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27 February 2014

Haydn Reeder: 'More time for music to speak'

Haydn Reeder: 'More time for music to speak'

Composer Haydn Reeder talks about his recent compositions for string quartet, as well as his work process and some of his earlier pieces. Melbourne-based Reeder celebrates his 70th birthday on 27 February 2014.

Anni Heino: In the past few years, you've completed a number of new compositions for string quartet. Breathing (2012) is an impressive work, despite its duration of just five minutes. Structurally it seems to be based on a simple idea of slowly expanding and contracting 'breathing' of the four string instruments. Can you tell me about the idea and the realisation of this work? I understand you have also thought of turning Breathing into a work for a bigger ensemble?

Haydn Reeder: Breathing does have the potential to be expanded. In fact it was conceived as a string orchestra piece, however I felt that it would work well as a companion piece to Moving Between (2012) for string quartet. It would be good to have the opportunity to set it for string orchestra, perhaps with accompanying slow beating from gongs and drums. Subsequently I have written a third piece which serves as a finale to what I will call Three Pieces for String Quartet.

Moving Between, performed by the Silo String Quartet,
Melbourne Composers' League concert, October 2010

AH: You've commented that Moving Between deals with the contrast between monody and harmony and, as the title suggests, the transformation of one into the other. The ideas behind the two works, Breathing and Moving Between, seem related in that texture plays a role in defining the structure of the whole piece, even if the end result is of course quite different in each case. Is this a fair comment? And do you plan your compositions in a very detailed way, or do you let your initial ideas morph freely and take their time?

HR: These works follow a traditional path in the sense that the texture of sections of the first piece are highly contrasted, that of the second piece, being harmonically conceived, is unvarying, while the third and most recent one uses ideas from the first piece but in a different way.

Regarding my work processes - for many years I planned pieces graphically, from beginning to end. This may sound as though a lot of conscious thought was involved, however I would counter this with the fact that the initial idea or collection of ideas were spontaneous and the working out contained some degree of improvisation. Later I tended to alter the initial plan, often by extending or adding to it. Nowadays elements of this process remain but I no longer plan the whole piece, rather allowing the music to take its own course, integrating planning into the composing.

Breathing, performed by the Silo String Quartet,
Melbourne Composers' League concert, December 2012

AH: One of your most often performed works is the duo for violin and cello, Bird (2000). This is a work that starts out subtly, and builds from near-silence into a vivid portrait of a soaring, fluttering and, in the end, quite an animated bird. Why do you think this particular work has attracted the attention of different performers?

HR: I do not know why Bird has been taken up by so many string duos. (It has been called for again by Alan Holley for inclusion in his chamber music series this year.) Perhaps the close aural relationships I have made with the visual elements of a bird appeal, as well as the natural musical attractiveness of birds to musicians.

AH: The bird theme is also there in your 'Lark' series, based on a 12th-century poem. In Lark 2 (1994) - recorded for the Vienna Modern Masters label - the text is only assumed as a saxophone has taken on the role of the mezzo-soprano soloist in Lark 1. Still, the work retains the dramatic, expressive quality of a vocal work. Early orchestral works of yours, on the other hand (Two pieces for orchestra, Concerto in one movement 1970-71), have a less programmatic starting point. Can one make assumptions about your development or interests as a composer based on this?

HR: Yes, you are right, I have tried over the years to give the music more time to speak and thereby allow the listener to inhabit the harmony or texture (or both). Perhaps this comes from writing more vocal music such as Lark which in essence depicts stillness of the bird via the singer whereas the orchestra is dealing with the turbulence of the emotions.

AH: You're a pianist yourself and have composed many works for solo piano and piano duo. What are your own favourites? Another favourite instrument seems to be the one dreaded by many composers, the guitar - what is the attraction, and which works would you single out for guitarists looking for repertoire?

HR: Of the piano pieces I have an affection still for Ten Colourful Piano Pieces (2000/2005); and Masks (1981) was an important major piece. Recently I have written a piece called The past is in the present as we look to the future which uses a pitch vocabulary extended backwards to include chromatic references.

As to the guitar, I never considered it as anything but a very colourful instrument and although it restricts the composer in terms of the production and combination of pitches, this can be an advantage. I would still recommend an early piece Draw near to the Bell for prepared guitar, but there is also Interplay, for guitar and electronics which is more recent.

AH: Many of your recent works have had their premieres in the Melbourne Composers' League concerts, isn't that right?

HR: The Melbourne Composers' League has for quite a few years arranged several performances of my pieces and I have only the highest praise for its founder Eve Duncan and Andrián Pertout and others who have done great work to keep it going. The most recent performance of an earlier work Strong Play for 2 percussion was excellent.

AMC resources

Haydn Reeder - AMC profile (biography, works, recordings)

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and Editor (Resonate, web, communications) at the Australian Music Centre.


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