Tabea Squire and Loughlan Prior at rehearsal for ‘I Danced, Unseen’. Photo: Jack Hobbs.
Tabea Squire‘s ‘I Danced, Unseen’, with choreography by Loughlan Prior, will be performed by the New Zealand String Quartet and dancers William Fitzgerald, Laura Saxon Jones and Tabitha Dombroski as part of Chamber Music New Zealand’s ‘Transfigured Night’. It will be toured to ten centres around the country from 9 to 23 March 2021.
Tell us about ‘I Danced, Unseen’.
Well, I actually started with a different title in mind, but as the piece evolved, the initial title became noticeably less appropriate. I started to stress a bit about what to call it, and one day I started to remember an old habit of mine. From childhood through young adulthood I would sometimes shut myself in the living room – no-one else was allowed in – and put on music to dance to. It was a very private experience, and a sort of cathartic process, which was somehow being evoked in my mind by the material I was writing for the piece, years later. I played with the wording until I liked it as a title, and there it was. I’m quite taken with how the link to dance actually grew out of the piece organically, rather than having been imposed on it from the start.
How did the opportunity to write this piece come about?
I was approached by CMNZ and asked whether I’d be interested in writing a piece for the programme they were planning, which included Transfigured Night, and would feature dancers performing choreography by Loughlan Prior. Well, Transfigured Night itself is already very close to my heart, so that was just the tip of the excitement iceberg. An honest response would probably have been something along the lines of ‘I-am-there-with-bells-on-thank-you-thank-you-yes-yes-yes’, but I like to think that my actual response was a little more measured.
Had you worked with Loughlan before?
As a matter of fact, yes. There was a project a few years ago in which some young choreographers were given access to the back catalogues of the NZSO/Todd Corporation Young Composer Awards: the idea was to pick a work they might like, choreograph something new, and the piece would be performed with the choreography in concert. Loughlan chose an old piece of mine, Tiszavirág, and that’s how I met him. Later on I also wrote some music for him in an informal capacity, but we hadn’t had any contact for a while, so I was dead chuffed to get to work with him again.
Tabea Squire: ‘I Danced, Unseen’, bar 116-121.
What was the process like writing ‘I Danced, Unseen’?
As it happens, I had been wanting to write a string quartet already, and even had an opening melody figured out. I sent it to Loughlan straight away, before we even met up with the quartet, to see if it might speak to him. He did like it, but he had his own concepts about how the piece could function – he had a wider view of the programme as a whole – but as it happened, I was able to integrate his own ideas and preferences with that opening tune. In fact, I was a bit stymied for a while, because after having woven some material from that opening tune, I got stuck: I’d got so set on this particular melody that I found it very hard to move from there and really get the piece going.
There was also another road-block further down the track. A few months off the due date, I started to develop some health issues, which unfortunately got worse the closer we got to the due date. In the end, I had to send the NZSQ unfinished versions of the piece, but I think that actually worked out really well. I got some great feedback from the quartet, and when they did a basic ‘certain passages to be confirmed’ recording for Loughlan, I was even able to ask them about their musical opinions of particular areas I wasn’t sure about. I sometimes find the relative vacuum of the composition process quite taxing, and love feedback from other musicians – composers or players – even partway through the process, so there was definitely a silver lining in that particular cloud. In fact, Gill spotted a wrong note just the other day – even after proper editing – which really brought home the extent of post-composition work, what with the necessities of editing and score preparation.
How closely did you and Loughlan work together?
Loughlan and I were both very happy to work closely through the process. Loughlan wanted to try integrating body percussion among the dancers, and I sculpted certain passages of the piece to this end. The body percussion didn’t happen in the end, but overall it was quite helpful for me to hold in mind someone else’s ‘vision’ of how the piece would function. I do like the way we can bounce off each other – I enjoyed discussing possibilities with him, and hearing his plans for the tone and appearance of the evening as a whole. Costuming isn’t something I’ve ever had to consider, but of course that was part of his process. And in a less professional sense, I like just chatting and catching up with him, so that was nice too.
What is it like working with the NZSQ?
Well, personally, I always have a ball! Helene was my violin teacher during uni, and between uni and the Adam Summer School, I’ve had plenty of input from Gill and Rolf too, so I know them pretty well. And this was a great opportunity to properly work with Monique, which I hadn’t had a chance to do before.
I really value their musical opinions – I learned a lot about composition from learning about interpretation and performance from them, and other university tutors – and I think they find it quite interesting to have an insight into the composer’s experience in writing the piece. I kept seeing them interpret aspects of the piece in a different way to what I expected, because I had ‘built’ it from the inside out, as it were, while they were looking at it from a different perspective. This experience isn’t new to me, but perhaps because of the intimacy of chamber music, it seemed more obvious in this instance. They did a particular exercise with a contrapuntal passage, in which they only played the ‘main tune’ – passing the line from one to the other as it went along, and leaving out the other parts. It was fascinating, because what they heard as the ‘main tune’ line was different to what I had expected, and I think we both really enjoyed the different perspectives.
In fact, I’m sure they found some interest in seeing the composer’s side of it. Because of the issues at the time, I was still improving the piece as we went along. We’d all agreed that the original ending was too abrupt, and I did a whole lot of work, trying different codettas and directions and material. It was quite frustrating – and tiring, by that point of the process. In the end, I just added two bars, and they seemed to find that just as funny as I did. Working so hard and scribbling out all that material, then eventually scrapping it all and just wedging in two bars? That’s an authentic composer’s experience for sure!