By Matthew Fava
This past year, CMC Ontario was able to work with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra on the first edition of their Composer Fellowship Program. Composer Liam Ritz was selected for the role, spending several months writing a new work while also being embedded in various aspects of the orchestras operations—from artist talks to education programs.
Back in August, I sat down (in different rooms in the same city) with Liam to message one another about the experience, and what he gained through the process!
fava.matthew 1:59 PM
Hey Liam, Matthew here! I am going to be at the ready when you log in!
Oh, I am here an hour early.
I will be at the ready when you log in an hour from now.
Liam Ritz 2:41 PM
Hey Matthew, ready any time!
fava.matthew 2:55 PM
Thanks for your patience!
We ended up having a going away snack for a coworker
I am ready now.
How is your day going?
Liam Ritz 2:56 PM
It’s going very well! Pretty relaxed so far.
fava.matthew 2:56 PM
Before we get into a talk about the HPO process
and because I love symmetry
I figured I would bring up a travel question (which was a feature of our first interview)
You were in Boston recently? Was this a music trip, or was there a musical side quest to your main mission?
Liam Ritz 2:58 PM
That was actually strictly vacation! I was visiting a few friends in Boston, and then onto Providence, Rhode Island where my older brother was getting married!
fava.matthew 2:59 PM
Oh amazing! Congrats to your brother!
Now to open up our discussion of the HPO program
Would you characterize your thoughts about the fellowship experience like this …
like this …
or in some other way?
Liam Ritz 3:00 PM
Probably the first one, for sure.
fava.matthew 3:01 PM
Yeah, celebratory backflip à la Carlton is a good sign
Liam Ritz 3:01 PM
Yeah, it was a really fantastic experience. Lots of Carlton backflipping!
fava.matthew 3:01 PM
Haha! From what I can tell, the experience became much more involved than we originally anticipated—largely because of the different interests you had, and the opportunities that came up as a result of HPO programs.
I understand from my HPO colleagues that you were a regular at rehearsals. What did that opportunity mean to you? Listening to and witnessing the process of preparing repertoire.
Liam Ritz 3:04 PM
The minutiae of the orchestral rehearsal process is one my favourite things to watch, and made even better when I’m able to be involved in some way. Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I’d happily watch a rehearsal over a performance any day, so having that kind of all-access pass to the HPO rehearsals was great.
fava.matthew 3:05 PM
Did you have a few pieces in particular that you wanted to see in that setting?
Liam Ritz 3:09 PM
For their final mainstage concert of the season, the HPO performed Mahler’s 5th symphony (a personal favourite of mine)! As you mentioned earlier, we were able to cater the fellowship experience to my specific interests, and so I was able to be slightly involved in the rehearsal process and act as an extra set of ears for Gemma New as she was rehearsing, and spend some time talking with her about her rehearsal process.
fava.matthew 3:10 PM
I am going to return to the dialogue you had with Gemma in a bit
but before that I wanted to get your thoughts about Orchestral culture, and how you enter into that space as a composer.
I have a bit of a lengthy set up here…
One struggle I observe with orchestral writing is the structural impossibility of forging a meaningful relationship with every member of an ensemble (my bias from operating largely in the chamber music world). Can you comment on your thought process when you are writing for a particular ensemble, especially a larger ensemble: how do you want the musicians to feel when they see your music?
I feel the habit of observing the rehearsal process likely feeds into your thinking on this.
Liam Ritz 3:17 PM
I completely agree – that can be a very challenging aspect, especially when many contemporary composers are primarily used to the chamber atmosphere and environment where you have such great access and collaboration during the writing/rehearsal process. I’ve been very fortunate to have spent the last three seasons working in the Toronto Symphony Library, and therefore I’m around during many of the rehearsals and concerts. This has allowed me to gain some valuable insight into how the orchestral musicians respond to different repertoire and situations, and through that, I’ve been able to keep that in mind within my own compositional practice.
When I’m writing, especially in situations for larger ensemble, I always want to be giving something to the musicians that it is in some way rewarding and interesting for them to work on. There’s nothing worse as a musician than getting a part and being immediately disinterested – it completely sets the tone for how they respond to a composers work. So, while I’m still always writing what I think is necessary from a musical standpoint, I also try and keep in mind that there is a MUSICIAN who will actually be sitting down to practice and perform what I am composing.
fava.matthew 3:20 PM
The appreciation of the human factor, beyond the technical capacities of the instrument, is a vital consideration, for sure.
And something that is also helpful in smaller ensembles!
Liam Ritz 3:22 PM
I completely agree! It seems often overlooked that real people are the ones who perform our music, but it goes a long way to forge good relationships with performers and ensembles
fava.matthew 3:23 PM
Relating this back to the imagined role of the composer, do programs like the HPO fellowship allow for an element of vulnerability? A sense of being ok being vulnerable, rather than feeling a pressure to live up to some Olympian model of omniscience?
