TSO Orchestral Reading Session Interviews: Chris Meyer, Composer

October 21, 2015

In a series of blog posts, we get to know the four composers featured in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) Orchestral Reading session, taking place on Saturday, October 24. Today we hear from Chris Meyer about his compositional background, and what he is looking forward to with the reading session.

Canadian Music Centre: What are you looking forward to at the reading session?

Chris Meyer: The giddy kid in me says, “what am I not looking forward to at the reading session!” But what I'm really looking forward to is that moment of surprise when I first hear my music being performed. No matter what effort I make to “visualize” the music in my head or on the computer, I find there is always a delicious moment of shock when I realize that the music is different than expected and is now taking on a life of its own.

I am also interested in finding out what the musicians do with the music, which parts they enjoy and sink their teeth in to, and how Gary Kulesha will lead them through it. I hope to get some interesting feedback from the musicians: often it's the quick, “hey, did you realize this” kind of comment that can be very insightful. I have never had my music performed by an orchestra of this caliber, so I find myself wondering what it will feel like to hear the notes of my composition, the physical impact of the sound from this amazing orchestra.

I am also looking forward to meeting the other composers and finding out their stories. Right now they are just email addresses, but they are no doubt fascinating people who might hail from across the country. Are they very new composers or have they been writing for a while? What styles of music will their compositions bring? I'm looking forward to finding out what is happening on the forefronts of Canadian music.

CMC: What do you hope to gain through the experience?

CM: I will be in full-on sponge mode during the session, trying to soak up and learn as much as possible from this experience. I am a self-taught composer who is steeped in the book learning, as they say, but in comparison, I still have a lot to learn from real, live musicians! I have worked with a number of community and semi-professional orchestras, but the TSO represents a whole new league for me.

I once had a remarkable experience when I was able to collaborate on a project with the pianist Jamie Parker. I am a pianist myself and had prepared a solo concerto part for Jamie to play and was just blown away by the experience: he devoured the music and unleashed a level of piano mastery I had only heard stories about from ages past. It was a humbling and inspiring experience working so closely with such extraordinary ability. It has the effect of focusing one’s mind on what excellence really is and makes very clear where you are relative to it. I fully expect my experience with the TSO will be equally inspiring and humbling.

I am hoping for a tough experience with a lot of critical feedback that provides a good shock to the system and helps me understand what I need to do to reach the next level of my compositional development. Like the advent of high definition television did for TV makeup artists, I'm sure the TSO performance will crisply and clearly reveal any blemishes and imperfections! When a composition is performed by other groups, if it has some wonky spots, you can always say to yourself (rightly or wrongly), “Oh well, I guess the musicians didn't perform it well”. But with the TSO, I can't get away with that!

CMC: What does it feel like to be working with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra?

CM: It really runs the gamut of feelings from excitement to gut-wrenching nervousness. It feels like I have been drafted into the major leagues, even if it’s only to pitch for a few innings in one game. And making it all the more exciting, I've been drafted by the home team! It also feels great to know that someone out there thought highly enough of your music to choose it for this session. When you present an orchestra with their commissioned work, there are lots of pleasantries and thanks for your efforts, but they didn’t choose that work and maybe wouldn’t have, given the choice! So I feel very fortunate and gratified that my composition has “made it” to this level.

This recognition from the TSO is especially meaningful for me as a self-taught composer with no letters behind his name. My lack of academic training often leaves me wondering if I have missed out on something important in the development of my compositional craft, but this opportunity feels very reaffirming of my toil and efforts. Once the initial excitement of my selection wore off, the nervousness kicked in. After its first performance, I knew my composition had some important weaknesses that needed to be addressed and now I had a very short window of time to revise the score and parts. Since this might be my one and only shot at playing in the big leagues, I wanted to make the best of it. It was exhausting and nerve-wracking getting all the revisions done in time, knowing that more time spent revising meant less time for editing and double checking the score and parts. Now that is done, I anxiously await the big day, filled with hope, curiosity and excitement.

CMC: What is your relationship to Toronto, the city?

