Backstage Vol. 2: Interview with composer Arie van de Ven

Arie and I met during the 'five minutes' he spent at McGill (his words!) three and a half years ago. Since he moved back to Ontario from Montreal we have kept in touch and are now thrilled to be collaborating to premiere his piece 'Algoma Miniatures' for the Cygnus Trio. Just this past week the trio was able to meet with Arie in Toronto to rehearse the piece together.

Something I admire about Arie and his work is his ability to create excellent and serious music, without losing a sense of humour, and enjoyment (check out his 'Concerto for Viola and Dollarama' on soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/arievandeven). It's a refreshing attitude in an artist's universe that can so often be weighed down by stress, perfectionist-fueled criticism, and unhealthy competitive attitudes. Sure there is stress, everyone gets stressed! Sure we all have a desire to present the best work we possibly can, but we often forget that what we do is to be enjoyed by others, and so starting by enjoying it ourselves is a sure-fire way to success. I've learned that not taking oneself tooooo seriously and always being able to share a laugh doesn't take away from the sincerity of your art. One of my favourite writers, Douglas Adams (a master himself of humour), says it nicely when he writes of P.G. Wodehouse. "He doesn't need to be serious. He's better than that. He's up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought... in the realms of pure, creative playfulness." 

Of course there's a a very practical everyday, business-like side to being an artist, as nice as it would be for me to think up something delightful (a delicious fish stew-inspired improvisation on theorbo and bass recorder maybe?) and immediately present that to you in the audience and have you feel the same way I do about it, is nearly impossible. There are the hours practicing, the hours writing, and the emails, and phone calls, and meetings, and..do I really need to take a break and eat dinner??? I suppose yes... Just so long as it doesn't all siphen my creativity.

So in this interview I talk with Arie about music and composing in his life.

 

I’ve known you for a few years now, we met when we were at McGill together, but for those reading who don’t know you, could you introduce yourself? What has been your path as a composer and instrumentalist? 

I started playing violin when I was very young because my parents made me, I eventually learned how to like it and went to an arts-focused high school. I started writing music there to score films that I and my friend worked on, and eventually started writing concert music as well. I briefly studied at McGill before I went on to Laurier Where I’ve been since. 

Many of us don’t know what it is like to dedicate time to composing music, as a performer I spend so much of my  time working on small technical details in a practice room. What is the work like for you as you compose? 

One of the things that I try to do is to constantly vary my process, even just in simple ways. I might have one piece that I’m writing directly into notation software, one that I’m writing at the piano with pen and paper, and another that I’m working on by recording improvisations and mucking with the audio. Writing music can sometimes feel very isolating, even collaborative projects involve a lot of sitting in a room by yourself with very little outside feedback. Working on keeping things interesting keeps your brain active and helps avoid days where you just spend hours staring at a blank page (although I would argue these days are just as important as the more ‘productive’ ones!). I also do a lot of listening, maybe too much to be honest. I’d say about 70% of the time I spend writing involves listening to what I’ve already worked on. It helps me keep continuity, and allows me to hear where I feel where a piece wants to go. 

Being a performer I have a particular experience of being on stage and playing a new piece; the nerves and excitement and the sweaty brow! What is it like for you as a composer to hear one of your pieces performed for the first time? 

It’s thrilling! I love writing for other people and seeing where they take things. Sitting in an audience and hearing something completely new come out of something I spent months meticulously working out is one of my favourite things. 

When someone, like me perhaps, asks you to write a piece, what are some of the thoughts that go into preparing a new piece of music? 

It really depends on the piece. Oftentimes when someone is asking me to write something for them, it’s for a project that is already underway (sometimes finished), so I usually already have a handful of concepts and themes to work with. When I work on film I often have form set up for me as well. With the Algoma Miniatures I wouldn’t necessarily say I set out to write something programmatic specifically about the communities along the trans-canada highway (many of which I’ve only ever driven through) but it was a very useful organization tactic when committing ideas to paper. 

Do you have any influences who have inspired you to write music? 

My dad is a composer and clarinettist (and math teacher!) his work is really inspiring to me. I think it’s our job as arts workers to uplift communities around us, the teachers who I’ve had who show true compassion to their students are have been hugely influential. I also am a big fan of Jacob Collier and Esperanza Spalding. Love what they are doing. 

