Elizabeth Knudson, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I’ve been composing music since before I can remember. I started composing around age two—sitting on my mother’s lap, while she was playing piano, I would pick out notes and then tell my mom to “write this down!” I started music lessons at age 5 (the piano was my first instrument), and have had some wonderful teachers and mentors along the way.

I made the conscious choice around age 11 that I wanted to be a composer (as a career). Of course, at that point I had no idea exactly what that would involve—but thankfully I can be a very stubborn person! I pursued my studies through to getting a Master’s degree in Composition. I have now been freelancing for 12 years.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I’m so thankful to have supportive parents, first of all. I was enrolled in music lessons at a young age, and was never discouraged from making music at home, unless it was late at night! I am thankful for many wonderful music teachers along the way (cello, piano, composition, sitar…), introducing me to new ideas, and being supportive. I’m also very thankful to have worked with some wonderful musicians, and a couple of conductors I’ve gotten to know well. It is a real pleasure to be able to share what you love (composing), with someone who respects you, and your ideas, and is willing to lend their time and talents to creating something together.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I would say by far the biggest challenge is juggling all of my work, and making ends meet. I am working as a composer—as well as being a freelance musician (cellist), and a private music instructor (teaching cello, composition, and coaching small chamber groups). There is never enough time to fit in everything I would like to do. Of course, there is also a matter of balancing professional life with personal life, which can also be a real challenge. I am so thankful to have a partner (who happens to be a writer), who is helping me to just relax, unplug, and enjoy life. It is tough though, when there is no “off” switch in the brain, and the creative ideas just keep coming!

I am thankful to be busy, though. Even though I don’t have as much alone-time to compose as I would like—I do think that the music, people, and ideas I come in contact with along the way are all feeding into my work as a composer. I don’t think it’s possible to thrive as a creative person, without also feeling connected to what is happening outside of our own little creative bubble.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I am always thrilled to receive a commission. It’s nice to be paid for one’s work and time (imagine saying that, in another field of work!) Seriously though, it is an honour to be asked, and to know that someone else values your creative insight and input enough to want you to create something unique for them. I would say that with any commission, the challenges are connected to the particular parameters of the project. There is often a tight deadline, and working with a set number of specific performers, and a specific venue/space. Sometimes there is a theme for the event, which needs to be incorporated somehow into the music. For the most part, I enjoy these kinds of challenges. It’s a real test to be given a limited set of materials, and to decide how to bring everything together—to create something worthy and interesting out of these parts.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

The most enjoyable pieces to work on are usually ones where I am writing for someone I know well—whether it’s a performer, an ensemble, or a conductor. It’s satisfying to have an ongoing musical relationship in this sense. I am writing for someone I know well, then I already have a good sense of their musical personality, their strengths, their interests— I can play with these ideas and allow them to filter through and mix with my own ideas, to create something new.

Of which works are you most proud?

If I had to choose just one, probably “Blueprint”—concerto for jazz trio (tenor sax, trombone, double bass) and orchestra. I had a pretty clear idea from the beginning of the general shape of the piece, but the actual work involved a lot of research, getting together with the soloists to ask some technical questions and test some ideas, and of course, writing to a deadline (when the premiere date is set, there are no excuses!) It came together beautifully, with two performances in Vancouver, Canada (June 2016). I hope we will be able to find some more opportunities for future performances!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I love exploring colour—writing for full orchestra would be the ideal vehicle for this, with its full palette of sounds, but no matter which instrument(s) I’m working with, I enjoy learning and discovering what is possible. The other element I love is rhythm. I’ve studied and/or been involved with quite a bit of world music, including playing Javanese gamelan for several years, growing up listening to Scandinavian folk music, studying the sitar (Indian classical music), touring with an orchestra through the Balkans, and also listening to a lot of Cuban, West African, and jazz music, in addition to my training as a classical musician, here in Canada. I’m sure that all of these elements have appeared in my compositions—and I love discovering new sounds and rhythms. I think the most important thing is to have an open, curious mind.

How do you work?

