Composer’s Notebook #1

I have decided to record some of my thoughts on composition on this blog. In the good ol’ days, these things were usually penned down into a notebook or included in letters to friends and colleagues, but now we have the Internet!

Finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition

For this first notebook entry, I would like to say a few words about my recent trip to Kendall, NSW, where I attended the finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition (hereafter KNVC). Despite its setting in a quiet rural town, the KNVC is nevertheless one of the most prestigious in Australia, and attracts the best young violinists from around the country.

kendall_google

Click on the image to view in Google maps

For the first time in its history, the KNVC offered a prize for a new Australian composition either for violin and piano, or for violin solo. I was honoured to be the recipient of the inaugural Watermark Composition Prize for my piece Rhapsody No. 2 for violin solo. I had initially sketched out a piece for violin and piano, but changed my mind about one month before the submission deadline and wrote the Rhapsody instead!

The requirements of the competition were relatively simple: the piece should be specifically written for the KNVC so that the première performances would be given by the finalists, and the piece should be no longer than 7 minutes. I should say, this design brief only looks simple, because there are challenges that are not immediately obvious. I believe composers should always be concerned that whatever we put down on paper actually translates well when played on stage. We can dream up as many new innovations as we like, but without a solid understanding of how to transform the conceptual into the practical, our work is not likely to succeed. With that in mind, these were some of my preliminary criteria for the KNVC piece:

  • 7 minutes can either be a long time, or too short — the piece must be well-paced and carefully structured.
  • The piece is for the final round of a national competition —  it must be challenging, in order to test some of Australia’s best young violinists.
  • However, it cannot be so deliberately difficult that no-one can do a good job. While the piece was submitted early in June, the winner was announced near the end of June, and the semifinal round was held in the first week of August. With the finals taking place on 12 September, the finalists had only about a month to prepare a completely new piece.
  • The piece must also be enjoyable to the listener — it should be able to stand alone as a legitimate concert piece.
  • Finally, the piece should reflect the many qualities of the violin itself.

The last point is actually one of the main guiding principles for any piece that I write. I am always trying to create music that displays whichever instruments I choose in their best light.

After I had begun writing the Rhapsody, another thought occurred to me: thinking about some of my favourite music, I have always been impressed with how many different interpretations of a great work there can be. In the documentary L’Art du Violon (Art of the Violin), I believe it was Ivry Gitlis who said something like: “if you say that a piece of music can only be played in one or two ways, it implies that the music is very poor indeed!” For example, a work such as Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is considered a masterpiece not only because it is so beautifully composed, but also because it inspires further listening and interpretation. Arguably, we require repeated listenings and performances to grasp the many nuances of the piece, and even if we think we know the piece very well, it seems to never fail to delight us, and so we gladly perform or listen to it again. Great musical works, like great works of visual art or theatre or film, survive and indeed benefit from repeated scrutiny and appreciation. But now I’m getting sidetracked, and I certainly do not have such lofty ambitions as to create a work on par with Mendelssohn’s Concerto. (This is called being realistic). For the KNVC test piece, it was enough to write something that would remain interesting at least over the course of four performances, one from each of the four finalists.

I must say that I was very pleased with how well the composition turned out on the day of the finals. Of course, I believed I had written good music, but I suppose we  never know if our intuitions are well-founded or not, especially with something as unpredictable and subjective as musical performances, so it was a relief as a composer to hear my intentions presented judiciously. All four of the finalists played my piece brilliantly in their own way, which was most pleasing to hear. This was picked up by the audience members and also the judges, who remarked on how differently the piece sounded across all four performances. During the post-concert interview I gave on the day, I mentioned that as a composer, it was equally important to hear the performer’s voice as well as the composer’s. In other words, the music must provide the freedom for the performer to express their own personality. Thousands upon thousands of actors have played Hamlet, but each individual actor must have ruminated (on many a sleepless night, I’d imagine) on what that role means to them, and what they can bring to a particular interpretation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Likewise, it is an interesting proposition to think of composed music (as opposed to improvised) as a role which a performer takes on. That will be a topic for another time, or better, perhaps I’ll just leave it to the philosophers and theorists!

I would like to congratulate again all four finalists of the KNVC 2015. It was a pleasure to hear them play, and particularly to hear them perform my piece so wonderfully. I consider myself fortunate, and I hope that all aspiring composers have an opportunity to hear their works played with such dedication and serious intent. Many thanks to the KNVC committee and for the Watermark Literary Society who sponsored the prize. I am convinced that the KNVC is making important steps in continuing to promote the creation and performance of Australian music, and this deserves our applause.

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