From where we sit: Composer Connections

Ordinarily it is the chamber music ensemble that decides what to play in concert (maybe sometimes with a little input from the organisation helping to put on the event). This makes sense, given that a considerable number of the artists who wrote the music being performed are no longer alive.

But what if it wasn’t up to the musicians? What if a composer got to dictate the programme? And not just of their own works but of a collection of works that inspire them, that compliment their own pieces and that they believe the ensemble will make fly off the stage.

Well that’s just what is happening this May when Chamber Music New Zealand celebrates NZ Music Month.

The Composer Connections tour features three top NZ ensembles who have each been paired with kiwi composers that know them well. As to what’s being performed? Well that was in the hands of the composers.

Two of those composers –  Alex Taylor and Karlo Margetić – who with composer Claire Cowan have put together a concert rich in energy and colour for NZTrio to perform, shared their thoughts on this unique curatorial approach to programming… 


Karlo: It’s a great idea!

Alex: In a sense we have already been connected for a number of years now, but the opportunity to curate a concert was an exciting one, especially with the NZTrio in mind. Claire, Karlo and I are all passionate about programming and creating a stimulating experience for an audience, having put on many of our own concerts in recent years. SMP, Blackbird Ensemble, the Intrepid Music Project. So this was an opportunity for us to transfer those programming skills to a different audience.


Karlo: I think CMNZ taking a leap and trusting us composers has resulted in some very interesting and stimulating programmes that people will really enjoy.

Alex: It’s very different – a performer often approaches programming from the starting point of his or her existing repertoire, and might choose pieces they know well or enjoy playing. As soon as you open up programming to an outsider, a music director or in this case the composers, you have a greater scope, the chance to suggest things that you know are possible but that the performers would never usually even consider. So I think what you end up with is something more adventurous, more daring – not necessarily in the sense of being more contemporary, but in the sense of a primarily musical starting point, rather than a practical one. A good example of this is Michael Norris’s Stroma series The Mirror of Time where he draws very telling musical connections across many centuries, even millennia of musical practice through his programming.


Alex: For many years I’ve been a fan of NZTrio’s dynamic performance style and unswerving support of New Zealand composers. They commission more new works than any other institution in the country, perhaps aside from dedicated contemporary music ensembles like Stroma and 175 East. In 2012 I was commissioned by the trio and wrote burlesques mecaniques. It’s the sort of piece that I think epitomises what NZTrio are about – exuberance, play, dance. I’m incredibly lucky that they’ve performed it so well and so often – it’s not an easy piece, especially for Sarah [the pianist]! Like many other New Zealand works they’ve toured it extensively overseas. There’s a wonderful film recording of their performance in Denmark [watch it below]. It was also very exciting to be part of the rehearsal process for the recording of their forthcoming CD.

Karlo: I first met the trio at the 2005 Nelson Composers’ Workshop. In 2011 they commissioned me to write Lightbox, with funding from Creative NZ [watch it below]. They are a composer’s dream, very open-minded and willing to try anything, even if it’s quite challenging. I wrote them a piece that could be described as a rubik’s cube crossed with a tightrope act, and they play it with astounding commitment and musicianship.


Alex: All the works play off each other, and although there are a lot of individual works I think it’s actually a very focused programme. I think there’s an interesting interplay between twentieth century modernism – so important to the development of music – and more conservative forms, postmodernism and pastiche. Ligeti was very interested in the folk music of central Europe for example, and Nancarrow sort of reinvents jazz. My piece too takes this route of presenting something familiar and jarring it, discombobulating it. When we initially came up with the programme, Claire’s Subtle Dances was to be included instead of the new commission, and those Latin American and Spanish influences are very much there in the Ravel pieces and the Nancarrow.

I’m really happy with the structure of the programme, too – each third grows from a solo piece to a trio, from the seeds of influence to the contemporary fruition in the form of each of our pieces. It’s a great opportunity to show off the individual talents of these three wonderful chamber musicians, too – we don’t often get to hear them solo, so I’m looking forward to that.

Karlo: The three of us selected the programme together over the course of a lengthy email exchange. While the pieces in our individual ‘sections’ are supposed to complement our works, they were also chosen to integrate with the other parts of the programme as well, so you’ll hear some definite themes cropping up throughout the concert. The intention was to create a carefully crafted mechanism, made up of many tiny parts, which comes together to form an interesting and exciting whole.


