Ottawa Symphony: Harry Stafylakis composes octet for our time on 3D-printed instruments

Harry Stafylakis

When the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra launched its ambitious project to make new stringed instruments with a 3D printer, they knew that once the instruments were ready, they would need to be played. That dream will be realized on Nov. 4 when eight 3D printed instruments that look at lot like violins and violas will be played in a ground-breaking concert at Ottawa City Hall. To celebrate this project required a new piece of music and that’s what Montreal composer Harry Stafylakis was hired to do. Before his piece is played, ARTSFILE sent him some questions. Here are his very thoughtful answers.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your career as a composer?

A. I cut my teeth in my teens and 20s in Montreal composing and playing prog metal while studying first liberal arts, then audio engineering. As my music increased in scope and complexity – and my interest in performing waned – I switched gears into classical music, pursuing my studies at McGill then at the City University of New York. 

While Montreal’s contemporary music scene is quite vibrant, it was in New York City that I really found a fertile environment in which I could unapologetically explore my interest in fusing my metal and classical backgrounds. There was a sudden and satisfying increase in productivity – constantly writing, attending concerts, traveling to festivals, and generally immersing myself in the world of concert music. 

In 2014, the American Composers Orchestra premiered my piece Brittle Fracture at the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial, and I caught the orchestral bug; the immense sonic mass and rich timbral palette of the symphony orchestra make it the ideal (acoustic) ensemble through which to channel my musical language. Since then I’ve been firmly and gratifyingly ensconced in the orchestral as well as chamber and vocal worlds, working with wonderful musicians and conductors at every opportunity, which involves extensive travel (something I enjoy greatly). I joined the Winnipeg Symphony as Composer-in-Residence in 2016, which as you might imagine is an incredible privilege for any composer to have an ongoing working relationship with a band of that calibre. I look forward to continuing that partnership over the coming years with conductor Daniel Raiskin now at the WSO’s helm. 

3D StringTheory instruments. Photo courtesy Ottawa Symphony Orchestra

Q. What influences your composition?  

A. Absolutely everything we experience influences us to unpredictable degrees – every sound, song, film, dish, conversation, trip, relationship – but I can give it a shot. 

I grew up with Greek music as a constant sonic background in our household, and that very much laid the foundation for the angularly propulsive rhythms and sinuous melodies I’m attracted to. I was also exposed daily to classic pop, rock and R&B on the long bus ride throughout primary school. This instilled in me a profound appreciation for catchy hooks, tight forms, and clever arrangements. Meanwhile, I started studying piano at age four, so Baroque/Classical/Romantic music became an increasingly important part of my psychological makeup. 

Eventually I discovered metal, and pursued that with obsessive focus as I picked up the guitar as my instrument of choice. Thrash, power, death, black, prog – each subgenre I came to know seemed to highlight different musical features I found compelling, but always with an inordinately high degree of aural intensity, instrumental virtuosity, and  near-inhuman precision. The epic grandeur, complexity, and visceral power – tempered by streaks of lyricism and accessibility – inherent in contemporary metal like Opeth, Symphony X, Nevermore and Meshuggah is the same kind of recipe that attracts me to the orchestral music of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. 

These are perhaps also the same attributes that draw me to the scores of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, the films of Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, the novels of Brandon Sanderson and Neal Stephenson, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

More generally, I’ve always found myself deeply moved by the expression of human curiosity and ambition, whether in the realm of art, science, philosophy, technology, or any other intellectual activity we engage in. 

Q. When you were asked to compose this piece for new instruments with a seemingly different sound palate, what were you told? What did you think?

A. When I was first approached with this project two years ago, the idea wasn’t yet full formed. It was unclear what kinds of instruments would be created, how many there would be, what they would look and sound like. Part of what attracted me to it was precisely that uncertainty. It was an opportunity to be part of the discovery process. 

On the other hand, the risk of the unknown was counterbalanced by my confidence in the orchestral medium. With the full Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and Alain Trudel anchoring the project, I knew I had the necessary elements at my disposal to create an effective piece of music that I could be proud of.

All the better, then, that the new instruments turned out to be the equivalent of a double string quartet. Besides the symphony orchestra, as a former guitarist I find myself most at home writing for strings, so in the end a concerto for string octet and orchestra was about as ideal as it could be for me.

