I'm on the train heading home from the premiere of my piece Bowheads, commissioned by Chamber Music Scotland for their 2017-2019 Ensemble in Residence, the fantastic Kapten Trio. It's always a treat to write for such a fine ensemble, but this commission was extra special in a number of ways. It was one of my first Scottish commissions since moving to Scotland in 2015, and also one of the first new commissions I'd accepted since my second child was born, also in 2015. (I'd been busy with composing all along, but mostly with projects that had been set in motion before these two major upheavals in my life.) Receiving this commission thus felt like both a welcome into my new life as a composer in Scotland, and like a symbol that yes, I could somehow manage my artistic life while also being a parent of two young children! At the time I accepted this commission, I thought it was “just” an opportunity to write a new piece for a great ensemble: I didn't realize it would also be such a wonderful and multi-faceted opportunity for me to grow in new musical directions, to make new artistic connections, and to become part of such a lovely community of musicians.
While working on the piece, I was invited to attend two four-day CMS residencies at Hospitalfield. Before kids, I had loved attending artist residencies, and they were an essential source of musical renewal for me, because of the time, space, and solitude they allowed for me to develop my ideas, and perhaps even more so because of the opportunity they offer to talk deeply with other artists. But the residencies I had attended in North America were a month or two long, an impossible amount of time to be away young children. Participation in these two short residencies helped me realize that I can tap into this source of renewal even when I am only able to get away for a few days at a time. At the first residency it took me two or three days to settle into a good working headspace: I think I needed a couple of days to decompress, and to remember what it was like not to have every single moment of my time accounted for. On the second, I was able to settle into my work right away, perhaps because I already felt at home, and already knew my working locations and routines at Hospitalfield. (Residency directors: please note that if you want to make residencies accessible to parents of young children, consider offering the possibility of several short residencies instead of one long one!) Though four days isn't a long time, shared meals, beach walks, and late-night fireside hang-outs in the grand rooms of Hospitalfield (where one can imagine all the generations of artists hanging out) meant I was able to have great conversations with the Kapten Trio and other ensembles, performers, and composers present.
CMS also facilitated several meetings with the Kapten Trio while I writing for them, which was a real treat. Though students often workshop pieces as they are writing them, professionals rarely do, as geographical distance, rehearsal schedules, or simply shyness about sharing in-progress work usually mean that we only give completed pieces to ensembles. It was great to be reminded of how helpful – and enjoyable – workshopping in-progress pieces can be! I was able to determine right away whether some unusual playing techniques would work, and alter them in real time, in discussion with the performers, to get the sounds I wanted. I developed ideas during rehearsal that would not have developed if I were working alone in my studio or practise room, as they were easy to shape verbally or gesturally, but not in standard Western classical music notation. Choreographers and theatre-makers often develop their works in collaboration with the performers, as do composers in more improvisatory musical genres, but this way of working is rare for “new music” composers coming from a classical background. I've realized that I would like to seek out this collaborative way of working more often.
Finally, it's wonderful to have Bowheads performed as part of the Kapten Trio's five-concert tour of Scotland. Premieres are always exciting, but so often commissions end after the premiere, and it may be years before the piece is played again. It's really special when an ensemble has time to live with and internalize a piece. Multiple performances allow different aspects of a piece to develop and be brought forward, and for the composer it is very special to be able to hear these subtly different realizations of their work.
An enormous thank you to the Kapten Trio, for being such a fabulous ensemble to compose for, and for such a brilliant premiere, and to Paul Tracey and Creative Scotland for providing such amazing support for me, and for so many musicians across Scotland.
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