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The anatomy of a commission

NZTrio recently gave the world premiere of Reuben de Lautour’s An Auscultation of Water. Richard Betts examines how we got here.


One of the delightful things about NZTrio is how the group always invites audience members for a drink after a concert.

It’s a mid-April evening and the trio – Somi Kim (piano), violinist Amalia Hall and Ashley Brown on cello – has just given the first complete performance of Reuben de Lautour’s An Auscultation of Water, with the composer present in the crowd. In Auckland Town Hall’s downstairs bar, de Lautour joins a table that includes Brown and the cellist’s wife, composer Victoria Kelly. De Lautour looks a little shellshocked but he says he’s simply tired, and that he was thrilled with the piece’s premiere.

He’s entitled to feel fatigued; he’s been working on An Auscultation of Water since September, when he was approached to write his first piano trio. The brief was brief. That was intentional, says Brown.

“We only offer a brief in the hope it will have a positive effect. We don’t want it to be a limiting factor at all, and we don’t want everyone to write in a certain way.”

NZTrio’s theme for its three-concert 2021 main series is ‘dramatic skies’, with each of the programmes separately titled Stratus, Cumulus and Cirrus.

Brown: “The cloud idea was an early thing, and all our works fit that. Masterpieces of the repertoire were our big, billowy clouds that come from overseas, and then our local peaks – our talented and lofty locals – are being embraced by those big clouds. I think we told Reuben the other pieces likely to be in the concert, so he had that context. You can see by Reuben’s piece that it totally fits the programme and series.”

Auscultation is the process of listening to sounds of the body, usually through a stethoscope, and at the concert Brown explains that the work investigates the properties of water, why it acts how it does. De Lautour’s eight-minute piece is mostly tonal, with limpid piano figures gently wrapped in floating strings. The result is beautiful, elastic and, on first listen, slightly strange, yet another intriguing addition to the repertoire coaxed into being by NZTrio.

Joining the Cultural Landscape: A Statement of Intent

For although de Lautour’s involvement began seven months earlier, this story goes back much further, to the beginnings of NZTrio, which was formed in 2002 by Brown, with pianist Sarah Watkins and violinist Justine Cormack.

“The three of us talked about what we could be,” recalls Brown. “In our earliest conversations we were excited about participating in the cultural landscape, and part of that was commissioning local composers not only as a way of fostering piano trios but to collaborate; not just adding to the canon but also physically contributing, being in the room workshopping pieces, understanding how the pieces come together.”

NZTrio now has more than 50 commissions to its name, and plays at least one New Zealand work at every concert. This year’s Dramatic Skies series boasts a new commission by a local composer in each of the three programmes.

Ashley Brown says there’s no pattern to selecting a composer to write for the trio.

“All of us know certain people and their style and their oeuvre and we can decide to get a piano trio from them,” he explains. “But we also look at the list of commissions NZTrio has made over the years and see if there are any obvious gaps, see who’s about and available. And of course, there are new composers coming out of the institutions all the time, so it’s a never-ending process, which is a good thing.”

Credit: NZTRio Somi Kim, Reuben de Lautour, Amalia Hall, Ashley Brown

The Art of Getting Paid

NZTrio’s commitment to local music is acknowledged by support from Creative New Zealand’s Toi Uru Kahikatea investment programme. That’s important because it means funding is already in place before a composer is approached for a commission. In New Zealand, that’s not always the case.

As a senior lecturer and head of new music at the University of Canterbury, de Lautour doesn’t rely on composing to fend off the bank manager, but he says there’s an ethical aspect to receiving payment for writing music.

“If someone like me who has a day job starts composing stuff for nothing, in a sense that’s undercutting all the freelancers because it’s sending out the message that composers don’t need to be paid to compose music. I think it’s better if there’s some kind of understanding in place, unless it’s for a friend or there’s a collaborative aspect, like I’m performing too.”

Composer in the House

De Lautour, who has his own trio for violin, percussion and piano, cLoud Collective, hasn’t performed An Auscultation of Water with NZTrio but he enjoys being present at rehearsals.

“It never sounds exactly the way you expect and it’s easy to sit there with a red pencil and go through every little detail. I’ve done this in the past but it’s a horrible way to treat a performer and it’s just not productive. When you’re working with a professional group you know they’re going to sound good, so let’s not worry too much about the little details unless it’s a critical moment in the structure. Otherwise I try to stay out of that and just concentrate on the vibe.”

Brown says the trio likes the composer to be present too, but accepts there’s a responsibility with that. He’s aware that an NZTrio performance or recording may not be considered definitive, but the group’s proximity to the person who wrote the piece means it will be the one other groups will look to in the future to get a sense of De Lautour’s intentions. The composer is perhaps less concerned by that.

“I think part of [a composition] always belongs to the performers,” he says. “It’s not all mine, it’s very much joint ownership, and if another trio picked it up and played it, it would be a little different, and it should be.”

Through an Audience’s Ears

If a work is in part defined by the people who play it, Ashley Brown says it’s transformed by the people who hear it.

“It’s a special situation when you play [a new piece] to the public for the first time,” says the cellist. “As much as you try to imagine other people and hear with their ears, you don’t actually do that until there’s an audience, when you’re not allowed to stop and go, ‘Hang on, we’re a bar apart.’ You have to hold it together and create a piece of music in the moment, in front of other people, then you really do experience the piece for the first time.”

What’s that first performance like for de Lautour? Can he enjoy it?

“Yeah, I can,” he says doubtfully. “I’m often playing so it’s a slightly unusual experience for me to be sitting in the hall only listening, it doesn’t happen that often. I’m not sure I like it very much. It’s a rush but obviously it’s nerve racking. You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Gee, I hope it doesn’t suck.’”

Facing the Music

In the bar following the concert, de Lautour is assured by all that An Auscultation of Water doesn’t suck. Still, it takes a brave person to confront an audience after a gig, but it’s a ritual for the trio and de Lautour.

“I do talk to audiences afterwards,” says the composer. “My ideal listener is someone I call a non-specialist sympathetic listener. Someone who isn’t necessarily familiar with contemporary music but can come away from it and say, ‘Yeah, that did sound a bit like water and I could sense the swirling waves and crashing stuff.’”

Ashley Brown says the members of NZTrio also appreciate what their listeners have to say about new music performances.

“Some of the best feedback we’ve had is from people who like their Beethoven and sit through the New Zealand work so they can get to the Beethoven in the second half. Time after time they come up to us and say, ‘We really appreciate that; there are a few things we didn’t like but there’ve been things we learnt to love and understand’. It’s been a bit of a crusade, and we’re really chuffed that has happened to at least some people who hear a piece several times and it wins them over eventually. Ah-ha, gotcha!”