CM: My orbit around Toronto has been spiraling ever closer as the years go by. I was born in Montreal, lived in Pickering (next door to Scarborough) as a child, in Scarborough (next door to Toronto) as a teenager and now live in the old city of Toronto. My wife and I love the vitality of the city and its many cultural offerings. We attended Trinity College at U of T together and were married in its lovely chapel. Toronto is also where I have musically grown up. I played my ARTC piano recital in Mazzoleni Hall at the Royal Conservatory. During my physics degree at U of T, I would steal away during my lunch hours and hang out in the Faculty of Music library or catch a concert in Walter Hall. I met my compositional mentor, Ronald Royer, when I was performing with the University of Toronto's Hart House orchestra (I couldn't play any orchestral instrument, but wanted to be in an orchestra, so the conductor told me to play percussion!). As part of the growing up process, it has been thrilling to return to the halls I had visited as an audience member, but now as a featured composer: the Toronto Centre for the Arts, the Glenn Gould Studio, and now Roy Thompson Hall.

CMC: What was the first orchestral recording/concert you listened to, or attended?

CM: I remember the LP began with a voice saying something like, “a space odyssey, odyssey, odyssey, ...” with the odyssey echoing away, presumably into the dark reaches of space. Then the pedal note of the 16 foot pipe organ stop began to rumble starting Strauss’s tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra. As a kid, I’m sure I listened to this album a zillion times. It was a compilation of “space music”, of course titled using the Star Wars font, featuring all the usual suspects: John Williams, Holst and I’m sure others that I have forgotten. So that classy album and lots of Bugs Bunny would be my candidates for first orchestral recordings. Did I mention lots of Bugs Bunny? Really quite a lot.

CMC: How much time do you spend composing in an average week?

CM: It comes in waves. Since I work full time outside of composing, I don’t have a consistent routine. I write when a performance provides an opportunity, so that usually means feverish activity a month or two before a project is due and then some down time in between. During those times of activity, I will write for a few hours each evening and when I can squeeze time in on the weekends.

CMC: How do you deal with musical writer’s block?

CM: I don’t have the luxury of allowing writer’s block! When I have time to compose, I need to produce. I have learned that writer’s block is not really an obstacle, but a stage of the creative process that has to be worked through. I simply force myself to write, even if the results are pretty mediocre (or worse!). Don’t expect yourself to write quality music on the first attempt (or the second!), and don’t beat yourself up when the ideas don’t cooperate or work out. In a large pile of fairly crappy musical sketches there are probably a few ideas that will become the seeds of a successful composition. As my skills have grown over the years, I feel that I have become quicker at spotting those seeds and knowing what to do with those seeds, allowing me to move past the “blank page” barrier more easily. I think that is where one’s investment in compositional skill and technique really starts to pay off. Above all, I take a pragmatic approach to composing: rather than mentally channeling the tortured artist, I channel the realist who understands that he needs to write practical music that people enjoy playing and hearing. The current composition might not be a magnum opus, but it will be fine enough and with each work I write, they will become better.

CMC: Which composers have had the greatest influence on your music, or your musical values?

CM: This is a very difficult question to answer. Do any of us really remember what it was like learning how to walk or remember who helped us with which aspect of walking? After studying enough music over many years, how can we untangle the influences of the great composers of the past? It is likely that I have forgotten how important the classical composers have been in my compositional development as my attention turns to more modern and novel composers. I am currently very much influenced by composers like Gorecki, Part and Rautavaara—in their music I find something unique and compelling that challenges me to probe their compositional technique. Being self-taught, I use each new composition as an opportunity to digest a composer’s work and try to assimilate their musical language. This is the case for my composition selected for the TSO reading session, Reflection and Resolution. It is my attempt to glean some insight from the three composers I previously mentioned and practice using their techniques and strategies. I also need to mention my compositional mentor, Ronald Royer, whose pragmatic approach to composition has had a great influence on my approach to writing music and working with orchestras.

CMC: What do you do when you are not composing?

CM: My day job is high school physics teacher. A huge amount of my spare time goes into trying to improve the quality of physics education in Ontario. I run workshops for teachers and write pedagogical articles on reformed teaching practices. Last week I was interviewed on CBC Newsworld about the recent Nobel Prize in physics that was awarded to a Canadian physicist. Do you have any questions about neutrinos? I would be happy to answer! Be forewarned, if you get me started ...

CMC: Yes/No/Sort of: Do you have a plan for the zombie apocalypse?

CM: Yes. My house has a detached cinderblock garage that is well-nigh impregnable and has lots of useful tools. When the opportunity presents itself, we would leave the garage for my family’s house in rural Quebec, which has a reliable water supply. I won’t disclose the location...

CMC: Where can I hear your music online?

CM: Please check out my website: www.meyercreations.com

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