To kick off Season 14, we are excited to take you behind the scenes of ROCO In Concert: Checkmate with the first installment of ROCOInsider – a series featuring a sneak peek into the varied artistic and technical elements involved in the production of a ROCO concert.
Greta Rimpo, our Director of Marketing & Communications, had a chance to sit down for a Q&A with composer Maxime Goulet ahead of Friday’s premiere of Checkmate, his “Chess Game for Piano and Orchestra”.
From playing guitar in a progressive rock band, to scoring video games, to now composing multisensory works revolutionizing the classical concert experience, Maxime proves that there are many possible paths to becoming a composer and that inspiration can be found in the most surprising of places.
Hi Maxime – welcome to ROCO, again! We previously worked with you last season, for the performance of Symphonic Chocolates, in which each movement was paired with the tasting of a different flavor of chocolate. And now – we’re playing a live chess game! Where do you get these incredible ideas?
Hi, and thank you! Glad to be working with ROCO again and visiting Houston for the first time. I often find inspiration comes from interesting observations in everyday life – with Symphonic Chocolates, I was in a chocolate shop one day, reading the colorful descriptions of each candy, detailing flavors, contrasts, etc., thinking that music has all of these elements – why not write a work in which each movement is a musical version of each chocolate, with the experience of both sound and taste together?
The original idea for Checkmate was born out of a chess game with a friend (she’s also a composer) where we pondered the challenge of writing a “musical chess game”. I then filed this in my notebook, where I jot down all my compositional ideas to revisit later. At first they are very basic concepts, then from time to time I will come back to my notebook as ideas evolve and take shape, to add more detail, until finally the idea has become fleshed out enough to, in essence, give birth to writing a piece.
Okay, so this idea had been around a while, even before the ROCO commission – how long ago was this chess game?
Back in 2009 actually! My notebook is full of so many ideas for pieces. I hope I live a very long time so I can eventually bring them all to life!
Almost ten years ago, wow. I think many artists must feel that way! So you are based in Montreal – how did you first become connected with ROCO here in Houston?
I was first contacted by Artistic Director, Alecia Lawyer, in preparation for last season. She had discovered my work through my website, where there are videos of many of my compositions. My works frequently feature unique interactive, multimedia, or interdisciplinary elements, and with ROCO’s sense of adventure, it was a great fit. Leading up to the November 2017 performance of Symphonic Chocolates, we discussed a possible commission for the next season, and my chess game idea immediately came to mind.
How did you come to decide what the musical chess game would look like? How it would be scored, which instruments, which form etc.?
The game of chess boils down to a battle between two opponents, and music has this concept, too, in a concerto – so it felt natural that this format could best represent a chess game. I considered a variety of instruments as soloist, but gravitated quickly toward piano, as it is an instrument which is not a standard member of the orchestra, but has a very distinct, differing timbre. This would allow the listener to easily distinguish the moves of each opponent during the piece. Also, I felt that the piano, which can easily be autonomous, could serve as a worthy, equal force against the orchestra, able to communicate the characters and themes I associate with each type of chess piece. And, I really love piano concertos! This is the first piano concerto I have written – I was excited to finally have the chance.
So each type of chess piece has its own theme and character – let’s meet them! How are the themes interwoven as the game progresses?
Sure! There are six themes, one for each type of piece, and they have their own musical personalities, so the King is more pompous, the Queen is dramatic and lyrical, the Bishop (who in French translates to “the king’s fool”) is the cartoonish joker, the Knight, being on horseback, evokes Western music, and the Rook is like a siege tower rolling, so it sounds grounded and heavy, and the Pawn has a very short military theme (since it can only move a couple of spaces at once).
When you watch the game you will see, for example, the white Knight move, and you’ll hear the orchestra play the theme of the Knight – so in that way it’s similar to film music, where certain themes represent each character. With the orchestral part, I have different instruments associated with each theme, but with the piano part, I only have one instrument to work with, so I let the personality of each piece shine through in terms of the texture and the style of piano writing. For instance, the King’s piano personality is a bit like Liszt, all over the keyboard, being the king of the piano. The Queen, is very romantic, in the vein of Rachmaninoff. The Bishop, as the funny jester, is mischievous, a la Prokofiev and a bit of Poulenc. So the different style helps the audience to clearly distinguish each piece from the other, and know which are making moves! Also, this gave me the opportunity for my first piano concerto to try out things I had always wanted to try. I love all of these composers, and this was a legitimate way to bring in a bit of their styles, to serve as each character.
How did the visual game elements come about in the conception of Checkmate? And how did you choose which chess match to feature?
I knew that in order for the audience to understand that the piece represented each move of a real game, we would need to have the visuals, and in sync to each move. To choose the game, I combed chess analysis websites, studying several famous games, and the famous tournaments in 1996 and 1997 between world champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue really stood out – as here was a rare moment in which the world was united in cheering for the same side, no matter your nationality, in the battle of human vs. machine.
