Linda Catlin Smith, composer

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

As long as I can remember, I was just more or less always making things up at the piano. I preferred making my own sounds to practicing. The only decision I made about composing was when I went to university; I thought I might go as a visual artist, but at the last moment I realized what I liked to do most was compose.

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

My teachers, especially Allen Shawn, Rudolf Komorous, Jo Kondo. The record collection of my parents. My fascination and study of painters, and my conversation with painter friends. My fellow composer comrades in Canada and abroad.

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

There have been times where I felt I was not taken very seriously.

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

All pieces are challenging, every single one is a bit daunting in some way. What’s nice about writing for musicians you know is that you can have a sense of their particular sensibility, their sound, and their expertise. And if you know them as a friend, you feel safe to take risks.

Of which works are you most proud?

I was very honoured to have been able to write an orchestra piece for BBC Scottish Orchestra for the BBC Proms, in 2019, but I’m not sure pride enters into it… I am quite self-critical! I am becoming more accepting of my work. One of the things that helped me the most was when I composed Ballad (a 45-minute work for cello and piano, written for my brother Andy Smith and pianist Eve Egoyan), which no one asked me to do. I produced the concert myself and released it as a recording. It was something I just needed to do, and I learned a lot from that experience, especially that we can take charge of our own work.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My compositions are acoustic instrumental works, often slow and quiet in nature, sometimes described as introspective, and always based in explorations of colour, harmony, melody and texture as well as something I might call mood, or atmosphere. My pieces are intended to be subtle, focused more on the small change or transformation rather than the large, dramatic statement. They do however have their own sense of an unfolding narrative, and are not without drama, though it is a drama of an interior, quiet kind.

How do you work?

I work at the piano, with a pencil and paper, though I do a lot of thinking while gardening or walking. I listen to a lot of music, especially music with the instruments I’m writing for, to get myself into the soundworld of the instruments. I have a lot of books on painting and I find them helpful as a source for thought.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

It’s awful to try to choose favourites. I grew up listening to Ravel and Debussy and Stravinsky and Satie. Later I discovered Morton Feldman, John Cage (especially the works of the late 1940s), Aldo Clementi, Jo Kondo. I love early music from the 14th century as well as all kinds of Baroque music (I played harpsichord in university). As a teenager, I listened to a lot of jazz, as well as folk music from Ireland and the UK.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t think about success, really – I don’t find it helpful. I think just getting down to work is a kind of success. I am always just moving on to the next piece. I suppose it is a success for me if I can get close to what I am looking for in the sound.

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

I believe the thing that helped me the most was to listen to as much music as possible, and to work with musicians that are interested in new music. I’ve learned the most from observing rehearsals, of my music or anyone else’s. Rehearsals are where the art of interpretation is happening, and it is a wonderful thing to take part in that.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

I believe that if children have access to music, it’s more likely they will want to be around it as they become adults. If more people have access to making music themselves, they will be more likely to want to be listening to it. Everyone should have access to the arts, to the pleasures and challenges that come with being creative.

What is your present state of mind?

This is written during the Covid pandemic, so I have to say I am grateful to be a composer, where I can escape into my own world; composers are used to working alone, so it is not a hardship for me. I try to keep a positive outlook for the future. And I am in awe of the musicians who are performing during this time.

‘Meadow’ for string trio by Linda Catlin Smith is the first release in a new series by Louth Contemporary Music Society entitled ‘out of silence’, put together under the Pandemic’s exceptional circumstances. The recording is released on Friday 11 December. Further information 

Linda Catlin Smith grew up in New York and lives in Toronto. She studied music in NY, and at the University of Victoria (Canada). Her music has been performed and/or recorded by: BBC Scottish Orchestra, Exaudi, Tafelmusik, Other Minds Festival, California Ear Unit, Kitchener-Waterloo, Victoria and Vancouver Symphonies, Arraymusic, Tapestry New Opera, Gryphon Trio, Via Salzburg, Evergreen Club Gamelan, Turning Point Ensemble, Vancouver New Music, and the Del Sol, Penderecki, and Bozzini quartets, among many others; she has been performed by many notable soloists, including Eve Egoyan, Elinor Frey, Philip Thomas, Colin Tilney, Vivienne Spiteri, and Jamie Parker.  She has been supported in her work by the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council, Chalmers Foundation, K.M. Hunter Award, Banff Centre, SOCAN Foundation and Toronto Arts Council; in 2005 her work Garland (for Tafelmusik) was awarded Canada’s prestigious Jules Léger Prize. In addition to her work as an independent composer, she was Artistic Director of the Toronto ensemble Arraymusic from 1988 to 1993, and she was a member of the ground-breaking multidisciplinary performance collective, URGE, from 1992-2006. Linda teaches composition privately and at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada.

Composer website

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