Alex: As I mentioned above, we didn’t necessarily each have our own third of the programme to curate – we came up with the programme together and there are a number of synergies across the sections of the programme – Ravel, Ligeti and Webern are all revisited throughout.

In Nancarrow’s Sonatina you can hear shadows of his later Player Piano Studies – all sorts of rhythmic dynamism and textural intricacy. This was one of the last pieces Nancarrow wrote for human performers. The third movement in particular is really pushing the possibilities of the instrument, multiple voices competing for space. It’s a little gem, perfectly formed.

[Sample of Nanarrow’s Sonatina from YouTube]

The Ravel Habanera might seem an oddly “straight” choice for this part of the programme, and really that’s exactly why it’s included. burlesques mecaniques has a movement entitled “a spanner”, a mechanical pun on “España”, in which a Habanera motif is given a sort of cubist treatment – layered up and obscured. So the Ravel gives you a preview before the demolition work gets going.

[Sample of Ravel’s Habanera from YouTube]

The Webern miniatures are something musically essential. The tiniest expressive gestures, everything at its most pared back and fundamental. His focus on that micro-level crafting and cohesion is something that’s really influenced how I compose.

[Sample of Webern’s Four pieces for violin and piano from YouTube]

I’d like to think my own piece will be more open to the listener in light of the pieces that precede it – each gives a different kind of opening into listening, to rhythm, gesture and texture.

Karlo: Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci (Six Caprices) for solo violin are very special. Comprised almost entirely of harmonics, each one is a fascinating study in timbre and gesture (and sheer possibility!). The second caprice, which is included in our programme, is perhaps the gentlest of the six: an other-worldly, quietly lilting series of trills.

[Sample of Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci from YouTube]

Ligeti’s Cordes à Vide (no. 2 from his first book of Etudes for the piano), starts gently, using the cycle of fiths as its point of departure, foreshadowing some of the harmonic content of my piece.

[Sample of Ligeti’s Cordes à Vide from YouTube]

Performances of Webern are far too rare. His famously brief works (the Drei Stücke for cello and piano, op. 11, are 2 minutes long altogether) are especially striking when experienced live, like little gems of colour and gesture.

[Sample of Webern’s Three Pieces for cello and piano from YouTube]

My piece, Lightbox, is a layered, volatile work, combining moments of stasis and repose with lengthy passages of wild energy. The three pieces that precede it on the programme are chosen to ease the audience into this sound-world and illuminate the overlaid shapes that constitute Lightbox.


Alex: I hope audiences will come away having really engaged in a musical experience. Putting together a programme it’s foolish to prejudge what an audience might “like” or “dislike”, or to be concerned with what is “accessible” or “inaccessible” – to me those are flippant concerns, and actually detrimental to the whole experience. What we try to do is set up the possibility of engagement, where if the listener puts in the effort there are myriad connections and tangents in the music. We try to set up a journey – music is a temporal art after all; that’s what makes it special – and we hope that listeners come along on that journey. But it’s really up to them. I hope they’ll be exhilarated, baffled, energised, exhausted, dazzled, intrigued.

Karlo: It’s going to be a voyage of invention and discovery!


Alex: I’m really interested in the three very different programmes that composers have put together. John Psathas’ collaboration with the NZ Chamber Soloists is positively bursting with lush romantic repertoire, and Ross Harris’ with the NZSQ and Stephen de Pledge looks a treat – a much more refined affair, and the combination of Mozart, Harris and Shostakovich is a great one I think. Of course I also think our programme is by far the most outrageous and interesting. But I would say that!

There’s lots of great stuff happening in NZ Music Month – a stunning Karlheinz Company concert and the APO’s Letters in Wartime project are two of the highlights. I hope people will brave the chill and get out there to show their support for New Zealand music!

Chamber Music New Zealand presents Composer Connections with NZTrioNZTrio are on the road with performing this programme from Alex, Karlo and Claire in May while the NZ Chamber Soloists tour a concert programme by John Psathas and the New Zealand String Quartet tour a programme by Ross Harris. All the details can be found at


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