Note to self: Italians know how to make music, and Italians know how to cook. I'm stating the obvious here (don't mind the stereotyping), but I just experienced these two truisms for the first time myself and I feel it worth reiterating. After a weekend of mind-expanding lessons in instrumentation paired with espresso and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, we have reached the end of our first workshop with Icarus Ensemble in Reggio Emilia, Italy. I am one of twelve composers chosen for this year's European Composers' Professional Development Programme, and one of four who are writing new pieces for Icarus Ensemble to premiere at hcmf// 2012. I will be blogging occasionally about my experiences in the programme, as will some of my Icarus-composing colleagues Ben Gaunt, Chikako Morishita, and Fátima Fonte.
The first day of our workshop involved extensive presentations by each of the ensemble members. They showed us one-by-one their plethora of techniques and tricks on flute, clarinet, electric guitar, bass guitar, accordion, sampler, and percussion, all the while revealing their individual preferences and musical personalities. As our ears perked at certain sounds, we asked questions and began complex dialogues and experiment sessions which at times resembled contortionism: "Ok, so you can do a descending microtonal glissando with the right manual of the accordion while keeping a steady tremolo in the left manual, but can you simultaneously press the register keys with your chin?" "Wow, that's great! Ok, now can you hum this line of counterpoint at the same time and play the tambourine part with your right foot?" (don't mind the hyperbole). The percussionist showed us his massive categorized list of instruments, with an accompanying 500Mb of digital photos of the gear. One by one we added items to the percussionist's list of instruments to bring for our rehearsal the following day: "I'll definitely need a full drum set...wait, how many frame drums do you have?...can you bring all of those giant metal pipes?...I've never heard a high octave of chromatically tuned almglocken before..." He stopped us when he thought his car couldn't fit any more instruments.
Much to our enjoyment, this level of excess was provoked from within the ensemble as well. The flutist brought not only bass flute, alto flute, ordinary flute with open-hole keys, ordinary flute with closed-hole keys, and piccolo, but also two traversi (baroque flutes), one tuned to A=415 and one tuned to A=440! It was a pleasure to indulge, to explore less-common techniques and instruments, and in the end we discovered many beautiful new sounds which will find their way into our works. Had the percussionist not brought his 15-kilo metal chain, and had the flutist not brought his traverso tuned to A=415, something would likely be missing from our final works, even if only indirectly. I suspect the real challenge for us all will be showing restraint in our use of the seemingly unlimited technical capabilities of the musicians. I, for one, have never felt so untouched by practical considerations and will have to firmly set enough constraints for myself to compose a work that has depth and focus.
For the second day of our workshop, the full ensemble read through sketches we composed for them before coming to Italy. Although most of us revised our sketches overnight, we felt a bit silly that our material did not at heart reflect the great knowledge we had just received the day before. Still, it was a chance for us to reciprocate a bit of our own ideas and style to the ensemble, and to test out a few possibilities regarding notation. It was also nice to hear the variety of approaches and aesthetics each of us composers are coming from, which sparked many conversations between us that carry on even now through email. At the end of the weekend, we all agreed that this intense exploration was the deepest lesson in instrumentation any of us had yet experienced.
Brains filled to capacity with new ideas and a firm grasp on the workings and spirit of Icarus Ensemble, we departed on Monday for our homes in the Netherlands and the UK. We will return to Reggio Emilia again in June for a workshop/rehearsal with our pieces, and in the meantime my colleagues and I will keep you informed about our new compositions for Icarus as they come about. For now, we stay busy composing, taking advantage of this incredible opportunity as best we can. Stay tuned...