(written by Tuomas Kettunen)
At the end of June, a group of composers gathered in the summery Porvoo to attend a master class known as “Sävellyspaja”, with teachers Jukka Tiensuu and Tomi Räisänen. During the week, participants got to work with the fantastic musicians of Avanti! conducted by Andres Kaljuste. The master class has been part of chamber orchestra Avanti!’s Summer Sounds festival for over 30 years and it has become a highly international event, even though “we never send any commercials abroad but somehow we are getting more and more applications all over the world”, as teacher Tomi Räisänen said in the final concert.
For this post, I interviewed two of my fellow composers attending the course. Paolo Griffin is a Canadian composer currently living in The Netherlands, where he studies at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Eden Rayz is a young US-American composer and cellist living in Boston.
Participants were asked to compose a miniature according to a given task. This year, the task was to write a mourning dance, “which without any verbal explanation makes both sorrow and the dance obvious to the players and the listeners”. In modern world with such a large scale of different styles and approaches, this challenges the composer; how to make those things obvious without falling too much into clichés or banal solutions and at the same time staying devoted to your own expression and stylistical ideas?
PG: It took me a while to wrap my head around the assignment given. Working with restraints is the only way I work, wherein I create abstract parameters and then begin to create within those parameters. It was the same for this piece; I set out some guidelines and begin working towards a product with those rules in mind.
ER: I struggled for months trying to wrap myself around it in a way that was both honest and cathartic. I remembered this awesome song that was popular a couple years before I was born called Lambada by a Brazillian pop band called Kaoma. It clicked then, as this song is a painfully bittersweet mourning dance. As I normally do, I dreamed about the song for many nights until it melted into a waxy pile of almost unrecognizable fragments that I later sculpted together to find a new structure. Limitation helped bring new structure to a process that I often find boundless and unruly. It was a very welcome challenge!
So, what do you mean when you say you dreamed about it?
ER: To generate all of my material, I “hear” it during brief sessions of half-sleep. I do this in a very regimented manner. It seems romantic and idealistic, but really it’s quite a bother and is rather impractical much of the time. I’ve learned much from my colleagues’ processes and maybe someday I’ll be able to generate honest material in healthier ways.
It was again delightful to see how every piece was so different from each other although composed from the same task. And that is maybe the most beneficial aspect of these workshops for participants; get to know other colleagues and their ideas about aesthetics, art and world. Still, composing music is traditionally rather lonely work, why do you think it is so important for young composer to network internationally?
PG: My answer comes from two points: the first is that I attend an international conservatory, where 100% of my classmates are from countries different from my own, and a healthy chunk of those come from countries outside the Western world. The second is that, as a Canadian, and thus, an ocean removed from Europe and Asia, our contact with international composers important to the western style we operate in (excluding the USA) is limited. So networking with other young composers on an international level opens up a huge amount of opportunities; for travel, for experiences, to see new music, try new things, and find new inspirations.
ER: For just that reason! I canʼt imagine the Emily Dickinson approach to creativity. Composing for me can become a nasty habit if left unchecked. Maybe workshops like these for me are less about academic or career pursuits and become little group therapy retreats. Commissions are nice but so is sanity.
How do you consider the meaning of ‘style’ in composing?
PG: I think a composer should feel happy to work in as many styles as they feel the need or desire to. Personally, I feel the need to refine my own musical language in a specific direction, however stylistically, my pieces come down from all corners of the spectrum; folk music, minimalism, electro-acoustic, melodic, etc…
ER: What a life it would be to define yourself at 25 and crawl around in an industrial packing box looking casually for windows or little fragments of light until you turn about 45 and realize, “holy shit, Iʼm bored!”
PG: It was good to attend the workshop. When an artist of any kind stays in one place for so long, and is exposed primarily to the art of that location, the danger is that one begins to lose perspective, and while the lessons and rehearsals at the festival were valuable, I think the most valuable thing was meeting other young composers, listening to their music, learning about their artistic, aesthetic, and philosophical views, and broadening one’s mind to the world around us.
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