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Playing: Romeo and Juliet - fantasy overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
BBC Radio 3

Oliver Knusssen and Sara Mohr-Pietsch

On Saturday, Hear & Now launches a major new weekly series, Composers’ Rooms, with Sara Mohr-Pietsch. Each week you’ll be able to hear a short radio portrait of a composer in their space. Sara explains how the project came about …

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a young composer who told me he’d written a great deal of his new opera on aeroplanes. It was a practical solution to a hectic, transatlantic lifestyle, but I was shocked. It seemed so at odds with our Beethovenian image of composer-in-garret, locked in nocturnal silence, creating masterworks; or Mahler and Grieg retreating to their lake-side huts, drawing inspiration from majestic north-European landscapes. But it’s not the 19th Century any more, so why shouldn’t a composer find a practical solution to a 21st-century problem, and write mid-air?

I realised that, while most of us can imagine a writer’s room, or an artist’s studio, we have very little idea about the spaces where composers work, or what the act of writing music actually involves. I had a hunch that these often deeply private spaces would reveal a great deal about their inhabitants’ characters, their artistic practice, and above all, their music. I took the idea to Radio 3 producer Andy King, and after many months of development, Composers’ Rooms was born.

Since we started, we’ve stepped inside a huge variety of spaces, from cottage kitchens to minimalist studios, each a unique reflection of the artist at work. Some work at home, while others, like Dai Fujikura choose to travel to their studio. Certain composers change their space regularly – we happened to catch Matthew Herbert mid-decision about where to move next, and Kaffe Matthews reconfiguring her work/live studio to suit her next project.

Some have already created their ideal space, like James MacMillan’s purpose-built garden studio; others, often younger, struggle to make ends meet and have to work in their bedrooms. I was surprised that a composer as established and celebrated as Oliver Knussen (the first in the series) would choose to work in a corner of his kitchen, and on Saturday, you can hear him explain why.

Some of the most fascinating questions stem from the minutiae and practical detail of how the space is configured. Do they use a keyboard, and if so, is the piano behind them, over the other side of the room, or perpendicular to the desk? Is there a view from the window? Do they write on paper, with pen or pencil, or straight onto computer? You’d be amazed how many in-depth conversations I’ve had about pencils. Gavin Bryars’ favourite brand feels just right in his hand; George Benjamin has discovered a blue crayon to draw vertical lines on his scores that won’t show up on a photocopy.

My hope is that each portrait will help us get a bit closer to that composer’s music; and that, as the series develops, it will generate a wider discussion about what composing is all about. There’s a growing picture gallery on the Hear & Now website, and the whole series will be available to download as podcasts.

 

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