What are some of things that inspire you when working on a new piece of music? 

I try to listen to as much as I can. Chris Thile talks about ‘a little song sized hole’ that shows up when you listen to enough music, and that really resonates with me. My favourite things that I’ve written felt like a synthesis of everything I had heard up to that point 

Do you think your personality is easy to spot in your music? 

This is a tough question! I feel like someone else might be able to answer this better than me… 

I do notice patterns in the choices I make, and I feel like I could make connections between that and my own ways of thinking, but with where I am right now I feel like that would a bit a little counterintuitive. I’d rather just keep writing music! 

You have experience writing for short films, how is this unlike or similar to writing concert music?

It really depends on the project, and how much the director wants to be involved in the music making process. Often my workflow is different, since deadlines are usually a lot sooner than they should be in film, I tend to record my ideas directly into my DAW instead of write them out beforehand. Many of my film scores consist of series’ of short improvisation sessions to the movie itself that I record and edit. 

You play not just classical music but folk and other styles, does this influence your writing? Do you think it is important to have diverse interests? 

Absolutely! One of the things I’m trying to learn to embrace about myself is that I’m interested in pretty much everything. It can be overwhelming but there’s so much to music and art that I can’t imagine just sticking within one style or community for my entire career. 

The piece you have written for the Cygnus Trio called the Algoma Miniatures has different movements representing places in the Algoma region of Ontario, what kind of connection do you have with this area? 

In the years leading up to the fall of 2016 when I wrote the piece, I had done a lot of learning in Algoma region and spent a great deal of time travelling along that section of the trans-canada highway. There is a yearly traditional music camp on St. Josephs Island called AlgomaTrad where I had spent time and worked as well. Guitar, flute, and violin are a fairly uncommon combination in the classical world, but is a standard combination in a lot of celtic roots music. 

What projects can we see your name on next? 

Currently I’m working on music for my composers collective The Yacht Club. We have our third show in Waterloo coming up in April titled Song Recycle all about the death and rebirth of art song. The first  piece on the program is a song cycle collectively written by all members of the group, each one of us wrote text for another to set music to, and it’s already becoming something very interesting! We don’t have solid dates yet but they will be up on our facebook page and our instagram account @yacht.club.music as soon as they are finalized. 

My other big project is Cookstown the Musical, a short musical comedy about a town where the only sport is competition cooking. It’s a project that’s been in the works with my friend writer/director Adam Bovoletis for a few years now. The music is all set and recorded, and the cast and crew are in the midst of shooting now. It’s kind of exciting to get to have all the music finished before a film is shot and edited, since normally it goes the opposite way. Cookstown is going to be premiering at the Ryerson Film Festival on May 4th, I’ll likely be seeing it for the first time then as well so I am very excited!

Aside from music, do you have any other interests or hobbies that make up an important part of your life? 

I love games and learning about how they are designed (both electronic and physical ones!) I’m learning a little bit of programming on the side and I’m hoping to try my hand at designing a game in the future. 

Finally, what does it mean to you to be composing music in the 21st century? 

Honestly I’m just very excited. There’s so much incredible music and art coming from every direction and because of how connected we all are it’s so easy to access. 

Bonus fun desert island question! If you could only write for two instruments for the rest of your life, what would you choose? 

Does viola and laptop count? Maybe guitar and bassoon, I think I could do a lot there.

 

Be sure to check some of Arie's music on https://soundcloud.com/arievandeven, and Yacht Club Music on Facebook and Instagram, and if you'll be in the Toronto area in February the Cygnus Trio will be presenting "Lost Islands", a program reflecting on the connection between memory and personal geography. Arie's piece 'Algoma Miniatures' will be premiered at this concet,which takes place 8pm February 22nd at Gallery 345. Tickets can be reserved through info@gallery345.com and more information on the event is available here on my website /concerts and on facebook at Lost Islands: The Cygnus Trio.

To keep up to date on my performances and collaboration, feel free to join my mailing list, and if you have any thoughts of your own to share about humour, composing music, anything covered in this blog and interview, or even if you want to share what you ate for breakfast, leave a comment below!

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