Composer’s Kitchen 2012



Composer’s Kitchen 2012

In the press

What’s cooking in The Composer’s Kitchen?

Kate Molleson, Gramophone, May 10, 2012

Take the Bozzini Quartet, add six young composers, season with two mentors and stir it all together in Montréal for a tantalising menu of contemporary music-making.

The premise is simple enough: six young composers spend two weeks in April bouncing ideas off each other, a couple of mentors and a string quartet, first in Montréal, then in Yorkshire. The end goal is a showcase at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. Other groups run other similarly intensive composition workshops, so what makes the Composer’s Kitchen particularly worth writing about?

Probably it’s the ethos of the thing. Billed as ‘a combination of laboratory, playground and masterclass’, the project is hosted annually by one of Montréal’s more industrious and open-minded new music ensembles, the Bozzini Quartet. They’re clearly skilled adjudicators, too, because the six composers (two Brits, four Canadians) selected from 60-odd applicants turned out to be an unusually down-to-earth, musically diverse and genial bunch.

A few days into the Montréal week, composer and CK mentor Christopher Fox confided his epiphany to this effect: ‘I used to teach at Darmstadt’s summer school where students would soon enough kill each other if it meant they’d win the final prize,’ he said. ‘Here there’s no hint of competition. Everyone’s piece gets showcased in the final concert, and because they’re all coming from different musical backgrounds they seem happy to pitch in with constructive feedback on each other’s work. Actually, they all seem to genuinely like each other. Bloody brilliant.’ For his part, Fox’s ‘mentoring’ looked a hoot; more reciprocal enthusiasm than teacher-to-student pronouncement.

Some of the composers turned up with pieces that were nearly finished and mostly needed logistical help tweaking details of notation to make the parts playable. Thierry Tidrow brought a score of dense and convoluted microtones that took the Bozzinis — some of the best sight-readers in the business — dozens of attempts to navigate. They patiently explained the pros and cons of various common symbols, while Fox’s fellow mentor Malcolm Goldstein, veteran improviser of the New York avant-garde, just shook his head. ‘Ultimately the composer’s responsibility is to communicate his intentions with absolute clarity,’ he sighed, and pulled out a pile of Morton Feldman scores to demonstrate.

Other participants arrived with nothing more than words and the genesis of an idea, and it was these who stirred up the real depths of debate as the week went on. What’s the point of writing down music? Where does a composer’s obligation end? What potential can be drawn from raw open strings and the harmonics of subtle tuning? John Lely produced a single sheet of spare four-part chords, which the group tugged apart for hours. Lovely stuff.

Composers, mentors and Bozzinis members now have six months to gestate before reuniting for Part II. Huddersfield’s director Graham McKenzie cites the Composer’s Kitchen as a prime example of how the festival should invest in incubating new work. I’m looking forward to the final results in November.

Take the Bozzini Quartet, add six young composers, season with two mentors and stir it all together in Montréal for a tantalising menu of contemporary music-making.

Composer’s Kitchen 2012

Scott McLaughlin, hcmf//, April 1, 2012

As part of hcmf//’s exchange with Quatuor Bozzini’s Composer’s Kitchen, myself and five other composers spent a week in Montréal working with the quartet, along with mentors Christopher Fox and Malcolm Goldstein.

Myself and John Lely arrived in Montréal a few days early to see the quartet play in their salon series, a fascinating concert for string quartet and gamelan, and another with the Bozzini’s alone playing a piece by previous Kitchen participant Richard Glover and a hcmf//2011 commission by James Weeks, as well as new pieces by our two mentors, all beautifully performed. It was especially interesting to hear Malcolm’s work as it was completely new to me at the time, and shared many concerns with my own work — but this was also the tone for the week, every piece seemed to connect in some way with what I was doing, this new piece I was writing flows out of my way of musicking but was also developing from the environment of the Kitchen, soaking up ideas and connections.

The Composers Kitchen began on Sunday for introductions and a run through of the initial sketches. Each composer approached the Kitchen in their own way. Some arrived with pieces that were almost completely written, and across the week the players drew out an infinity of nuance and detail, prompting plenty of useful discussion as the works are questioned and refined. Some arrived with only an idea, a few scraps of notation, directions, constraints, techniques, etc., and the players responded with a wonderful willingness to experiment, fully engaged with the exploration.

Myself, I arrived in Montréal with no score but some materials and text directions, a fuzzy expression of a clear idea with two things that I wished to explore. The main idea was the inherent non-linearity of sound production in strings when played very close to the bridge. Here the harmonics can be unpredictable and change with the slightest variation in bowing, requiring a virtuosity of touch that I’ve seen the Bozzini’s bring to performances of Jurg Frey and others. The other idea was to center the interaction of the players as much as possible on listening. To construct a score in the tradition of Christian Wolff and others where the players are cueing each other through sound, or making decisions based on what they can hear from the group as a whole. In practice, this last element proved most awkward and needed to be rethought as the week went on. When all the quartet are playing high slow harmonics with no sharp attacks, it is almost impossible to know who is playing what. While I was certainly after a high level of blending (a single sound across the quartet) I hadn’t anticipated that it could also undermine the interaction of the players. Such a problem (and its various solutions) only arises from the experience of working through the piece, for which the Kitchen is an invaluable project.

We all work each day from 9-5, composers meeting in pairs or groups with mentors and performers. Variations are tried, notations are queried, revised, and tried again, material is moved around, replaced, re-examined and reinforced. In the evenings there is always excellent food and drinks, especially at Casa Del Popolo.

During the week we alternate sessions with mentors with group rehearsals, and each morning begins with a listening session with works drawn from the quartet’s repertoire. As the week goes on there’s a shift from experimentation to consolidation, in preparation for the closing concert. The quartet explained at the start that none of us should feel obliged to have a piece ready for the end of the week, but no-one declined the offer of a concert rendition; I at least want an opportunity to hear the piece in a public performance context, to see how the ideas hold up. In the end, for my piece we settled on a single idea, only the players’ right-hand would be used, coaxing out the natural harmonics of the strings using only the bow, varying its speed, pressure, and position on the string. A rough structure and score is drawn up for the concert, and results in performance exceed my expectations, but still the piece is not complete, more work needs to be done on the structure and the interaction, but the technique at least is solid.

In November 2012 we all meet again in Huddersfield to rehearse and finalise the pieces for performance at hcmf//.

Such a problem (and its various solutions) only arises from the experience of working through the piece, for which the Kitchen is an invaluable project.