Composer Corner: NZ music and The Travelling Portmanteau

Candice from Chamber Music New Zealand explores some new New Zealand music in this week’s blog post…

It’s May and here in the land of the long white cloud May means it is NZ Music Month. I love that chamber music continues to be a genre that inspires many of our kiwi composers. At the moment Chamber Music New Zealand is touring the New Zealand String Quartet (NZSQ) and with them four new works as part of The Travelling Portmanteau – A Collection of Portable Vignettes for String Quartet , written by young NZ composers. I was keen to know more about the pieces, about the people behind them and about how the final project came to be. So I sat down for chit-chat with the minds and talent behind the music:

L to R: Karlo Margetic (composed Sinnet), Tabea Squire (composed Jet-Lag) and Natalie Hunt (composed Matariki and data Entry Groove)

L to R: Karlo Margetic (composed Sinnet), Tabea Squire (composed Jet-Lag) and Natalie Hunt (composed Matariki and data Entry Groove)

It went something like this…

Hi kiwi composers. Why don’t we start with you telling me a bit about yourselves?

Natalie Hunt

Natalie Hunt

NATALIE HUNT: I’m a classically trained composer; I’m also a government minion at the moment. When I was younger I played a variety of instruments. And I have a background in jazz and theatre and dance.

I just finished a show that I was Sound Arranger and Musical Director for where I played cello and saxophone and clarinet. Those are probably the instruments that I play the least badly. But I have also had a go at playing double bass, which I love, and trumpet. My brother plays trumpet so he has let me borrow one of his. And I tried playing flute for a bit and piano.

Do the types of instruments you play influence what you compose for?

NATALIE: I tend to write for clarinet a lot and I feel strange when I write for instruments that I don’t know how to play. I love writing for orchestra but I feel I need to know what I am asking people to do before I say, “Okay, I want you to play these notes, this fast – go!”


Tabea Squire

Tabea Squire

TABEA SQUIRE: I come from a musical family. My dad is in the NZSO, my mother was in orchestras in Scotland, and plays the cello and the recorder. They both play Baroque music. But [my musicality] is not necessarily genetics; my twin brother is an architect.

I’m mainly a violinist, in fact I studied violin under Helene (first violin in the New Zealand String Quartet). But I also play the piano and I like to sing and I have attempted to play other instruments in the past but never quite stuck with it. I am a composer and also a writer and dreamer all round really.

You have to be a dreamer to do all of those things, don’t you?

TABEA: Well you have to be a dreamer balanced with a good side of practicality when it comes to these things. So I am quite proud to be able to take a dream and make it actually work. Most of the time you lose most of the dream in the process but when you have an actual piece, rather than staring out the window thinking nice thoughts, it’s kind of rewarding. 


Karlo Margetic

Karlo Margetic

KARLO MARGETIC: I am a composer and I also work at Sounz, The Centre for New Zealand Music. I also play the clarinet and have been in orchestras and ensembles for a very long time. I have studied clarinet and composition at university and now I am one of the people who run the SMP Ensemble, which is a group of enthusiastic crazy people. We put on concerts for fun and they are always very eclectic with a heavy ‘new music’ emphasis.

Tell me about the Travelling Portmanteau. What is it, how did it begin and what’s the process been?

TABEA: The first I heard of it was at the Adam Summer School, which the NZSQ put on each year. Rose Campbell the NZSQ Manager came up to me and said she’d like to speak with me. I was actually already involved with a project with the quartet and so I tried not to get my hopes up too much. When I did meet up with her she said that they had this idea of writing a series of encore pieces specifically for the NZSQ written by young composers. She mentioned me and Karlo, and wanted us to come up with other ideas.

KARLO: We didn’t have much time [to put the idea together] before putting in our Creative NZ [funding] application, so we called up Natalie, and Simon Eastwood as well, and said, “Do you wanna do this?”… [Simon] is still working on his piece. It’s on the way.

What exactly was the brief you all worked to?

TABEA: They wanted encore pieces. The quartet had had comments from overseas audiences that they wanted to hear more New Zealand works. 

KARLO: We didn’t really talk to each other when we were writing these pieces.

TABEA: No! Actually part of what turned up in my piece was when I was wondering what Natalie was going to do. At some stage I said, “I wonder if Natalie is going to use any bird noises.” And then I thought I can do bird noises. And so I did bird noises. Why did I do that? … Well, it worked out!

And does your piece have bird noises Natalie?

NATALIE: It doesn’t but it does try to imitate the stars. You know, because stars make noises…

TABEA: I’ve done star noises before! In fact I am working on something at the moment that is very loosely inspired by the radio waves of planets and stars. But even before that I’d actually written a piece that was representing stars. So you’re not alone Natalie….we are star composers…. (laughs)…hang on, I didn’t mean it like that.

Natalie, Karlo and Tabea with The New Zealand String Quartet

Natalie, Karlo and Tabea with the New Zealand String Quartet

What was your composition process for the project?

