Kitchen happens in three stages:
1) A workshop in Montreal and performance of the new work;
2) A few months of private revisions;
3) Another workshop in London, UK, and concert of the final works.
The workshop had four participants that were selected through an application process: two composers from Canada and two from the United Kingdom, supported by the amazing UK organization Sound and Music (you can read about the other participants here). The two mentor composers were Christopher Butterfield from Victoria, BC, and Christopher Fox from London, UK.
This workshop reminded me of how intense the process of creating a new work really is. In my own compositional practice, I know I’ll be performing much of the music that I write. Because of this, I tend to leave a lot of musical information out of the score. Dynamics, articulation, bar-lines, time signatures, instructions for improvisation, and sometimes even the duration of notes, are aspects of the score that I leave out, and figure out either in real-time during the performance, or through the rehearsal process.
Left-to-right: composer Egidija Medeksaite; mentor composer Christopher Fox; composer Georgia Rodgers; composer Kyle Brenders
I wasn’t going to be performing this new work, so I needed to create something clear and precise. However, I don’t believe in creating a score, handing it over, and expecting the piece to be performed directly as it appears on the page. I love openness, which requires the performers to make their own decisions. I love facilitating surprises for the performers as they play the music, and also for me as the composer of the work. This can create complications when working with musicians used to scores that have the composer’s instructions clearly written on the page. I knew this would a challenge going into this workshop, but I also knew that the members of Quatuor Bozzini would be game for anything.
I had a breakthrough on my piece when another workshop composer mentioned that she views the compositional process as “creating an article of clothing”—composers have to put the pieces of thread together for the performers. I am slightly different in my work—I provide the performers with the buttons and thread, but they have to create the shirt. The materials I provide the performers with create specific musical events, but how each event progresses through time will be determined in each performance. This idea is also where my piece got its name: sewn.
You can see a section of the score below and listen to how it’s all put together. There is a main set of materials that begin the section, and then each player is free to move through their own musical materials. Each player receives only their subsections, separate from the other four players.
An excerpt from sewn
My music has a quirkiness that I encourage. I recently played with Bobby McFerrin at Roy Thomson Hall, and one thing he stressed was that everyone needs a level of quirkiness in their everyday, and suggested 10%. I think I’m there with this piece. The Quartet really explored the material with curiosity and wit. But remember, this is only one performance, and one way through the material. Each time the Quartet performed my piece, they created a new version. My music isn’t about capturing a final, flawless performance, but capturing the moment the musicians are presently in.
Another amazing aspect of this workshop was collaborating with the other participants. They each created incredible pieces that inspired me to work harder (you can hear one of them here). Seeing another composer’s music being work-shopped is one of the joys of this process. I love watching how people put music together, hearing them describe what they’re doing, and seeing how the performers respond. It’s this joy of creation that made me first want to make music, and continues to drive me every day. Luckily, this workshop has a second stage, where we all come together again. I’ll write again in February after the third stage of the workshop, which will include a performance of the work in Aberdeen, Scotland.