An interview with Stuart Greenbaum

Composer, Stuart Greenbaum (photo credit: Patrick Millman)

Composer, Stuart Greenbaum (photo credit: Patrick Millman)

In June we sat down with 2019 Composer Development Program mentor Stuart Greenbaum (Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium) and asked him what the program means for him and what he feels the composer participants get out of the experience. 

How did you become involved with the Flinders Quartet Composer Development Program as a mentor?

I became involved as a mentor in part because I know FQ and have known Zoe and Helen, since the quartet’s inception back in 2000. So that’s almost twenty years that I’ve known them and we’ve worked on quartet projects and other projects across that time.

They asked if I’d be involved and I’ve done two of them now. So now that I know the project, it’s a teaching activity I really understand and have empathy for.

Part of it is also that I’ve written seven string quartets and FQ have played four of those. As it transpires I’ve written a number of pieces that include the string quartet alongside other instruments, including Translations – for string quartet, recorder and Er-Hu, which will be premiered as part of their season later this year. So it’s not just that I’ve known them all that time, it’s also that the form itself is something I’ve written for.

Is there anything that you find challenging about being a mentor?

Of course! I remember when I was a composer having lessons myself – there is no such thing as the best teacher in the world, or the best mentor. I think even from someone that you like, know and trust, you’re going to hear some things sometimes that you don’t really want to hear; that you’re not ready for. So as a mentor you’re never wanting to be unhelpful or cruel, but sometimes you’re wanting to say hard things, because you can see something in what a composer is doing that can improve. How you do that is variable and the majority of composers are protective of their music; and rightly so.

So it’s totally natural and logical that a composer’s first feeling is to hold on tight to what they’ve dreamt up. So we’re sensitive to that, but also trying to provide perspective and experience.

Why do you think it’s such an important program for composers?

I think that it’s important partly because it’s practical, achievable and viable – it’s four people not 80 people. Secondarily, in the canon of Western music over the last 300 odd years string quartets have, for a range of reasons, been seen as an ideal vehicle for composers to create intimate expression that is less driven by orchestral colour and more by the innate logic of small chamber music. It is four instruments that together have a homogeneous sound.

Why is it important that the submission process for the program is anonymous?

I think it’s great and as it should be. Sometimes there’s a composer who didn’t get selected, but there was something really interesting there and we think “Hey, who is that?”. Because sometimes that’s another name to be watching out for in a different context. I’m all in favour of anonymous selection where it’s viable and practical. We’re not dealing with what people have achieved, we’re just dealing with music as it appears to be, aside from all that.

Stuart Greenbaum in action at the 2019 Composer Development Program workshops

Stuart Greenbaum in action at the 2019 Composer Development Program workshops

What do composers get out of the program and why is it important?

There’s maybe a secondary aspect to what the composers themselves get out of it and that is, an enhancement of their string writing and learning how a string quartet functions and works.  

I think there are also a lot of musical conversations in there too about language, pitch and rhythm – things that are transferable to other contexts as well; but the quartet itself is a very particular thing to write for and that there are four lines there and different registers, also has very particular kinds of constraints that are useful and you learn things as a composer about how to utilise that effectively.

Also, the composers meet each other and might stay in contact. So there’s a national connectivity among composers and to some extent string players, that is enriched and connected by these processes, so sometimes you do a bunch of these things across a period of time and it gives you a lot of friends and professional contacts around the country, which is nice too.

What do you get out of the program as a composer and mentor?

I like to see FQ and it’s good to be part of their week. Also, as a composition teacher I am always intrigued by new ideas people are bringing in. You’re not trying to turn people into you and you’re not trying to turn yourself into them, but through the sharing of music along the way, it’s almost like a form of professional development for an artist to be working with other people’s art. It helps you to freshen up and evaluate the questions you’re asking of your own music.

Join Flinders Quartet, Genevieve Lacey (recorders) and Hao Zheng (erhu) this October for the premiere of Stuart’s work, “Translations”. Click here for details.