Composer's Kitchen 2012

Composer's Kitchen (c) Caroline de la Motte

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

Myself and John Lely arrived in Montreal 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 Montreal 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//.

Scott McLaughlin

To find out how you can apply to take part in the 2013 edition of Quatuor Bozzini's Composer's Kitchen, click here