“I came, genuinely, from just wanting to compose. I’ve had an orchestra playing through my head since I was nine, and I didn’t know how to notate it.” -Kirsten Strom
Kirsten Strom is an award-winning composer and conductor currently working between New Zealand and the UK. Hailing from the vibrant Auckland creative scene, Kirsten’s work has been performed in New Zealand, the UK, Spain, France, Italy, and Taiwan, by ensembles such as the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Aroha String Quartet, and Goodensemble Orchestra. Her work draws from the beauty of nature, her Christian faith, and her relationship with technology. Kirsten is currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and spoke to PRXLUDES about the new music community in New Zealand, her compositional process, and the influence of faith in her work.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Kirsten! Thanks so much for joining me today.
Kirsten Strom: Hello! No worries! A pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me!
Tell me about the new music scene in New Zealand – what is it like for composers there?
New Zealand is a small place, but it’s an incredibly creative place; I’d say the general population is quite creative. So, in a sense, there’s a lot of knowledge about the arts, and there’s a reasonable amount of support for the arts, but it is also a small country, so money-wise that’s quite limited. Everyone knows each other, which is quite cool — there’s a lot of lovely people with awesome work, though sadly we’re competing for a small pool of funding. Which is probably what every composer says, ever, in every country. -laughs- Personally, I think we’ve got a good variety of styles; I think there’s a healthy music scene here.
Were there any major formative experiences you feel you had with regards to getting yourself out there?
We have a very supportive orchestra environment in terms of orchestral readings and residencies; the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra — my local orchestra — have a young composer residency, and praise God I got selected for that when I was just coming out of the last year of [my] Bachelor’s. That was an awesome boost for me, because that was my first ever commission. It’s awesome [that we had] this bridging opportunity to connect to the professional world. I think New Zealand is a really friendly environment [for composers] — the performers are so lovely. We have [a] thing every year called Nelson Composers Workshop, where pretty much every composer ever — lecturers, students, and performers from all over the country — all have an awesome time and workshop people’s work. So that’s how you can also get to know other students and their work, other performers and stuff, which is incredibly enriching.
Is that an environment you found conducive to your development?
Yeah — it’s funny, because when I was first going to the UK, I was so ready to get out of New Zealand, and see the big wide world, but then coming back, I’ve started to really appreciate those closer connections. The fact [that] I go to a concert and recognise a whole bunch of people in the audience, and I can just chat to them afterwards… There’s this lovely sense of community and support among the creative people. I think I’d enjoy a bit of both though. -laughs- I enjoy the idea of making those connections and having this base you can fall back on, this community you can trust will be there, but also to be able to go out and explore and do the daring things you don’t even know you can do yet. I think that’s partly what provoked me to move to the UK.
So what was it that spurred you to move to London?
This was kind of a long story, but something I prayed about for a long time. Simply put, I was aching to travel again. One day I woke up with this ridiculous faith out of nowhere that I would get to London, and began to work towards it. I saw some music there [that] I really loved, and I could see myself fitting into that scene. I kind of felt like a fish out of water stylistically in New Zealand; I couldn’t really hear my style around me much. Maybe it’s starting to change now, but at the time I felt really out of place during my degree. – laughs – I [felt the need] to get out there [and] see what was happening in the UK, to start to be part of something bigger. I prayed for open doors and amazingly got into Royal Academy, Northern, College and Guildhall with scholarships – it was crazy. A real answer to prayer.
How did you initially start getting into composition?
I didn’t come from a classical background — more of a singer-songwriter one — so I sort of felt like when I was around other composers, they would know so much more repertoire than I did. They had years of studying and performing classical music, [but] I wasn’t really much of a performer; I dabbled in violin, but I travelled too much to be able to take lessons for the most part.
I came, genuinely, from just wanting to compose. I’ve had an orchestra playing through my head since I was nine, and I didn’t know how to notate it. I had literally no idea you could even be taught that. My family travelled around the world — my dad was a travelling preacher and writer — so I had to do correspondence school, [and] my mum sneakily signed me up for music; I was terrified, because [I] had to do this thing called composing, and I was like, “I can’t do that, Mum, I only write songs,” and she was like, “You’re gonna love it.” And she was right — I started focusing on composition more than anything else. -laughs- It was a very steep learning curve, notation; it’s this huge barrier when you’re not used to it. I went from failing my first high school aural exam, to passing it, to getting the next grade up, to getting A+ at university… You had to put in so many years from literally ground zero, before you [could] start to conquer this skill. That aural grounding really helps you in composition; you’re able to hear what you’re composing in your head, and to analyse that and write it down.
