The art of the composition
When asked once what it takes to be a composer, the Russian notesmith Modest Mussorgsky reportedly replied, “What does it take to be a man?”
Ah, yes, life and art. For some they are different. For others they are virtually the same.
Ask Norbert Palej, an associate professor in the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and he nevertheless says, “You can teach a person the techniques of composition. You cannot teach a person to be an artist.”
The difference may well be on display later this month in the Edward Johnson Building when the faculty’s annual New Music Festival (Jan. 24-Feb. 7) presents a series of concerts involving works by both established composers and current students of composition.
Among those students is Roydon Tse, one of Palej’s own doctoral candidates, who will be represented by two works and whose career began at the age of 16 with a commission from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
“Like a lot of kids from Asian families I started on the piano,” he recalls, “and it developed from there.”
The Hong Kong-born musician identifies Ravel’s gorgeously orchestrated “Suite No. 2” from the ballet Daphnis and Chloé as the inspiration for his turn to composition. Since then, he has written about 30 compositions for a variety of instrumental and vocal forces, and seen them win prizes and be performed internationally. Calling him a student scarcely accounts for an already active career.
As for his teacher, the Polish-born Palej might have begun his musical life as a violinist when his parents bought him an instrument, “but I refused to play it,” he smiles. “I wanted a piano, which they could not afford.”
It was when the family subsequently moved to Germany that they bought the 13-year-old Norbert an electronic keyboard.
“I knew right then that I wanted to be a pianist and composer,” he says.
“I spent every free moment at that keyboard.”
If Ravel was the student’s inspirational composer, Chopin was the teacher’s. “I cried listening to Chopin,” he admits. “I wanted to be like him. He is still my favourite composer.”
And yet, does Palej’s music sound like revisited Chopin? By no means. “I believe you should learn everything you can in the process of trying to find your own voice.
“It is easy for young composers to be carried away by ambition, wanting to impress. But to create art you can’t just want to impress others around you.”
Palej points to the way so many young composers try to make an impact with the opening notes of their pieces, or incorporate elements of rock or pop or world music in order to appear with it.
“Now it is fashionable again to speak to the audience, a good thing overall, but it does have its dangers, such as losing the introspection and depth art music can have.”
“I’ve done some work with pop and jazz,” Tse interjects, “but I still go back to working with sonata form and traditional techniques.”
His teacher nods agreement: “Alexander Solzhenitsyn said art should not entertain but be an experience. It is not just fun and games. An experience transforms a person and leads to wisdom. It has a greater objective than entertainment.”
So why then do so few people, relatively speaking, listen to contemporary art music?
“It is worrying,” Palej concedes, “but I think we are in a period of transition. The audiences for the New Music Festival keep growing from year to year.”
When he assumed the task of co-ordinating the festival in 2010, Palej began by inviting one of the greatest living composers to take part, Krzysztof Penderecki. Each succeeding festival has featured a substantial guest, with Alberta’s Allan Gordon Bell as this year’s Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition.
Bell has written a new piece for the occasion as has student composer Domenic Jarlkaganova, in collaboration with the choreographer Angela Blumberg.
A number of professional groups, including the Gryphon Trio, Land’s End Ensemble and Cecilia String Quartet can also be heard, alongside the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and other campus ensembles.
“Something is in the air,” Palej suggests. “We are at the dawn of a new century. That usually represents a big shift in culture.”
“And people who have a strong sense of individuality will find a way to say what they have to say,” adds Tse.