Flinders Quartet’s Zoe Knighton on finding the voices of the future and hypothetical conversations with dead composers.

With a pile of scores overflowing the music shelves, and more recent ones sitting as PDFs in the inbox, it had long been clear to us there was a great need for emerging composers to have their music played. Flinders Quartet never has enough time in rehearsals for our programmed material as it is, so to add in extras seemed out of the question. The piles – both actual and electronic – were a bit overwhelming and it was hard to know where to start. So, a decision was made to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with new submissions and an organised composer workshop.

The plan was to put a call out to all Australian emerging composers, with no caveats. Our manager ensured the submissions remained anonymous, so when we were choosing potential candidates we wouldn’t be swayed by gender, age or racial background. With 26 submissions, and the enlisted help of Mary Finsterer whose advice was invaluable, it took a few weeks of pouring over scores to handpick eight.

Flinders Quartet

We intentionally didn’t ask a writer’s age during the submission process, but of those we invited to participate in the workshops, four were under 35 and four were over 35; a fortuitous statistic and proof that there are composers out there who are past the age of most development opportunities, but who are composing music that deserves to be heard.

The scarcity of female composers on concert programmes, whether they be contemporary or otherwise, is a contentious issue that receives due attention. Personally, I am of the opinion that all music worthy of being played and listened to deserves a chance, regardless of the composer’s gender. As a female, I don’t want special treatment. I prefer to be chosen on merit, not gender. However, I couldn’t resist asking what the percentage of female applicants were in comparison to those we took forward. Out of 26 applicants, eight were female (31%) and out of the eight successful composers, two were female (25%). We feel this is a pretty fair representation, and that those successful were chosen on merit, not gender. It will be fascinating to watch this statistic over the years to see if it changes. Even if I do profess to only choose music on its merit, more work needs to be done to help equalise the number of female composers who apply.

People often ask how we approach a new score and the answer is always the same: music is music. It doesn’t matter if it was written by someone well known or not, as musicians, our job is to be the composer’s voice. Somehow we have to bring those dots on the page to life. The only difference is, we can’t ask Schubert if he has made a mistake in articulation or if we could try the chord re-voiced. That said, we often have hypothetical conversations with dead composers and try and imagine what they would say.

Approaching these eight new scores with enthusiasm and vigour, it soon became clear we had bitten off slightly more than the four of us could chew. The scores ranged from simple, beautifully structured and crafted works to intensely complicated sound worlds with quarter tones. After some initial rehearsals ourselves, we stepped into the room with the composers and began. There was much collective holding of breath at first with the composer and the quartet at pains to please each other while delving into the myriad possibilities and directions each piece could take.

Our collective saturation in music was intense – it was a bit like tasting a bunch of new foods with a blindfold on to heighten the sense of taste. Soon our auditory senses were exploding with all the new ideas. Thankfully, we had two composition mentors to guide the writers through the process of working with a professional ensemble. While we aim to be experts on our instruments – and we certainly have tricks of the trade to share with composers – we felt that area was best left to the experts.

And what experts they were; Miriama Young and Stuart Greenbaum gently coerced our eight composers to try out new textures, harmonic structures and ways of connecting the four instruments. Interestingly, it was Stuart who remarked that sometimes the ideas we were all throwing around might not turn out to be for the composition at hand but could be for a different piece somewhere in the future. It certainly reminded me of the famous (infamous?) quote by Beethoven which could be cited in a different context: it was music “for a later age”.

It seems obvious to us that contemporary composers need proper forums to learn and polish their craft, and we graciously received congratulatory pats on the backs for giving the writers  the opportunity to have their pieces performed and recorded – this we were able to do thanks to the generous support of Creative Victoria, our Pozible campaign, and some amazing donors. However, such workshops are as much benefit for the musicians. Every time we work with living composers, it reminds us that we are communicating a human message, not a random set of dots.

Flinders Quartet’s inaugural composer workshop project took place in December 2016 and culminated in a free public concert which was live streamed and can be viewed here. A short documentary showing some of the workshops can be viewed here.

This project will continue in 2017 and submissions will open later this year. Details will be available on Flinders Quartet’s website

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.