Liam Ritz: Light Fragments with poetry by Julie Joosten
May 27 at the HPO’s What Next Festival: the Rock on Locke

by Abigail Richardson-Schulte

In my first year as Composer-in-Residence with the HPO, I did a mass of education. I visited 39 art classes and had them create artworks based on music by Jordan Nobles, a composer in our What Next Festival (hear his work Tides on May 28). These artworks were then displayed at our What Next Festival as well as the McMaster Innovation Park. I visited many schools with a music and storytelling presentation on my work The Sleeping Giant. These first two projects helped me get to know every nook and cranny of Hamilton, even though I had already lived here for eight years. Finally, I worked on a project with four talented music students at Westmount Secondary School. A project like this is only possible with a great music teacher: Ted Bohn runs a fantastic wind orchestra and gives the students remarkable experiences. This project was certainly one of the most rewarding education projects I have been involved in, and there have been plenty. I visited these four students after school every few weeks. Each time, they were given some new instruction and a new assignment. After months of this, they started work on a woodwind trio for our HPO winds. These works were so lovely and each of them very different. They were performed at ArtCrawl at CBC, at our What Next Festival and at an HPO fundraiser. It’s quite a shot in the arm to have your first composition played in three professional performances by the HPO principal winds.

Liam Ritz was one of those students. He was also a member of the HPYO and wrote a 50th Anniversary HPYO Tribute in honour of Glenn Mallory the following year. Thanks to these experiences, Liam gained direct entry into studying composition at U of T which is pretty rare. I have taught Liam for two out of those three years at U of T. I have tried to give him access to professional experiences along the way, such as having him write for professional harp and percussion duo and string orchestra through the Composers’ Orchestra (CCMW), a program I run for emerging composers. He has also found his own opportunities such as participating in the Young Artists Program at the Scotia Festival of Music and writing a portion of this year’s U of T Opera Division project, a Zombie Opera. He was accepted into two celebrated Canadian top-notch programs for this summer, Orford and Domaine Forget; he choose to attend Orford. All of this is to say that he’s doing exceptionally well and is booked up writing for the most talented of his peers. Now, he is getting the chance to return to the HPO with a new piece for baritone and chamber ensemble based on poetry by Toronto poet Julie Joosten. His work, Light Fragments, will premiere on Saturday May 27.

Here is my conversation with composer Liam Ritz and poet Julie Joosten:

You had a very early experience with the HPO. How does it feel to return to the HPO at this point in your career as an emerging composer rather than a beginner?

Firstly, I am thrilled to be returning to work with the HPO, an organization that I have long admired throughout my childhood and to this day. As you pointed out, my first opportunity writing for HPO musicians was as a very new composer and therefore was a much different experience.

At that time, my eyes were opened up to numerous aspects of the world of professional musicians. Aspects like what the expectations are of a composer’s knowledge and craft, how a professional chamber ensemble rehearses and prepares a piece, and the level of effort required to tackle a project like that. As a young composer, everything was still new. I was just learning how to write for those instruments and trying to quickly learn the rules of how to properly put music on paper.

This time around I was able to approach a project like this with an extra four years of studying, practicing and learning. It made for a drastically different experience. Instead of feeling like I was starting from scratch, I now have a clearer idea of what my relationship with music is and better sense of myself as a composer. My first experience working with the HPO was crucial in motivating and encouraging me to go forward with my studies in composition and I think that it played a huge role in how I’ve approached every piece I’ve written between then and now.

What drew you to Julie Joosten’s work?

This was my first time writing a piece for a vocalist (outside of my singular brush with opera earlier this year) and therefore was my first time with the task of finding text to use for the lyrics. Because of this, I didn’t have an idea of what I was looking for. As this What Next Festival is all about Canada’s Sesquicentennial, I knew I was looking for poetry about Canada and by Canadians. I spent many months reading through anthologies of Canadian poets, perusing through small bookstores and sweeping through online databases of Canadian works. Although I came across a mass of beautiful works none jumped out at me as text that felt I deeply connected to or sparked musical ideas that I wanted to explore. This is, until I found Julie Joosten’s book, “Light Light”. I was instantly struck by the seemingly simple language that she uses to craft into extraordinary ideas. There is a purity to her work that spoke to me and it conjured an immediate musical image in my mind. It is hard for me to place exactly what it is about Julie’s work that drew me to it, but it was just an overall feeling of “right”. I also thought it presented a perhaps more obscure connection to celebrating Canada. Although the text that I chose from “Light Light” does not directly make reference to Canada-specific content, it all revolves around the singular idea of light which I believe is an essential element to understanding and experiencing our great landscape.

Can you give us some examples of how you translated these words into music? Or to put it in another way, why does the music you’ve written belong to these words?

Some elements of the text could be presented quite simply into the music. For example, the first poem uses the idea of storm passing overhead as a means of personifying the ephemeral experiences of life. In this instance, the opening words of the poem are “night grows thunder”, for which I was able to quite literally create rumbling thunder effects with both the piano and percussion.

However, some of the choices were less obvious than that and required a different approach to translate into music. The fourth poem is a lament, with the opening line “come night, leave light light”. For me, the goal was to try and create a suspended and shimmering atmosphere of “light light”, and use that as the landscape to construct the rest of the song around.

Have any of your poems ever been set to music before?

Yes, a wonderful composer and musician, Peter Van Huffel, who lives and works in Berlin, set some of the poems in my book “Light Light” to music. It’s a joy and an honour to work with other artists, to see how my work inflects theirs and then to experience how their work then influences my own. I love the unfolding of that conversation. I’m delighted that Liam worked with my poems in his composition.

Did you have any guidance for Liam in approaching and understanding your poetry?

Very little. I encouraged him to follow out his own thinking, feeling and listening in relation to the poems and to let that guide his work with them.

Will you be able to attend the performance?

Yes—and I’m very excited about it.

Lastly, you live in Toronto but still come back to attend some HPO concerts with your mom. What was your favourite concert this season?

Definitely a tough choice, however I think I’d have to choose the Sibelius Seven concert in March. Sibelius, Pärt, and Bartók are three of my all-time favourite composers and I’m also a big fan of Kevin Lau’s work as a Canadian composer.