It is crucial. Until incredibly recently, I felt a complete dichotomy between what’s in my head and what I could write down on a page.
Yeah, it’s still sometimes a struggle for me. I’m imagining completely different sounds — sometimes I don’t even know how to get the sounds out of the instruments yet, let alone how to notate that new sound that I’m coming up with. It’s another one of those things where the more you learn, the more you find you don’t know. -laughs- There’s this huge world of notation out there, and there are millions of different styles. It’s actually quite an artistic choice.
I came across a unique struggle of a situation in one of my orchestral pieces, ‘Ice’ — there’s a section in that where I wanted to depict water. There was something about it that bothered me. I wanted it to be more fluid, and my lecturer at the time, Leonie Holmes — I have to give all credit to her — suggested free time. I’d never written anything for free time before in my life, but I sort of had this brainwave [about when] the orchestra’s tuning at the start — they’re usually playing fragments, and they’re all kind of free but sometimes it sounds like actual music. I wanted that sort of sound of beautiful chaos, with a kind of structure to it. It accumulates from these really sonorous reeds, intertwining freely, introducing swarming strings, adding on the brass and woodwinds, and building up to a huge climax.
It’s amazing how these points of inspiration can come from something so simple.
Very true. Sometimes, something simple like “Here’s a melody, but play it freely” weirdly works, and has this strange kind of wonder when people are breathing life into it. And that multiplies en masse. You realise when humans are humans, and have their own sense of artistry, it creates this strange alchemy where it’s a completely different piece every time. It’s this beautiful thing that comes from us being uniquely made, having God-given free will and creativity. I’m in love with that idea. I was looking at kinetic artwork last year, and how they can create sculptures that move as an intrinsic part of them — and as they move, there’s a different aspect of [them] that you unearth every time. That’s something I’ve been really interested in capturing in music; I’ve always been fascinated by freedom and the artistry of a performer, letting them be creative within a piece. [That] enables a work to have new life every time it’s performed — not just through the minor tweaks of interpretation, but inherently, written into the music. It’s a new piece every time.
Let’s talk about your compositional process. I remember you mentioning about your piece ‘Purity’ that a single note holds as much power as an orchestra; is that something you still ascribe to?
It’s interesting, because I sort of see that piece as a bit of a throwback piece now. But at the time, it was totally fresh for me. [I] was newly discovering the harmonic series, and doing a bit of spectral analysis on just one sound… It was captivating. It’s like Shrek — onions have layers, sound has layers. Mind blown. -laughs- For me, that’s what fuelled that whole piece — the revelation that sound is so rich in information.
Also, this is something that fuels all of my art, but I’m a Christian; I believe in creation, that God designed nature. So I see design in nature as this most incredible source of inspiration. When I look at sound, the core ingredients of sound, the gorgeousness of a violinist putting expression into one single note — those are the building blocks of music. I’ll look at the golden circle, or spirals in nature — in galaxies or ferns or a child in the womb — and I see it as God’s fingerprints in nature — and I’m like “wow, [these are] the building blocks of creation!”
Do your sounds tend to follow from the concept?
Quite often, I’ll begin with a concept that’s really grabbed me; with ‘Ice’, I was thinking about the surface of ice, and how [there are] these vast cracks on the surface of it. I also had an experience when I was [living] in Canada — my family travelled, as I mentioned. We were watching all this figure skating on TV, because it was the 2010 Olympics, and I kept seeing how the ice skaters’ blades were criss-crossing and making really beautiful patterns on the surface of the ice. Then I’d imagine, texturally, a whole bank of really high violins and violas having their own independent lines, but operating as one mass — you could either pick out strands if you wanted to, or you could hear the overall beauty of the sound. My composition process begins with praying and getting a concept that I’m really passionate about, whether it’s a social issue or something like the beauty of creation, essentially. -laughs- Iced-over lakes, or the majesty of mountains — all the things that every composer is inspired by. -laughs-
I was inspired by nature in a piece recently, and I felt like a walking cliché. -laughs-
Yeah, I know, isn’t it? I am a walking cliché, but it’s beautiful, so who cares. -laughs-
From what I’ve heard of your work, it seems a lot of your pieces deal with either nature or technology. I’d love to hear more about the “technology” side of your inspirations.
