"The idea behind this piece," says composer Anna Meredith, "is that it's open to everybody. It needs to be short, it needs to be not too difficult, it possibly needs to be a couple short pieces, so that kind of stuff does have a bit of an impact on your thinking of it."
The legendary Kronos Quartet are in the middle of a five-year commissioning initiative called Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire. Beginning with the 2015/2016, season the idea is to commission 10 new works each year over the course of five years for a total of 50 new works "devoted to contemporary approaches to the quartet and designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals."
The pieces will be produced by groups of composers diverse in age and background as well as maintaining a balance of five men and five women each year. "Kronos will premiere each piece," explain the quartet on their website, "and create companion digital materials, including scores, recordings, and performance notes, which will be distributed online for free." The idea is to reinvent the idea of string quartet music and present it as a living art form.
Recently year two of commissions was announced. Along with well-known composers such as Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson is UK-based Anna Meredith. One of the younger composers to be selected (she was born in 1978), she's recently been rising in prominence with an impressive body of work from her BBC Proms composition HandsFree to the concussive first track of her new record Varmints titled "Nautilus," which was also the first track of her first EP Black Prince Fury.
Meredith grew up in a media-rich environment. Her sister often collaborates with her by handling the visual elements of a performance while the composer presents a sound that is — according to the Fifty for the Future website — "frequently described as 'maximalist,' 'uncategorizable,' and 'genre-hopping,' and straddles the different worlds of contemporary classical, avant pop, electronica, and experimental rock." The Herald has called her "inarguably one of the UK's most visible composers."
Her mix of talent has led her beyond the normal range of composers, frequently appearing on many BBC programs as a judge as well as composer. She also shows up at performance venues from concert halls to pop festivals, clubs, installations, films, and even PRADA fashion campaigns.
Even so, she says about the Kronos commission, "This is about as cool as it gets. I really like their approach, the sort of variety of people they are commissioning is really cool. I love that what they are looking for is a piece that isn't too daunting, where anyone can give a go. The technical set-up really appeals to me. The whole idea is to make this piece really accessible so there's lot of material on the site. If you're a young string quartet and want to play any of these pieces you can get the materials from their website. There's learning guides and videos and all sorts of stuff. I'm looking forward to it."
Working frequently with the BBC, Meredith has grown accustomed to the process of commissions. "If it's a commission," she says, "you've got deadlines, you've got performance, you've got people who need sheet music to read, quite a lot of stuff is governed by when performers say they are going to start practicing the piece. If you are writing a manuscript of sheet music, people need to get the parts out of the software, print stuff, and bind things. If you work with a conductor quite often they want to chat immediately to talk about your score before rehearsals."
However, the process for actually composing the piece does not differ from when she is making music completely on her own. "Basically," she says, "I try not to let the instrumentation be the governing thing about the piece. It's the musical materials, the building blocks, harmonies and rhythms, that are similar across all types of music I write — whether it's a piece for kids or orchestra or an album piece or electronic. I use a lot of the same ideas, the same shapes and structures, so that will be what I am working on before getting stuck. Ultimately the intended performer, whether it's a piece for nursery age kids or a piece of body percussion, hugely influences the kind of palette of sounds you've got, but I always try to use a similar technique to approach it."
This summer Meredith will be working to support her new record Varmints, and then setting aside "some time, a month or so," to write the Kronos commission. "Every time I try to do more than one thing at once I do something really badly. I'd like to do a good job for this for good players. It will be interesting for me going forward what this means, what kind of work I get to do."