I sometimes hear disappointment from musicians who expect a composer to know a lot (maybe everything) about their instrument when the composer completes a degree, for example, but there is so much that comes from direct collaboration/dialogue (and attending rehearsals!) outside of composer mentorship itself
Liam Ritz 3:30 PM
Regarding vulnerability, that was one the most noticeable and positive elements of the fellowship. Because I was in my position over the course of six-months, I was able to relax and become comfortable within the process and therefore not have the anxieties of feeling like I needed to constantly exude that “Olympian” stature. It allowed me that chance to just ask questions, be curious, and not feel like I had to already know everything. It made it an environment where I could really learn from who I was working with.
fava.matthew 3:30 PM
Time is an amazing thing.
I am very happy to read that.
Now, all of that being said (vulnerability, striving to forge meaningful relationships with your collaborators even in a large ensemble) …
You moderated a public panel with HPO musicians, correct? What did you gain through this experience?
Liam Ritz 3:33 PM
Well, first of all, those who know me well know that I am not someone who LOVES speaking in public. So, one of the recurring and extremely important responsibilities that the HPO would give me was public speaking to large groups of people.
…they definitely knew that it was something I needed to work on, so they gave me lots and lots of opportunities to do so.
fava.matthew 3:33 PM
Right, you interviewed Abigail as well!
Liam Ritz 3:34 PM
Haha, yes. Day ONE of my fellowship. Immediately in the deep-end.
fava.matthew 3:34 PM
Liam Ritz 3:34 PM
It was terrifying and wonderful all at once.
But, by the time the HPO Panel discussion came around, I was happily MUCH more comfortable in front of an audience, and it ended up being one of my favourite moments during the fellowship to sit and chat with some of their fantastic musicians.
fava.matthew 3:36 PM
That’s great! Now I want to take a brief culinary departure
that will reconnect with the music stuff, I swear
Homemade noodles: what is your approach? Do you have a steadfast recipe?
Liam Ritz 3:37 PM
Haha not a question I was expecting…but I’m assuming you’ve taken a look through my food-heavy Instagram account?
fava.matthew 3:37 PM
Liam Ritz 3:38 PM
Ok, well I’m always happy to talk food!
My go-to pasta dough (for rolled pasta, not extruded…), is about 100g of flour per 1 large egg. Usually tipo 00 flour, and sometimes throw in an extra yolk if I want something extra velvety. A little bit of salt and olive oil, and then knead, knead, knead!
fava.matthew 3:40 PM
And your breads: what is your go-to loaf?
Liam Ritz 3:42 PM
The unanimous favourite amongst people who eat my bread seems to be my red fife and honey sourdough with walnut. I’ll proudly admit, it’s pretty damn good.
fava.matthew 3:42 PM
Ok, now I am going to borrow from my dear friend, radio broadcaster Luca Capone (I really adore his artist interviews). If you had to describe your HPO piece Chamber Dances as a dish, what dish would it be?
(as an aside, I am now reading about the history of red fife)
Liam Ritz 3:49 PM
Haha that’s a tough question….my hope would be that it’s like a pan of delicious Spanish Paella. There’s a lot going on – salty, a little smoky, perfect balance between acidity of the rice and fattiness of the meats, and then the ever important socarrat (that crisp layer of rice at the bottom)! Basically, lots of different layers of music, and may seem somewhat chaotic, but it’s all there to balance itself out. Wishful thinking perhaps, but I’ll let others be the judge of whether it achieved Paella status balance!
fava.matthew 3:50 PM
Haha, nice! So you commented on the rhythmic character of your piece at the premiere. Was that the organizing principle from the beginning of your writing process?
Liam Ritz 3:53 PM
It was. The title of the concert was “In the Groove”, so I knew I wanted have some fun with rhythm. From the beginning, I wanted to explore certain physicalities in how the musicians perform and essentially create distinct ways in which each instrument “moves”. Then it was a matter of exploring these different “movements” as they interacted within that musical world.
fava.matthew 3:53 PM
Did you hit upon particular interactions/orchestrations that were especially satisfying?
Liam Ritz 3:56 PM
As a violinist, I had a lot of fun with the strings and gave them very energetic and almost percussive gestures throughout the piece. I ended up often doubling or having these string gestures interacting with the percussion section, which added to the percussive nature of what they were doing.
fava.matthew 3:59 PM
My last question is about your dialogue with Gemma. You brought her up earlier, can you elaborate on the interactions you had and lessons you learned?
Liam Ritz 4:03 PM
Over the course of a few of the HPO’s programmes, I was able to “shadow” her during the rehearsal process and see how she approaches her duties as a conductor. It was really informative to see the hierarchy of how she prioritizes aspects in the music and learn more about her methods of preparation. Not only was it really helpful to me as a novice conductor, but also gave me points to consider as a composer regarding what I could be more conscious of during my writing process.
fava.matthew 4:03 PM
All so wonderful to hear!
Liam, it has been a delight to chat with you and hear about the program from your perspective
Liam Ritz 4:04 PM
fava.matthew 4:04 PM
And I really hope you get that Staedtler/Prismacolor sponsorship
Liam Ritz 4:04 PM
Still hopeful about that one