KARLO: We had a lot of time to write our pieces. It was an interesting process and I came up with an idea that was very grunty and rhythmic and difficult. I sent it to the NZSQ and they said, “Can you make this a bit lighter?” So I set that idea aside and came up with a completely different idea.

I thought a string quartet is both a group of people that make up a single unit, and four very skilled players. When they come together they are sort of like rope – something very strong and practical and useful. So I wrote a piece that is a single line, but they never ever play it in unison – either rhythmically, or in pitch. But they are playing the exact same line throughout the entire piece.

I love that idea of a string quartet being individual strands that twine together to become rope. From an audience’s point of view what is that like to listen to?

KARLO: It sounds like the music is echoing itself. It is sort of like I have written a large space like a cathedral or something in the music, even if it is played in a dry acoustic.

Tabea, what about your piece?

TABEA: When we first met up with Rose I was thinking about stuff that has something to do with what we initially had called the series of work – Flight Pack. And so one of my little tags I thought of was jet-lag. I thought I could do something with that. I had this mental image or sound of different lines being played at different speeds. Or two parts of the group going off in different directions, or playing the same thing but starting in different places and all sorts of things like that. I thought “Hey, this could be fun!” So I sat down and started trying to write it down. It took a wee while! I made up some new ways of generating material. I worked on having four different colours for each instrument and rotating them around as the piece goes on. From a compositional point of view I wanted to make sure I had only one or two ideas because it is a short piece and I find it easy to come up with too many ideas…

KARLO: Same!

TABEA: (laughs)…yeah, my idea was to keep it compact. I hope that’s what comes across. The overall effect is quite slapstick, and it has little jokes in it, and that random explosion of birdsong in it which turned out completely different to what I expected, but there you go.

Tabea and Karlo speaking with Helene Pohl (1st violin, NZSQ)

Tabea and Karlo speaking with Helene Pohl (1st violin, NZSQ)

Your turn Natalie…

NATALIE: Well the first thing I asked Karlo was, “Would it be very bad if I asked them to play a jazz piece?”

There are certain stigmas attached to that. There’s the classical side of things which say, “We’re not too sure about the way jazz musicians do things” And the jazz side says “Well we’re not too sure about hearing classical musicians attempt that”.

So instead I ended up focussing my piece on Matariki. Since it is something to be performed overseas and I was really interested in trying to capture what Matariki means to New Zealanders, and how it can be conveyed.

I first started getting ideas for it when I was volunteering at an eco. retreat – going out on the beach by myself and looking up at the stars and just thinking. When I came to actually writing the piece it was winter and around the time we celebrate Matariki. Of course because it was so cold and rainy I didn’t end up seeing Matariki. In a sense that cyclical pattern of knowing every morning I could try and see it the next morning translated itself into the piece. I have ended up this ostinato all the way through which seemed appropriate for such a cyclical event. It is also harmonic as I wanted to capture the ethereal essence of the stars and the heavens.

When I finally handed Matariki into the quartet it was two weeks past the deadline. I said “I am really sorry that I didn’t finish it on time, can I write you a second piece as an apology for missing the deadline?” And they said that maybe they should take me up on my offer for a light-hearted jazz piece. So I wrote them a second piece called Data Entry Groove.

I love that name. Why did you choose it?

NATALIE: Well my current day job is as a government minion. And part of what we do is data entry. It is just a group of us, there are talented graduates who could do a whole number of things but in trying to find work have ended up doing data entry.

I think a lot of musicians find the same thing. They train really hard and have all this initiative, all this dedication to the craft, and then get a job entering data, to be able to spend the evenings doing what it is they actually love.

It is just a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted piece about entering data. Complete with a few quirks along the way. It reflects my jazz and theatre background too.

And what was the Quartet’s response to Data Entry Groove?

TABEA: They really like it, you could tell!

NATALIE: I was actually really stoked to see how they reacted to it and how the audience reacted to it at the New Zealand School of Music when we premièred the works in April.

Last question…What do you hope audiences will come away feeling after hearing your pieces?

NATALIE: I hope they feel encouraged to listen to more modern music. Particularly more modern New Zealand music.

TABEA: I’d like them to feel like they’ve had an enjoyable experience that would lead to them looking up our names and finding out more about us.

KARLO: And other composers’ names too. They should visit Sounz! …. I really don’t mind what people feel, if they are entertained – great! If they hate it – good! They can gossip about it afterwards. It’s all good, any reaction is fine.

TABEA: So you’d like them to have a response?

KARLO: Yeah. Boredom is perhaps undesirable. But something that gets you talking, that you like or hideously dislike is fine. Feel free, any reaction is fine.


So there you go. Make these three composers’ day by spending some of your May (or whatever month it happens to be that you’re reading this) and:

1) Visit Sounz to get listening to modern New Zealand music.

2) Look each of them up: Tabea Squire. Karlo Margetic. Natalie Hunt.

3) If the music you hear moves you in any way – bad or good – talk about it! Share your opinions with other music lovers, with the composers themselves, or just cast it out into the vast internet (start by commenting on this blog!) and see what happens.

– Candice, 09.05.2014


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