Yeah, I think that all started with another piece, actually, not strictly technological but it signalled a new direction for me. At the time, I was thinking, “How do I make my music mean something?” — I [was] sick of writing music that was only personally focussed, and not having anything to say that would impact someone else. So I wrote this piece called ‘Time Is Money’, which ended up being really theatrical. It basically uses coins as found percussion, exploring all the different kinds of sounds they make, and punning on the title. It comments on bureaucracy and materialism, how obsessed with that our culture is, and how unhealthy that is. It’s like that scripture, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”— basically how greed drives people and eventually causes isolation. Where is the time for family, and where’s the creativity within that? In the piece one person acts as “the boss”, trying to impose rules on everyone else, while the others are trying to be more creative, friendly and spontaneous within the workplace. It’s quite playful, using a bit of improv, with the boss trying to control people’s movements like naughty children, moving people around and stuff like that. [It’s] quite a comical piece.
That’s definitely something people lose sight of in modern capitalist society. I remember seeing a piece of yours that had the performers playing off of their phones, too?
Well, the idea with that was that [the phones] were more of a prop, although that would be a very interesting idea — write that one down. – laughs – [‘Wake Up Call’] was actually written for the APO Summer School, which was a mixture of young schoolkids and professional performers. I was searching for something that would speak to this new generation, and praying about what to do. I [would] look around me and everyone had their heads buried in their smartphones, not necessarily interacting with each other in the real world. So I was like, how do I explore this without being too overt or annoying, and be more playful about it, but make people think?
So I was like okay, I’ve gotta make it somehow comedic. -laughs- A lot of classical music is incredibly serious — you know, there’s a protocol, there’s a bow, nobody claps between movements… -laughs- So I was like, how do I break these barriers down and make it fun and exciting for kids to enjoy, as well as adults, and be accessible for everyone?
I came up with the idea of everyone starting out looking down at their phones. I performed this recently, actually, and it was the funnest thing ever — I got to conduct my own piece, in London for the first time. That was incredibly bizarre, but also really rewarding. What I did for that was basically put on an act; I was on the phone, as the conductor, running into the concert hall saying, “No, I’m in the middle of a concert, I have to call you back”… and putting the phone down — and the entire orchestra in front of me [are] on their phones. -laughs- I walk up to one person, I tap them on the shoulder, they’re unresponsive; and I tap another person on the shoulder, being all theatrical, and then I finally tap the concert master on the shoulder, and they wake up and join me. The idea is [that] one by one, everyone starts waking up and realizing, “Oh my gosh, I’m supposed to be playing right now!”
That sounds like it would be hilarious to be part of.
It was really cool in the Auckland Town Hall, actually, because the whole place was packed with schoolkids. They were roaring with laughter as all of these professional violinists were tapping each other on the shoulders, and there was this Mexican wave effect where everyone was waking up and picking up their instruments. -laughs- There [was] this really awesome percussionist who was incredibly theatrical about slamming her phone down and getting into it. So yeah, things like that; it’s kind of like theatre plus music. I made the music accessible and twitchy; I [wanted to] get into a groove, for people to be able to get into it. It was actually created from “glitching” a slow melody, like you would hear a scratched CD, and all the material comes from that. There’s another part when they all start to stomp and clap together and high-five. Actually, what was crazy about this was [that] in the Town Hall performance, all the schoolkids spontaneously started stomping and clapping along. It was [amazing] getting the audience to respond and break down barriers. An amazing composer moment — highlight of my entire life, probably! All glory to God! I’ve peaked too early… -laughs-
How important do you find the community aspect of your work?
I think it’s totally part of it. I guess I was getting at that — having a message that meant something to the average person, that can speak to them, even if they have no musical background. I’ve always been very passionate about making my music accessible for that reason; music has to be a three-way thing between [the] audience, performers, and composers, rather than, “I’m the composer, I dictate everything, you must do what I command.” Because Jesus is inclusive — I wanna be inclusive, you know. I remember this one performance of mine for a community of bird lovers — the piece was with APO Connecting for the Year of the Wrybill, a New Zealand bird — and one woman came to me and said my piece brought her to tears, which was really special.
I like there to be an aspect of community with the performer, as well, so they have the opportunity to contribute their artistry to my music, make it their own in a way. I always think of it as trying to be as emotively impactful as I can, or having some sort of journey or structure to it — or having some entertaining aspect like theatre. Generally, it’s by playing it out as a movie in my head, trying to pace it right, and shift at the right moment… almost like classical-era contrasts. -laughs-
Yeah, I do tend to find that the more accessible your compositions are to a performer, the more effective the piece becomes.
