TSO Orchestral Reading Session Interviews: Kamyar Mohajer, Composer

October 30, 2015

In a series of blog posts, we get to know the four composers featured in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) Orchestral Reading session that took place on Saturday, October 24. Today we hear from Kamyar Mohajer about his compositional background, and what he appreciated having participated in the reading session last week.

Canadian Music Centre: Why were you looking forward to the reading session?

Kamyar Mohajer: Like many composers, I spent hours imagining how my orchestra work Bliss would sound when it was performed. This imagining started from that moment of inception, writing the first few measures, all the way through the painstaking hours of translating to real notes: putting the finishing touches, checking and re-checking every counterpoint, dynamic, articulation, and phrasing. Even after the piece was finished, I kept imaging what the completed work would sound like. So it’s only natural to get so excited about that moment when all those figments of my imaginations are finally out in the real world. I am not a parent, but having listened to my friends describe the birth of their children, I’m tempted to draw the analogy. The emotional roller coaster leading up to, and during, the reading session seems to parallel the anticipation of your child’s birth, and holding them in your arms for the first time. Before the event, I felt a combination of excitement, curiosity, and anticipation, mixed with some fear and anxiety. During the event, the greatest and noblest of all emotions—uplifted, and filed with love.

Adding to the excitement and nervousness was the high caliber of the musicians involved. This is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra—one of the great orchestras of North America, and the first orchestra I ever heard in a live performance. I’ve been to numerous TSO concerts during the critical years of my musical development, so the orchestra really helped me grow as a musician, and develop my own appreciation for orchestral music over the years. Imagine the feeling that I had knowing that I was about to experience my music read by this orchestral, and receive feedback directly from Peter Oundjian, Gary Kulesha, and orchestra members!

CMC: What did you gain through the experience?

KM: The orchestra is a phenomenal medium of expression, with the power to convey a wide range of different colors, characters, and emotions. It can be soft and vulnerable in one instant, loud and triumphant in another, and everything in between.

By the same token, there are many ways that things can go wrong. The sheer number of instruments and colors presents great danger for important lines to get lost, either because they were not marked loud enough, not played by the right instrument(s), or simply overpowered by other instruments. To a great extent, writing a well-orchestrated piece is about finding the right balance. No matter how many scores we study, or how many orchestration books we read, the only way to effectively learn about our successes and failures is to hear the work performed. That’s why reading sessions are so incredibly valuable.

The reading session this past Saturday gave me the opportunity to search for a better balance in my orchestration technique. I identified those passages where my desired effect was not being conveyed, usually because the important line was not shining through. The good news is that those things can be fixed by making a few changes to the dynamics and/or instrumentation. It was also equally important for me to learn about the passages in my music that were successful in communicating the desired effect. If a particular approach succeeded, I am encouraged to use it again in future works.

CMC: What was it like collaborating with the TSO, and artistic staff?

KM: The night before the reading, the selected composers had a meet and greet with TSO’s Affiliate Composer Jordan Pal. This was when I first met Jordan and my fellow composers. It was a great informal meeting, where we all got to talk about what to expect the next day, and we received some valuable tips from Jordan. We also spent a good portion of the night talking about our overall philosophy and approach to composition. Not everyone agreed on all the points, which made it a lot more fun!

Although the reading of each work took approximately 30 minutes, the whole event was organized over the entire day to give us great exposure to different aspects surrounding any orchestral performance. Prior to the reading, we had the opportunity to meet with Kim Gilmore, the Orchestra Librarian, who walked us through some important tips for preparing the score and parts, which I found immensely valuable.

Immediately following the reading, we met with Peter Oundjian, and Gary Kulesha to discuss the reading and receive feedback. I was definitely nervous to meet them, and was anxiously awaiting their reaction to my work. To my delight, both maestros were extremely friendly and approachable. They provided wonderful feedback on my work, and I was amazed at how quickly they really understood the intended character of my music without any explanation on my end. For example, the “Dance” movement of Bliss, which is inspired by the typical Persian 6/8 dance (think of it as the Persian “Salsa”), has a very particular character, which is foreign to Western-European orchestral repertoire. I received some great pointers to help future conductors and performers understand this style, using expression markings and other techniques that would further “stylize” the music, and ultimately bring out the important textures that make up the Dance.

At the end of the day, we met with several members of the orchestra, who gave us specific feedback about writing for their instruments. Hearing directly from the musicians was extremely helpful, as we got tips on important practical matters, like how to effectively write pizzicato passages for strings, trombone glissandi, balancing the woodwinds, and setting up percussion parts.

Overall, I found the event very well organized, and at the end felt a great sense of gratitude toward the TSO and the Canadian Music Center for providing us this opportunity.

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

KM: I immigrated to Toronto along with my family in 1995. At the time I was a clueless teenager faced with great challenges, from learning a new language, to getting into university, and finding my own path in a completely new society. I spent the next 11 years in Toronto. This was a critical period of my life, which included a short period in high school, eight years in university, and a two-year period when I was a practicing lawyer.

This city gave me the opportunity to formally study piano performance in university with Christina Petrowska Quilico, and Antonin Kubalek. This period was transformative in my music education, as it expanded my knowledge, technique and understanding of piano repertoire.

In summer of 2005, I took a walk on the stage of Roy Thompson Hall to get called to the Ontario Bar by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Having seen the TSO play in that venue so many times, I remember thinking about music. A big part of me wished I had been walking on that stage as a musician.

In 2006 I moved down to the San Francisco/Bay Area for work, and since then I’ve been living in California. Most of my immediate family still lives in Toronto, and I have maintained my circle of close friends here. So I travel to Toronto several times a year, which gives me the opportunity to spend time with my loved ones and feel at home.

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

KM: The first orchestral concert I attended was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, performing Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2 with Krystian Zimerman as soloist.

I’ve heard orchestral recordings ever since I was a young child, so it’s difficult to remember which one was first. My earliest memories include my father playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker, and Capriccio Italien.

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

KM: For me the trick is to sit down and try, even if I’m having a bad day, or not feeling in the mood. Those are indeed difficult days, and I often have to push myself to keep working. But given the very limited amount of time I have for composition, this discipline is quite necessary. Any progress, even in very small amounts, is always better than no progress at all. When I do put in the work during my bad days, I often find myself thankful the next day, as that work tends to open the doors for new developments that I would not have otherwise thought about.

CMC: You have a time machine capable of one return trip. Where are you going?

KM: Premiere of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

CMC: What piece/song has the most plays in your listening?

KM: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6.

CMC: Finish this sentence: “Composing is a lot like ______.”

KM: Composing is like building a house. Each work can be vastly different from others, but all works need to have a sensible architecture, and a solid foundation. The notes and durations are like supporting walls, pillars and stairways. Phrasing, dynamics and articulation are like the paint, artwork and decorations around the house.

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

KM: I have a full time job as an executive of SoundHound, a pioneering company in sound recognition and speech technologies based in Silicon Valley, California. I spend most of my time on developing new business partnerships, but also act as the company’s in-house lawyer.

CMC: Where can I hear your music online?

KM: For a midi simulation of Bliss, click here! If you feel like something energetic and up beat, the fourth movement of my string quartet. Or for a more relaxed feel, the first or third movements.

You can learn more about the TSO by clicking here