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Kirsten Strom at Etchings Festival

Composer Kirsten Strom has recently been accepted into the Master's Degree programme at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She has just returned from the Etchings Festival in France. SOUNZ caught up with Kirsten to find out more about her experience at Etchings Festival, and about her upcoming studies at the Royal Academy.

Please tell us about your experience at the Etchings Festival.

Etchings Festival is held annually in Auvillar, France for emerging composers worldwide to meet, listen and learn from excellent composer mentors and musicians. It is held in association with VCCA, an organisation that provides artist residencies all over the world. Auvillar is a beautiful town in the south of France, with roots dating back to Roman times. It was a crazy time for travel with a heat wave coursing through southern Europe, and the airline lost my suitcase! Thankfully it was returned in three days to much joy from everyone. Despite our uphill treks, we managed to keep mostly cool within our French stone walls.

This year's ensemble-in-residence was the wonderful Linéa Ensemble based in Strasbourg, full of enthusiastic musicians. We had inspiring demonstrations for flute, clarinet, strings and piano. Some standout mentions were Adam Starkie's clarinet session and Ieva Dudaite's session on contemporary piano techniques featuring credit cards, blu-tac, bouncy balls and every part of the piano! We had seminars and masterclasses with inspiring composers Kaija Saariaho, Martin Brody, Francesco Filidei and festival organiser John Aylward, ending in round-table discussions on topics such as the composer's place in society, listening to your inner voice, identifying potential in a piece and pushing material to its limit. It was wonderful hearing everyone's works and receiving encouragement from such excellent composers. We could sit in on each other's lessons and rehearsals to glean further insights. Each Composer Fellow had rehearsals or workshops of their works, culminating in the final two nights of concerts, in which my work was premiered.

Participants and tutors at the 2019 Etchings Festival. Kirsten is in the front row next to composer Kaija Saariaho.

Please tell us about the piece you wrote for the festival.

The piece I wrote for Etchings was called 'Radiance', which became a fusion of concepts. I was caught by the fragility of small moments of connection and joy, how fleeting they are, and the idea of lingering in one of those moments a little longer, stretching out a moment of joy. The title stemmed from how this feeling radiates every part of you, spreading like particles of light throughout the body.

While writing the piece however, I got a concussion (do not try this at home!), which changed everything about the way I wrote. The concussion made me feel extremely vulnerable, with a constant struggle for focus, shifting uncertainty with moments of salience.

In this way the piece became a picture of my concussion - a representation of heart and mind, both intertwined in their sense of uncertainty, fragility, growth and coming into focus.

Kirsten with tutor Francesco Filidei.

I had been interested in structuring freedom for a while as a way of tapping into the creativity of performers, and had just been looking at generative music in electronics. This was governed by a set of laws that are established at the beginning and left to unfold, leaving room for degrees of randomness, spontaneity and creativity within small-scale and large-scale structures. This is used quite a bit in video games to create interactive environments and pieces that can evolve and change with each play. I have always loved the idea of making something truly live, as the antithesis of a fixed recording. Every performance is unique, so it's like a living sculpture in that sense. It's ephemeral, only existing in that moment, and beautifully depicting life in this way.

I applied this method to my chamber piece, allowing for this shifting in and out of focus, a mixture of uncertainty and what was fixed. To do this I set up small-scale and large-scale transformations, allowing for the free selection and intersection of ingredients as the performers moved through six structural phases of a large-scale dynamic, timbre and behavioural arc. I had established sound worlds and behavioural techniques for each instrument to link with each phase, matching emotional states. At the same time, each performer was given melodies to slowly feed into the texture, in a mixture of clarity and blur.

Essentially this allowed me to hack my brain and produce work that in one way mirrored my current state while remaining true to my first concept.

Australian violinist Winnie Huang, Japanese flautist Keiko Murakami and Lithuanian pianist Ieva Dudaite made up a dynamic trio for this piece. I had worked with the wonderful flautist Keiko in Madeira last year, and together we had explored evocative sounds for the bass flute, which also inspired material here for the alto flute. It was a pleasure to work with such sensitive, artistic musicians. Their rendition of 'Radiance' was fragile and beautiful, and received warm responses from the composers and members of the audience.

Congratulations on being accepted into the Royal Academy of Music in London! Who will you be studying with? What are you most looking forward to during your time at the Academy?

Thank you so much!

There is such an excellent faculty of composers, and I'd love to study with any one! While I won't find out my tutor until mid-August, I know we can also swap lessons to learn from each of them. Chris Austin is an orchestrator I admire, and I am excited to get some classes with him. They are constantly inviting international composers to give talks, and they have a great multimedia sensibility at the Academy, which is right up my alley!

I am so darn excited to meet the other composers, hear their works, and to start up collaborations with the amazing performers there. London is a thriving artistic hub, rich in cultural history and on the doorstep of Europe. It's such an amazing opportunity and I can't wait to get over there!

What does this entail in practical terms?

It certainly takes a significant chunk to take a Master's in London. My tuition costs are amazingly covered through the Royal Academy and Todd Trust, but living costs remain very expensive.

Just this Saturday [July 13, 2019], I am hosting a chamber concert to help fundraise for my studies. Some incredible performers are taking part: Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins, Luca Manghi and many others.

15 pieces, 1.5 hours, five years in the making. Don't miss it! Only $20! Would be wonderful to have your support.
London's Calling! | A Farewell Concert for Kirsten Strom
7:30 PM Saturday, July 13, 2019
St Lukes Presbyterian Church

What other projects do you have coming up?

At the end of this month I am looking forward to flying down to Wellington to work with the NZSO on my piece 'Ice' for the NZ Composer Sessions. Exciting times!

I also have an album coming out very soon called 'Wavering Lines', featuring many of the pieces in the concert, so keep an eye out!


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