In these tournaments, there were six matches each, giving me twelve from which to possibly choose. After exploring the moves of each game, I decided on the first game of the first tournament, which took place on February 10, 1996, for two main reasons. Historically, it was quite significant – being the first time a chess-playing computer ever defeated a reigning world champion human chess player, under normal time and tournament conditions. And musically, it offered the best possibilities for scoring, with a lot of back-and-forth and interplay among all of the various pieces.
So now you have the chess game – how did you determine how the visuals of each move of the game would be synced up to the performance?
This was a challenge! We really needed to show each move in real-time, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be constraining for the orchestra in terms of tempo or performance, as it would be if there were a click track (used in film scoring). The real fun of a concerto is the organic dialogue and chemistry between orchestra and soloist, so I had to find a way to preserve this.
I first explored using chess game simulation software, in which I could control each move, but in working with Alecia, we decided that creating custom animations for each move would mesh best with our overall vision. So next, we brought in the multimedia company Creative Bearings, who designed a beautiful custom look for our chess game, including an introduction of each piece and themes, and an animated clip for each of the 73 moves of the game. They did an amazing job in grasping our vision and handling all of our edits and changes, down to the last detail.
But then the question was: how do we trigger each move’s clip? It was really a reverse process from what I normally do with film or video games. Normally, my music is part of post-production, so with each edit by the director, the music must be edited or rewritten to fit the visuals. But in this case, the visuals had to perfectly fit the music in a real-time fluid performance, so we had to come up with a very technical solution, using the software QLab. This is a cue-based software platform designed for theatre productions, able to handle a deck of multimedia events, programmed to custom triggers. I cue each move’s trigger at tight, precise points in the music, which come very quickly.
Obviously the creation of Checkmate and all it involves was a very collaborative process – what did you love most about the collaboration, and working with ROCO for this project?
What is wonderful about working with ROCO, and especially on Checkmate, has been the closeness of the collaboration, the high amount of involvement, and total openness to the potential of a crazy idea. In fact, when I first pitched my wild idea of a musical chess game, Alecia was so on-board that it was moved up from a potential November concert to the season opener! I feel ROCO is extremely unique in this way, in featuring new music and premieres at the forefront of their season, and in each concert program – compared to many orchestras in which new music is relegated to last billing, hidden away beneath classic works by dead composers. I understand why orchestras do this, but there’s such tremendous marketing potential in creative new music, and pieces which appeal to multiple senses, which could attract new audiences who are new to classical music.
With ROCO, I totally felt we were on the same wavelength. Brainstorming was always so much fun with Alecia – I never had to worry about suggesting something too crazy! I truly felt we were equal partners in making this piece and vision come to life, and soulmates in creation.
That’s great to hear! And we have been thrilled to work with you! So, tell us more about your musical background – how did you get into composition, and when did you begin studying music?
I actually started music around the age of thirteen, picking up guitar when I had finally saved up enough money to buy my own! At that time, I wasn’t really into classical music. I learned to play pop music, such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and was very passionate about playing guitar. But I soon discovered classical music through two venues, the Stanley Kubrick film Clockwork Orange, and the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In fact, my piece Checkmate is dedicated to Keith Emerson, as his band really made me ultimately discover just how cool classical music could be. Before that, to me classical music was not for young people, and I had a lot of prejudices. But when I heard the debut album of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, it starts off with a Bartok piece, “The Barbarian” – with that Hammond B3 organ distortion, it was stunning – and then, “Knife-Edge”, which is Janáček’s Sinfonietta – those made me want to get to know the music of those composers.
Eventually I had a four-piece band with friends, in which I played electric guitar. It was essentially a rock band, except we played only classical music! I did all the arrangements for the band, being influenced by Keith Emerson and other progressive rock artists. In creating these arrangements, where I was taking a full orchestral score and figuring out how to reduce it to four musicians, I really began to understand how orchestration works.
In orchestration class in school, they give you a piano piece for homework and say write it out for orchestra – that alone doesn’t help you understand though how Brahms orchestrates versus Prokofiev. But when you take a full score, and you have to pare it down to three or four instruments, you really understand which combinations of instruments play the same lines, and see the differences in style between each composer. This led me to an interest in the “cooking” of a piece, and to beginning to compose. Some of my first compositions were actually for my sister’s films when she was in school. She is an animator, now working at Pixar.
After high school, I studied jazz, which really helped me understand harmony. While I loved the creativity of improvising, the immediacy of it limited me. I was always staying in my safe zone because I wanted to sound great, and you can’t go back and change a note live! In composing, you can explore any ideas you want, and just erase it if they don’t work, so I found I preferred that. Later, I entered the University of Montreal to study composition, where I wrote my first orchestral works, performed by the university orchestra. This led to my first real composing jobs, for video games, and a staff composer position at game developer, GameLoft.
What a nontraditional path – love it!
Yeah, a lot of people think you must start music when you’re no more than five years old and study all your life, but I was really just a regular teenage kid playing guitar in the basement who got inspired by progressive rock – and now here I am composing a classical piano concerto! It’s never too late to start.