Alexandros Markeas & Jonathan PontierComposing for all

Interviews 28.07.2021

Whether they make a speciality of it or it is a one-off adventure, more and more composers are collaborating with music schools and conservatories, writing for their students. A cross-section of testimonies!

What role does composing for children and teenagers play in your work?
Alexandros Markeas : I am almost unwillingly recognised as a specialist in this genre, especially for collective operations: I often receive commissions from conservatories, from Démos, from Orchestre à l'école, fromEl Sistema Europe... It is an important part of my activity as a musician. I write a lot for choir, for piano because it's my instrument, for small atypical chamber music groups, a lot of miniatures for two or three instruments and pieces for youth orchestra.
Jonathan Ponthier : Before falling into the world of so-called "contemporary scholarly music", I came from rock and oral music. For the past three years I have been teaching composition at the CRR in Aubervilliers la Courneuve. Transmission is a big part of my life. In recent years, I have received many commissions from music schools and I quickly realised that transmission and creation were deeply linked.

What do you like about composing for young or very young musicians?
A.M : What I like, first of all, is this contact, this transmission. I take great pleasure in it. I come from the world of conservatories and I love the noisy atmosphere of Wednesday afternoons when children play and sing together.
J.P: I work with children of all ages. With my "Minute Opera Dansékinoucomposed in 2015 and commissioned by Arcal Ile-de-France, I worked with children from 4 to 7 years old. I don't write for children so much as with them: I involve them in all the stages of creation, in workshops. Children are very keen in the perception they have of a work in progress.

What do you pay attention to?
J.P: It really depends on the age. Their relationship to the world and to sounds is not the same whether they are 4 or 12 years old.
A.M: Pieces for children necessarily have a pedagogical dimension, but they must understand why they are singing or playing something: it must not be a gesture isolated from any context, purely intended for theoretical learning. In a score for children, there must be a musical and poetic explanation, the acquisition of a gesture, a playing parameter, a technique. The composer must start with something that speaks to them, that they can identify in their minds, to try to take them further, to open them up to a world of sound, poetry and technique that was previously unknown.

What should you look out for? What are the pitfalls to avoid?
J.P: You have to be careful about the concerns you project onto children when you write a play for them. You shouldn't say to yourself, "A kid doesn't have the capacity to hear that. You have to trust children's ears, which are, in terms of the fundamental exploration of sound, less formatted than those of adults, that's undeniable. A one-year-old child who taps on a table and drives his parents crazy, sculpts the sound, does his scales. Children have a great deal of potential creativity in their sound, which can become musical (but not always!).
A.M : The trap is to simplify the subject beyond what is reasonable and, as a result, to lie. When we talk to children outside of music, in everyday life, we tend to simplify everything, whereas in reality they understand much more than we think. Doing something too rudimentary, too simple is a danger. But composing something disconnected from their thinking is also risky: for example, a piece based solely on the transformation of sound, what we call a "logo-centred" piece in contemporary music, without a poetic universe to support it, would be too abstract: it would be difficult for children to appropriate it. One of my models is György Kurtág's Jatekok, a collection of compositions for children, which offers very interesting approaches to sound and rhythm.

Why is it important to get young musicians to play and sing contemporary pieces?
J.P.: First of all, for us composers, the freshly composed work is not above the audience for which it is intended. I like the dimension of the short circuit applied to music! We need to give young people the tools to be able to listen to a greater diversity of music and aesthetics, without preconceptions. The audience of tomorrow is formed from a very early age. It has never been so easy, thanks to new technologies, to share one's projects with an audience eager to change musical airs, but the training, the opening of the ear, must begin early.
A.M : Pedagogical composition has existed for centuries and has even given rise to masterpieces: Schumann, Bartók... Composing for children allows one to train their ear, but also that of the composers, who are obliged to adapt to their young performers. This helps to build a foundation, even if unconscious, to appreciate new music later on. And then you shouldn't always play the same thing to the pupils: nothing is set in stone and beware of ear formatting! Children must be shown that music is always being composed, that it is alive.

Interview by Suzanne Gervais

Alexandros Markeas' playlist :
Jonathan Pontier's playlist :


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