It depends on the piece—but in general, I will sit down at the piano (or the cello, or possibly another instrument) and sketch some ideas. Once I have some ideas written down by hand, I will go to my computer and start working from there. The editing process often involves a lot of back-and-forth between my computer and instruments—but I do enjoy working as directly as possible with real instruments and/or the performers involved in the piece.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I’ve always loved the music of Ravel, Shostakovich, Martinu, and Sibelius. Other strong influences include world music (Afro-Cuban, Scandinavian folk, jazz, music of Mali, Balkan rhythms, classical Indian music…) I am also interested in seeing how female composers of the past are starting to be (re)discovered. I would love to be exposed to more music by women creators. I hope that more major orchestras and ensembles will make an extra effort to program music by women (and other under-represented people). If they do, I imagine this will have a significant positive impact on the shape and direction of classical music of the future.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think that success is always a moving goal. When I sit down to work on a new piece, I’m setting a challenge for myself in terms of what I would like to try, and what I’d ideally like to achieve from this particular project. I think that a successful project would be one where I’ve fully opened myself up to learning something new.

Of course, it is very rewarding to hear a finished piece performed—and to be able to share that moment with friends, family, and of course the musicians/performers involved. I remember a teacher of mine saying though, that the highest point of achievement (what a composer should be most proud of) is just the completion of a piece. I think there’s nothing wrong with taking a moment, after weeks (or months, or years) of work to say, hey—I like how this idea turned out!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

As far as composing goes, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do something. I think that with experience, you will figure out what works well for you. There is also nothing wrong with asking questions. Composition is always going to be a process of learning, and of exploration. I don’t think there are any shortcuts—each piece starts with the fragment of an idea, and will be slowly built up from there. It is a lot of work, but if you are persistent enough to see it though, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Learning new things, exploring, connecting with other creative minds, spending time with my partner, family and friends– and hopefully finding some kind of work/life balance.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A world where everyone is equally encouraged and provided with the opportunites to pursue the career/life path they are interested in. It gives me pleasure to share the gifts I’ve been given (music)—but what a wonderful place it would be if others had the same opportunities, too.

What is your most treasured possession?

Probably my cello.

What is your present state of mind?

Relaxed, happy. Ready to sit down this afternoon, and compose!

Elizabeth Knudson (b. 1981) is a Vancouver-based composer, and an Associate of the Canadian Music Centre.  She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Simon Fraser University (2004), where she studied with David MacIntyre, Owen Underhill, Janet Danielson, and Barry Truax, and a Masters degree in Composition from the University of British Columbia (2006), where she studied with Keith Hamel.

Ms. Knudson has had works performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Victoria Symphony, West Coast Symphony, Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra, Phoenix Chamber Choir, musica intima, Chor Leoni Men’s Choir, Turning Point Ensemble, soloists Ariel Barnes (cello), and Oliver de Clercq (horn), the RTSH Radio Television Orchestra (Albania), Duo Ahlert & Schwab (Germany), and Music Progressive Quartet (Macedonia), among others.  Highlights include performances at the Sonic Boom Festival (Vancouver, BC), Open Ears Festival (Kitchener, ON), Baie des Chaleurs International Chamber Music Festival (Dalhousie, NB), the New Music Festival at California State University (USA), and being guest host of the first international edition of “Making Waves” new music programme (Australia), a programme featuring works by seven Canadian composers.  Recent premieres include a horn concerto (“Mosaic”), and a concerto for jazz trio and orchestra (“Blueprint”).

Ms. Knudson has been the recipient of several awards, including the Meir Rimon Commissioning Assistance Grant through the International Horn Society (2012), for the composition of a new trio, Alchemy.  She was also winner of the Association of Canadian Women Composers’ national choral composing competition (2005), and the Golden Key International Honor Society’s composition award for her orchestral work, The Gnarled Root (2004).  In 2011, Elizabeth was selected for residency in the Canadian League of Composers/Canadian Music Centre’s inaugural Composer Mentorship Programme.  In the summer of 2012, she also toured as a cellist with the West Coast Symphony Orchestra, through Albania and Macedonia.

Outside of composing, Elizabeth is a freelance cellist and music instructor, and performs with several local ensembles, including her own string quartet.


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