St Georges' Series: Nimbus Trio

St Georges' Series: Nimbus Trio

On performing your own compositions 

Kitty Xiao
Melbourne, Australia

St Georges' Series: Nimbus Trio

On performing your own compositions 

Performing my own music has always been about learning how to compose, and composing has always been about understanding performance. For me performing and composing are intrinsically interlinked.

I started composing because I was sick of playing music of white European men with huge hands in comparison to mine. I chose to focus on composing music that demonstrated my strengths as a musician, in creativity and musicality rather than let any limitations get in the way. Throughout my university years I would compose for my friends, learning about their instruments, their favourite sounds and how much my composition could evolve to fit a performer’s style. Forming composer-performer relationships were essential in my development as a musician and the opportunities I have had.

Nimbus Trio was founded in 2013 when a piece I composed for flute, violin and piano received the MSV David Henkels Composition Award. I quickly called on Jessica Laird; flautist and co-founding member for our debut at Deakin Edge and 3MBS. Since then our performances have seen us work with amazing musicians including Sarah Coghlan, Cameron Jamieson, Luke Carbon, Tom D’Ath and most recently violinist Chloe Sanger.

My role in the ensemble:

The amount of control a composer has on performance parameters through initial compositional processes became increasingly strong due to the rise of the mass concert venue in the Classical period. Performers adopted a re-creative role rather than a creative and collaborative partner with the composer.

As a small ensemble it is the interconnectedness of the latter that I want rather than a narcotic design that hampers a shared creative activity. My role is to make the performer’s feel comfortable, valuable and that they have creative control and freedom to allow their personalities to be part of their performance.

Every performance is different. Having performed the same works with different musicians, it really shows how much each individual can affect the flow and social dynamics within a group. This is a wonderful thing; just like how different friends bring out different parts of your personality, it has made my composition more about spontaneous listening and interaction rather than a predetermined object that is to be followed by a literal and strict re-production.

Really, the dots are only the beginning:

The dots are only a means for me to express thought and opinion. Of course, the score is important because it can make the biggest difference in the world. A good score for me is one that allows the performer to understand the composer’s intention clearly and effectively. The smallest mark can make the biggest difference in the world! It really are these details and sophistications that make an ordinary composer outstanding. However, the dots for me are really are a debate topic, and the musicians are there to fight for their side of the debate, perhaps not a fight... a civilised argument? Perhaps they agree. Whatever! That’s interesting!

Of course, performing my own music means I have some control, but only enough to initiate more ideas, and each musician I have played with has instigated that.

My music is very personal if you let it be. The music can only belong to me, but that is not what I want, not the point. If the musicians I play with don’t filter it through their own lense then I don’t feel like we have explored our full capacity as an ensemble.

The perfect performance:

We are individually fantastic and flawed people, musicians, and I don’t understand the concept that art or performance should be in any way perfect. Of course we should strive to work to our best ability and demonstrate professionalism, but perfection is a term that by definition is an absolute and complete state, implying that music exists for a final product. How often do living composer’s get commissioned to write a piece that never gets performed again? Amongst this is that once the final state is achieved, there is no longer a means to pursue it.

For an audience it may be their only moment, so I believe how you choose to interact with the audience, what you choose to say, provide in the program notes is vital. With all the damage that social media has done, it has also let audiences connect with musicians and music on a new and personal level. Being ‘in the moment’ when a new music idea is formed. Being ‘in the moment’ when one member of the band disagrees completely with the other. Being ‘in the moment’ when a ‘moment’ of music is created that could change everything that happened before or to follow it? What do we really want? To be in the moment?

Perhaps that’s why the virtual-concert experience and an interactive audience-focused experience of sound in the classical world has been such a success, and rewarding way for audiences to connect in the concert music experience? Really a performance is only one photograph of an immense project, experience, relationship and it should be treated like one.

The work in progress:

What is the final product when in our modern age, music is recreated, re performed, arranged, covered, improved, criticised and evolving? Perhaps there is no final product and we are living in the past if we think that classical music exists in the same context as it did hundreds of years ago. Performing the music of the ‘great’ composers is fantastic (because really, it’s just absolutely unimaginable music)! But really, if you’re performing new music of living composers, you are living in a time of the work in progress.

Different composers have different things that fascinate them. For me, it has always been about humans, the experience, the complex workings of an individual, a collective. And maybe in 10 years I will think what I said was all nonsense. But so what? I think the worst would be for me to think exactly the way I do now...

Kitty will be performing with Nimbus Trio to conclude Concert at St George’s Friends of Music series this Sunday the 25th of June at 2pm. St George’s Anglican Church - 55 Lucknow St, Travancore