NZ Trio: Youthful composure

By William Dart

Composer Alex Taylor was thrilled and shocked to win the Sounz Contemporary Award. Photo / Gareth Watkins
Composer Alex Taylor was thrilled and shocked to win the Sounz Contemporary Award. Photo / Gareth Watkins

At 24, composer Alex Taylor is a force to be reckoned with in the New Zealand music scene. When I caught up with him last year, I was given a CD as a calling card - an hour-plus of recent compositions. Some were played by fellow students - Taylor graduated MMus (Hons) from Auckland University last year - while others were full-scale scores delivered by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Choosing to freelance this year, Taylor has had no shortage of commissions. In September the NZSO National Youth Orchestra premiered a substantial piece, feel, in Christchurch. In November he has a new work being played by the contemporary ensemble, 175 East, and tomorrow, NZTrio tackles his burlesques mecaniques.

If that sounds impressive, Taylor is also a busy violinist - he has just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he took part in a live presentation of Carnival of Souls. He has played fiddle in Leon Radojkovic's group Dr Colossus and, just last year, was concertmaster for Auckland Youth Orchestra in a full-on programme of Richard Strauss, Poulenc and ...

Alex Taylor.

He is also to be found on YouTube as the cyber equivalent of a bathroom baritone, confiding ballads by the likes of Lou Reed to his own piano.

"Singing is one of the most joyous things you can do," he explains.

"A simple pleasure and a purely emotional thing. Composing is emotional too, but it's a more intellectual and synthetic thing."

Taylor also gets a lot of pleasure from organising concerts of music and poetry under the banner of Intrepid Music Projects - the next comes up on Sunday week at Devonport's Kerr Street Artspace, retitled the Museum of the Vernacular for the occasion.

"I started doing these concerts because there's not enough pushing the envelope in this area for my liking."

In September, he received the ultimate accolade our country can give, being the youngest composer ever to carry off the Sounz Contemporary Award, which he did at this year's Silver Scrolls, for his short orchestral piece, [inner].

"I didn't think I had a chance being up against two established composers, Ken Young and Michael Williams, but it was a thrill and a bit of a shock."

Taylor is keen to discuss the composing process. He is frank about not using a MIDI keyboard as a helpmate ("you just get into writing piano music for orchestra") and explains why repeated notes and airy spaces are so central to what he writes.

To some extent it comes from American composers like Morton Feldman and John Cage. "They create music that sits, then expands or contracts, rather than having to move all the time. Most music comes from some of sort of breath or physical impulse."

Taylor's latest work, burlesques mecaniques, which NZTrio launches in Q Theatre's Loft tomorrow night, is described as "little snapshots or caricatures - a series of dances I've abstracted into something more grotesque and strange".

It was very much inspired by the formidable pianism of Sarah Watkins. "It's a piano piece with extensions," he says, seeing Watkins' part as "the main protagonist with the violin and cello as limbs".

Rehearsals have gone swimmingly.

"They've got a very tight ensemble. They know each other's playing so well because they do so much work together."

NZTrio has done much to sponsor and nurture our composers, and Taylor is grateful he was asked to make some adjustments to the piece's final movement, "to get a similar effect with something that was less complicated to get your head around.

"It's important to get the most simple version of whatever you're trying to get across. Unnecessary complications are pointless."

Performance

What: NZTrio
Where and when: Q Loft, tomorrow at 5pm

What: Intrepid Music Project
Where and when: Kerr Street Artspace, Devonport, November 4 at 3pm

- NZ Herald

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