What’s cooking in The Composer’s Kitchen?

Kate MollesonThu 10th May 2012
Composer John Lely rehearses with the Bozzinis (photo: Kate Molleson)Composer John Lely rehearses with the Bozzinis (photo: Kate Molleson)

Take the Bozzini Quartet, add six young composers, season with two mentors and stir it all together in Montreal for a tantalising menu of contemporary music-making

The premise is simple enough: six young composers spend two weeks in April bouncing ideas off each other, a couple of mentors and a string quartet, first in Montreal, then in Yorkshire. The end goal is a showcase at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. Other groups run other similarly intensive composition workshops, so what makes The Composer’s Kitchen particularly worth writing about?

Probably it’s the ethos of the thing. Billed as ‘a combination of laboratory, playground and masterclass’, the project is hosted annually by one of Montreal’s more industrious and open-minded new music ensembles, the Bozzini Quartet. They’re clearly skilled adjudicators, too, because the six composers (two Brits, four Canadians) selected from 60-odd applicants turned out to be an unusually down-to-earth, musically diverse and genial bunch.

A few days into the Montreal week, composer and CK mentor Christopher Fox confided his epiphany to this effect: ‘I used to teach at Darmstadt’s summer school where students would soon enough kill each other if it meant they’d win the final prize,' he said. 'Here there’s no hint of competition. Everyone’s piece gets showcased in the final concert, and because they’re all coming from different musical backgrounds they seem happy to pitch in with constructive feedback on each other’s work. Actually, they all seem to genuinely like each other. Bloody brilliant.’ For his part, Fox’s ‘mentoring’ looked a hoot; more reciprocal enthusiasm than teacher-to-student pronouncement.

Some of the composers turned up with pieces that were nearly finished and mostly needed logistical help tweaking details of notation to make the parts playable. Thierry Tidrow brought a score of dense and convoluted microtones that took the Bozzinis –some of the best sight-readers in the business – dozens of attempts to navigate. They patiently explained the pros and cons of various common symbols, while Fox’s fellow mentor Malcolm Goldstein, veteran improviser of the New York avant-garde, just shook his head. ‘Ultimately the composer’s responsibility is to communicate his intentions with absolute clarity,’ he sighed, and pulled out a pile of Morton Feldman scores to demonstrate.

Other participants arrived with nothing more than words and the genesis of an idea, and it was these who stirred up the real depths of debate as the week went on. What’s the point of writing down music? Where does a composer’s obligation end? What potential can be drawn from raw open strings and the harmonics of subtle tuning? John Lely produced a single sheet of spare four-part chords, which the group tugged apart for hours. Lovely stuff.

Composers, mentors and Bozzini members now have six months to gestate before reuniting for Part II. Huddersfield’s director Graham McKenzie cites The Composer’s Kitchen as a prime example of how the festival should invest in incubating new work. I’m looking forward to the final results in November.

Kate Molleson

Kate Molleson is the Guardian's music critic in Scotland and a features writer for the Herald. She studied clarinet performance in Montreal and musicology in London, and was assistant editor of Opera Magazine from 2009-10. She's currently writing a book about music in Glasgow.

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