Linda Catlin Smith

Linda Catlin Smith: ‘I love to be in a state of mystery’

Ahead of two concerts at hcmf// 2017, the Toronto-based composer on the quiet joys of ambiguity.

‘A farmer in Calgary came up to me after a performance of my piano piece The Underfolding,’ Linda Catlin Smith recalls, ‘He said he didn’t know much about music but the piece made him think of a particular field on his farm, when things are changing in the moments just before dawn.’

That image – a moment of beauty experienced with quiet, solitary awe – captures perfectly the appeal of Smith’s work, which features in two portrait concerts at hcmf// 2017. American-born but resident in Toronto for many years, Smith knows well the intangible, personal nature of how her listeners may experience her music. That ambiguity – those fleeting, hard-to-define shades – is the same subtle, half-lit palette that she draws upon herself when writing.

“I think music is multidimensional, and there is no one meaning one should ‘get'”

In a paper on composing presented at the University of Ottawa in 2002 she said, ‘When I don’t know what the piece is, I know I’m on the right track’, a view she still holds. ‘I think music is multidimensional, and there is no one meaning one should “get”’, she elaborates. ‘I love to be in a state of mystery, in my own work or someone else’s, where I don’t quite understand what is happening.’

She continues: ‘I understand what the notes are, and the instruments, but what it all means? That is often not clear to me. I often find myself wondering if the work is anything… does it hold? Does it feel like a piece of music?’

With its delicacy, restraint and considered stillness, it’s little surprise to find the influence of Japanese musical forms in Smith’s work, with her studies with Jō Kondō at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, having proved pivotal. ‘Jō Kondō’s class on traditional Japanese music made a huge impression on me, particularly Gagaku,’ she remembers. ‘The sound of that music – its transparency, its irregular rhythmic life – was very formative for me. I was attracted to the idea that pulse in music can be irregular.’

Linda Catlin Smith

That said, the four decades since have seen her compositions become ‘more melodic, and more complex harmonically,’ she reflects. ‘I also have become more interested in interwoven textures. Earlier my work was more spare and empty. I think I work between these ideas now.’

Smith’s third string quartet, Folkestone, was inspired by a book of paintings by JMW Turner, whose shifting, translucent skies would probably strike a chord with that Albertan farmer. ‘Every piece has a different starting point – usually some kind of sound image, something quite small,’ she says. ‘It could be a textural thing, or it could be a sense of harmonic tone. Sometimes I want to get close to something I’ve seen in nature – a tangle of vines, for instance – or sometimes it will be from painting, like the complex layering in the backgrounds of Turner or Monet or Morandi.’

The painting comparisons are particularly apt when you learn that Smith’s original plan was to study art: ‘I decided to go to university for music at the last minute, but I realised that music was more important to me, and I didn’t think I could live without it,’ she says.

‘I don’t think my music represents anything.  It is perhaps parallel to abstract painting in that I’m involved in the overall form, in the way the work changes, as well as the layering or texturing of sound, the sense of colour and balance and proportion, of foreground and background – these all matter to me.  But there is no subject other than the melodic and harmonic material, though I don’t discount something like “mood”.’

With piano and harpsichord her chosen instruments at university, although Smith’s compositions span orchestral, opera, vocal pieces and solo instruments ranging from accordion and vibraphone to the hackbrett (a German hammered dulcimer), she feels particular affinity with a keyboard stretching out before her.

‘One of the things I loved to do as a child was to play the piano – simply fooling around with it, playing things backwards, or symmetrically between hands; the piano was always such a beautiful thing to me,’ she recalls. ‘I started making up pieces very early, and I started writing them down when I was 10 or so.

‘I love the vast range of the piano – its high and low registers, its incredible timbral universe – it is such a large resonating thing! It’s a magic box, an endless mystery that I can go to again and again,’ she says. At hcmf// 2017, her piano pieces will be performed by Eve Egoyan and Philip Thomas – in her view, impeccable interpreters of that instrument.

“I don’t think my music represents anything.  It is perhaps parallel to abstract painting in that I’m involved in the overall form… There is no subject other than the melodic and harmonic material, though I don’t discount something like ‘mood'”

‘They are both incredibly deep and sensitive artists. They have a way of disappearing into the music, and allowing the music to speak. I think they both trust the score and try to understand it rigorously.’ She concludes: ‘They both have “touch” – that ineffable quality of bringing out tone – but they each have it in their own way.’

The Sheffield-based contemporary music label Another Timbre recently released Drifter, a collection of Smith’s works performed by Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini, as part of its ‘Canadian Composers’ series. Although not Canadian by birth, Smith feels that she has thrived on the atmosphere offered by her adopted homeland; away from the spotlights offered by more recognised music scenes such as that in New York, but, like that farmer, free to explore her own take on the gathering light.

‘In general, I was brought up on the myth that American artists were free – the country was founded on ideas of freedom, after all – but I have been in Canada for 40 years, and I feel it is even more so,’ she says. ‘For me, the epitome of the Canadian composer is Ann Southam, who so quietly went about making her 12-tone piano pieces, which are so beautiful.  There is something so liberating about being unnoticed for a while.  You can do what you really want to do, and you feel free to make mistakes… it’s not about pleasing anyone.  It is between you and the work.’

Linda Catlin Smith: Piano + Strings
19 November @ 12:00 pm
St Paul’s Hall
Tickets £17 (£14 concession / online)

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