"I don't like to be the centre of attention... I am more comfortable with writing and somebody else taking it into the world," Canadian Composer, Matthew Emery reveals to me during our interview at Choral Canada's Podium 2014 conference.
In fact, the opposite of Emery's aversion to the spotlight was occurring over the four day conference. His piece, Lover's Chant, won the 2014 Competition for Choral Writing and was premiered by 2014 National Youth Choir/Chœur National des Jeunes at Podium 2014. Furthermore, professional choirs such as the Canadian Chamber Choir, Pro Coro Canada, Vancouver Chamber Choir, and Elmer Iseler Singers have already been programming Emery's work to bring awareness to his works. Not bad for somebody convocating from his UBC Undergraduate degree in Composition program that coming Wednesday.
Sitting in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, Emery emits a poised and calm exterior; however, it is evident there is a constant stream of interior cerebral activity. As Emery begins by musing whether or not he should buy a last minute ticket to Vancouver and crash the UBC Music reception on Wednesday, I realize that I am speaking to Emery at the transition point from student to full-time Composer.
Emery sang in Elementary, Highschool, and Amabile Choirs in his hometown of London ON before moving to Vancouver to complete his Undergrad in Composition where he also sang with the UBC University Singers . Most recently, he was singing with Larry Nickel in Jubilate while living in Vancouver. Emery traces his start in composition to Grade 10 when he began experimenting with chords on the piano and writing them down. From there he began pondering how pieces could be better or what he would like to sing as a chorister.
"If you don't sing in a choir, you won't be able to write for choir very well," he states with a gentle bluntness.
Emery feels that he is conservative in all of his own writing. "I might throw in a gliss or something in my next piece," he says, granting me a subtle smile before continuing, "but I'll probably stay pretty tame. There's other people to do the crazy stuff." He provides examples such as R. Murray Schafer or Pro Coro gargling water during their performance of Ugis Praulins' The Nightingale to highlight the possibilites writing for voice. "In some ways, voice may be the most versatile instrument," he states with a serene awareness.
In terms of starting a composition, Emery reveals that it all begins from the poetry: "I don't really hear a melody first and find the poem to fit that. Just reading the poem I come up with the melody or the chords. Or the form of the piece could be related to the text in some way. But then the instrumental pieces that I write I would try to find inspiration from nature, buildings or architecture." While Emery worries about running out of public domain poetry, he also realizes that there are great poems he doesn't want to use because he thinks there are already perfect settings of them, citing Stephen Chatman's "Remember Me," as an example. "I don't think I could a better musical expression of that poem," he plainly states.
It is clear that choral music is at the heart of Emery's compositional voice."I grew up singing so [choral music] is what comes most naturally to me. When I think of music, I immediately think of singing something. Having the text and singing poetry is what makes choral music so inspiring and powerful that you can take a meaningful thought from someone else, combine it with music, to make a great thing," Emery says with an enlightened tone.
Emery's self-imposed structure is impressive. He sets a goal to write a piece every other week, resulting in 24 choir pieces a year. He reveals more information on his process: "I've always been on a routine. I try to just write on the weekdays all morning, have lunch around 12, and edit all night. Somewhere in there, I'm always reading poetry. Sometimes I take the afternoon off from composing to do the work, e-mailing publishers or scores or finding poems. Originally, at UBC, that's when nobody was using the practice rooms from 7 AM until classes started and it was quiet where I didn't have to compete with the Opera singer or Tuba player beside me."
He notes that he has future aspirations to write a Cantata piece for Choir and Orchestra or something intimate with one voice per part, similar to David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion.
While Emery prepares for a season as Amabile Choirs' Composer in Residence, he will also be heading to the United States for other compositional residencies this upcoming year. The opportunity to work one-on-one with the singers performing his works is an aspect of his job that he welcomes. "I really enjoy going to the rehearsals. You can say whatever you want. The singers are not tense yet for the concert. Everyone is just chill. I spent a good hour with the National Youth Choir in rehearsal and it was great... it's interesting how people perceive the music. Whether they absolutely like it or hate it. Some people don't like that it's boring or too traditional. Or some people love that aspect and say 'it's a breath of fresh air.' What's most interesting I think is watching the choirs and how they sing my pieces. Some pieces they release all their tension and it looks like it's freeing for them. They look very calm and lose all their worries. It's interesting to watch people performing and see how they visually change," describes Emery.
Emery prefers to be behind the spotlight instead of basking in the attention a premiere draws. "At the concert, I get all nervous and worried about what happens if it doesn't go well, or what the person behind me thinks. [The Podium listeners] are toughest audience outside myself. After the premiere, once it's out there, it's free, and I don't have to worry about it. But at the first performance, I'm a nervous wreck," he states in a tone that reveals a rare ripple of insecurity during the interview.
He notes that Podium has been a great time to reconnect as well as meet some of the Conductors programming his works. Emery is overwhelmed at the support from Conductors such as Julia Davids, Elroy Friesen, Michael Zaugg, Jon Washburn, and Lydia Adams. "I can't ask for anything more. I owe them a lot. Julia put two of my pieces in her new series with Cypress Music so that's great. I can't ask for anything better than that," he states with graciousness. Emery values Conductor insight from their gestural execution of his works or how he should consider notating a passage for a given effect. "Taking composition classes at school, you're only getting feedback from another composer, it is good to get feedback from the other side."
The future is full of possibilities. Whether Emery ventures abroad for Graduate studies in Composition or continues to compose out of London, ON, it is apparent the amount of support from the Canadian choral community will continue to foster his career. "I'm glad to be part of Canadian choral community supporting me and other young composers. We are taking pride in the music of Canada, and supporting our music, which is what we need."