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Graz, Austria

Since 1989, Kunstuniversität Graz has hosted a triennial competition called Franz Schubert und die Musik der Moderne - rather a surprising name at first sight. Performers in the competition have to combine classical work with modern rep in equal quantities. It is a challenging thing to do to a high level, but attracts a big international field. When I visited this month, I was mightily impressed that a small group of conservatoire staff could mount something like this so expertly, and follow it up immediately with media to document it.

My part in the proceedings was to write a new song which the four finalist Lied duos would be given to learn, only thirty-six hours (a few of them spent asleep, hopefully) before the final round performance. What's more, they would have to prepare it themselves, with no outside help or advice. Those thirty-six hours were very counter-intuitive for me. Basically, I'm used to the idea that, before premieres, I will be asked to explain my music constantly, and to offer interpretative help to performers. But I took the hint, and spent the next day exploring Graz, a proper old mid-European city with some amazing new buildings (including the music school itself) where I'd never been before.

But if anyone needs to know in future, here is a bit of explanation about my new song, On White Meadows. I wrote it after a long period when I'd been setting haikus (mainly by the wonderful Scottish poet Alan Spence) to music. As a result, I had begun to read everything in haiku form - splitting any bit of text at all into three short lines, with a break in the middle. Wondering what to do for Graz, I idly picked up my old copy of Winterreise (bought to study O-level music, ie very old.) The antique English translation therein was indeed haiku-rich, eg (verse 4 of 'Gute Nacht'): "a shadow thrown by the moon/is my companion:/on white meadows I seek deer tracks".

I selected five of these, and wrote simple settings, with quite a few signposts in the piano part for the vocalists, whom I imagined learning the pitches under stressful conditions. In fact all the singers were extremely accurate, and it was a unique experience for me to hear four premiere performances all at once, especially when sung in different vocal transpositions - for baritone, soprano, mezzo . Despite their learning ordeal, the duos genuinely performed (rather than simply read) the music, and it was a particular delight that the jury awarded the interpretation prize for this song to a Japanese duo, Sawako Kayaki and Haruka Ebina. If they thought it was odd to be singing Austrian- English approximations of their national verse form, they politely didn't mention it.

Pictured - Haus für Musik und Musiktheater, Graz - known as MUMUTH.





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