On October 1, 2019 (with an encore presentation on October 7), Spectrum Chamber Music Society will present the world premiere of Till MacIvor Meyn’s new string quartet, Flights of Fancy, which he composed specifically for our series. The piece will be performed by Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra violinists Michael Shih and Molly Baer, violist Dan Sigale, and cellist Keira Fullerton.
In preparation for the premiere, I sat down with the composer to talk about his piece, how coming up with a creative title affects the way he composes music, and what he gets out of working interactively with the musicians he writes for.
Dan Sigale: Tell us about your new piece, Flights of Fancy, that we’ll be premiering in October.
Till Meyn: First of all, I wanted to write it for somebody that I know, that’s important to me. I know you, and I know just about everybody else who’s going to be playing it, all orchestra members. I’ve got a really close connection with the Fort Worth Symphony now, and I really enjoy that relationship. I always love writing for people that I know, that kind of collaboration helps to bring a piece to life.
The way I designed this piece was that I wanted each person, each musician, to have a chance at solo material. And there are four of you, so there are four main sections of the piece. It’s actually kind of a newer thing for me, I’m starting to write pieces where I’m thinking in a very democratic way: How can I let everybody get a chance?
As a violist, I can appreciate that! You have called this piece “Flights of Fancy” instead of, say, “String Quartet.” This week, the Fort Worth Symphony is premiering a piece of yours called Remix. You didn’t write “Symphony No. 1” for your orchestral piece, instead you put a name on it. Tell me about the importance of coming up with a creative title instead of just labelling it what it is.
Sure, I don’t see anything wrong with calling something “sonata” or “rhapsody” or something like that. I might do that except it doesn’t feel unique. I think that a descriptive title for one thing distinguishes it from all the other sonatas that are out there. Another reason is that it provides something that’s not just music for the listener to hang on to, provided that they know what the title is.
Every listener will have his or her own experience, but I think that having that descriptive title can help to steer them in a certain direction so that they experience the piece in a certain way. For instance, with the title Flights of Fancy, it opens the listener up to thinking this piece will be different than “String Quartet No. 2”.
Do you come up with the title first, and then write a piece that reflects that title?
Yes, I have to come up with a title that I really think I can not just live with, but a title that I can embody in music. I do spend a good amount of time thinking about a good title, something that’s dynamic, something that is new and different that maybe hasn’t been used before. There are two things about a title: one is that I have to do it early because I’m asked to provide a title, but the other is that it actually helps me compose music in a certain way.
If I said I’m just going to write this piece for string quartet and I’ll title it later, I think the music would come out differently. The title helps me keep it together in a certain format or certain spirit.
For many, many years I’ve had the idea that using descriptive titles really helps the piece evolve on its own. So in this case, Flights of Fancy, I decided that each section would be a flight. “Flights of fancy” means doing what you want to do or just going off on a tangent. This gave me license to write whatever I wanted to, resulting in each of these flights, each of these sections, featuring a different one of the string musicians.
Do you have a collaborative process with the musicians where you might hear something and think that the music works better a different way and go back to the drawing board? Or are you pretty much set in your ways when you finish writing a piece?
That’s an excellent question, because I’d like to think of myself as a good collaborator. I’m also a ‘Type A’ personality. When I write something I find myself feeling like I really don’t want to change it. Having said that, I really enjoy learning and finding out what works best. My hope is that with every piece I write, I’ll have the opportunity and rehearsal time to get together with the musicians and have them play something. Then, when someone says they’re having a little trouble with a passage, my first question is to ask if that’s because of something that I did? Did I write something that’s not idiomatic? My second question would be to ask how we can make this more playable.
To answer your question, I like having that moment in rehearsal where we can fix something. In a way, I would like that for every piece. I would like there to be the moment where we can make it better, but it’s different with every group. I don’t always have the opportunity to work with them in person if they’re somewhere else, but that’s something that I really enjoy.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about Flights of Fancy?
I will say this: I really enjoy collaborating with musicians. I find it so much better than just writing a piece ‘on spec’ and seeing if it’s going to get formed. A commission, or from somebody I know, is always the most exciting way to do it. Ideally, I would get together with a musician and test things out to see how I feel about it. From the very beginning with Flights of Fancy, I was thrilled that I was writing for people that I know, because I felt like I could do it honestly and better. I think that’s true for everything that I write. I want to be as connected to the musicians as I can because it makes me feel like I’m doing it right.
Till MacIvor Meyn’s string quartet, Flights of Fancy, will be premiered on Tuesday October 1, 2019 at 7:30pm in the main sanctuary at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church, 1959 Sandy Lane in east Fort Worth, with a special pre-concert conversation with the composer at 7:00pm. There will be an encore performance of the piece on Monday October 7, 2019 at 7:00pm in Leonard Memorial Chapel at the First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, 800 W. 5th Street in downtown Fort Worth.