Collaborative Composition: How Writing Together Helped The Kraken Quartet Evolve

By Chris Demetriou

When we formed The Kraken Quartet, we had no master plan for where the group would go. Like so many other college chamber groups, we had no five-year goals, no catalogue of repertoire, and certainly no major notoriety. We were just a couple of friends who knew we loved playing music together. Despite this lack of long-term direction, we had one crucial characteristic that tied our group together: the willingness to try anything. So, for the first few years of our existence, The Kraken Quartet gave everything a shot. We were still trying to find out what “our thing” was, but we decided early on that no matter what we did, we would give it our all. We started volunteering to play on premiers of any and every student composer that would have us, and eventually pieced together our first ever call for scores (which boasted a whopping total of three applicants). We began tackling the lists of repertoire that percussion groups were “supposed” to play, striving to build some kind of foundation for our group. We started commissioning every composer we had contact with, organizing community shows, exploring alternate performance models (including one of our first experiments, a concert that was designed to put the audience to sleep), and grasping at every opportunity possible. Even though we loved every second of it, the four of us still hadn’t settled into exactly what it was that made our group unique.

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The Kraken Quartet is an Austin-based percussion group. The ensemble includes (from left to right) Sean Harvey, Chris Demetriou, Taylor Eddinger, and Andrew Dobos. Photo credit: Evan Monroe Chapman.

Our direction took a major turn one night when Taylor, one of our members, asked for a favor. He was enrolled in a composition class, and wanted help playing through an assignment he was working on. We got together in our usual room, set up the gear, and started going about it like any other rehearsal. But, almost immediately, a different feeling emerged. As we worked through the music, offering advice and making edits, a level of comfort formed that we could have never expected. Here we were, great friends who were united by a love of playing music, stripping that motivation down to its core. We were working together to create our own sound, our own unique voice. The feeling was liberating. Soon, other members of the group began writing similar frameworks for us to shape as an ensemble. It didn’t take long before we were skipping that first step altogether, writing pieces from the ground up as a group. After so much time spent trying to find the repertoire that best suited us, we simply created our own.

Of course, the idea of an ensemble writing for itself is nothing new. In many musical realms, from pop to rock, this is in fact expected. But after years in music school, a certain barrier had been put up for us. Whether it was intentional or not, we were made to feel that (in our musical culture, at least) there was a line separating composer and performer. But as soon as we pulled away that divide, our group propelled forward faster than we could have ever imagined. This structure become our focus, and for a while we performed exclusively our own music. We played shows wherever we could: bars, concert halls, basements, parks, living rooms, art galleries, and more. The liberation that came with creating our own music flowed into everything we did. Motivated, we packed our cars and started driving to any venue in any city that would have us. Summers became time for touring, recording, and writing. Even after we graduated and spread out across the country, we always gave the group everything we had.

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The Kraken Quartet performs live in Ithaca, NY.

After far too many long commutes to rehearsals, today we finally find ourselves located in the same city once more. Based in Austin, TX, we have made The Kraken Quartet a major priority in our lives. With the skills we developed through writing music together, we have come full circle, returning to the works of other composers. However, after all we’ve been through, we can’t help but come at it in a different way. The process of collaborative writing gave us an acute ear for the sensibilities of our ensemble-mates. As we find ourselves preparing music by other composers, whether it be Steve Reich or a friend who wants to collaborate, our experiences have given us a feeling of comfort and community. Our understanding of one another helps us bring music to life, and we really do believe this connection shines through.

We have by no means abandoned composing for ourselves. This fall, we are headed to the studio to record our next album, featuring entirely original music. Collaborative composition has been a valuable asset to our group’s growth, and starting this year, we are looking to share this process. Over the next several years, we will be developing a series of masterclasses centered around this concept of collaborative composition. We will be heading to universities, conservatories, and public schools with the goal of helping students learn to be comfortable writing music with their peers. When that barrier was removed from our group, we soared forward faster than we could have imagined. We want to do the same for others. Our goal is to help tear down this divide, and ultimately make composition an important part of any student’s music education.

Although we are thrilled to share the lessons we have learned by writing music together, getting others to follow us is not exactly the point. In the end, we want other young ensembles to feel the same sense of liberation that we found. The music world today is rapidly changing, and with that the definition of what makes a chamber group is shifting. We have started to figure out what we love to do, but it took a willingness to shake off expectations. More than anything, we want other young groups to know that it is okay to find your own way, and that anything is fair game. This mentality is what will continue to push our art forward, and help keep music alive and growing.

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