One of West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s most celebrated initiatives is its Composition Project, which sees early career composers from WA hone their skills in a collaborative, hands-on environment. Mentored over a four-month period by Project Artistic Director James Ledger and musicians from the orchestra, the composers take part in one-on-one lessons, workshops and rehearsals, all of which culminates in a new work from each for 14-piece chamber ensemble. This year’s participants are Maddie Ivy, Nate Wood, Tim Newhouse and Simon Kruit, whose works will be showcased by WASO at the Final Showing on June 10. Limelight spoke to Assistant Concertmaster Semra Lee-Smith and Principal Second Violin Zak Rowntree about the Composition Project, for which they have served as mentors since its inception.

Semra Lee-Smith. Photo supplied

How have you both been involved with West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Composition Project?

Semra Lee-Smith: I am the first violinist in the 14 to 15-piece ensemble involved in the Composition Project. The ensemble consists of one person from every section of the orchestra. I can’t actually remember when I got involved – my emails tell me it’s at least since 2013!

Zak Rowntree: From memory, I think that I’ve been involved for most if not all of the 11 years.

How has the project been structured over the four-month period? 

SL-S: Jim [James Ledger, Artistic Director of the Composition Project] always starts out by getting the students to orchestrate an existing work, for example, a Debussy nocturne. The ensemble then plays the arrangements and we discuss what works, what doesn’t work and how to better illustrate the composer’s ideas. From there, the composers begin work on their own original work and there will be about three drafts which we workshop before the final concert where we perform all the works in front of an audience.

ZR: I’m sure that a lot of work goes on behind the scenes, but from a musician’s perspective, the first time that we meet the composers, Jim has given the composers a task, which is often re-arranging a short piece by another composer, for our ensemble. As our ensemble is unusual (one player from each string section, and one player from each wind, brass and percussion section); that is often quite tricky, especially if the piece is a Debussy piano prelude! So very early on, the composers are having to think hard about balancing single strings against brass and woodwind, and how many days’ notice the tuba needs to insert a mute (Jim uses that joke every year.) In the following weeks, the composers then start to workshop their own pieces with us, gradually refining them until we present the new works at a concert. Before each piece is played, Jim will interview each composer to find out about them and also their piece.

Having been a part of the Composition Project for a considerable time now, how have you seen composers develop during their involvement?

SL-S: This varies a lot. Some participants already have very clear voices in their compositions but for others who haven’t quite crystallised their points of view, it has been really interesting for me to watch them find modes of expression, pulling inspiration from experiments and questions during our sessions. We also talk a lot about the practicalities of writing for professional musicians – basics like page turn logistics, how big or small a font to use, how much time we need to grab a mute (3-5 business days for a tuba, according to Jim!). They may seem like small things but when given due consideration, can really endear you to the people performing your music! I think it gives the composers an idea of industry expectations and helps them to present their work in a more professional manner.

ZR: I think the composers who get most out of the project are those who make the most of listening to the feedback from Jim and also musicians who have devoted their lives to playing their instrument. It is unlikely (unless you are Hindemith) that the composers have played all of the instruments in the orchestra, so listening and learning from players about the capabilities and idiosyncrasies of their instruments is very valuable. They also learn (most of them!) that rehearsal time with a professional orchestra is limited, so it is very important that their music is playable, and notated in a way that is easily and quickly understood by players.

Zak Rowntree. Photo supplied

There are four composers at different stages of their career taking part this year. What’s surprised or excited you about the works composed?

SL-S: I’ve played many of Simon Kruit’s arrangements before and have been impressed by his innovative and intelligent writing. I was really excited to find out we’d be working with him and I have not been disappointed. His music is elegantly crafted and very satisfying to play. I am plotting to include his work in some chamber music concerts that I’m planning next year.

Nate Wood’s piece uses bits of Styrofoam in between the strings to create quite otherworldly effects. It’s incredibly inventive and imaginative writing and we had far too much fun experimenting with Styrofoam sounds! It was also very enlightening to find a bowing technique for a credit card. These are the surprises that I relish about the Composition Project.

ZR: There are two things that get me excited about the Composition Project. First is when a piece just ‘works’ – i.e. we play it through for the first time, and the composer has taken the care and time to ensure everything is right. An example of this would be Simon’s piece. The other is when a composer surprises me. Nate brought along small pieces of polystyrene to one of his rehearsals and asked us to place them between the strings of our instruments, and then play. Whilst a lot of the sounds weren’t that attractive, it was really fun experimenting!

James Ledger

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your involvement with the Composition Project?

SL-S: Firstly I think Jim Ledger is a national treasure and that we are so lucky to have him directing this project. He brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to the sessions and it’s always done with such good humour. I always find it absolutely fascinating to watch him come up with solutions and suggestions for various compositional conundrums. I also love the camaraderie within the ensemble and between the ensemble and the composers. And of course, it is an absolute delight when we discover outstanding works which are rewarding and satisfying to perform.

Have you personally learnt something valuable for your own music making from being involved?

SL-S: My repertoire of extended technique has definitely benefited from being part of the Composition Project. Who knew you could do so much with a credit card? I am always challenged during these sessions to think outside the box – it’s a refreshing perspective.

ZR: I love experimenting with new sounds suggested by the composers. Also the task of explaining string techniques and issues to a non-string player really helps you to think about your own playing.

In your opinion, why is the Project a necessary one?

SL-S: I think it is a good reminder to myself to appreciate how hard composers work and how intricate the process is. I also think the Composition Project is a fantastic addition to a young composer’s portfolio and often serves as a jumping off point for them for other study or commission opportunities.

ZR: Projects like this are essential to young composers. Without a group of willing and helpful musicians, it would be like a violinist learning the violin with no instrument. As a side benefit, it makes us orchestral musicians a little bit more appreciative of the struggles of a composer when we next sit down to play a modern composer’s work.

West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Final Showing is at the John Inverarity Music and Drama Centre, Hale School on June 10

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