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10 May 2012

Glazed doughnuts and a building down the road

Carnegie Hall workshop participants (Chris Williams in the middle) Image: Carnegie Hall workshop participants (Chris Williams in the middle)  

As a participant in the Carnegie Hall Professional Training Workshops, Chris Williams recently travelled to New York for a week of workshops with composer in residence Kaija Saariaho and cellist Anssi Karttunen before the premiere of his new work for cello and double bass.

'First rehearsal is always depressing.' Is it me? Was it them? Kaija Saariaho's response is typically honest, and pragmatic: 'It's usually both.' I think it's very easy to imagine those you most admire as like the gods of old; existing high in another realm quite apart from reality as we know it. It is a rare treat to find them, like the gods of old, profoundly human in their experience and sense of the world; capable of fear and error just like you or me. I think it lends a little comfort to the rest of us mere mortals!

I still vividly remember hearing Kaija Saariaho's music for the first time, and I won't easily forget having the opportunity to meet and work with her. The music, like the woman, is incredibly compelling; vivid, and careful, honest and profound.

Although she claims to be 'not crazy about speaking', Kaija spent several hours each day doing just that, answering questions, offering advice to us young composers (Jenny Beck, Louis Chiapetta, Edmund Finnis, Ursual Kwong-Brown, Anna Pidgorna and myself) and considering everything from the technical to the metaphysic. In truth, I think it was her 'speaking', that got us through the week, while a healthy dose of her music made it worthwhile! She is calm, caring, but stoic, and her steady hand seemed to keep us all stable.

In one of the first meetings Kaija mused that 'it's always about time', and indeed it is, but that came to mean much more during the week. Across eight days, our performers were to learn and present the composers' six new works, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, as well as some works of Kaija's, and give a master-class on her music. It was always going to be 'about time.' Finding the time to rewrite the placement of harmonics, finding the time to get the extended technique resonating just right, finding the time to practise the bowing figures. We spent a great deal of time trying to find the time, but then that's the thrill of this kind of program, and the inexplicable energy of that city seemed to make it possible. That the concert came together extremely well, and was well received shouldn't be a surprise (we were, after all, in very capable hands), but it was certainly a welcome relief.

The only other time I have visited New York, I was 11, and my Dad excitedly told me that we would be staying on the same street as Carnegie Hall. I can't begin to describe to you how little I cared about this piece of trivia. While I have no recollection at all of Carnegie Hall at that time, despite my fond and vivid memories of glazed doughnuts for breakfast, something must have stuck because I always remembered the name. It was with a strange sense of serendipity that I discovered, when returning to New York this time, I would be staying in the exact same hotel I had stayed in 14 years earlier. As it happens, they still serve glazed doughnuts for breakfast, although they are sadly not as good as I remember them, but my Dad was pleased to know that the building down the road seems to have become much more interesting.

AMC resources

Chris Williams - AMC profile

Further links

Carnegie Hall's professional training workshops

Chris Williams is currently studying for an M.Phil in composition at the University of Oxford, under the tutelage of Robert Saxton.


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