Yeah, an interesting point. For some reason that reminds me of one of my pieces, ‘WAVEring Lines’. We were talking about having elements of freedom, or ways that a performer can make a mark on [the] music — with this piece, [there’s] this wad of sound within which there are moving lines and melodies embedded. The concept [of] ‘WAVEring Lines’ (with pun intended) is about an ocean wave. I was imagining [that] if you were going to draw the sea, you would have to use many many wavering lines of pencil to draw [it], but you also get the overall impression of the wave.
I wrote it originally on six staves, but it’s for piano… -laughs- So I had to reduce it to two hands, obviously. I really wanted to give it to the performer so they could voice those chords and pick out melodies. It starts with little echoes and fugues on a particular idea, but there are multiple options of those voices that you can pick out, and I wanted that sense of there being polyphony within the chords. I wanted there to be the freedom for the performer to choose which of those melodies to pick out; therefore, it’s a new piece and new interpretation every time.
Tell me about your move to London. Did anything change for you when you first got to the Royal Academy; were there any boundaries and barriers shattered?
I think the main huge thing was — harkening back to community — I was totally uprooting myself and moving to the opposite side of the world where I knew nobody. -laughs- I was leaving an entire community behind. I was incredibly excited, actually, but when I got there, I was missing a lot more of home. Interestingly, as I composed things… I never expected to do this, but I found myself listening to some of my lecturers’ music, and some New Zealand music, to make myself feel more rooted in my New Zealand identity. Which is quite funny, because you’re trying to go to a new place to experience what they have to offer, but you end up just thinking about your home. -laughs- I think it’s one of those natural things. It was more just being like, “Okay, how do I retain my voice and personality within a new setting, while trying to stretch myself and do new things?”
Yeah, of course. Do you think that affected your output stylistically at all?
Stylistically, I ended up going much more deeply into concepts than I’d ever done before. There was this particular piece — ‘Trees’ — which ended up being incredibly layered. This is harkening back to my Christian roots, and [my] core identity of faith, but for me, it was a completely different way of thinking about the Passion cycle — Christ being crucified as a sacrifice of love to save humanity from their own evil. It was the idea that he is the Creator of the trees, something so beautiful, but he’s being betrayed by his own creation — enduring a horrific death on a cross, which is referred to as a tree in scripture. The tree made a poignant link between the beauty of creation, and also that kind of deep, passionate love it takes to die for one’s enemies and redeem them — dirty, rugged suffering and sacrificial love. I was going through some dark times as well at the time, so I found myself identifying with Jesus’ suffering — it was like he reached me in that place and drew me near.
The “tree” theme was endlessly recurring. It was for string quartet, so the instruments are made of wood. I also ended up exploring [the use of] paper, creating new sounds and new timbres — literally, bowing using paper on strings — which creates this incredibly ethereal sound. The concept started [with] me walking the streets of London, [surrounded] by all these gorgeous trees. I could see the way the wind was moving and murmuring in the leaves, the way the leaves were just slightly turning, [the] very subtle variations. It made me think of subtle timbral variations and flutterings, which you get beautifully with the strings, and worked in with that papery, ethereal sound. That contrasted with this really gut-punching — like, I’m not usually a gut-punching kind of girl… -laughs- I don’t normally create really rugged stuff, but when you think about the cross, the agony of the cross, the ruggedness of the material — and you think of tree bark, and how sort of rugged that is — you get this incredibly rough texture. I used double-stopping on the strings, and that created this iconography throughout the piece. The cello came to represent Christ, offering up these poignant prayers on the eve of his suffering and acting as his voice throughout.
It sounds like this piece is almost a combination of all of your ideas and concepts merged together.
Yeah, exactly! There [was] this insane combination of symbolism, with references to wood and trees and timbral flutterings, juxtaposed with [the] narrative of the cross, the heart of true love and sacrifice, all brought to life through motion and three-dimensional space. I was very much drawn to the idea of cori spezzati — they pioneered this with early sacred music in Venice, [where] they used to split their choirs into different sides of the building to create beautiful spatial effects. It was amazing to hear this in real life at the Sound and Vision Festival last year – it somehow made the work much more vivid. I was thinking about trees as living sculptures, and how they surround you. I was also thinking about the organic nature of trees, the way that they’re always growing and moving and changing, so there were some free sections in there — that can grow and move and change and be kinetic within the piece. It almost felt like the culmination of all my [ideas], everything I learned before was coming together into [an] exploration of sound, and space, and narrative.
I’ve been amazingly blessed to hear this three times already, with Echéa Quartet, Ligeti Quartet and a workshop quartet down in Nelson, and I’m incredibly excited to hear it again with Jade Quartet later this year.
Kirsten’s work can be found at:
- Leonie Holmes – Tango Mangle, performed by Westlake Symphony Orchestra (2015)