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Tabea Squire
on Variations

December marks the release of three films of works by Te Whanganui a Tara-based composer, Tabea Squire, which were filmed in three consecutive months in 2022. We caught up with Tabea to find out more about these works and hear what’s on the horizon for her.

In Behind the Stars, a Dark Sky, you drew inspiration from the concept of ‘dark sky status’ and the contrast between stars and darkness. How did this idea influence the musical elements and structure of the piano quintet? Can you walk us through your creative journey in developing this piece?

It was simple enough: I took the ‘dark sky’ as a jumping-off point and initially designated the piano as the stars (bright, individual points of sound) and the strings as the darkness (sustained and dark). Then I knew I could ‘invert’ that idea, creating material which could be said to resemble a dark sky in the piano, and stars in the strings. Then I wrote out a semi-melodic, detached theme for the piano to start with, which could potentially be heard as a line of stars to start the piece off. Those three pieces of material or possibility were more than enough for the piece to start speaking itself, as it were.

There was, however, one unexpected addition to the creative process: COVID-19. Unfortunately, I caught the virus when I hadn’t yet finished the piece. The post-viral fatigue was so heavy that I couldn’t even sit at the piano to compose. All I had left to do was a ‘connective tissue’ segment between the middle and the end. So I thought about what I could do with the energy I had. I could sit down to write, but a full-on piano quintet texture wouldn’t be possible for me in that position. So I did what I’d be able to, and I wrote a violin cadenza. I’m told that the cadenza works well, which is a relief to me, but it was by no means part of the original plan. Now I think of it as the COVID-cadenza, or maybe also as a reminder that it can actually be very helpful to aim to finish a work early, rather than assuming I’ll be perfectly on track all the time.

Your piece Variations was first performed as part of the NZ Composer Sessions in 2019 and went on to be premiered by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Gemma New in 2022. How was the experience for you of having this piece emerge from the recording sessions to receiving public performances?

It was an absolute thrill! I’d heard that the players really enjoyed playing the piece, so having the piece programmed was a wonderful validation. There is also the minor detail that Gemma was someone I’d known in my National Youth Orchestra days. In fact, I didn’t know much about her conducting skills until the year I was the NYO Composer in Residence. Gemma approached the conductor we had at the time (Jacques Lacombe) to ask him a few things about the pieces from a conductor’s point of view, and she ended up as his unofficial conducting assistant. She’d even take parts of rehearsals so that he could hear the orchestra from further out in the hall. I was just bouncing off the walls seeing what she could do, so it was all the more special to come back to that conductor-composer dynamic years later.

bars 125 – 126 of Variations from “Thème Manquant” (Theme Missing (with previous variation))

This piece subverts the traditional theme and variations formula. Can you tell us more about your decision to reveal the theme only at the conclusion of the work? What inspired this unique approach?

I can’t remember when I first thought of this idea, because I thought of it a long time ago. There are sketches for the piece in a notebook I was using circa 2013. The initial idea was to go literally backwards: from the most deconstructed to slowly reconstructing the theme, but as often happens, the material itself had other ideas. As for the approach, it often happens that I’ll look at a brief and find a whole new possibility which might not have been considered before. And the idea of doing the Theme and Variations ‘backwards’ very much aligns with my sense of fun (or perhaps a shade of trolling). Not to say that I always do something off the wall with a brief, but sometimes I really enjoy finding a possibility which might seem unexpected – which, in essence, is really the basis of my entire job as a composer.

Der Tanz is inspired by a poem by Christian Morgenstern featuring whimsical characters. How did you translate the imagery and narrative of the poem into music? Can you share some insights into the creative process of this piece?

I was actually really struggling to come up with an idea to build the trio on: not because there weren’t enough, but because there were too many. I needed some kind of ‘hook’ to hang the piece on. At the time I was digging through the Morgenstern poems again and found ‘Der Tanz’. It occurred to me that the three characters (four-quarter-pig, up-beat-owl, and fiddle-bow-plant) could be said to correspond to the three instruments of the trio. The four-quarter-pig has three legs, like the grand piano. The upbeat-owl has one, like the cello spike. And the violin and the fiddle-bow-plant are obviously counterparts. Once I’d made that whimsical connection, I knew I had to go with it.

Initially, I wanted to write four movements: one for each of the characters, and then one for the pillar around which the whole tableau is built. But, as I have already said before, the material itself had different ideas, and the four movements became three. As for the connections between the characters and the movements, they were only tangential. I started with triplets on quadruplets for the four-quarter-pig (three legs, four quarters), which was a good starting point. The upbeat-owl ended up a lot more jerky and robotic than she was described in the poem, because of the necessity of a more energetic middle movement. And the last movement built on two ideas: a melodic line, and the concept of how to represent a pillar, or pillars, in a musical sense.

Finally, I thought it would be nice if the violin played the last note or, as in the poem, the ‘one last stroke’, before everything disappears as if it never was. Fortuitously, the music agreed that this would work.

Looking ahead, are there any upcoming projects or compositions you’re particularly excited about, or new directions you’re exploring in your music that you’d like to share?

I’m exploring choral composition. There is a project in the works for violin and choir, and I was already wanting to explore that avenue, particularly in the area of amateur groups. Perhaps it’s my background as an amateur church organist, perhaps it’s the German in me, but four part harmony is something I enjoy working with, and I know there are groups here in NZ who would love new but accessible material to work with. The field of writing for learners or amateurs is one I enjoy just as much as writing for the greatest players on the stage, and is just as rewarding.