It’s a testament to all the creative people involved in the development of the project that it all turned out so well; the instruments sound great, and I’m unreservedly proud of the piece that’s emerged, Singularity, especially having worked on it over the span of several months with the OSO soloists who will premiere it Nov. 4. 

Q. Did the commission make you think about delivering a “new” style for a “new” instrument? 

A. Yes and no. Every piece I compose carries forward a substantial proportion of musical DNA from the works that preceded it, and Singularity is no exception. The core elements of both my string ensemble and orchestral writing are present here. 

At the same time, something new inevitably emerges with each composition, both in style and approach. Here the new instruments presented compositional challenges that inspired adjustments to the way I handled the orchestra.

Ultimately, I found the process quite intuitive. As with any creative project, one is presented with a set of problems (in the mathematical sense) and the task is to tease out solutions until one arrives at the most elegant and satisfying ones. Frankly, I had a good deal of fun writing this piece. 

Q. Talk about the piece.

A. At its core, Singularity is a concerto where the soloist happens to be a string octet. I think you’ll at times hear it as a fully orchestral work and at others as chamber music, so it’ll be interesting for me to see how the audience zooms in and out of those modes. 

Dramatically, the piece is sort of a speculative fiction oratorio. The relationship between the orchestral and solo instruments (made from natural and synthetic materials, respectively) is abstracted into a narrative relationship between humanity and emergent artificial intelligence. Parsed into nine continuous movements, Singularity explores one possible scenario in our quest to create true AI. As is widely explored in science fiction and in technology ethics, throughout the work there is a lingering question of whether the end result will be utopic or dystopic (from humanity’s understandably self-interested perspective).  

Q. Technology and music-making go together. Is it a good thing, a bad thing or just part of the process? 

A. In my role as composer, any element of science and technology – whether it be the creation of brand new instruments, the acoustical attributes of the existing concert hall or the performers’ bodies – is a means to an artistic end. When I’m writing the music, that’s all that matters to me; the technologies are something to be contemplated and admired separately, in a sense, except insofar as they may directly inspire a programmatic narrative in the piece, as happens to be the case with Singularity and a few other works of mine. 

Q. Are you concerned about technology taking over the composing role?  

A. That’s an interesting question, and one I vacillate on. Technological automation of traditionally human functions has penetrated so many aspects of our lives, including music. So far this has mainly impacted the musical components of major economic industries, notably Western pop and film/TV/game music, and what has me most concerned is that many don’t seem to notice or particularly care. For now I take heart that the “high” arts (including classical music) have not yet been systemically affected, but I admit to a dark streak when I think about where we’re going with this as a species. 

In a very real way, Singularity is an attempt to grapple with this exact question (while allowing me to couch my thoughts in abstract musical sounds). 

Q. What’s next for you? 

A. As I write this, I just got back from Oslo, where the Norwegian Radio Orchestra recorded my piece Brittle Fracture, so I’m really excited about that album coming out in the near future. In December I head to Athens and Thessaloniki, where the Greek Youth Symphony Orchestra will be premiering a new work. 

I’m hard at work on projects for two of my favorite musical artists: the incredible vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, and progressive metal pioneers Animals As Leaders. Both of these will be presented at the Winnipeg Symphony’s 2019 New Music Festival in January. Then I have a daunting/exciting slew of new projects, including a symphonic song cycle with bass-baritone Philippe Sly. 

This season, my New York City composer collective ICEBERG New Music is collaborating with some fantastic artists, including pianist Jenny Lin who is performing a new set of virtuosic piano etudes we’ve composed for her and will be releasing the set as an album in 2019. We’re also presenting concerts in New York with Ekmeles and Contemporaneous. 

There are so many other great projects coming up over the next few seasons, including a full album of my more metal-oriented chamber music that’s in the early stages of development with my long-time collaborator Adam Pietrykowski.

3D String Theory
Ottawa Symphony Orchestra
Where: Ottawa City Hall
When: Nov. 4. The music starts at 11:30 a.m. with chamber music by J.S. Bach. 3D String Theory concert in Jean Pigott Hall begins at 12:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information: ottawasymphony.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.